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Alien (1979)


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#1 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 23 December 2008 - 02:34 AM

I just watched this again on the big screen -- an old pink-shifted 70mm print from 1979 that played over at the Laemmle Royal (not the most impressive venue for big screen projection, but for some reason, that's where Branagh's Hamlet also had its 70mm run).

So even though the print was a bit beat-up and faded, the quality of that 35mm anamorphic 100 ASA photography really impressed me again.

This was a movie I saw when I was 17, near the end of my high school years out in northern Virginia. So it came out at an important point in my life, the period when I began to consider becoming a professional filmmaker (though at the time, I was more interested in doing visual effects, model building, and matte painting.)

I remember reading a few years later about how Spielberg and Daviau watched "Alien" during prep for "E.T." just because Spielberg felt it was practically a textbook on lighting textures. I feel the same way (as I do about "Blade Runner").

But what I noticed this time, again, was the amazing skintones and the texture of skin in that raking lighting being used.

It reminded me of what I love about color negative film -- it's not so much an issue of resolution or grain (the image is very sharp and fine-grained, but so are many digital images) but fall-off into black and white.

For example, I also just watched on Blu-Ray this movie shot on the F900, "Youth without Youth" (though it was recorded to an SRW1 to get 10-bit 4:2:2, which helped). This is one of the best-looking HD movies ever shot on a moderate budget. But the one element that particularly stood-out as "digital" was how a wrapping soft light across pale skin always burned out to white too artificially. Looking at how soft glaring light played across skin and metal, white plastic, etc. in "Alien", I couldn't help but think how natural it looked and how unnatural most digital cameras would handle that sheen due to limitations in dynamic range.

Now, of course, as newer cameras get better in that aspect, the way highlights roll-off into white, the more "filmish" it all feels, so things are improving in that regards, but still, nothing seems to quite look like film does in that regards, which is much closer to how our eyes perceive brightness, which is that we can perceive detail in whites for quite a while.

Anyway, seeing "Alien" again on the big screen reminded me of the power of lighting -- that movie is almost entirely driven by the changes in mood created by lighting, especially towards the expressionist third act as lights are flashing through steam, etc.
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#2 Saul Rodgar

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Posted 23 December 2008 - 03:06 AM

Certainly, Alien and Blade Runner are among the finest examples of Sci-Fi film making and anamorphic cinematography there are.

I recently saw a new and pristine print of Blade Runner and I was floored. I have not seen Alien on the big screen since I was about 8 yo - it scared the daylights outta me- so I can almost imagine seeing it again. The interplay of light and darkness and texture is what I love about those 2 movies. The anamorphic flares are to die for. And as David mentions, the low grain cinematography is amazing.

Coincidentally, I have rented Aliens on DVD, which I need to watch. None of the sequels match the original in any regard, but they still are dear to me nonetheless.

Earlier today I saw a decent print of Hitchcock's The Birds and couldn't help but notice and be annoyed by the heavy Pro Mist- type filtration on a lot of Tippy Hedren's c/u's. The grain was also quite evident throughout, much more than in other movies of the same vintage. But it is still interesting how much better Kodak' stock got overall in the 16 years between The Birds and Alien. Although I know it is kinda unfair to compare them as anamorphic tends to be lower grain than spherical. And the print stock I am sure also contributed some to the final print look. Still, The Birds was a joy to watch again, despite the heavy filtration and that a lot of the special fx were pretty cheesy at times.

Edited by Saul Rodgar, 23 December 2008 - 03:06 AM.

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#3 K Borowski

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Posted 23 December 2008 - 03:45 AM

Earlier today I saw a decent print of Hitchcock's The Birds and couldn't help but notice and be annoyed by the heavy Pro Mist- type filtration on a lot of Tippy Hedren's c/u's. The grain was also quite evident throughout, much more than in other movies of the same vintage. But it is still interesting how much better Kodak' stock got overall in the 16 years between The Birds and Alien. Although I know it is kinda unfair to compare them as anamorphic tends to be lower grain than spherical. And the print stock I am sure also contributed some to the final print look. Still, The Birds was a joy to watch again, despite the heavy filtration and that a lot of the special fx were pretty cheesy at times.


Not to nitpick, but I'm sure a lot of what you are seeing as grain has to do with the fact that "The Birds" was probalby a late technicolor film. So you have the grain of 3 200-speed negative stocks overlaid.

So you are comparing apples with oranges here.


David, I am surprised that you are seeing old prints of "Alien". Did you see the re-release a few years back? Was that in some way inadequate compared to the original?
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#4 Saul Rodgar

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Posted 23 December 2008 - 03:57 AM

Not to nitpick, but I'm sure a lot of what you are seeing as grain has to do with the fact that "The Birds" was probalby a late technicolor film. So you have the grain of 3 200-speed negative stocks overlaid.

So you are comparing apples with oranges here.


Actually, you are right. The Birds was Technicolor. But still, it doesn't hold a candle in many regards -least of all, grain structure- to other Technicolor films, such as Black Narcissus, which predates it by nearly 20 years
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#5 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 23 December 2008 - 05:32 AM

It reminded me of what I love about color negative film -- it's not so much an issue of resolution or grain (the image is very sharp and fine-grained, but so are many digital images) but fall-off into black and white.

For example, I also just watched on Blu-Ray this movie shot on the F900, "Youth without Youth" (though it was recorded to an SRW1 to get 10-bit 4:2:2, which helped). This is one of the best-looking HD movies ever shot on a moderate budget. But the one element that particularly stood-out as "digital" was how a wrapping soft light across pale skin always burned out to white too artificially. Looking at how soft glaring light played across skin and metal, white plastic, etc. in "Alien", I couldn't help but think how natural it looked and how unnatural most digital cameras would handle that sheen due to limitations in dynamic range.

Now, of course, as newer cameras get better in that aspect, the way highlights roll-off into white, the more "filmish" it all feels, so things are improving in that regards, but still, nothing seems to quite look like film does in that regards, which is much closer to how our eyes perceive brightness, which is that we can perceive detail in whites for quite a while.


That's very interesting. I mentioned in another thread, my DP want's to shoot a teaser for Blood Moon Rising on the F900 for fundraising purposes so I'm interested in it's limitations and strengths as I am leaning towards shooting silent on 35 but still want to give every consideration to Mel's experience and expertise before making a final decision. Which brings up another question.

Did you have these same problems with the Red when you shot Manure and Stay Cool? I mentioned to him the RED may be a better camera if we can get it for the same or close to the same rental price and use an OCT-19 adapter (I think Redock makes one) so we can use our Lomo lenses instead of renting a set. BTW, this is also one of my absolutely favorite films of all time!!!

Edited by James Steven Beverly, 23 December 2008 - 05:37 AM.

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#6 John Holland

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Posted 23 December 2008 - 07:26 AM

"The Birds" would have shot on Eastman Colour Neg prob. 5251 50 asa, Its was released as Technicolor Dye Transfer print , so would have been very sharp , the grain was the many dupes made during the dodgy SFX shots.
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#7 K Borowski

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Posted 23 December 2008 - 07:48 AM

"The Birds" would have shot on Eastman Colour Neg prob. 5251 50 asa, Its was released as Technicolor Dye Transfer print , so would have been very sharp , the grain was the many dupes made during the dodgy SFX shots.


Sorry for the incorrect info John.

BTW, welcome back! Where've you been all of these months? 8- and 16mm film got buried whilst you were gone.

Edited by Karl Borowski, 23 December 2008 - 07:49 AM.

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#8 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 23 December 2008 - 11:20 AM

For a fund-raising trailier, either 35mm, Super-16, the F900, or a RED, would all work... but they have different cost structures so I would budget it out carefully.

I mean, if all you want is a 35mm print to project, shooting low amounts of 35mm in a projection format (like anamorphic), doing a neg cut and contact print, often ends up being cheaper than the other formats due to the costs of an HD post and a film-out. On the other hand, a trailer is so short that film-outs are less financially onerous as they are for a feature.

But if you mainly want is a DVD or both DVD's and an HD copy, then the F900 may be the simplest way to that route, unless the RED is so cheap to rent that making the conversions from RAW to HD (like to Apple ProRes) is covered -- or you can do that yourself with enough time to spend processing the footage.

In terms of the F900 vs. the RED, I'd probably go with the RED, image-wise -- you've got 35mm depth of field, about a stop more exposure latitude, and less of a "video" look overall. Plus you can use 35mm lenses, including anamorphic if you wanted to.
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#9 Matthew Buick

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Posted 23 December 2008 - 05:34 PM

Those effects shots put me off the film entirely. I like the old movie look but that was just too much for me, that and Hitchcock's neurotic sytle of directing.

Also, didn't three strip last see service in 1955 on 'Foxfire'? 'The Birds' was 1963 wasn't it? Or are my dates wrong?

Edited by Matthew Buick, 23 December 2008 - 05:35 PM.

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#10 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 23 December 2008 - 07:02 PM

Also, didn't three strip last see service in 1955 on 'Foxfire'? 'The Birds' was 1963 wasn't it? Or are my dates wrong?


No, you're correct, 1955 was the last 3-strip Technicolor movie. The last Technicolor dye transfer (aka I.B. for imbibation) prints, ignoring the brief resurrection, was around 1977.

"The Birds" is listed in Haine's Technicolor Movies book as being released in Technicolor IB prints.
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#11 Matthew Buick

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Posted 23 December 2008 - 07:07 PM

Well that's a nice feeling! Thanks for the info.

Also, it's a real shame the Dye Inhibition print are no longer available. In my view they gave the best colour.
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#12 Byron Karl

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Posted 26 December 2008 - 06:19 PM

Why is it that I am so unfamiliar with the DP of Alien (Derek Vanlint)?

I've heard this movie being used as teaching example on cinematography... but I don't understand how the DP has only two credits listed on IMDB following Alien. One of them in 2000.

Has he just been working on the agency side of things since then? What gives?

I'm just assuming all the credit for the lighting and atmosphere on the film is perhaps more attributed to the production design and/or director.
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#13 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 26 December 2008 - 06:29 PM

I'm just assuming all the credit for the lighting and atmosphere on the film is perhaps more attributed to the production design and/or director.


Just because Derek Vanlint has concentrated on shooting commercials doesn't mean that he shouldn't get a lot of credit for the lighting and mood of "Alien", though of course it has the classic Ridley Scott look. "Dragonslayer" is pretty moody too.
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#14 Leo Anthony Vale

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Posted 29 December 2008 - 06:27 PM

QUOTE (Matthew Buick @ Dec 23 2008, 02:34 PM)
Also, didn't three strip last see service in 1955 on 'Foxfire'?

No, you're correct, 1955 was the last 3-strip Technicolor movie. The last Technicolor dye transfer (aka I.B. for imbibation) prints, ignoring the brief resurrection, was around 1977.


The last British 3-strip movie was Sandy Mackendrick's 'The Lady Killers', photographed by Otto Heller. Also a 1955 movie.

'Firefox' was released July '55 & 'The Lady Killers' Dec. '55.

Thus 'Firefox' is the last US 3-strip movie & 'The Lady Killers' is not only the last British 3-strip movie, but the last 3-strip movie.
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#15 KH Martin

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Posted 29 December 2008 - 08:22 PM

Why is it that I am so unfamiliar with the DP of Alien (Derek Vanlint)?

I've heard this movie being used as teaching example on cinematography... but I don't understand how the DP has only two credits listed on IMDB following Alien. One of them in 2000.

Has he just been working on the agency side of things since then? What gives?

I'm just assuming all the credit for the lighting and atmosphere on the film is perhaps more attributed to the production design and/or director.


No, he is supposed to be really good, just that he doesn't travel much. He shot some second unit or vfx-oriented stuff for the first X-MEN movie and the main vfx guy on it, Mike Fink, and one of the other vfx supes (maybe from Cinesite?) told me he was still just incredible and that they were really really lucky to get him.

He operated for Scott before shooting ALIEN, just all on commercials (and maybe DUELLISTS?)
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