My Favourite Ridleygrams

by Graham Edwards

Ridley Scott VES AwardI was delighted to read the recent news that Sir Ridley Scott is to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Visual Effects Society in February, in a presentation that the VES says “will honour Scott for his vision and dedication to storytelling that blends iconic visual effects and unforgettable narrative on an epic scale”.

It’s well-deserved. Over the years, Ridley has shown us some really cool stuff. As Mike Chambers, VES Board Chair, says:

“Ridley Scott is a defining voice of the feature, broadcast and commercial forms, and a true master of his craft. His vision and contribution to the art is incomparable and his impact upon the visual effects and technical fields is unparalleled. Ridley’s iconic films have entertained and inspired millions, and his oeuvre of groundbreaking work has been immensely influential.”

Well, he’s certainly influenced me. So much so that I can’t resist recording a few of the influential Ridleygram moments that hit me hard when I first saw them at the cinema, and which have been burned into my brain ever since.

Before I do that, however, let me explain what I mean by “Ridleygram”.

Trained at London’s Royal College of Art, and with a background in advertising, Ridley Scott has a keen visual eye which he’s always expressed by using quickfire sketches to explore shot design. Check out any behind-the-scenes article on one of his films and, sooner or later, you’ll trip over a pile of these trademark “Ridleygrams”.

I don’t know if actual Ridleygrams exist for the shots I’ve picked below – nor am I suggesting the sketches I’ve done to illustrate them are a patch on what Scott may or may not have drawn. But I do know that every one of my selections is informed by the master’s unique eye for composition.

Nostromo Corridor - Alien

Nostromo Corridor – “Alien”

If the 1979 sci-fi/horror classic Alien isn’t on your list of favourite movies, there’s something wrong with you. In a film so densely packed with memorable Ridley compositions, it’s hard to pick just one. So I’m choosing several – namely, all the corridor shots where Scott’s camera prowls restlessly through the empty interior spaces of the commercial towing vessel Nostromo.

These eerie establishing shots perfectly set the tone for the rest of the movie. They also showcase the groundbreaking production design of Michael Seymour, and hyperdetailed art direction of Roger Christian and Les Dilley, which at a stroke defined the “grungy future” aesthetic that changed the look of science fiction films forever.

Spinner Approaches Police HQ - Blade Runner

Spinner Approaches Police HQ – “Blade Runner”

Ridley Scott followed Alien with Blade Runner. A commercial flop on its release, the 1982 film went on to become first a cult favourite, then a bona fide classic. With its rich visuals of a future metropolis, it’s positively brimming with shots that fit my Ridleygram criteria.

The one I’ve picked is the aerial shot looking down on the police precinct tower. The camera swoops in, turning as it approaches, at which point one of the flying cars known as “spinners” spirals down to land on the roof. It’s a breathtaking ballet, made all the more impressive when you realise that Doug Trumbull and David Dryer’s visual effects team had to choreograph all those curving trajectories using only straight pieces of motion control track.

Barbarian Horde - Gladiator

Barbarian Horde – “Gladiator”

Scott abandoned the far future in favour of times past for his Roman-era epic Gladiator. Notable for its use of digital environments at a time when the technology required to create them was still in its infancy, the movie is by turns impassioned and spectacular, with a towering central performance by Russell Crowe as the avenging General Maximus.

You might think my Ridleygram choice here would be the hand-held shot which circles Maximus and his gladiator buddies as they enter the Colosseum. But you’d be wrong. That’s a show-stopping shot, to be sure, but the one that always sends a tingle down my spine comes much earlier in the film.

I’m talking about the big panoramic shot in which all those burning arrows and fireballs fly out across the forest clearing. Underpinned by the thunder of one my favourite Hans Zimmer scores, it’s the moment where Ridley says to us, “Forget everything you thought you knew about the Romans. This is what their war machine looked like at work. Shock and awe, baby. Shock and awe.”

Helicopter Crash - Black Hawk Down

Helicopter Crash – “Black Hawk Down”

In 2001, a year after making Gladiator, Scott dramatised the true story of a disastrous US military action in Somalia. The film’s pivotal helicopter crash was achieved using an extraordinary combination of techniques – a practical shoot of a full-scale chopper slung on cables and thrown around by Neil Corbould’s special effects crew, and a fully CG helicopter that was created by Mill Film, the animation of which used to drive a sixth-scale miniature whose motion-controlled blades kicked up practical dirt that was then comped back into the digital shot.

It’s a fantastic example of the kind of “seamless” visual effects we now take completely for granted. But more than that, it’s another amazing composition, filled with drama and a thousand tiny touches which place you, the viewer, right in the thick of the action.

LV-223 Approach - Prometheus

LV-223 Approach – “Prometheus”

Plot holes aside, Ridley Scott’s 2012 return to the Alien universe – Prometheus – is replete with visual wonders, nowhere more so than in the planetary approach sequence, gorgeously realised by the visual effects team at MPC.

Every shot of the interstellar survey vessel is a beauty, but the one that really shouts “Ridleygram” to me comes early in the sequence. It’s a wide shot where the camera is hanging just above the lightning-filled clouds of LV-223, with the moon’s gigantic parent planet filling two-thirds of the frame behind it. The spaceship is just visible, streaking from left to right as it descends into the atmosphere.

It’s a quick cut, and not nearly as much of a crowd-pleaser as the spectacular shot of the Prometheus actually touching down. But what it does do, in one simple stroke, is say, “Space is big. Humanity is small. Both are beautiful. Be awed.”

Watney in the Landscape - The Martian

Watney in the Landscape – “The Martian”

Only time will tell how high The Martian ends up ranking on viewer’s lists of favourite Ridley Scott films. I can tell you that, even though I’ve only seen it once, it’s already pretty high on mine.

I haven’t had a chance to study this entertaining yarn about a stranded astronaut as much as I have Scott’s other films, so I’m cautious about nominating my favourite moment. However, for the same reason I’ve picked out the LV-223 approach shot from Prometheus, I’m going to settle for now on any one of the many shots showing the film’s resourceful hero, Mark Watney, gazing out across the expansive Martian terrain.

Why those shots? The reason is simple: it’s because the composition is simple. So simple that each shot tells the precisely the story it needs to tell at a single glance. That simplicity is common to all the shots I’ve picked – even that apparently complex one from Blade Runner. A true Ridleygram is a perfect snapshot. It captures a moment, a thought, an idea, an emotion, and paints it on to the screen with minimum fuss and maximum effect.

Those are my favourite Ridleygrams. Which are yours?