Low budget? Lessons from Sir Ridley Scott

Listening to Radio 4 this morning, I was interested to hear the views of some experts on how business should respond to the economic crisis. Each panellist conveyed the same sentiment – it’s time to get creative. Working smarter might mean thinking the unthinkable, like collaborating with competitors or otherwise combining resources that wouldn’t normally go together. 

It reminded me of a terrific tale of creative thinking from the movie world, specifically the work of famed British director Sir Ridley Scott. In the pre-digital effects days of the 70’s and 80’s, he produced two of the most remarkable science fiction films of all time – Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) – on what would now be considered a laughably small budget ($11m and $28m respectively). 

But despite the lack of money, Scott created some spectacular special effects and an unforgettable visual experience that still influences movie makers to this day. Faced with anxious financiers, all telling him to cut costs and film faster, Sir Ridley got creative… 

Alien – Long corridors

Scott wanted to create long corridors within the spacecraft The Nostromo, but budget constraints meant it was impossible to build more than a few metres of the interior. The director used one of the oldest tricks in the book, using mirrors to replicate that single section and create the illusion of depth. 

Ship’s legs

When the astronauts land on an alien planet (when will they ever learn?), Scott wanted to create the impression of scale for the landing craft. He had a sizeable model made of the ship, but in a scene where the space-suited cast walked by the legs of the craft, the director wasn’t happy about the implied scale – the ship just seemed too small. Undaunted, he had his own children don suits and play the adult characters, thus correcting the imbalance. 

Alien Egg

The eponymous aliens emerge from leathery eggs, with which actor John Hurt has an all-too close encounter. Kneeling down to examine the curious cocoon, he sees movement inside and realises it’s a form of life. In actual fact, it was the director wriggling his hands while wearing washing up gloves! 

Alien Dissection

The crew later examine part of dead alien at close quarters and Scott creates a realistic-looking autopsy scene. In actual fact, a visit to the local fishmongers provided a shell and a range of oysters, clams and other fare to create the alien look. 

Blade Runner - Night Filming

Hampered by budget, Scott had to film on a movie lot in Los Angeles rather than real locations. But he feared this would restrict his ability to create the futuristic look he wanted, with its verticality and grimey environment. So he filmed at night, and made it rain incessantly – something star Harrison Ford wasn’t too thrilled about!

Locations

Scott was particularly drawn to two structures in LA – The Bradbury Building and Union Station. Each day, he filmed in The Bradbury but agreed to start at 6pm and clean up by 6am, when the building was ‘returned’ for normal use. This daily clean-up was a huge headache, but the crew discovered that bits of cork scattered on the ground would at once look like dirt and mud while at the same time absorb the fake rain they were using. 

Union Station (pictured left) doubled as police headquarters, and a significant saving was made on the location fee by agreeing to leave the fake Police Chief’s office for permanent use.

 

A little help from Stanley Kubrick

After the initial screening, some executives felt the ending was too gloomy and Scott was persuaded to add on a more optimistic conclusion, with the male and female leads driving off into the sunset. But to film an overhead sequence in dramatic scenery proved problematic, with the inevitable time and financial constraints. But the director remembered a scene at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s classic The Shining. Knowing the auteur Kubrick’s obsession for perfection, Scott suspected he might have spare footage, and sure enough some outtakes from The Shining appear in this version of Blade Runner. 

Whether or not you’re a movie buff, the creative genius of Sir Ridley Scott is surely an inspiration to those of us faced with challenging times and diminishing budgets. But if the desire to produce quality work remains strong, the best thinkers will always find a way.

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