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Typography of “Alien” (2014) (typesetinthefuture.com)
502 points by pareidolia on June 25, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 66 comments

I really like these kinds of articles. I would have never noticed most of these details.

Enjoyed the carefully thought out icon design:


Cryogenic vault -- the blue triangle pointing down to a stick figure. Photonic system -- has the letter F shaped by what looks like fiber optic channels. Radiation hazard is great too -- a stick figure dead on the ground, with the sickly bright orange color filling the top of the square.

Then not all details could be consistent of course. And the whole self-destuct French vs English instruction bit was funny.

Then the completely off the wall stuff-- 70s psychadelics creeped into the keyboard design, that was fascinating. What else would you put on a self-destruct computer console than "SHAKTI EXCESS", "PADME" and reference to a phychadelic trip?

If you are into industrial and globalized signage / semiotics, do yourself a favor and check out the Symbol Sourcebook -- https://www.amazon.com/Symbol-Sourcebook-Authoritative-Inter...

Some of the symbolism they use for computer operations are fascinating

Another great aspect of the first two Alien movies is that the musical score is very sparse and subtle. Those films don't need to use constant music to tell the viewer what to think or feel or notice, which is an amazing effect on it's own.

Fun fact about the score to Aliens. There's an iconic song towards the end called Bishop's Countdown.


It has been recycled over and over again, particularly in trailers. It's like the Wilhelm Scream... once you start looking you'll start noticing it (and its homages) constantly.






If you enjoy this kind of music, you'll like Shostakovitch. His 11th Symphony has this same style of music, and I've always felt like I was watching Aliens while listening to it. The two minutes in the following clip have the same build-up, rhythm, and style as the Bishop's Countdown: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uVL3vtZ-z6g&feature=youtu.be...

Yeah, Shostakovich was brilliant.

The ending of this piece reminds me of the ending of Symphony no 4 - with a quiet delicate bell sound, after starting with a grotesque, whacky march.

(A) start: https://youtu.be/I7U2WzC47sQ?t=246

(B) ending: https://youtu.be/I7U2WzC47sQ?t=3488

How did he go from A to B?

I love Mars (worth noting Holst wrote it between 1914 and 1916), it's jaw-dropping to discover all the references that John WiIliams was inspired from for Star Wars' music... https://youtu.be/5pM2SozsyPE

Also, obligatory Venture Bros reference ;) https://youtu.be/K0iTfasIpLc?t=1m34s

The last 35 second of Mars (when I first listened to it a couple years ago) made think that was what the used in a scene at the beginning of the Hitchhiker's Guide movie, final 40 seconds of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1WomfhjyVM

Listening to them side by side they are not really the same at all. I think the Hitchhiker's version is just a comically extended version of it.

That sounds like part of the OST of one Star Trek movie (Star Trek 8, in fact), and a dozen more movies I saw.

So the Amen Break of epic music

The story about the soundtrack is interesting in itself. Jerry Goldsmith originally composed a score which Scott rejected for being too classical (it had what I believe Goldsmith called a romantic musical theme), and cut major portions of, borrowing an earlier Goldsmith soundtrack is the process (which I believe they had used as a temp track during editing). Goldsmith didn't like it at all. There is also an interview clip on YouTube where he talks about it; the way he speaks of the incident, he is obviously bitter and considers it a terrible (and inexplicable) judgement on Scott's part. The rejected portions of the score (which is available as part of the soundtrack album) are beautiful, but the film score is also obviously superior.

Edit: Here's the interview. https://youtu.be/U8bv0QDLI7M?t=481

I've heard this too and thought it was brilliant. So James Cameron even repeated this and added constraints on the music with the second movie

    James Horner thought he’d have six weeks to write
    the musical score. Instead, he had three weeks,
    and had to write some parts overnight. The movie
    was behind schedule, not even finished being
    filmed (let alone edited) when Horner arrived in
    England. What’s more, the recording studio he’d
    been provided with was outmoded, not equipped to
    handle the synthesizers he wanted to use. Horner
    called the experience a “nightmare,” and ended up
    writing the climactic musical cue overnight.
    Coming away with the impression that a James
    Cameron film was too stressful and rushed, he
    figured he’d never work with the director again.
    And he didn’t ... until Cameron approached him for
    Titanic. (That rushed Aliens score earned Horner
    an Oscar nomination, by the way.)
It seems like there's a Machiavellian lesson there. There's a lot of great "making of" material on Aliens, which shows James Cameron being a genius on other aspects too.

This is quite a common story and one I can relate to. Some of my best work has been done under time pressure, I think in part because you don't have the luxury of second guessing anything.

Some of my worst work has been done in the same conditions though, especially with regard to "technical debt" though I suppose that doesn't apply to the processes in film making as future maintenance is much less of a concern.

Goldsmith makes the key point at the end of the interview: film scores are trying to do two things at once (1) do what the film needs and (2) stand alone.

To me, this completely clarifies his conflict with Ridley Scott. The director doesn't care at all about #2. And yes, Scott is right: no one is as close to the film as the director and editor. It's not their job to pad the composer's portfolio, although ironically it seems the composers are rewarded for this "tight coupling" that they strive to avoid.

p.s., I never saw Alien, but I liked the OP and I am a Jerry Goldsmith fan from the Star Trek scores, which I used to love listening to on CD. It seems he was happier with those collaborations because he was allowed to express the "romantic" view that he had of human space exploration.

I saw that interview and was shocked. For me, as a music major, the soundtrack of this movie was one of the most memorable and effective parts. I can't imagine anything else inspiring quite such a sense of dread and awe.

The best aspect of Alien, Aliens, and the game Alien: Isolation is how they create a realistic (as in, you feel like you're there) environment. Whether it's a silent, scary thriller or an action movie it really makes you believe in the characters. Aliens is probably one of the few non-drama films that made marines have interesting personalities.

Sometimes I feel like I'm the only programmer who doesn't have an interest in typography.

To be honest, when I started reading the article, I thought to myself "Great, another long winded dissertation on the shape of letters", but when I read further, the article goes into so many more aspects of the movie that I was completely enthralled.

Discussion of the ship's scuttling procedure, and the odd 'destruction keyboard' layout in particular I found totally fascinating. I was actually quite surprised at the level of detail the set designers went to with this movie.

If you are not a typography fan - do yourself a favour and push through the initial part of the article and wait for the bits where the author zooms in on particular screenshots to explore tiny details like the ship/company logo on cat dishes and beer cans etc.

Agreed. We call that "world building" now. Where an audience can look at seemingly incidental parts of a work, and infer things about the fictional world those parts come from, because the authors designed them to be from that world.

Sometimes I feel like I'm the only programmer who has an interest in typography.

There was that great quote from Steve Jobs saying that the only reason modern computers had decent fonts is because he dropped in on a calligraphy class once and it stayed with him until they made the first Macs, which were then copied by Windows.

The Xerox Alto had multiple high-quality proportionally spaced fonts, along with the first WYSIWYG document editor (developed by Simonyi, who later wrote Word at Microsoft). This was two years before the Apple I, let alone the Mac. The credit for good fonts in computers should go to Xerox PARC, not a calligraphy class at Reed.

The point is the class made him care about typography and he pushed so Apple computers would have good-looking text.

As opposed to Windows, which did not at the time.

He wasn't claiming he invented decent fonts on a computer.

> The point is the class made him care about typography and he pushed so Apple computers would have good-looking text.

> As opposed to Windows, which did not at the time.

And to a point, this is still true. It's surprisingly hard to get good text rendering in terminal emulators on Windows and Linux. I still have to settle for "good enough" rather than the "stellar" I can get on my OS X machine.

Steve was a humble guy

On HN/Reddit, everyone has an interest in it. In real life, not so much :-)

Also I guess it depends on what kind of programming... frontend devs probably care more about it than embedded devs.

How do you feel about the pico8?

When I read articles about typography I feel like I'm reading pseudo science. They change something to do with kerning or whatever and then say it's better. Why is it better? It's not a falsifiable claim!

When I write an article saying I'm doing something better in code I need to demonstrate it empirically.

Maybe that's not a reasonable way to read a design article though.

Off the top of my head, there are a couple of examples that might change your mind. Freeway road signs. They need to communicate what lane to be in to a broad range of drivers, in stressful situations, very quickly. You should never notice a good interchange sign. a quick glance is enough to know you need to be in the second or third lane. A bad sign leads to bad driving, or a missed exit, depending on the aggression of the driver.

Airport signage is another pretty good example. I always look for the little man/woman symbols with an arrow pointing to the restrooms. I've missed signs that actually say "Restrooms ->" because there's so much visual clutter in airports. And i'm usually tired and a bit stressed out about making my connection.

Perhaps it is pseudoscience. In this context, I'd be willing to agree it's all just learned conventions. I'd argue, studying those conventions, and exploiting them is more than nothing though.

You should never remember a good sign. it's noticed, used and forgotten. You will always remember a bad sign.

As an example of bad signage, the sign for the I405 north exit on I5 south in Washington always confuses me because the road curves across a hill, and at the distance where you should be changing lanes, the sign is aligned with the second lane from the left. It's not until you're passing under the sign that you can see the lane it's indicating, which is actually the far left lane.

Just as with coding, there are both scientific and aesthetic aspects to it. Why choose?

Typography is art, not science.

Isn't art science not explained yet ?


Precisely where does this blog post make any claim about kerning? Or province any argument or statement towards which font in the movie is "better?"

I didn't say anything about this article.

Someone said they don't like reading about typography in general. I seconded and explained why.

Evidence suggests this is unlikely to be true. :)

This is a brilliant angle on an defining movie, the fairly flippant (and genuinely amusing) tone of the article belying very serious and in depth research. Indeed as a hobbyist font nut, I'm inspired to whip out Illustrator to try and recreate some of the designs so well detailed here. The self-destruct keyboard alone is a gem, the graphics on which are a perfect example of the transition period from 70s to 80s design themes. Bravo for bringing a 37-year old movie so effectively back to life from such an original perspective. Wish I had seen this in 2014.

Be sure to read the blade runner version on that site. It's great as well!

The self destruct instruction panel seems to contain an ESD warning label: https://duckduckgo.com/?q=ESD+warning+sticker&iax=1&ia=image...

If you want to admire more of the typography and great aestetic of Alien, the 2014 game Alien: Isolation is perfect for that.

It pretty much encourages you to explore it's decomissioned (and of course Alien infested) Sevastopol station, which is lovingly built to mirror the original movie aestetic and it's full of terminals and other lore pieces :)

Another game that leans heavily on the typography and general atmosphere of Alien is Duskers[0]. Most of the reviews I read before playing the game made direct comparisons to the movie.

[0] http://duskers.misfits-attic.com/

As much as I loved the art direction, which I can only qualify as terrific, I greatly disliked the "running from closet to closet" gameplay...

I have probably a couple of hours into that game, before I got bored and gave up. In those few hours I have not seen a single alien. It's as if the game studio forgot the title of the game.

Oh AFAIK there is only one and you get to see quite too much of it considering you cannot really fight it, and the running from hiding place to hiding place...

I came here to mention the game. Currently dipping in and out of it on PS4. They nailed the atmosphere.

Reminds me of a similarly awesome blog deconstructing user interfaces in scifi: http://www.scifiinterfaces.com/

The dissection of another classic -- Blade Runner on the same site:


Sigh. I thought (before I saw the "2014") that this was finally a new typesetinthefuture post.

I would love to see new entries there.

Is he making an off joke when he claims that all the replicants are animatronic, not played by human actors? Or were there animatronic heads used in the movie?

I'm hoping it's his dry sense of humor. He's also pointing out how the replicants have a problem with red-eye: "it's unfortunate that the producers couldn't find a way to work around such a simple photographic bugbear." In fact the filmmakers took great pains to add this golden glow to the replicants. It's no accident at all. In the Final Cut DVD, they talk about how they did it. I'm sure that Dave Addey watched this bonus feature, as analytical as he is. He mentions Harrison Ford's eyes catch this glow at one point, saying, "How strange! I'm sure it won't turn out to be significant." This must be more dry humor, because there's also the fan theory that Deckard is a replicant after all.

That comment puzzled me as well. I don't know what the author meant.

Awesome - thank you!

Here's the video of the title sequence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUtk96wURLE

I found the typography of Interstellar interesting, if only because it may be the first time humanity has ever seen serifs in space.

From the Alien article:

> This is most unusual, if only for being a serif (rather than sans-serif) on-screen computer font in a sci-fi movie.

For moon, it's no wonder there's so much similarity - they heydey of space travel was he '80s, so Moon goes for a deliberately '70s and '80s vibe. You see this again in The Martian, where somehow by coincidence his only entertainment is Disco and Zork.

It is oddly comforting to read this blog post, and compels me to post that, this is because a selection of the images, specifically the typographically focused ones, have been my default image posts on some boards for the passed couple of months. If it is a coincidence, one can see why, it is a beautiful film.

I also noticed the grammatical mistake on MU/TH/UR's screen after interrogation: it should have been 'Ensure', not 'Insure'!

> I also noticed the grammatical mistake on MU/TH/UR's screen after interrogation: it should have been 'Ensure', not 'Insure'!

"Ensure" and "insure" are both valid words/spellings for this. The use of "insure" is far less common, for this meaning, though. Both include "to make (something) sure, certain, or safe" in their definitions:



Great article, but I have to laugh at the "hamburger" menu which slides the entire screen over just to show two links.

Is there a word to describe the kind of person who gets a hard-on when reading this kind of stuff? I'm asking for a friend.

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