Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, author of the "Aliens: Colonial Marines Technical Manual" agreed to do an interview with me. Those of you who submitted questions to be asked to him should be satisfied as I pretty much got your questions worked in. Here it is.
Q: What were your background qualifications like that made you the right person to write the Colonial Marines Technical Manual?
A: I’m not sure what qualifications you need. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I’m a student of military history and possess a layman’s understanding of science. I play and design wargames (you can buy my wargame titles from GMT Games). I’m a member of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), which is a London-based defence and security think-tank, though this signifies nothing other than I’m widely read.
Q: Had you been a fan of Alien/Aliens before getting involved with creating the book?
A: Oh yes. I’d enjoyed the movies enormously. I can’t say I was a big fan of the spinoff material. For example, I felt the comics strayed too far from the canon. But I’m certainly a fan of the films. Even the later ones that the fans appear to dislike.
In particular, James Cameron’s Aliens movie captured my imagination, with its all-too credible portrayal of a Marine squad that falls to pieces in a crisis. I suppose there are a lot of SF fans these days who are too young to remember when science fiction movies were all blaster-ray cliché. For me, Aliens came out of left-field with its gritty portrayal of a futuristic military kitted out with gunship shuttlecraft, flak-armoured Marines and powerlift suits. That was something new and exciting and miles away from Luke Skywalker and his lightsaber heroics.
We’re all blasé about it these days, now that we’ve had Battlestar Galactica, Starship Troopers and a kazillion computer games from Warhawk to Halo. But those films and games trace their heritage back to Cameron, who was the first to crash the Vietnam movie aesthetic into an sf monster feature. I loved it. Frankly, I was far more interested in the military porn than I ever was with the monsters.
Q: How many times did you view Aliens during the making of the Technical Manual?
A: Enough to be able to quote the movie almost line for line. A countless number.
Q: How were you initially drawn into the project that became the Technical Manual? Is it true that you started this as an unofficial project originally?
A: It’s kind of a long story. Where to start?
I recall a weekend spent with some close friends of mine, Tim and Elaine, back in the late ‘80s. They hadn’t seen Aliens and so I brought the video round and we settled down in front of the TeeVee with a big bowl of popcorn. It was a great session, mainly because of Elaine, who was torn between watching the movie and hiding from the scary parts. As the movie built momentum and the rollercoaster ride began, she got agitated and would hop up and down, and dive behind the sofa, too scared to watch and too fascinated to tear herself away. It was a memorable session. I’d already watched the movie a half-dozen times but it was fun to enjoy it afresh, vicariously, through someone else’s eyes.
By the closing credits we were all jazzed and Tim and I ended up chatting into the night about the movie and all the wonderful weapons and toys in it. This conversation planted a seed in my mind, and so the next day, when I began my long train ride back home, I pulled out a pad and started to write out in longhand the beginnings of the Smart Gun entry.
I quickly wrote up a number of these pieces: the Smart Gun, the Pulse Rifle and a couple others. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to them. The notion of getting these essays published was something of a pipe dream back then, as I wasn’t yet a pro. I was still serving an apprenticeship in fan publishing. So the Tech Manual articles got shelved for a while.
A few years later I was doing some freelance work for Dark Horse International. Lovely Liliana Bolton, the artist John Bolton’s wife, ran Dark Horse’s UK publishing operation and one of their titles was Aliens magazine. The magazine was primarily a vehicle for comic reprints, but they needed feature material to fill space and so me and my business partner, Dave Hughes, were busy producing reviews and background materials. We brainstormed some article ideas and I realized I had all this technical manual stuff sitting in a drawer. So I dusted it off and polished it for the magazine while starting to write some brand new material.
After the first articles were published the reaction was really positive. A lot of people were asking whether this stuff was ‘official’ or not, or they simply assumed it was. It piqued the interest of Dark Horse in the US and they asked whether we could adapt the material into a six-issue comic-book series. Randy Stradley seemed confident they could produce the technical manual under their existing comics licence and Dave and I met up to glad-hand Randy at the UK Comic Arts Convention. We were pretty much ready to sign contracts when Dark Horse pulled the plug on their entire UK operation, and with it went the Technical Manual project.
Dave and I were downhearted, but we still had a sample of the Tech Manual material and so Dave hawked it around the London publishers until we found Boxtree. They already had a couple of Alien/Aliens-related book titles and knew the property. They were prepared to do a deal with us, and soon we were signed and I was faced with a pile of work and a deadline.
Q: How did Fox get involved, and at what point did this occur?
A: I presume Fox got involved when my publisher negotiated the license. Much to my chagrin I soon discovered that Boxtree had only bought a license for the second movie. That was frustrating, as I’d hoped to fill out the book with material from the first and third movies. However, when Fox’s licensing division in Beverley Hills began to read drafts of the manual they had kittens. A whole section of the final chapter referenced the events of the third movie, and went into all sorts of detail about Alien morphology. That had to be scrapped because it wasn’t covered by the license. In the end I had to cut the final chapter down by half and restrict mention of the third flick to an oblique reference.
Fortunately, Fox were prepared to stretch things a little with regards to the first movie. As various events and items from Alien, such as the Nostromo, were mentioned in the sequel, I was allowed to drop those into the book. But a big article on the escape pod from the third movie, done originally for the magazine, was left out.
Q: How did you compile and come up with all of the info in the book, from the vehicle and weapon stats, to the various marine quotes, to the eventual last chapter that concerns people returning to the derelict from the original film?
A: That’s a big question.
The truth is that a lot of the book is made up out of whole cloth. The amount of hard source material from the movie was slim. Sure, I’d been handed some of Jim Cameron’s production notes, but that came down to a handful of sketches and some brief notes on infrared imaging. So it largely came down to watching the movie a lot, getting my hands on as many production stills as I could, and then extrapolating from that.
While writing the book I was fortunate enough to live just around the corner from Bapty and Co., who were the armourers for the movie. So I visited their armoury and they kindly showed me the remaining examples of the pulse rifles. Most of the weapons used in the film had been disassembled and returned to their original state. However, they still had the Suzuki motorcycle parts piled in a corner that they’d used to manufacture the smart guns—all these handgrips and frame parts that they’d wrapped around the machineguns.
At this point I’d better mention that a lot of people contributed to the book in one way or another. Look at the credits page at the back. I knew a competition sharpshooter who designed the Marine sniper rifle on the back of an envelope for me. I just artworked what he’d drawn and wrote up his notes. A physicist acquaintance developed the concept for the ‘diamond drive’ for the starships. Another science-mad friend figured out star maps and astronomical data for me, and made a contribution to defining the alien biology.
And then there were the collectors who jumped in. I have to give a shout out to Harry Harris, a stand-up guy who gave me the loan of his props from the movie for the photo shoot. Another fan contributed a replica pulse rifle made by Bapty’s. The guys who owned the Alien War ride at the London Trocadero allowed me to snap some of their original movie props. And Doug, the gang boss of the Marines at Alien War (now a movie effects guy), modelled Bill Paxton’s armour at the photo shoot and gamely allowed me to slap camo paint all over him. There was enormous amount of goodwill shown to me by these folks and many others I’ve forgotten to name here. A big thank you to them all.
But in the end it came down to me writing and drawing a lot of stuff. And I created a whole bunch of it. My big aim was to try and stay as close to the canon as possible; show mainly those things we saw in the movie. So if we saw a missile in the background in the dropship hangar, I’d write it up and put it in the book. I invented a few things to fill some gaps, such as the antitank weapons, but even these didn’t stray too far from what would be a plausible table of equipment for the Colonial Marines. And I tried not to explain too much of the background, so as to sustain the mystery.
Where possible I drew from future concepts materials that I found through friends or scared up from the archives at RUSI. Frankly, much of the future concepts stuff I read was beyond even what was shown in Aliens. The film, if anything, is a very conservative view of the military future. It shows the next generation (the coming 20-30 years) rather than the next-next-next-next generation we’d expect to see in a couple hundred years.
The Marine quotes and anecdotes really brought the text to life and were part of the book concept from the start. As a student of history, I’m aware that many weapon developments have proven to be dead-ends, or never matured as systems. I’m also aware that SNAFU is the mode of military organisations and procurement, not the exception. Just look at the armoured Humvee scandal in the Iraq war as an example. Given the cynicism of the movies, it seemed appropriate to use the anecdotes to paint a picture of a military in which the equipment wasn’t always up to the standards of the men and women using it.
But there was another reason for the quotes. I once met Colette Hiller, who played Ferro in the movie, at an Aliens convention. She works for the BBC now, in some role to do with children’s TV, but she told me a story from the movie shoot. In the Sulaco’s interior sets, James Cameron encouraged all the actors to personalize their lockers and equipment and gave them a couple of days to do this. So if you look sharp you’ll see photo snaps and pinups in the lockers and slogans painted on each Marine’s battle armor. Bill Paxton cheekily welded a sardine tin key to his armoured codpiece. (You can see Doug modelling it in the book!) That oh-so human touch, that quirkiness, was something I wanted to see in the manual.
Not everyone was taken with the quotes. One of the people at Fox’s licensing division took exception to them when reviewing the text and snapped off a fax to my editor, complaining that ‘all the men sound macho and all the women sound like Madonna’. So I carefully went through the text and changed all the male names to female names and vice versa. I never had any trouble with Fox after that.
The chapter on the aliens was something where I had to tread carefully. I didn’t want to demystify the Alien creatures. I also didn’t want to do anything that would be contradicted and rendered obsolete by a future sequel. So I pretty much confined myself to a strict observation of what we knew from the movies. By writing these dialogues between the scientists, who themselves are trying to figure things out based on sketchy and incomplete data, I could explore some hypotheses without tying the book down to any conclusions. I hope I succeeded.
Q: Many of your credits involve game design as opposed to being involved with films. What were the main differences between doing games and doing the Technical Manual?
A: I’m not sure I can give you an answer to that. Games and writing are difficult to compare as disciplines. They are apples and oranges.
I suppose the main point of contrast is that the manual was a solitary gig, and involved sitting at a desk or drawing board, churning out a lot of stuff. Games design is a big collaborative effort involving a lot of teamwork and organisation and project management.
Q: Would you ever consider getting involved in designing an Aliens game (or have you already gotten involved without us knowing)?
A: I did a bunch of initial design work on the Aliens versus Predator game from Rebellion, though by the time the game came out, a few years later, pretty much all my contribution had disappeared and my credit was little more than a thank you.
Q: Now that the book has been out for quite some time, is there anything specific in the piece that you would go back and change or fix?
A: There are numerous things I’d change, but only because I’m a better writer now. There are some passages that are long-winded and could do with livening up or paring down.
The one specific thing I’d fix would be to remove Syd Mead’s production drawings from the book. They had arrived as part of a batch of reference materials, including film stills, from Fox. I wasn’t very knowledgeable about intellectual property law back then—people are generally a lot more savvy about this in the internet age. IP issues were starting to impact the book. For example, Fox would not send us any still photos containing the actors’ likenesses, as these were the property of the actors. I was barred from using many photos I would have loved to use, particularly of the Marines.
However, amongst the batch of materials from Fox were these production sketches of the Sulaco and the colony. After the debacle with Fox withholding the actors’ photos I simply assumed, by the act of supplying the production sketches, that Fox had okayed them for our use. That was a rash assumption, as it turned out the picture rights belonged to the creator. So the pictures went into the book, and worse yet, they went in uncredited. Syd Mead and his representatives were unimpressed by this and, quite rightly, sent me an admonishing legal letter. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, and the moral of this story is to carefully check all your IP and rights issues before publication. I’m very sorry that Syd was not credited for his work and deeply regret that this happened.
Q: What are your favorite and least favorite aspects of the book now?
My least favourite aspect is the lack of images. This was partly because we were denied the use of so many photos I’d have loved to use (see above). But also because the press of time meant I wasn’t able to produce as many as I’d have liked. Furthermore, many of the images were created the old fashioned way in pen and paint and ink. Now that I have industrial computer art tools I reckon we could do far better job on the art content these days. I would commission 3D CGI models and all sorts.
Q: Have you either personally or through the grapevine heard a response
from James Cameron on the Technical Manual?
A: No. If you hear anything I'd be interested to know.
Q: Are you aware of any way to obtain a copy of the Technical Manual
other than online (or divine intervention)?
A: Sorry, no. A friend of mine trades them on eBay and I occasionally
sign copies for sale, but online sellers seem to be the only source. I'm
afraid I can't help as I'm down to my last copy.
Q: Have you ever gone to eBay, done a search, and seen people pay
outrageous amounts for the book?
A: Yes, and I'm surprised at what they sell for. It's very validating,
seeing an old piece of work command such prices.
Q: Would you consider joining our forums at Alien Experience?
A: Sorry, my bandwidth is maxed out and I am already spread thinly
across the intertubes. But if I find the time I shall try and drop by
and read the response to this interview.
Q: Any final words?
A: Like most creatives I tend to look back at old work and wrinkle my
nose. "B-minus, could do better." I am my own harshest critic. But for
all its flaws the Technical Manual was fun to make and I have an
enormous fondness for it. A lot of people out there really love the book
and that feedback is great. A friend of mine wrote a technical manual
for another sf property (Babylon 5, if I recall) and I saw one review of
it that said, in essence, 'bah, if you want to see how to do it
properly, read the Aliens Technical Manual'. I get great pleasure from
reading things like that. When you get to my age, the props are welcome.
One last thought: since completing the book fourteen years ago I haven't
watched the movie once. Funny, that.