Special Effects in “Alien”


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“Special Effects in Alien” is a short analysis of the special effects in Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien; not solely on how they were done but how they contributed to the mood and atmosphere of the film. 

Author: Alberto D’Onofrio

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The 1980 Academy Award for The Best Visual Effects (imdb, 1) was presented to the 1979 film Alien directed by Ridley Scott, a science-fiction horror film that follows a space crew and their encounter with a deadly alien life form. The prestigious award given to Alien by the Academy is a reflection of the masterfully executed special effects by Ridley Scott and his crew to enhance the atmosphere and mood of the science-fiction horror film, which consisted the practical special effects of miniature models and creature design.

Nostromo is an important aspect to Alien’s story as it is the space crew’s mode of travel in space. As Visual Effects Supervisor Brian Johnson explains in The Making of Alien, to capture the seventeen-foot model of Nostromo, the crew did not use the cutting edge technology of motion control simply because the budget did not allow the time for shooting stop-motion. This led the special effects team to develop a camera that moved slowly on a drive mechanism. Ridley Scott explains that because there was no motion control, the Nostromo shots were operated and shot live as it happens, which influenced Scott’s decision to shoot the space vessel mostly up-close. The low budget also called for other creative decisions on Nostromo’s effects, such as using a forklift to extend the legs of Nostromo for the landing sequence. While the budget did not allow the director to have stars and galaxies in his shots, the film’s mood and atmosphere heightened and accompanied the space crew’s feeling of isolation in space by shooting the Nostromo mostly close-up (de Lauzirika, 2003). This made the confrontation with the alien inside the vessel more horrific.

The chaos in the film is motivated by the prescience of a deadly alien species which is shown in three stages: facehugger, chestburster, and the alien. Although different in every stage, each features the use of practical effects to envision the creature’s horrific features and movement. For example, the spring-like tail of the facehugger sprung out of the egg using high-pressure air hoses (Houston, 30). The chest-burster was moved with a puppeteer and accompanied with a splash blood squibs (Mcintee, 32). As the audience was scared from this moment, so were the actors as the reaction shown on screen is their first reaction to seeing the chestburster (The Guardian, 1), a testimony to their special effects and how they used them to enhance the horror in Alien. Finally, as the film crew calls it, the “big chap” was the conclusion to the alien evolution in the film, and the scariest. The creature is made of rubber, stretched and shedded latex mixed with tubes and piping to show that the creature is biomechanical (Houston, 30). Technically, this was a man in a suit, but the dim lighting added to the special effects of the alien to add suspense by seeing little detail of the alien throughout the film.

Brian Johnson provides a fitting closure to the use of special effects in Alien. He explains that while the production value could have been bigger, it did not need to be a visual effects extravaganza because of the strength of the story (de Lauzirika, 2003). The visual effects only enhanced what was already there: the isolation of the characters in space with the sequences of Nostromo and their horrifying experience with the alien. He and Ridley Scott share the same opinion that most of today’s films exaggerate the use of digital effects and have no story. As Ridley Scott continues, Alien holds a fear factor knowing that it was real and shot practically while today’s horror films suffer from digital effects knowing that it is all done on a computer (AFI, 2009). In conclusion, Alien is a prime example of using special effects to enhance story and mood.


AFI. “Ridley Scott On The Dangers Of Digital Special Effects.” YouTube. YouTube, 26 May 2009. Web. 01 Nov. 2013.

Alien. Dir. Ridley Scott. 20th Century Fox. 1979. Film.

“Alien.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2013.

Houston, David. “ H.R. Gigler: Begind the Alien Forms”. Starlog The Magazine of the Future. Number 26, September 1979. 17-30.

McIntee, David. Beautiful Monsters: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to the Alien and Predator Films. Tolworth, Surrey: Telos, 2005. Print.

The Beast Within: The Making of Alien. Dir Charles de Lauzirika. 20th Century Fox. 2003. Video.

The Guardian. “The Making of Alien’s Chestburster Scene.” The Guardian. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2013.


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