Here are a few of the awesome camera secrets of Alien, one of the greatest horror movies ever made:
By now you probably know it’s about a killer alien, but the movie is also about hubris. No matter how big you get, there’s always an opposing force that will counter you.
In this video I wanted to show you how Ridley Scott sets up the three dining area scenes – two at the beginning, and the third at a major plot point. There are spoilers ahead, so please watch the movie first if you haven’t already.
First of all, all the three scenes are covered from table height. Except for the occasional reverse shot or cutaway, the table is subconsciously brought into our attention. This is deliberate, because the third dining room scene is the famous chest buster scene. Kane literally dies on the table, and Ridley Scott has been setting us up right from the beginning. The alien’s point of view, is our point of view.
Another curious thing to note is the position of all the characters. The three scenes happen at different times, and there’s no reason for them to have a strict seating arrangement. That’s why Parker has to ask Ash to move. But still, here are the three scenes laid out. As you can see, the arrangement of actors in all three scenes is almost exactly the same. Only two people keep shifting their positions – one’s Ripley, and the other is Ash.
Ash is initially placed next to Dallas. In the second scene, you can see him shift a place and hover in the background. He begins to understand his own role so he has to break free from being friendly. In the third scene Ash is bang opposite everyone else. He is no longer a part of the group, his position is clear, and of course we find out later why. It is instructive to see how his position within the group over three scenes foreshadows is future actions.
Ripley’s to me is the most interesting. She is purposely kept on the fringes of all three scenes – obviously because she ends up being the only survivor. At the time of release people expected Dallas to survive, but his early death, which mirrors Marion Crane’s death in Psycho, is designed to send shockwaves. If the captain can’t survive, this Alien must be pure evil.
In the second scene Ripley turns one hundred and eighty degrees and is now in the captain’s corner. She is second in command, and her loyalty is with her captain. She’s not with Parker, as far as their orders are concerned.
In the third scene she is at the periphery, mostly ignored. She is back in her earlier position, and during the action is mostly hidden by Parker or Dallas. There isn’t even a close up of her reaction during Kane’s death. We see more close ups of Lambert, and she also gets to slap Ripley in the movie, taking the moral high ground. But that’s just a red herring. Ridley is keeping Ripley apart so we won’t pay too much attention to her, and won’t subconsciously give her the importance she actually has. It must come as a surprise – just like all the other surprises in the movie.
Next up, the most interesting thing about the three scenes is the interaction between Parker and Dallas.
It is set up right from the first scene where they are physically separated by space. When we move into the mid shots you can see Parker has the largest size – he’s important enough in this scene. Brett too gets a reverse shot, because at this point it’s their money situation that’s the subject of discussion. At the opposite end Dallas gets his two shot where he’s the largest in the frame. Notice how Lambert is kept back so she’ll appear smaller, and the camera or table is angled away a bit.
When they ask for their share, we cut to Dallas’ solo shot. He’s the leader, and he’s alone here. Their duel is cut short by an announcement. Soon we are back to the dining area for the second scene. At this point they know they have to investigate a signal, and this brings up the money-discussion again.
Notice how Parker asks Ash to vacate his seat. It’s as if he’s taking his position on a chessboard, ready to fight. What’s easy to miss is that just before, Dallas mirrors this by asking Lambert to vacate his place. So they are mirroring each other. But make no mistake, Dallas is the boss, which is why he’s standing up, towering over everyone else. They have to look up to him. The only person who stands up in both the first and second scenes, is the person who doesn’t really care about Dallas’ authority. He’s the last to get up. Couldn’t be any plainer.
Back to scene two. The reverse shot has Parker and Brett on the other side, the opposing force. Parker is the leader; he sits up and is largest in the frame. And when things get out of hand, we cut back to Dallas’ close up. He’s the boss, and he knows how to keep his crew under control.
In the third scene Kane is the center of attention, but note that both Parker and Dallas are now included in the shot. They are no longer opposing each other. When Kane falls on the table they are the ones who come to his immediate aid, while the rest stay back. They are both leaders in their own right. If Dallas is an obvious hero, Parker is too. They are both weary reluctant heroes who will only rise up when it’s absolutely necessary.
If you are interested in learning more about how to cover a dialogue scene, check out my guide to shooting dialogue scenes. I’ll link to it below.