This is Part 5 of a 5 Part Series. If you missed the previous parts, click the links below to catch up!
NOSTROMO: A LEGEND BORN AND BORN AGAIN: Part 1
NOSTROMO: A LEGEND BORN AND BORN AGAIN: Part 2
NOSTROMO: A LEGEND BORN AND BORN AGAIN: Part 3
NOSTROMO: A LEGEND BORN AND BORN AGAIN: Part 4
/ PART 5 /
Something has attached itself to him. We have to get him to the infirmary right away.
What kind of thing? I need a clear definition.
An organism. Open the hatch.
Thankfully, this Nostromo’s dark passenger was not an acid-bleeding xenomorph whose structural perfection was only matched by its hostility. Nor was it Captain Dallas’ mother-in-law.
It was an opossum. A very dead one who had left behind only her skeletal remains as evidence of her one-way visit to the Nostromo. Not wishing to find other such surprises or tear out the nest of (no longer functional) fiber optics that also lurked within, Edjourian began photographing the interior of the model as he dug deeper inside. To his surprise, the opossum didn’t die alone. Inside, he found a second, complete opossum skeleton, possibly that of a mate or an adult offspring. But to sci-fi and horror guys, this revelation wasn’t horrifying. It was kitschy. In fact, at the time of this writing, the opossums were being lovingly reassembled at Grant McCune Design as a piece of macabre model-making memorabilia.
In addition to California wildlife, Edjourian also found an entire CO2 gas system inside the Nostromo. This was used during the landing sequence to create the dramatic exhaust vapors that Ridley Scott so loved to employ in order to create a “film noir” atmosphere in his sci-fi films.
Once it had been thoroughly cleaned out, a proper restoration could begin. They reclamped and reglued the suffering wood understructure in an effort to get the model both symmetrically and structurally sound again. As they snapped a photographic record of the Nostromo’s original state for reference, they peeled off the plastic parts to get to the softened wood beneath. This process is what led them to the surprising discovery that chloroform was used as the original bonding agent, something that certainly would not be done today. The repairs also yielded physical evidence of the Nostromo’s aborted yellow paint scheme, as there were still traces of the nautical yellow in the cracks and crevices of the now flat-gray ship.
The shoring up of the Nostromo’s structural integrity alone took weeks worth of man-hours, but was the most important part of the restoration as it was the work that would hopefully ensure the Nostromo decades of longevity to come. Once the model was structurally sound again, it was time for the detail work.
That’s where the real fun began for the self-professed “model geeks” at Grant McCune Design. “It was the world’s greatest jigsaw puzzle,” Jack Edjourian recalls. The restoration team was looking at tables and table’s worth of tiny styrene pieces, most of them just a few square inches in size. But they had a virtual reference library of photographs of the original Nostromo thanks to Prop Store’s unparalleled research efforts. Also, a fortunate happenstance of the way the Nostromo was weathered by the elements was that the years of dirt and rain left little outlines on the wooden understructure where it had run into the seams between the styrene detail pieces. Mother nature had left behind a template for what the original model looked like! So all Grant McCune Design had to do was figure out what went where. Still no small task, but with the pieces that they rescued and with a supplemental bag of parts that Bob Burns had preserved indoors, the Nostromo was actually starting to look like herself again. Once these pieces had been cataloged and fitted, it was clear what was missing and where it was missing from.
Recall that the Nostromo was originally constructed using the parts from a few off-the-shelf model kits. Back to our old friend “kit-bashing.” Well the reason we know this is not necessarily due to a thirty-year old memory of a British visual effects team member, but because of Grant McCune Design’s own Jack Edjourian. Using his encyclopedic modeler’s mind, he went about identifying the parts used by the original “widgeteers.” In his investigation, Edjourian was surprised to discover that virtually no gang-molding had been done by Brian Johnson’s effects team. That means that instead of picking a part that they liked and casting it in silicon to make as many copies as they needed, the design team used original parts from the model kits they liked. Again and again and again. This tedious, iterative process amazed everyone at Grant McCune Design. But Johnson sheds light on the mystery, “One reason we didn't do any gang molding was because in the UK at that time the products were somewhat unstable… I saw results that had not lasted many weeks in front of hot lamps and we had to shoot at high speed because of the dust effects…”
The Nostromo was a “labor of love” back in 1978, too.
So a-kit-bashing Edjourian and his team went. He identified the parts he needed and the models from which they originated and went to his model supplier and started buying up the old kits again. In the model kit business, not much changes over time. If the model is still being produced, the original dies are used over and over so the parts Edjourian would be finding (if available) would be identical to the ones used three decades earlier. There was a bit of trepidation at the end of this process as Edjourian was looking for a particular British Matilda tank model that was still around but a bit rare. As fate has it, Grant McCune Design’s model supplier happened to have just one of these left in stock.
Fortune suddenly seemed to be following the Nostromo’s restoration just as misfortune had shadowed her for her prior twenty-seven years.
Though the original effects team hadn’t employed gang-molding, Grant McCune Design wasn’t about to hunt down of model kits just for the sake of one-upsmanship. Whenever possible, original parts from the Nostromo were used for the mold master. Then, the parts needed in multiples were thrown into two-part silicon molds and Grant McCune Design could make exact duplicates of all the parts they needed in durable urethane plastic. Over thirty molds were created in order to fabricate parts that were completely accurate to the original. All viable parts could then be heated and shaped onto their place on the model’s surface.
One piece at a time, Grant McCune Design trudged forward. Molding, pulling, heating, shaping, gluing.
During this time-consuming process, freelance modelers would come into Grant McCune Design to do visual effects work on a film, see the Nostromo being restored, and cleverly worm their way into the restoration process. To a visual effects artist, the Nostromo is like an original Shelby Cobra to a motor-head: if you see one being restored, you want to get yourself under that hood. Thus, in a shop full of model geeks, the Nostromo never found itself in want for labor.
It's an interesting combination of elements making him a... tough little son-of-a-*****.
Until his passing in late 2010, Grant McCune himself participated in a solely supervisory role at his shop, and still spent a good amount of time at the facility during the restoration in 2007. Upon seeing his team restoring the Nostromo, he was said to have remarked: “We didn’t win an Academy Award because of that.” At the 1979 Academy Awards, Apogee lost their Oscar® bid for their work on STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE to Brian Johnson’s ALIEN visual effects team. But Shook had a salve for McCune’s old wound, “Well the good part is, we’re getting to fix it.”
The structure was sound and the kits were bashed. It was time to paint the Nostromo. But Grant McCune Design couldn’t have an old, beat-up space tug roll out of their shop looking like it had just come out of Weyland-Yutani’s factory. They had to weather it. After studying their extensive photographic reference and evidence they could collect from the cleaner pieces that had been spared from outdoor storage, Shook and Edjourian had a pretty good picture of what the Nostromo looked like when it was wheeled onto the soundstage at Bray Studios back in 1978. The intent was not to alter the original paint wherever possible, instead focusing only on the restored sections of the ship while using the sections with the original paint as a guide. The real trick was to create a seamless effect for the Nostromo that made it appear as though it had been painted and weathered in one application with a single set of materials, even though the model had really been painted by two different effects teams, thirty years apart from one another.
To achieve this look, Grant McCune Design painted the ship in sections, hitting one at a time. They applied six different tones of gray in a patchwork, favoring the paintbrush over the airbrush for a less “deliberate” look. Then, to make the ship appear weathered, they went over the refurbished sections with a chalky wash before finishing it with a wet, dark wash that was meant to “age” the new paint. This was all done while ensuring that the value and texture of the restored sections matched the adjacent sections with the original paint job.
The entire restoration took the better part of a year in between deadline-driven film and TV jobs, with Shook, Edjourian and four other artisans spending the equivalent of three months of 40 to 50 hour workweeks on the Nostromo. About twenty percent of the restoration—over 400 man-hours—was spent on the structural repairs alone. But the bulk of the work, some sixty percent of it, Shook guesses, was spent “widgeteering,”—figuring out what parts went where, what was missing, what model kits the pieces could be farmed from, gang-molding and then shaping and application. The remaining labor was the paint job and final assembly.
This time, there would be no self-destruct sequence for Ripley’s Nostromo. After being on the very precipice of a one-way trip to a sci-fi junkyard somewhere outside Los Angeles, she was alive and kicking one again.
Final report of the commercial starship Nostromo, third officer reporting…
The final product is visually stunning on its own. Compare it to photos of the model’s condition prior to the restoration and its current state is a minor miracle. The Nostromo’s new owner Stephen Lane was equally taken with it.
"I'm so proud to have now become part of the history of this incredible model. She is a sight to behold and I encourage anybody who is visiting Los Angeles to come and see this phenomenal piece of work in person.”
In the end, the Nostromo’s restoration goes far beyond being some hobbyist’s passion project. It’s the work of a film historian attempting to preserve a crucial artifact from one of the medium’s genre landmarks. Without Bob Burns’s initial move to save the Nostromo from the rubbish pile at Bray Studios, KNB Effects’ rescue and, most importantly, without Prop Store’s final intervention, the fans and the annals of movie history would have only memories to cherish.
Instead, thanks to the dedicated and forward-looking few, we have the Nostromo. In her full, former, industrial glory.
The other members of the crew, Kane, Lambert, Parker, Brett, Ash and Captain Dallas, are dead. Cargo and ship destroyed. I should reach the frontier in about six weeks. With a little luck, the network will pick me up.
This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.
Thanks to guys like Bob Burns, Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger and Stephen Lane, this Nostromo dodged the climatic self-destruct sequence. And now, it can be enjoyed by ALIEN and sci-fi fans old and new for generations to come.
This article is dedicated to the memory of the late, great Grant McCune, who kit-bashed many of our childhoods, making us the geeks we are today.
Thank you, Grant. You will be sorely missed.
ALIEN Visual Effects Team:
Nick Allder, Martin Bower, Simon Deering, Brian Eke, Martin Gant, John Hatt, Ron Hone, Guy Hudson, Brian Johnson, Andrew Kelly, Phil Knowles, Dennis Lowe, Roger Nichols, John Pakennham, Bill Pearson, Phil Rae, Jon Sorenson, and Neil Swan.
Grant McCune Design Nostromo Restoration Team:
Monty Shook, Jack Edjourian, Scott Burton, John Eaves, Olivia Miseroy, Jason Kaufman, Eric Tucker, and David Venegas.
Also, special thanks to:
Bob Burns and Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger of KNB EFX Group.