Meanings: Special Effects
Effects of "2001: A Space Odyssey"
By George D. DeMet
Originallly published in DFX, July 1999
More than thirty
years after its initial release, Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space
Odyssey" still inspires those who see it. Like a piece of fine art
or a classical symphony, its appeal has only grown over time. A
strikingly unique film, it captivated a generation of young people
in the late 1960s, who accepted its visual message with religious
fervor. Initially rebuffed by leading film critics, "2001" is today
considered one of cinema's greatest masterpieces.
An epic story
spanning both time and space, "2001" begins four million years ago,
in a prehistoric African savanna, where mankind's distant ancestors
must learn how to use the first tools in order to survive. The film
cuts to the technological utopia of the early 21st century, where
life in outer space is an everyday reality. The story then takes
us to the first manned space mission to Jupiter, which consists
of two human astronauts and a super-intelligent computer named HAL.
The final segment of the film contains a fantastical 23-minute light
show of special effects and a mystifying conclusion designed to
make its audience question themselves and the world around them.
Kubrick, who is also known for films such as "Dr. Strangelove",
"A Clockwork Orange", and "Barry Lyndon", first approached science
fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke in early 1964 to collaborate on
what both hoped would be "the proverbial good science fiction film".
They spent a year working out the story, and Kubrick began pre-production
in the mid-1965.
On the recommendation
of Clarke, Kubrick hired spacecraft consultants Frederick Ordway
and Harry Lange, who had assisted some of the major contractors
in the aerospace industry and NASA with developing advanced space
vehicle concepts, as technical advisors on the film. Ordway was
able to convince dozens of aerospace giants such as IBM, Honeywell,
Boeing, General Dynamics, Grumman, Bell Telephone, and General Electric
that participating in the production of "2001" would generate good
publicity for them. Many companies provided copious amounts of documentation
and hardware prototypes free of charge in return for "product placements"
in the completed film. They believed that the film would serve as
a big-screen advertisement for space technology and were more than
willing to help out Kubrick's crew in any way possible. Lange was
responsible for designing much of the hardware seen in the film.
of the production design, down to the most insignificant element,
was designed with technological and scientific accuracy in mind.
Senior NASA Apollo administrator George Mueller and astronaut Deke
Slayton are said to have dubbed "2001's" Borehamwood, England production
facilities "NASA East" after seeing all of the hardware and documentation
lying around the studio. Even today, most audiences and critics
still find "2001's" props and spaceships more convincing than those
in many more recent science fiction movies. While earlier science
fiction films had aimed for a streamlined "futuristic" look, "2001's"
production design was intended to be as technically credible as
designer Anthony Masters was responsible for making Harry Lange's
design concepts a reality. More than a hundred modelmakers assisted
him and the other members of the art crew in this task. For greater
authenticity, production of many of the film's props, such as spacesuits
and instrument panels, was outsourced to various aerospace and engineering
companies. Everything had to meet with Kubrick's approval before
it could be used in the film.
perfectionism was evident when it came to designing the mysterious
alien monolith, which appears at various points throughout the film.
Originally envisioned as a tetrahedron, none of the models were
impressive enough. Kubrick then commissioned a British company to
manufacture a three-ton block of transparent lucite, which also
lacked the necessary visual impact. The black slab finally used
was constructed out of wood and sanded with graphite for a completely
It was not
unusual for the crew to go to great lengths to create the film's
unique sets. The film's' most impressive set is that of the interior
of the spaceship Discovery. To compensate for the weightlessness
of outer space, the ship's crew compartment was envisioned as a
centrifuge that would simulate gravity through the centripetal force
generated by its rotation. A 30-ton rotating "ferris wheel" set
was built by Vickers-Armstrong Engineering Group, a British aircraft
company at a cost of $750,000. The set was 38 feet in diameter and
10 feet wide. It could rotate at a maximum speed of three miles
per hour, and was dressed with the necessary chairs, desks, and
control panels, all firmly bolted to the inside surface. The actors
could stand at the bottom and walk in place, while the set rotated
around them. Kubrick used an early video feed to direct the action
from a control room, while the camera operator sat in a gimbaled
effects team was supervised by Kubrick himself, and included Con
Pederson, Wally Veevers, and Douglas Trumbull, who went on to create
effects for other science fiction movies such as "Close Encounters
of the Third Kind" and "Blade Runner". Work on the film's 200+ effects
scenes had begun even while Kubrick and Clarke were working out
the script; Kubrick had used a reel of experimental effects shot
in an abandoned New York corset factory to help "sell" the film
to studio executives. Kubrick's crew hoped to set a new standard
for quality in visual effects. As Kubrick put it, "I felt it was
necessary to make this film in such a way that every special effects
shot in it would be completely convincing - something that had never
before been accomplished in a motion picture."
one of the first films to make extensive use of front projection,
a technique where photography is projected from the front of the
set onto a reflective surface. The prehistoric Africa scenes were
actually filmed in the Borehamwood studio, with second unit photography
projected onto a screen behind the actors measuring 40 feet by 90
feet to provide the illusion of an outdoor scene. Front projection
was also used for some of the film's outer space effects scenes.
The more traditional technique of rear projection was reserved mainly
for the many video displays and computer monitors that appeared
in the film.
of the visual effects techniques used in "2001" had been used before,
there was one sequence that broke new technical and artistic ground.
The "Star Gate" seen in the final segment of the film, where a stream
of whirling lights colors streamed around amazed theater audiences,
was created using a "Slit Scan" machine developed by Douglas Trumbull,
which allowed the filming of two seemingly infinite planes of exposure.
Additional effects for the sequence were created applying different
colored filters to aerial landscape footage and filming interacting
were achieved through a combination of creative camerawork, hard
work, and dedication. To make a stray pen "float" in a weightless
environment, it was attached to a rotating glass disk. The illusion
of astronauts floating in space was created by hanging stunt performers
upside down with wires from the ceiling of the studio, often for
hours at a time.
of "2001's" effects, which were all done without the benefits of
computer technology, are nothing less than amazing. Kubrick held
his crew to the highest standards to insure that the film's effects
were designed to be as realistic-looking as possible. To insure
that every element of an effects scene was as sharp and clear as
a single-generation image, he ruled out the use of many techniques
that would have been much faster and less expensive. $6.5 million
of his $10.5 million budget ended up going toward effects alone,
and it was nearly two years after the end of principal photography
that film was finally finished.
first saw "2001" in the spring of 1968, many were baffled. The film
lacked a traditional plot structure, contained almost no dialogue,
and had an ending that many found confusing. Leading film critics,
like Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, panned the film, arguing that
Kubrick had sacrificed plot and meaning for visual effects and technology.
Young audiences soon discovered the film, however, and it became
a huge commercial success. The glowing reviews of many younger critics
prompted many of the film's detractors to give it a second chance,
and some even retracted their earlier reviews. Articles and books
were written, all containing different interpretations of just what
the film's message was. Many agreed that with Stanley Kubrick's
suggestion that as a visual masterpiece, "2001" is intensely subjective
and cannot be objectively explained, much like one cannot "explain"
Beethoven's Ninth or Leonardo's La Gioconda. The film inspired
many, who have said they became filmmakers, engineers, or scientists
as a result of seeing "2001".
"2001" continues to be a part of people's lives. Films and television
commercials consciously evoke its imagery, countless fans post their
thoughts about it on the Internet, and articles like this one continue
to be written about it. It
is a testament to the genius and dedication of Kubrick and his crew
that the future they so meticulously constructed still looks so
appreciation is given to the following sources used in preparation for this article:
ed. The Making of Kubrick's 2001. New York: New American
2001: Filming the Future. London: Aurum Press, 1994.
"Filming 2001: A Space Odyssey". American Cinematographer,
vol 49, no 6.