2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★★★

*saw on 70mm in two different countries over the last month

“Fix it in post,” is something often said on movie sets. Essentially, it’s a request to not slow down production because there was a human error in a shot that can easily be fixed in post-production by someone at a computer. Every shot takes a long time to set up. If it can be fixed later, fix it later. Now, thanks to CGI being able to create entire worlds, almost every big movie feels like it was made entirely in post-production. These worlds do look exactly like the name implies, however—like a computer generated image. And the more CGI that is used, the less threatening that fabulous beasts, monsters, and space itself has become because no one on set is engaging with them, including the actors. All the terror, and ohhs and ahhs will be added in post.

No, movies aren’t real, but practical effects can make them feel real because it involves real things happening on set or in a model. And when live effects happen on set, visual effects—though it has its own team—overlaps directly with multiple creative crews: production design, camera, etc. in order to make it work. This can make an entire film set engage with a certain level of collective cleverness that can actually push their mediums forward and make the audience wonder how’d they do that? With CGI—not to do a disservice to those in the field, as it takes 1000s of hours to make these worlds—we don’t necessarily wonder how they did it. We just assume it was done on a computer. In post-production.

Perhaps the most fascinating “how’d they do that?” is one of the earliest and most elaborate space exploration films—and one of the greatest films of all time—Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s film (and visual effects team) put such an emphasis on how to make the stars that Kubrick couldn’t employ acting stars—because each shot took so much time to complete. Forget post-production. This set had separate work-flows that were labeled such sexy things as “The Sausage Factory” and “The Brain Room”. And when Kubrick needed to fake zero gravity (for the beautiful long-take that follows an astronaut running on a spaceship in a complete vertical circle), they built the world’s largest (and most detailed) hamster wheel.

The 2001 “Sausage Factory” was tasked with gathering all the separate photograph plates that had been shot with a half-dozen cameras (sometimes in 24 hour shifts) of small chemical explosions—within a box the size of a cigarette—that would become galaxies and exploding stars, and rear project them on sets and models to get the images on the same negative. Some negatives, such as the men on the moon who discover a foreign object, were not exposed for over a year until all the extra components were shot and could be overlaid onto one film print. That’s because throughout the film, stars, little holes in boards, were the hardest to maintain. Certain sizes and motor speeds looked best for 35mm cameras but would look fake at 70mm, so different star sizes and speeds were repeatedly made specific for each set and model. But even if it took a few years to get all of these elements on the same film print, all of these elements did occur on a set and were captured. Kubrick and his crew were able to control light in such a way as to make the impossible look possible (for instance, a floating pen was just a pen taped to glass, lit in such a way as to make the glass invisible and the pen appear to float) and make us still ask today, in the age of CGI, “how’d they do that?“.

As for the story? Well, the monolith that appears in three separate instances—at the dawn of man, on the moon, and in a distant galaxy—is perhaps the greatest MacGuffin in film history. What does it symbolize? Perhaps it's something as simple as what we all wonder when we look up at the stars or think about early existence: It’s what does it all mean? in physical form. From birth to death we litter space with that single question, no matter how evolved we become.

The combination of one of cinema's greatest story tricks, the MacGuffin, with all of cinema's greatest visual effects tricks, makes for one of the most timeless, most re-watchable, most beguiling movie experiences of all time.

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