Painting of the Planetary System

Leading from
Alien: Making the Movie   




a) During the making of the movie, no one involved had any assumption that the planetoid was supposed to be in the Zeta II Reticuli star system. Dennis Lowe who actually painted the great scene of the ringed planets and the other moons was unaware of any connection between the planetoid and Zeta II Reticuli.

b) Dennis original brief was from Nick Alder, and as far as he could remember decades ater, the brief was "We want a ringed planet (like Saturn) with a couple of moons in there" and it was up to him to do it and then it would be commented on and he would have to change it a few times. He painted the planetary backdrop using gouache paint on very siny black plastic stretched on a 4x8 foot frame. The plastic had to be shiny because it photographed black on the camera negative, and the didn't have to use polarizing filters on lights and camera reducing the exposure. Ridley asked for it to be done very very softly and Dennis thought that it should have at least some detail in the rings , although the Voyager space mission hadn't reached Saturn but by then science knew that the rings were quite complex. And so followed the painful phase of softening everything down with the airbrush.

c) In the painting by Dennis Lowe, we notice that one of the moons around the ringed planet is lit from another direction, as if the star that is illuminating them must be a very small white dwarf as small as the planet.  Dennis noticed that it didn't look right but Ridley wanted it that way because it looked better.  Ridley's explanation for the re-lit moon was that it was on the other side of the planet and therefore would have been a lot bigger than the others. Dennis questioned this because it didn't look realistic to him kept on stating to Ridley that it would have the same crescent lighting as the main source from however many lightyears away and therefore would be exactly the same, but despite Dennis' views,  Ridley's end response was "It doesn't matter if it looks better" but Dennis was never convinced. However Dennis knew the other side to this whole matter when you are shooting a tricky sequence, there are all sorts of combinations going through the mind at the same time, and it's not until one sees through the lens that the possibilities begin to narrow down and the stomach states what it right, and Ridley followed his stomach

d) Dennis interest in planets went back to when he was a teenager at Secondary School and he built himself a 6" Newtonian reflector telescope for which he had to buy a parabolic mirror, he spent hours peering through the eyepiece, even taking photos of the moon. This helped to give him a good understanding of physics and the real world, and being eventually as an art student, able to understand the way that light falls on objects. With this knowledge, it would have been impossible in the real world to have a light falling on one moon and not on the rest of the planetary system. That was his rational. If the strange angle light on the moon was due to bounced light,  it would have been a lot weaker than what we see on the painting.

e) When seeing the rushes, Ivor Power said that when he saw the finished composite in Alien (with the dome projections, miniature refinery, suns, etc, which took three days to shoot) he said "That shot is as good as anything in 2001" And he was someone who was seen as being someone ought to know what he was talking about since he worked on Kubrick's 2001 A Space Odyssey. However the odd lighting on the moon would continue to bother Dennis over the following decades

Source Quotes
  1. Jon Sorensen: It is such a beautiful image, Dennis. Beautifully executed. Ivor Powell said in rushes when he saw the finished composite in ALIEN, (with the dome projections, miniature refinery, suns, etc...the one that took us three days to shoot and was done original negative in the camera, 18 elements..."That shot is as good as anything in 2001". And should know. He worked on 2001. ( Alienexperience.com,  June 30, 2009)
  2. Dennis Lowe: I can remember vividly when Ridley wanted the middle moon lit at a different angle and I questioned this of course because it wasn't realistic. He replied "It doesn't matter if it looks better" I'm still not sure about it.(alienexperience.com, June 30, 2009,)
  3. Jon Sorensen: No we discussed this already. Ridley's attitude to "reality" and "continuity".
    I think he's absolutely right, personally. That's his whole ethos.
  4. Dennis Lowe: Yes I did that, it's gouache paint on very shiny black plastic stretched on a 4x8 foot frame. The plastic had to be shiny because it photographed black on the camera negative and we didn't have to use polarizing filters on lights and camera thereby reducing the exposure.(wwwAlienexperience.com /ALIEN Makers Documentary thread, June 30th, 2009) 
  5. Dennis Lowe: I know for a fact that when you are shooting a tricky sequence there are all sorts of combinations going through your mind at the same time, but it's not until you see it through that lens that the possibilities begin to narrow down and your stomach tells you what's right.(Alien Experience, ALIEN Makers Documentary thread, June 30th, 2009) 
  6. Dennis Lowe: His explanation for the re-lit moon was that it was on the other side of the planet (therefore would have been a lot bigger than the others) and I kept on saying that it would have the same crescent lighting as the main source came from God knows how many light years away and therefore would be exactly the same. He reverted to his stomach ! (Alien Experience, ALIEN Makers Documentary thread, June 30th, 2009) 
  7. Dennis Lowe: My original brief was from Nick Alder and it was something like "we want a ringed planet (like Saturn) with a couple of moons in there" and it was up to me to do it, then it gets commented on and I remember changing it quite a few times. (Alien Experience, ALIEN Makers Documentary thread, June 30th, 2009) 
  8. Dennis Lowe:  When I was a teenager at Secondary School I built myself a 6" Newtonian reflector telescope (I had to buy the parabolic mirror) and spent hours peering through the eyepiece - even took photos of the Moon. This gave me a good understanding of physics and the real world, and being eventually, as an art student understood the way light falls on objects. With this knowledge it would have been impossible in the real world to have a light falling on one moon and not on the rest of the planetary system. That was my rationale. (Alien Experience, ALIEN Makers Documentary thread, June 30th, 2009)
  9.  Dennis Lowe: When working on a movie you have to do everything possible for it to be 'right', then the director steps in and you have to be open enough to change the original concept until a compromise happens.(Alien Experience, ALIEN Makers Documentary thread, June 30th, 2009)  
  10. Dennis Lowe: "If I were to explain the reason for the rogue lighting on the moon the only way from my point of view would be that there would have to be a light source between the ringed planet and the rogue moon and we can't see it as it's masked by the planet from our viewpoint. That would make some kind of sense.(Alien Experience, ALIEN Makers Documentary thread, July 1st, 2009) 
  11.  In response to the suggestion from SM that it was light bouncing off the planet, Dennis said "It does happen but the bounced light would be a lot weaker than what we see on the painting"  (Alien Experience, ALIEN Makers Documentary thread, July 1st, 2009)
  12.  Simon Deering: Ok , about this moon .. :) Dennis , was it perhaps the idea that that particular moon is the moon/planet of the alien ship fame? Did Ridley simply want to draw the eye to it ?   (Alien Experience, ALIEN Makers Documentary thread, July 1st, 2009) 
  13. Dennis Lowe: Maybe,  it still bugs me though - that's why I zapped it off the painting when I inserted it in the documentary.  (Alien Experience, ALIEN Makers Documentary thread, July 1st, 2009)
  14. Dennis Lowe: "When I did the painting for the title sequence Ridley asked for it to be done very very softly and again I thought it should have at least some detail in the rings (although the Voyager space mission hadn't reached Saturn by then we knew that the rings were quite complex) and so followed a painful phase of softening everything down with the airbrush. " (Alien Experience, ALIEN Makers Documentary thread, July 1st, 2009)

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