Prometheus’s fan dance

This summer will see the release of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, a project weighted by considerable expectations given its connection to the thirty-year-old Alien franchise. The particulars of that connection have been kept vague by producers — witness the tortuous finessing of the film’s Wikipedia page:

Conceived as a prequel to Scott’s 1979 science fiction horror film Alien, rewrites of Spaihts’ script by [Damon] Lindelof developed a separate story that precedes the events of Alien, but which is not directly connected to the films in the Alien franchise. According to Scott, though the film shares “strands of Alien’s DNA, so to speak,” and takes place in the same universe, Prometheus will explore its own mythology and ideas.

This kind of strategic ambiguity is a hallmark of the viral marketplace, which replaces the saturation bombing of traditional advertising with the planting of clues and fomenting of mysteries. It’s a fan dance in two senses, scattering meaningful fragments before an audience whose passionate interest and desire to interact are a given. Its logic is that of nonlinear equations and unpredictably large outcomes from small causes, harnessing the butterfly effect to build buzz.

Any lingering doubt about the franchise pedigree of Prometheus, however, should be put to rest by this piece of viral marketing, a simulated TED talk from the year 2023.

The link here is, of course, the identity of the speaker: Peter Weyland is one of the founders of Weyland-Yutani, the evil corporation behind most of the important events in the Alien-Predator universe. “The Company,” as it’s referred to in the 1979 film that launched the franchise, is in part a developer and supplier of armaments, and across the films, comics, and novels of the series, the Company pursues the bioweapon represented by the toothy xenomorph with an implacable willingness to sacrifice human lives: capitalism reconfigured as carnivorous, all-consuming force.

The real-world origins of Weyland-Yutani are quite specific: the name and logo were invented by illustrator Ron Cobb as part of the preproduction and concept art for Alien. Cobb designed many of the symbols and insignia that decorate the uniforms and props of the Nostromo, small but distinctive details that lend the movie’s lived-in future a unity of invented brands. One icon in particular, a set of wings modeled on an Egyptian “sun disk,” was associated with Weyland-Yutani, a name that Cobb threw together as a combination of in-joke and future history:

Science fiction films offer golden opportunities to throw in little scraps of information that suggest enormous changes in the world. There’s a certain potency in those kinds of remarks. Weylan Yutani for instance is almost a joke, but not quite. I wanted to imply that poor old England is back on its feet and has united with the Japanese, who have taken over the building of spaceships the same way they have now with cars and supertankers. In coming up with a strange company name I thought of British Leyland and Toyota, but we couldn’t use “Leyland-Toyota” in the film. Changing one letter gave me “Weylan,” and “Yutani” was a Japanese neighbor of mine.

A version of this logo and the current version of the company name (which adds a “d” to “Weylan”) ends the simulated TED talk, demonstrating another chaos dynamic that shapes the fortunes of fantastic-media franchises: minute details of production design can blossom, with the passage of the years, into giant nodes of continuity. These nodes unify not just the separate installments of a series of films, but their transmedia and paratextual extensions: the fantasy TED talk “belongs” to the Alien universe thanks to its shared use of Cobb’s design assets. Instances like this make a convincing case that 1970s production design in science fiction film laid the groundwork for the extensive transmedia fantasy worlds of today.

As for Peter Weyland’s talk, which was directed by Ridley Scott’s son and scripted by Damon Lindelof (co-creator of another complex serial narrative, LOST), the bridging of science fiction and science fact here manifests as a collusion between brands, one fictional and one “real” — but how real is TED, anyway? I mean this not as a slam, but as acknowledgment that TED often operates in what Phil Rosen has termed “the rhetoric of the forecast,” speculating about futures that lie just around the corner. In this way, perhaps the 2023 TED talk is an example of what Jean Baudrillard called a “deterrence machine,” using its own explicit fictiveness to reinforce the sense of reality around TED, much like Disneyland in relation to Los Angeles:

Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.

One wonders what Baudrillard would have made of the contemporary transmediascape, with its vast and dispersed fictional worlds superintending a swarm of texts and products, the nostalgic archives of its past, the hyped adumbrations of its present. Certainly our entertainment industries are becoming ever more sophisticated in the rigor and reach of their fantasy construction: a fan dance with the future, and a process in which observant audiences eagerly assist.

What All the Foss Is About

Here’s a smart writeup on a new book collecting the artwork of Chris Foss, the distinctive and influential British artist whose paintings have graced the cover of many a science-fiction novel while circulating independently as quanta of outré visualization on their own. Growing up in the 1970s, I was aware of Foss more through the latter channel: glimpses of futurism in the pages of magazines like Omni and Starlog, often accompanying features on computer games (whose simple 8-bit graphics expanded logarithmically in my imagination thanks to their association with Foss’s billowing, rainbowed vistas and sensuously rounded mechanisma) or SF films then in production: Foss was one of the many artists conscripted to visualize Ridley Scott’s 1979 landmark Alien.

Among the same cohort was Ron Cobb, who, like Foss and the great but neglected John Harris, had a knack for visualizing structures of indeterminate purpose and scale, suspended against the clouds of alien worlds, the neon gasfields of nebulae, the onyx depths of outer space. Simultaneously conveying gigantic mass — humans merely implied as unobservable specks — and toylike containment within the filmed frame or printed page, the future machines envisioned by Foss and his peers were both fanciful and functional. Or as Simon Gallagher elegantly puts it:

Foss’s work is defined by that jarring oxymoron: his iconic spaceships are almost biological, and certainly monstrous, and yet, unlike anything that came before them, they are intricate in their mechanical realism. They are the convergence of fantasy and precision, and there is a fundamental contradiction within the designs that suggests both a hopeful futurism and an ominous sense of dread in the sheer size and scale of the machine monsters he creates.

The new Foss book joins a growing section of my shelf devoted to SF illustration as a form of production technology, assisting the transmedial flow of content, bridging the gaps between screenplays and feature films, design docs and finished video games, word and image and object.

Ron Cobb: Initial Thoughts

A spontaneous enthusiasm, eruption of unvoiced nerd-love that has been simmering in my soul since I was twelve or thirteen, prompts this quick reflection on Ron Cobb. As an artist, Cobb contributed plentifully to how I understood and visualized the science fiction with which I grew up; as a concept artist specifically his drawings and paintings played a generative role in films like Star Wars (1977) and Alien (1979) — movies we now recognize as classics in part because of their rich, world-creating visual design.

To judge from the catalog of his work featured in Colorvision (1981), Cobb’s influence on the production of these films appears to have been both piecemeal and foundational: a handful of his bizarre creatures populate the Mos Eisley cantina, and his designs for Alien were limited to the interior and exterior of the Nostromo, with H. R. Giger’s biomechanics providing the movie’s black and glistening core. But in another way, Cobb’s work reflects an animating spirit of cinematic science fiction in the 1970s, which increasingly in the wake of Star Trek (1966-1969) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) demanded an engineer’s and architect’s eye to lend their futuristic worlds the fascination of function.

I’ve been studying concept artists like Cobb — Brian Froud is a cognate, as are Syd Mead and in a previous age Chesley Bonestell — as part of a broader research project on illustration. I hope to have more to say about this shortly, but for now I will simply note the archeological pleasure of paging through Cobb’s designs (like the one above, “Tug,” an early version of Alien‘s Nostromo) to find, not the final object as recorded on film, but — like the panda’s thumb — an evolutionary step toward it. The special property of cinematic concept art is not just that it exists prior to the film we later come to know, but that it serves as a “draft,” freezing for our later study a dialogue among director, crew, consultants as they move toward consensus. Cobb’s visualization does not just visualize an artifact of production; it is such an artifact, and as such it offers us, alongside the creation of a beloved film, the genesis of our own imaginary.

More on Cobb and the Nostromo here.