The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey documents in nearly scientific detail exactly that: the story of how the iconic science-fiction film came into existence and how it predicted much of the technology we take for granted today.
Science writer and space historian Piers Bizony offers an extraordinarily detailed catalog. It begins with the genesis of Kubrick’s masterpiece, starting with his partnership with author Arthur C. Clarke, and extends through the creation of the film’s futuristic set design. Only 1,500 copies were printed, and they’ve long since sold out at $1,000 each. (A $70 second edition version is now available for pre-order.)
In the tome, which is chock-full of previously unseen images, Bizony highlights the central tension of the film’s design: Even as Kubrick and his team—including cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth and art director John Hoesli—were creating a fictive future set in space, NASA was racing to put a man on the moon. The set and props in 2001: A Space Odyssey had to dramatically outpace the emerging technology, lest NASA succeed while they were filming and make Kubrick’s vision appear outdated, or, worse, flat-out wrong.
This forced Kubrick’s team to do deep, meticulous research, which Bizony says helps explain why much of the set design accurately forecasted how we live with technology today. “The executive briefcase with its phone handset and dial? Look closely, and all the elements of the laptop or smartphone are there, half a century ahead of time,” Bizony tells Wired. You could also, for example, see HAL 9000 as a proto-Siri.
The book is packed with other details about the making of the film (for example, Clarke wrote the most of the screenplay at the Chelsea Hotel, in the company of William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg), but is most elucidating in its attention to the technical and design details that made the film such an enduring paragon almost 50 years after its release.
In the 1960s, television spelled trouble for film executives. With more viewers getting their entertainment at home, studios needed a way to lure them into movie theaters. The board of MGM grew interested in a new widescreen format called Cinerama, which used a three-camera system to create an impossibly large, wide picture. It required special projection equipment, and audiences would buy tickets and seats ahead of time as if they were going to a Broadway play—or, by today’s standards, to a 3-D IMAX flick.
With the country entranced by NASA’s race to the moon, Kubrick and Clarke realized the sweeping galaxy-building of their film—the working title was Journey to the Stars—was exactly the “widescreen extravaganza” MGM needed. “MGM took the bait,” Bizony says.
That left Kubrick to build a space-age world unlike any other. After surveying set designs from other 1960s-era sci-fi films, Kubrick decided he didn’t want to leave 2001’s mise en scène in the hands of film industry artists. He wanted a more realistic setting. He assembled a skunkworks team of astronomical artists, aeronautics specialists, and production designers. Aerospace engineers—not prop makers—designed switch panels, display systems, and communications devices for the spacecraft interiors.
This particularly helped with the movie’s light design. Artist Richard McKenna was creating color schemes for spacecrafts before anyone really knew what they might look like. Roy Carnon, another illustrator, created a visual system for Kubrick that imagined how sunlight and shadows might fall in space. Other advisors took cues from submarines and military vehicles to create the red-lit interiors of the moonbus cockpit.
Hans-Kurt Lange, who worked as an illustrator in NASA’s Future Projects Division, modeled 2001’s space suits on NASA’s, using the same horizontal stitching to maintain a constant volume of air. They resembled a slimmed-down Michelin Man. Likewise, drawings of the Discovery’s control panels were based on NASA photos showing astronauts huddled around an in-development Apollo space capsule.
Kubrick and Clarke needed to conceive of an onboard computing system for the Discovery, which they initially called Athena, not HAL. They went to IBM, then the world’s largest computing company, for drawings and blueprints that could imagine the future of personal computing.
IBM had trouble with that. Eliot Noyes, IBM’s industrial design consultant, based his renderings on current technological achievements, which were room-sized supercomputers used only by professionals and the military. He proposed to Kubrick that “a computer of the complexity required by the Discovery spacecraft would be a computer into which men went, rather than a computer around which men walked.” Kubrick lost it. He wanted something smaller, like a control panel. “IBM’s assumptions were behind the times,” Bizony writes. “Rival companies, such as Motorola and Raytheon, were pushing toward miniaturization, spurred in large part by NASA’s urgent requirement for computers small enough to fit inside the new lunar capsules.”
In the end, Kubrick warmed to IBM’s drawings for the sake of creating another character and adding drama to the movie. Of course, to animate HAL 9000, Kubrick’s team had to create the graphics. But Doug Trumbull, who did airbrush paintings for films, hit a speedbump: Computer-generated graphics didn’t exist in any real way yet. MIT, where Kubrick had met with AI and robotics professor Marvin Minsky, was developing them, but they had a resolution of just 512 pixels across. That was advanced for the 1960s, but Kubrick knew it would be too crude for the year 2001. So his team faked it by mounting high-contrast film negatives onto mobile glass panels. Trumbull played with colored filters, photographed different graphics slides, and then projected them onto the set.
MGM’s contract with Kubrick stipulated that 2001 would wrap in 1966. (It missed the deadline, but critics and fans alike would probably agree it was well worth the wait.) 2001: A Space Odyssey hit theaters in April 1968—a year before Apollo 11 landed on the moon and provided another glimpse of what space travel might look like.
If there was a space race between Kubrick and NASA, the director won. But as the many, many pages in Bizony’s book show, 2001 wasn’t just a journey through space. It was a carefully wrought prediction for the future.
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