Every film fan should own at least a couple “Making-of” books. These books might not meet the sheer wealth of material the special features DVD or Blu-ray can offer, but they can make great reference material you can pull off your shelf at any time or have sitting on your coffee table if you just want to kill some time and look at some gorgeous concept art.
The best making-of books offer an excellent blend of informative material coupled with high-quality images, and with the release of Prometheus, two new making-of books have hit shelves: The Book of Alien and Prometheus: The Art of the Film. One is an example of how to a making-of book wrong, and the other is an example of how to do it right.
Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross‘ The Book of Alien faces two problems before you even crack open the front cover. First, it has an uphill battle against the masterful Alien Quadrilogy and Alien Anthology box sets. The special features on these sets are about as close as you can get to feeling like you were actually on the set of Ridley Scott‘s 1979 sci-fi horror film. It’s tough to compete with hearing Scott talk about the film on a commentary track, or watching an interview with screenwriter Dan O’Bannon.
The other major problem is that the book feels cheap. It’s a flimsy paperback and after only a few times flipping through, the first few pages had fallen out. It’s definitely not a book to show off on your coffee table and it will disappear on your shelf if you want to pull it as reference material. It’s a telling sign of the book’s half-finished feeling.
Inside, you can find a wealth of concept art from Ron Cobb and H.R. Giger along with tons of set photos. The problem is that the low page count forces all of these great images to be crammed together in the pages, and this crowded layout diminishes the impact of the images. For example, one caption reads how the bridge was “encrusted with detail and hundreds of working parts”, and then you only get a tiny 2″ by 2″ picture. How is that supposed to compete with a Blu-ray where you can show that same picture in HD on your giant TV screen?
However, you do get the advantage of following along the evolution of a design across a few pages rather than seeing it through a structured documentary or clicking page-by-page through a gallery. There are some great pages where you get to see the evolution of the Nostromo and the space jockey, although I would have liked to have seen more sketches and concept art for the xenomorph. There’s also a great image of Sigourney Weaver on the lawn at Shepperton Studios firing off a gigantic blast from the flamethrower.
As for the written introductions to each section (Nostromo, Planetoid, Alien), they feel dry and should have been interspersed with more images to break up the text. It also doesn’t help that the weird positioning of the margins make the text seem crammed into the pages. But if you can get past the dry prose, you’ll find a lot of fascinating facts about the production and great quotes from Scott, Cobb, O’Bannon, and other behind-the-scenes players. For example, O’Bannon makes the great point about how the xenomorph has no home. “The alien is not only savage,” he notes, “it’s also quite ignorant.” It’s a cool comment, although it makes me think of a bunch of xenomorphs sitting in a classroom and learning the properties of acid blood.
The Book of Alien feels like a rough draft of a much better book. Alien is one of the best science fiction films of all-time and I hope one day we’ll get a serious making-of book that gives the movie the respect it deserves.
Mark Salisbury‘s Prometheus: The Art of the Film is a far better read even if you weren’t enamored of the film’s plot. Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien franchise had an enormous budget and production designer Arthur Max took advantage of it to make a movie that shared a look with the 1979 film, but wasn’t totally beholden to it. He also drew inspiration from some of Ron Cobb’s Alien concept art, so The Book of Alien may not be a bad companion if you’re planning to pick up Prometheus.
Of course, Prometheus has a bit of an advantage since the Blu-ray hasn’t been released, and we don’t know what special features it will have. If you want to soak in the terrific behind-the-scenes material right now, then Art of the Film is a way to go. The hardcover volume is filled with big, glossy photos, neatly laid out alongside commentary from the filmmakers.
Another great feature of Salisbury’s book is that it contains concept art for stuff that didn’t make it into the final film. For example, early drafts featured a scene where Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) visit Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) on Mars, which is being colonized by Weyland Industries. The most you see of this landscape in the film is when Weyland’s hologram is briefing the crew.
Both books show you the roads not taken in movies, which I always find fascinating. Prometheus: The Art of the Film just does it so much better than The Book of Alien. Prometheus‘ making-of book feels far more meticulous, with chapters devoted to mammoth sets like the Ampule Chamber (where they find the giant stone head) down to brief chapters on minor locations like the ship’s cargo bay. For fans of Prometheus, The Art of the Film is a must-buy even if you’re planning on picking up the Blu-ray down the line. For those who simply admire the visuals of Prometheus removed from the actual story, it’s still a strong read although at $40 it could stand to show a bit more insight into the development of the plot and not just the visuals. However, it’s still a worthy addition to any movie-lover’s collection of making-of books.