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Aliens, Spaceships, and Google Earth: a Behind-the-Scenes Look at the VFX of 'Prometheus'

Even if you haven’t yet caught one of this past year’s most hyped science fiction films, you’re probably still somewhat familiar (thanks to nearly inescapable tv spots) with the stark visual presence found in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (just released on Blu-ray). Scott’s no stranger to vividly-realized landscapes, and after a brief (ahem, 30 year) hiatus from the realm of sci-fi, he’s once again brought us that flavor of striking imagery — but not without the help of some seriously special effects teams.

Below is some behind-the-scenes material with Richard Stammers, whose job was so extensive he’s received a screen credit I’ve never seen before: “Overall VFX Supervisor.” The clip is a thorough seven minute tour of the film’s primary setting (potential spoilers in all these videos):


I find it very interesting that the team used Google Earth not only as a pre-vis tool, but also as the most significant reference point for modeling the canyon in which much of the film took place. This type of virtualization is what cinema has always done in a sense, which is to draw inspiration for fantastic settings from the real-life scenery around us, and depict it as a heightened reconstruction. True, there’s also nothing new about digitizing reality and then re-synthesizing it to create new worlds in visual effects — but something about topographically recreating an entire canyon range and reconstituting it at will — that’s hybridization on a staggering scale.

As is often the case on super-scale sci-fi epics such as Prometheus, multiple visual effects houses were employed. Weta Digital of Lord of the Rings fame was among them, likely aided by the company’s unique experience with virtual characters — particularly the monstrous kind. The VFX house helped create the seminal moment of the film’s first act (I refuse to apologize for intending that pun) in which a humanoid alien being seeds his DNA upon prehistoric Earth.

Our next video is over 30 minutes long, but it’s a much more extensive account of each of the major VFX house’s contributions. If you want the full-disclosure take on the subject, this is surely it:

Clearly all this brain-power (not to mention processing power) on one project yields serious results. I know more than a few people who were fairly disappointed with Prometheus overall, but I don’t think anyone was questioning the quality of the visual effects.

I’ve heard some criticisms that this film relied too much on effects, even if said effects were very convincing. VFX can certainly cover up green screens, skin blemishes, boom mics, wiring, unwanted background elements… the list goes on and on. But can VFX cover up plot holes? What did you think of the film, did you enjoy it because of — or despite — the story?

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  3. Learn How to Create Practical Special Effects on a Budget with Shanks FX

COMMENT POLICY

We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

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  • Prometheus was an average film told with A+ talent and tools. I personally loved the movie as a summer blockbuster with brains. In fact, I can’t stop watching it. Yes there are numerous plot holes and many unexplained elements. In some ways Ridley and team gave the audience too much credit for being able to piece everything together, because I know some very intelligent filmgoers and even they were perplexed with the plot. Overall, I think it hit the mark. I paid $12 for my and my wife’s ticket and felt every cent was paid for… except for Ridley Scott’s two cents.

  • Mind-boggling effects work.

    Presumably “8 hours to render one frame” was part of their decision to finish in 2K instead of 4K…

    • Probably, rendering heavy effects in 4K is another ballpark that most (98% of them) of the movies can’t afford. Most of visual effects studios already operate in the edge and with currently technology they are not able to integrate full 4k pipelines for the same budget and it’s not happening anytime soon, that’s why I know this 4k hype for delivery has still few years to go until it becomes the standard.

      • oh, and it’s not just render time , storage is also a concern, each of these shots are composed of maybe 15 other uncompressed 4k images for the compositing passes, plus all the texture files with even bigger sizes for all the CG assets. Insane.

        • I doubt they’re using uncompressed…they use OpenEXR in visual effects, not DPX sequences. Still a lot of data though.

      • I’m interested to see what they do with the Hobbit…I heard they’re doing a 4k finish, which is pretty incredible if true…with 3d and 48fps, that’s 16 times as much data as a 2d 2k movie!

  • Yeah watching the Bluray, there is a fantastic amount of practical effects as well, that I thought at first was cgi. Great stuff!

  • john jeffreys on 10.17.12 @ 7:56PM

    Its a shame that all the best technology for making films is only accessible to the mega studios who are incapable of writing decent stories and themes.

  • hey brendan!!!!

    people in glass houses shouldnt throw stones, nice website you tasteless loser

    and prometheus is awful, perfect for you

  • It’s easy to throw stones when you’re hiding under a bridge, isn’t it? :p

    Everything we do is open for critique, which is why I link my site to my name. If you don’t want to share your work with the world, I think you’re in the wrong field; there’s probably a comfy cubicle out there just for you :)

    • john jeffreys on 10.18.12 @ 12:46AM

      maybe one day i’ll reveal my identity. i’m a troll account written by a particular filmmaker. if the short i am working on right now becomes fairly well received, ill take the mask off. until then, i love messing with corporate ass “creative professionals” like you with generic taste

      • I don’t know, John – a depressed girl smoking next to closed blinds looking out at the cold blue world appears to be pretty generic taste to me:

        http://www.reduser.net/forum/showthread.php?86672-types-of-tape-to-hold-lights-on-the-wall&p=1078397&viewfull=1#post1078397

        I know that many NFS followers and writers shoot corporate videos, weddings, and other things that we don’t necessarily find the be the most engaging – you’re pretty much knocking down the vast majority of people in the industry today. The lucky few, like Richard Stammers, who have made a name for themselves out in Hollywood, did so by starting out with the mediocre work that paid the bills (corporate work, waiting tables, etc.) and connecting with people along the way while refining their skills.

        Again, I’m fine if you want to say my site and my work looks tasteless – that’s you’re opinion. Who knows, maybe you and I can meet up sometime and make some bland work together?

        • john jeffreys on 10.18.12 @ 1:31AM

          damn, you dox’d me hard. I “paid the bills” with that kinda work in my first years of college, realized i was being dishonest with myself, and I decided to just make films nonstop until I get a fanbase.

          by the way, that scene is pretty as fuck. that girl is allergic to sunlight. just for context. the rest of the dailies look good too.

      • Good point in general terms but I feel it`s unfair to beat single contributors here, while a very big heap of those “indie film makers” here and elsewhere have the very same generic taste you`re speaking about. Heck, those people who spend over 10000 dollars on a Scarlet to shoot some very amateurish shorts and trailers (and sorry, I checked out quite some clips from contributors everywhere: almost all together crap) and believe any of those “big dogs” in Hollywood and elsewhere are too blind to see this are facing some seriously hard times. It reminds me of my own self delusion when I started out 9 years ago and hoped that none of those A&R people at Sony, Warner and so on would see how awful my first music videos looked like but hoped they would realize the potential in me when I finally get a well budgeted and “real” project. Now I`ve arrived at the other end, having to judge other people`s reels, chuckling at lame attempts of applicants trying to sidetrack me with their high gloss binders and big worded letters and e-mails. It`s actually not different from these poor schmucks with their laughable press releases, emphasizing their picture was shot “in one day” with a steadicam and scarlet and led lights and their grandmama`s dentures…

        • By “high-gloss binders”, do you mean they’re full of women? ;)

          You made some great points – I think humility in the film world (or any of the arts, for that matter) is extremely important, but currently lacking!

          • thanks.

            no, unfortunately the binders were just kinda “polishing the turd”,
            that means, trying to make very mediocre and plainly awful work
            look like it was better stuff than it really was.

            yes dude, more honesty and more humility.

  • hey brendan

    you underestimate me

    im a man who doesnt like bullies, thats all you need to know son

    discussing my art practice with you is certainly beneath me. if youd like to debate any of this in person however, you can do so with me in downtown los angeles seven days a week and twice on sunday

    now get back under the first street bridge http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRpUMoPpwOI

    • Kiefer, John Jeffreys is well known as a troll on this site. Brendan’s not being a bully.

    • Your approach to presumed bullying is to be the bigger bully? Sorry if I don’t see the logic here.

      My post that started all of this was to call out others that don’t have any substance to contribute when responding to NFS articles. My point has always been that you guys throw around insults and tear down productions large and small, when the facts are:

      -You’ve not “made it” yourself out in Hollywood
      -You refuse to link any of your work
      -Art is subjective. You have no more authority to tell someone what’s right and wrong than a rock does.

      It’s like yelling at the TV – you’re not out there on the field, yet this omnipresent ability makes you feel like you know everything and can do it much better.

      The writers on NFS, Ridley Scott, Richard Stammers, et al. all put themselves out there in the world to have their work critiqued and hopefully make a connection with some members in the audience that can say, “This really meant a lot to me.”

      I personally feel that my cinematography needs a ton of work, but some people out there see potential and are graciously giving me the opportunities to better myself. I certainly do believe, though, that putting my work out in the open, just as the aforementioned people do, puts us leagues ahead of all the john jeffreys in the world.

  • Honestly brendan, your stuff looks amatuer at best.

  • Just to make clear that MPC abuse people with working hours demanding to 12/14h and pay for 8h .. if it happens and you leave on a reasonable time or if any of your supervisors doesn’t like you …its the BLACKLIST! …oh its a secret!

    I would also consider other places for any ‘expensive’ effects …

  • Killian Mc Cormick on 10.18.12 @ 6:01AM

    I thought this was a good post very interesting.. and I liked the videos and its good to see how the special effects were done.I personally really liked the film

  • I really enjoy the film. Thanks for posting this great behind the scene materials. Will get the Bluray copy definitely!

  • wow, I guess this site DOES need moderators…

  • What about ban some guys from posting…?

  • I’d forgotten about this movie until the other day when a friend played me the missing, extended and alternate scenes off the BR. The theatrical cut was much shittier than it needed be.

    As for the VFX, quite a few people I spoke to when the film was released thought the CGI was rather poor.

  • The trouble is… CGI, even expensive CGI, still looks like… CGI. Case in point: Prometheus. Many of the practical effects in Alien look more “real.” Why? Because they *are* real. If you know how to shoot creature and model effects and scale sets practically, it can actually be better than computer graphics. The human eye “knows” real… light and shadow, muscle movement, the effects of gravity on an object in motion, etc. These things they still have not been able to perfect with completely synthetic and animated objects.

    Stan Winston was correct in stating that each tool has its strengths and weaknesses. The mark of a good visual effects artist is knowing them and using many tricks of the trade together to effectively fool the audience. Sadly, his old school craft is being replaced by video game makers.

  • Thanks for NFS for giving a wonderful ground to argue about such subjects without ego. There should be no harsh feeling in arguing about a subject. But sure there are some flaws in the script of Prometheus. There is no need to ask for ban some one for discussing about his ideas.

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