Harry Harris Interview

[This interview was conducted in 1993 and first appeared
in issue 2 of the Alien Trilogy Fan Club newsletter.]

In October 1993 London saw the opening of
the first 'total reality' experience: Alien War.
In this interview Michael Rush speaks to Harry Harris,
freelance lighting designer, theatre technician and Aliens enthusiast
about plastic pipes, rubber suits and big guns!

For those who don't know, could you please briefly describe what Alien War is all about?
That's always a difficult question when people ask me, because it's a new idea and concept, but essentially you can compare it to an experience like at the American movie studios - the difference is, whereas you're taken round in some form of transport, whether a boat or a coach or whatever, in Alien War you participate on foot. And that's the nucleus of it. It's in the basement area of the Trocadero in Piccadilly Circus, so it can't be seen from the street. You come in through a hallway which is decorated in the style of Alien³, all dark and dirty with Weyland-Yutani stickers. There is a museum and shop and a small cafe, and video monitors playing bits from the films, and that's where you queue. The set is modelled on a Weyland-Yutani colony facility, and you are to be led through as a visiting party of civilians by some Colonial Marines - but there's a certain security situation, and, er, some exciting things are bound to happen!
What's the museum like?
It has various props and costumes, from the Aliens movies - a stasis tube, the four-foot radio-controlled APC; cryotube, armour, pulse-rifles; the Narcissus model from Aliens.
Can you remember when you first heard of the idea of Alien War, and what you thought of it?
I think it was in 1992, and I thought it was a great idea! I saw lots of photos of it in science-fiction comics and magazines, and I couldn't wait to try it out.
So you knew they had a good idea, but did you think they would actually do it properly?
That remained to be seen, from what I saw of it I was hoping that they would - and I wasn't disappointed.
So you actually visited the first Alien War site in Glasgow. How did you find the experience?
I found it really thrilling. I didn't think I would: when I turned up I was a bit embarrassed because I was on my own, it was a quiet day... I bought a ticket and I had to sit down for about twenty minutes while more people turned up, and I got talking to a couple of people which got rid of my embarrassment, and I was absolutely thrilled by it, it was really exciting. Totally exhilarating! And I'm a grown man. I thought I'd be wandering around going "Aagh, look, it's a man in a rubber suit!" But it was great. And as I came out my heart was really going, and I was really excited about it all day.
Would you say you were actually scared during the experience?
I think you could say that. I did sort of suspend my disbelief because I'm an enthusiast of the films anyway. I think one of the bonuses of doing a show like this where a group of people are taken through at one time, you get that little bit of mass hysteria, which everybody feeds off.
Do you think it only works if you are an Aliens fan?
No I don't. I think if you are an Aliens fan it enhances your pleasure of it, but if you don't know the movies well, everything's explained to you by the cast. And it's a simple storyline which is easy to understand.
Can you put the storyline into a James-Cameron-esque simple sentence?
In simple terms, you're in the dark, there's smoke, strobes, loud noise, alarms going off, chains hanging from the ceiling... it all looks very realistic... so it's easy to sustain your disbelief.
Who invented Alien War?
Two guys named John Gorman and Gary Gillies, who are fans and collectors of the movies - I think John Gorman's got one of the biggest collections of Aliens-related memorabilia and props that I've ever heard of.
What was your first contact with John and Gary?
I went to see the show in Glasgow hoping to talk to them but they weren't in, so I had to leave my business card. I didn't hear from them at all until around August 1993, when they phoned me up and asked me if I could work on Alien War London.
And how far along was the project when you became involved?
I turned up to meet John and Gary and to check out the site, and I expected to see a lot of the sets built, but it was just an empty area. The next time I came back construction had started. So I saw it right from when it was a bare space to its final construction.
Do you know what the timescale was between the go-ahead and the opening?
The original design was done by a guy named Keith Edmonds but we had a few problems on the set which I can't really talk about, so I think the design came at about the end of August and the opening date was October 15th 1993.
In what capacity were you employed?
I was originally asked to help with the lighting, and as I turned up I realised there wasn't a lighting designer; so I went home and did a lighting design concept and a few drawings. Only we had a few problems and my position changed. I was part of the set crew, painting and dressing the set. Actually the guy who eventually did the lighting design was a guy called Del Bennett who did some of the lighting for Aliens.
Can you tell us specifically any of the techniques you were using?
The base itself, being a maze of corridors and rooms, was constructed on a concrete floor. We laid metal sheets down to simulate gridded areas, and a metal walkway. The corridors had a steel substructure with a wooden cladding. We used vac-form panels which we had made at Pinewood studios, from the original moulds from Alien and Aliens. Essentially we were following the carpenters around, painting the walls, dirtying them down. We used a hot-gun technique on some of the panels to make them look as if they'd been acid-burnt, or generally battle-worn.
Can you tell us anything unusual used in the construction that we might recognise?
Some of the panelling on the walls you might recognise. We also used some stickers from Aliens that we found at Pinewood - they were put all over the set to jazz it up a bit. The EEV set area has the two original seats from the dropship in it, and a cryotube from Aliens, although that might have been moved into the museum now. You might recognise the seats in the EEV as being from Concorde - we stuck Weyland-Yutani patches on the headrests to make them look a bit different, but I think they might have all been stolen by now! Also from Pinewood we took some television backs which are in Aliens towards the end, by the lifts in the AP station. And something that nobody will notice: while we were there they were making a film called Death Machine, so we got the guys to make us up some of their vac-form panels - just boxes with dials on, abstract stuff.
Are there any particular details of the set for which you are responsible?
There's a couple of things. On some of the vac-form panels I put in some bullet-holes which was a little idea of mine, mainly because I went wrong with a hot-gun once and made a hole - which looked nice and John liked it, so we did them all over the place, to look like pulse-rifle fire. We painted them silver and sprayed them black around the edges to make them look as if they were scorched. As usual on these science-fiction sets there are stickers and letters and numerals everywhere, and I managed to get my phone number in there a couple of times! Nobody notices these things but you know they're there...
Roughly how many areas of construction were subcontracted out?
We had a lighting designer and a team of electricians; welding crew; painting and finishing crew, which I was involved with; John Fisher, who did the VDU displays for the APC in Aliens, did the computers which controlled the Soundfire system and all the lighting and sound effects. There was a guy called John Riddell who is an absolute genius - he and his team made the alien suits and also did the eggs for the egg area. And the armourer in London who did the weapons for all the Aliens films, they supplied some of the suits of armour and built the Soundfire pulse-rifles.
How did it feel to be an incredible Aliens fan and then be asked to help with something which could become a part of the Aliens mythology?
It was amazing, I was very flattered, but I knew I had to keep a cool head because I think John has to deal with a lot of over-enthusiastic fans. So I didn't go "Ooh, wow" every time I saw an original prop!
You mentioned Soundfire - what is that?
Soundfire is a system invented by John Gorman and Gary Gillies. Essentially, because they wanted the marines to carry pulse-rifles instead of blank-firing pistols as they had in Glasgow, they invented a system whereby the pulse-rifles beam a signal to a receiver in the roof when the trigger is pulled, and the receiver is connected to a computer system which plays back a sampled sound of machine-gun fire going off which is then relayed back to whichever area you're firing it from, and it's played back over massive speakers which are installed all over the set.
What was the mood of the various crews like during construction?
Really good actually, I worked with Iggy, Clare and Courtney, the carpenter, who were great fun to work with. John and Gary are great bosses... we worked hard and we really had a laugh.
Once the opening date was announced and Sigourney Weaver was confirmed to attend, you had a definite deadline to work to: did you ever think it wouldn't get finished on time?
Yeah, all the time! Things were quite delayed, and it was going really badly at one stage. We did have a large panic situation going on, essentially because we were having to follow everyone else round and had to wait for people to build areas before we completed them. It ended up with a lot of us calling it Alien³, because it was getting a bit hectic towards the end. But... we did it.
Were there any setbacks with the construction?
We installed black plastic pipes along most of the corridors, which had a really great sci-fi look, and those had to be looked at by London's fire inspection people, and they didn't pass the test unfortunately, which was a bit embarrassing. So we had to clad them in silver pipe, which gave it a different look. Another problem was that there is an upper level, about two metres up, and we originally had ramps going up - but because of legislation on how steep they can be, the ramps would have had to be unfeasibly long. So we ended up with steps there instead. Unfortunately the steps are turning out to be more dangerous than the ramps would have been - it's a very active experience and people can trip up over the steps. But I don't think you ever walk away from an alien!
Were the sets particularly designed to resemble, say the Nostromo, or the Hadley's Hope colony?
I spoke to John Gorman about this. He wished that the sets were like those in Alien, but because of financial restrictions and time it would have been far too difficult. So we went for the down-and-dirty but quite simplistic and modular look of Hadley's Hope - if you look at Aliens it looks like it's been shipped there pre-made and bolted together - which is essentially what we did.
Was there anything planned for the set which had to get left out?
I saw some of Keith Edmonds' designs which were absolutely gorgeous and I could compare them to some of Ron Cobb's stuff that I've seen, but of course it's just too expensive. I spent a lot of time walking about with John Gorman talking about what he'd like to do, wishing that there was more time and more money. It's now a fairly simply designed set but it's still visually exciting, and if it had been more lavish you would never have noticed anyway.
In the weeks leading up to the opening you yourself took part in several publicity events: how did that come about?
I was asked to be involved in a few photoshoots and TV interviews, because I'm lucky enough to own one of the suits of armour made for Bill Paxton (Hudson in Aliens). I got to bring it along and dress up as my hero, which was great! We had a few days of press photography and a couple of TV things to do, where essentially I stood in the background while everybody was interviewed. The most memorable one was getting up at five in the morning for a photoshoot in Piccadilly Circus by the Eros statue, using a lifesize queen figure which stands about twenty feet tall. We had to have the thing clear and back in the Trocadero by eight a.m, so myself and four other marines stood out in the rain getting freezing cold and having our photographs taken. But it was well worth it.
How were the marine actors found?
Some of the marines were brought in from Glasgow, and also from when the experience did a small stint in Bournemouth. Also auditions were held, at Planet Hollywood.
Do you know what these involved?
It involved reading a small piece of the script, the introduction to the base, as if you were addressing the colonists. I think John and Gary were looking for stance, poise and presence as well as ability to act.
What was the opening night like?
I had a great time. The opening night was strangely chaotic. The party was in the mall area of Alien War, and also in Planet Hollywood which is next door. There was a bit of a security breach, and a few of the general public entered the event, so unfortunately it was very crowded and all the VIP guests had to be ushered away early. But it was a great success and there was a real buzz about it... lots of people outside, national TV coverage...
Did anybody famous go?
Obviously Sigourney Weaver opened it; Lance Henriksen was there, Danny Webb, Ralph Brown, Brian Glover, also Ricco Ross (Frost).
How do you think the finished experience compares with the one in Glasgow?
It's bigger and grander, because of the extra money spent on it. It's more true to the movies. There are more areas of set, and a lot more action.
Have you been round Alien War London, and if so what did you think of it?
Yes I have. I liked it a lot, I thought it was very exciting. I only managed to get there around 6 months after it opened, so I kind of forgot where all the surprises were!
In what way and to what extent do you think the attitude of the other visitors affects one's enjoyment of the experience?
I think you've definitely got to suspend your disbelief and believe in what's coming at you from round the next corner. You have to go into it with an open mind and be prepared to get involved in the experience. It's also best to be with people who want to be scared. If you go in with a load of jerks laughing, it's not so good. But it's not just women and children who scream - we've had men running out of there too!
What do you think works best about the experience?
I think you've got to look at the whole thing together - the lighting, the smoke, the sound, the marines, and I think the whole idea of being a group of people on foot adds a lot. You really get wrapped up in it, because it's an active experience, not a passive one. It's a superb idea, and Gary and John have done a marvellous job with it.
Alien War London is up and running now. Will it remain as it stands or will it continue to develop?
It's kind of an ongoing thing, it's obviously best to change the configuration of the show slightly. Although because it's a human thing - they aren't animatronic marines - every time you go round it is slightly different. It's important to develop it and upgrade it to get the crowds back again. I'd definitely go twice, especially if I knew there was something new in there.
Do you think the concept could be successfully applied to any other films? Perhaps people might be eager to jump on the bandwagon?
The bandwagon idea is out because obviously the concept is now protected. John and Gary may have plans to do other movies and I think it's a great idea. I wish them the best of luck. And I hope I can be involved again! There are several blockbuster movies which it could be applied to. Although obviously, you can't do The Abyss... without leaving a tap running for a while!
What would be your lasting memory of having worked on Alien War London?
I think working with such a great crew, and also meeting John Gorman and Gary Gillies. I spent a lot of time with John especially, because he was on the crew as artistic director, and he shows the same enthusiasm for the films as me.

Harry would like to thank: Doug, Julian and Karen for the VIP treatment on his visit; also Bill the technician and Anthony in the shop.

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