2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★★★

2001 Impressions 2015

Part of Lise’s Hal’s Birthday Watch

State of Mind. A weekday evening watch, starting at about 8:30pm. A couple of pints under my belt. Excited! I had a 5am wakeup the next morning, so, sorry for the late impressions.

Santa brought us a new projector this year. The missus gave Santa the go-ahead way back in October 2013 after we watched Gravity theatrically. She was kind of taken by the 3D. Me; I wanted better black levels. You guessed it, I wanted better black levels mainly because of 2001. It would be great for other films too, but mainly 2001. Well, this year Santa obliged.

After watching an absolutely terrible 70mm print of 2001 at TIFF this past November, I was anxious to see the pristine Blu, especially with the prowess of this new one eyed monster. So, this time around my impressions are primarily technical observations. I’m probably going to throw in some boring anecdotes about how this shot was made, or what someone said about the making of that shot, so, if you want to retain a childlike sense of wonder of ‘how the heck did he do that!?’, then you might be better off reading my The Monolith is Good or The Monolith is Evil impressions from years past.

The Opening.

As the strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra quietly build, I love the confidence of Kubrick ( oops, sorry ) telling you flat out, right off the top, that this will be epic. His Directors credit, and the film title flashing to the screen perfectly synchronized with cymbolic crescendos of Strauss. The visual of the earth and sun rising over the moon is the first spectacular effects treat. I’ve never read anything on how this shot was made, but it’s just so damn convincing and pristine, not to mention how evocative it is as a setup for what’s to come.

The Dawn of Man

Here’s where the new toy really starts to shine. The establishing shots of the arid landscapes of the Savanah so achingly beautiful, textured, and pristine. It’s here where it hits me for the first time. Although I’ve known this for decades, it shocked me to think that these were just still photographs. Mind you, still photographs shot on large format 8”x10” film sheets … more than a GigaPixel of resolution ( for comparison, the new 4K cinema format is just shy of 9MegaPixels .. about 1/100th the resolution of an 8x10 transparency ). The simple addition of the sound of the wind make me sure we are there, and that this is real.

When we have sets with our mimes miming monkeys, real chimps, tapirs, leopards, and dead horse, er, zebra, they are all on a small stages with a gigantic highly reflective screen in the background. An incredibly powerful projector located behind the camera is throwing those Gigapixel equivalent analogue images onto the screen behind the ( man and beast ) actors. You don’t see the projection on them as they are lit separately, and the reflection of the screen so bright, that you don’t see it. If you look closely, you can see where the set ends and the background begins. The set designers did such an incredible job matching the set to the photos that even if you know the trick, it completely disappears unless you really look for it. It’s one of those things that knowing it doesn’t ruin it.

Now, about these photos. Kubrick ( oh geez, said it again .. sorry sweetie ) wasn’t going to travel all the way to Africa. He doesn’t like flying, and he’s got more than enough to do in pre-production. So he sends (presumably) Kevin Bray, the un-credited still photographer, to do the job. Now, you have to realize that this was the beginning of 1965. Of course there was no way to e.mail proofs back, the Internet wouldn’t be invented for another 25 odd years. Even the lowly, now long outdated, fax machine was only first demonstrated by AT&T the year before. While at a screening of 2001 earlier in the year, Gary Lockwood described how Kubrick ( doh, sorry ) would get on the telephone with Bray and have him describe his photos, and then tell him what adjustments to make.

Another affecting shot in the Dawn of Man sequence was the Leopard attacking the Ape. An amusing anecdote that I read in an interview with Daniel Richter, Moonwatcher and choreographer for the other mimes, was that although the trainer, Terry Duggan ( guy being attacked who wore a monkey suit ) and his Leopard had practiced incessantly before shooting day, things didn't really go as planned. Although Kubrick (geez) claimed that Duggan and the Leopard were alone on the set for the stunt, Richter contradicts this account. He and the other mimes (apes) were there as well. Duggan had rehearsed in costume, on the set, with the Leopard and all went well. Come shooting day, take 1, the Leopard is nervous, nothing happens. Take 2, the Leopard runs past Duggan and towards Richter! Duggan tackles the beast. The third take kinda worked. The director wasn’t entirely happy with it, but didn’t want to do another. Especially as he and his crew were also easily within the Leopard's reach.

The Jump

After the haunting opening, this is the first time return to space. This is why I asked Santa for this projector. The crisp resolution and deep blacks just amaze. These images of satellites ( well actually bombs ) orbiting the earth against a pristine black spacescape is simply unmatched to this day. ( well, maybe the film IMAX stuff shot in ‘real’ space comes close. ) It sets the visual expectations for the rest of the film. One of K, er, the director’s dictates to the special visual effects crew was that he wanted every effect to be first generation. The normal and accepted way to blend different visual elements together ( earth, space ship, stars, another space ship, a space station ) was to use optical printers and hand painted ‘travelling mattes’. Kind of like old multi-track audio tape recorders. You would start with your first bed. Play it back and record another live instrument and record the composite on another track, and rinse and repeat. The problem is that the more you did this, the more degradation of the sound, or in the case of film, the image would result.

The Sausage Machine

Kubrick and one of his visual effects supervisors Douglas Trumbull came up with an alternative. They modified a camera that was original designed for 2 strip Technicolor. This camera allowed for two strips of film to run sandwiched together. Trumbull then created a worm gear driven tracking mount that could repeat a camera movement frame accurately time after time. No computers, there wasn’t one that occupied anything less than a small house at the time, just pure mechanics. They would shoot the farthest forward element, like say the moon bus, on the original negative. They would then save that negative and re-shoot the same moon bus model on a high contrast black and white negative stock using the same synchronized movement. Then, they would develop that high contrast negative, clean up any noise or detail in the image of the model by hand ( think exacto knives and paint ) and it would then be loaded with the original negative on the bottom and this high contrast matte on the top. They would then repeat the moves and photograph the stars. The result was is that every new ‘layer’ photographed was exposed onto the original negative as first generation. Sometimes this was repeated for 3 or 4 more levels. Phew! Have I lost you yet?

Spaceships, bases, etc with windows that contained action.

The first, and most grandiose example of this is when the Orion III ( the Pan Am shuttle ) enters, rather erotically, into the hanger of Space Station 5. The camera tracks backwards revealing windows showing people happily working away at all possible orientations. Again, this would normally be something done with an optical printer. In this shot, there were 4 windows plus the original, that would be 5 generations down. What did Mr, er, director do? Build the model with built in 16mm projectors, and skillfully orient all of the angles of the window scenes to match the orientation of the display of the space station. Again resulting in a pristine first generation 65mm shot. Whenever you see a spaceship with windows, this was how it was done. To make it more a mindbender, these shots were often combined using The Sausage Machine.

Space Station 5

I think you’re beginning to get the sense now how complex these manual effects were, and how much time they took to produce. Of course, with anything complex and mechanical that’s being done for the first time, there would often have to be ‘re-do’s’. Although there are only the low 200’s of special effects shots in 2001, they took ages, and keeping track of what had to be done before something else had to be done took an age too. Again, realize that they didn’t have PC’s to keep track of this. It was all on paper.

Space Station 5 was a model about 7 feet in diameter. The Orion docking scene, wonderfully and poetically cast against The Blue Danube, was the first killer effects shot in the film, and it had to be a doozie. Sausage machine techniques were used to composite the Aries, earth, and Space Station, but, Kubrick ( I’m going to stop apologizing now ) needed the full 3D shots in and around the Space Station 5 model to make the audience believe. Again, no computers. Just the mechanical apparatus invented and BUILT by his special effects supervisors to photograph this largish model. The issue here was that although the model was somewhat large, when you’re flying in and around it you need a huge amount of depth of field ( for the non-camera geeks, depth of field means that stuff farther away is in focus as well as the stuff that’s close up ). To get this depth of field you’ve got to stop your camera iris way down ( this give you more DOP but less light hitting the film) the result, though, is that you need a longer exposure. The Space Station 5 model shots required several seconds per frame for exposure. The result was that these shots took hours, and sometimes days, to photograph a short sequence.

An anecdote I read about this phase of the filmmaking made me smile. The scene of the Orion closing in, head on, to Space Station 5 took a few days to film. After the shot was processed, at one point the model violently shook from right to left. Upon reviewing logs, it was pinpointed that at that time England was in a heated battle with West Germany for the 1966 world cup. Kubrick, wishing to avert a riot, let his staff watch the game on TV as long as they continued to work. At the precise moment of the glitch in the shot is when England scored the winning goal, causing the entire staff in the building to jump up and down.


We first see what spaceflight and lack of gravity is during Floyd’s Orion shuttle flight to the space station. Kubrick handles it brilliantly by first showing us a flight attendant with ‘grip shoes’. After this, as long as someone is walking rather awkwardly, we know that they have grip shoes, and we don’t need any further explanation. The next illustration is the brilliant representation of the pen. It simply and amazingly floats, only to be captured by the doting flight attendant. Apparently Kubrick ( I’m well beyond redemption here ) spent tons of time trying to figure out how to realistically fly the pen. In the end, he stuck it to a sheet of glass that he moved around. Works brilliantly. SPOILERS .. this is one of the shots once you know it you’ll always see it, when the flight attendant ‘picks’ it, you can see her grab it from the disk.

Gravity Plus

The scenes the most amazed, and still amaze, audiences are those famous ones of the flight attendant on the Orion ( space station to moon big round ship ) where she apparently walks in a complete circle upside down. Forget those grip shoes, this is absolutely mind boggling. When I was a kid watching this at the Glendale for the first time I was completely fooled and completely stumped as to how he pulled it off. I’m heartened that people, to this day, say ‘how the hell did he do that’. I’m heartened that Nolan re-used it in Inception. This is really where suspension of disbelief comes in. If you produce a convincing enough image, the audience will accept it unconditionally. Of course, the simple magicians trick is that the flight attendant doesn’t walk upside down, the set turns upside down. Brilliant.

After this showoff-y scene, Kubrick goes one further with the Discovery crew set. One of the most complex and sophisticated sets ever built allows Kubrick to depict with an easy and artistic grace the life aboard Discovery with both gravity and sensory snapping visuals. The scenes of Pool jogging, alternating with close up / down low frontal views and long lensed behind views where Frank seems to be eternally falling. All this had to be lit, too, without anything being obvious. It’s all these small details that are hidden, and we don’t notice them at all, but they are what make us believe.

Lockwood had an interesting story about that first scene where we see the inside of the crew centrifuge. Bowman walks down the ladder at seemingly about 45 degrees from vertical. Pool is sitting about 120 degress counter clockwise to him, at what looks like to the audience as 'down'. In reality, Lockwood is strapped into the couch and almost completely upside down. Kubrick's direction to him is to just eat his pablum. Camera rolls, and Pool takes a bite, except the pablum falls off his fork and shoots straight up missing Bowman by just a few feet. I wish Kubrick had kept outtakes.

Flying on wires

Reading accounts of those involved, and hearing direct accounts of Kier Dullea and Gary Lockwood, lots of shots in 2001 were pure hell. At least Lockwood was a former stunt man and could deal with wire work. Poor Kier didn’t have such a background. A story they related at the recent screening I saw was Kier coming in through the emergency air lock. Poor Kier. It involved being dropped 20 feet on a wire being held by a rodeo clown. The rodeo clown then jumps off the outside of the set hauling Dullea back up to the top. Nightmares are made of things like this.

Slitscan / Stargate

Stargate, wormhole, trippy sequence that hippy acid heads came back for time and again that turned 2001 from a film that the studio was going to pull as a critical and commercial flop to one that exhibitors said ‘ hold on, we’re getting more and more ‘young people’ coming back again and again … it’s filling up.

I remember my 9 year old self being completely disoriented and completely enraptured by this sequence. It wasn’t just trippy visuals, they actually evoked feelings in my tiny brain, feelings that are repeated to this day on viewings. Some of the horizontal sequences make me think of airports, but in a futuristic kinda scary way. I love the false colour planetscapes, especially the turquoise and yellow valley, and the purple and green ocean.

The former stargate sequence was, again, the genius of Douglas Trumbull, and his envisioning of an apparatus to film a very flat bed of artwork with unlimited depth of field by building a device to ‘scan’ the artwork through a moving ‘slit’. Another great, entirely mechanical, gizmo he devised. Emotionally this sequence grips me every time.

The Baby

I don’t know if it’s irony or not, but one of the few surviving props from 2001, one that Kubrick himself kept, was the model of Bowman’s transformation. I saw it at the TIFF Kubrick retrospective. It’s funny how the top of its head comes off so that an operator can manipulate the eyes.

*I just got a chill*

My other musings on 2001

Block or Report

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