Ridley Scott Put His Kids To Good Use On The Set Of Alien

One of the great photographic tricks is forced perspective. What this basically means is that objects are arranged in a frame in order to appear bigger or smaller than they actually are. One of the most famous examples of this in recent memory is on Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" trilogies. Those productions built oddly shaped sets and placed actors far away from the camera so that people like Elijah Wood and Martin Freeman could credibly read on screen as much smaller than Ian McKellan, Viggo Mortensen, and Orlando Bloom. It required a ton of detailed planning and precise shooting in order to never take you out of the reality of the movie. Of course, they could have just hired little people to play those parts and saved a lot of time and money, but they didn't. They decided to go for some classic photography tricks.

Forced perspective stretches back decades and decades. For instance, the final scene of "Casablanca" takes place at an airport, which was shot inside a soundstage. The model plane they had for the background did not credibly read as a full size plane, so director Michael Curtiz chose to implement some forced perspective and hired little people to play the airplane attendants to make the model look larger. It's a very clever trick.

When we think about the landmark Ridley Scott science-fiction film "Alien," the special effects that pop into our heads are obviously the creatures. The Xenomorph, the chest-burster, and the facehugger are all indelible works of sheer craftsmanship from gorgeous designs by H.R. Geiger. That being said, there is so much more glorious effects work in the films as well, including the models, matte paintings, and sets. For as grand as all these design elements are, they are not worth much unless you shoot them properly. Even as high-tech as everything was for 1979, Scott needed to go back and use some classic forced perspective tricks to convey the enormity of one of the film's most important elements, and that included using his kids on set. 

'I had moving miniatures'

One of the key sequences of "Alien" finds the crew of the Nostromo spaceship landing on a moon to investigate a potential distress call. While we have spent a lot of time within the Nostromo, we do not have the greatest sense of the size of the ship these people are living in and working on. It is not until they are able to exit the Nostromo on the moon that we can truly see how absolutely massive this thing is. Ridley Scott, being the designer that he is, was not content about the massive set the production had built for the crew's disembarkment. It just wasn't big enough. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Scott explained how he enlisted the help of some family to solve this issue:

"When you're a designer, whatever size it is, the thing turns out to be it's always not big enough ... That's metaphorical, but it's true. I walked in and looked at the landing leg of the Nostromo. And the ceiling height in the studio to the gantry would be about 50 feet. I said, 'It's not big enough.' And they said, 'What, it's 50 feet!' I said, 'It doesn't matter, not big enough.' So we made three cheap spacesuits — one was the cameraman's child, and the other two were my kids — so that I can put them on the open elevator that's coming down alongside the landing leg. Suddenly, the leg looks 80 feet. It worked! So I had moving miniatures."

If you look at that frame, it is a perfect implementation of forced perspective. Those ship legs do look to be about 80 feet high. Having one in the foreground and those three children incredibly far from the camera truly sells the Nostromo's enormity. This is the exact same stuff Michael Curtiz was doing almost 40 years earlier on "Casablanca." The scale might have increased to ridiculous levels, but it is the same execution of the effect. Ridley Scott trusted his ingenuity as a visual storyteller, and the terrific results speak for themselves.

I just hope that Scott paid these kids for their work, but my gut tells me they were happy enough putting on some spacesuits for their father.