Here’s the thing about the making of 2001, a Space Odyssey that made it a giant leap for sci-fi filmmaking-kind: The entire film was done in analog format. To be clear, that’s zero digital effects. CGI didn’t exist in 1965 and the closest you could get was to animate — cartoon — a ray gun burst or a UFO flying into the ether, but what you most often got was hokey models on strings.
Models on strings. And there is one in 2001, which took ages to get just right. In an early scene with passengers taking the Pan Am space shuttle up to the international cosmopolitan space station, complete with stylish stewardess in branded pant suits, Kubrick wanted to have a bit of fun with the concept of weightlessness.
As the stew makes her way down the aisle, stepping in gravity-hugging booties, she spots a writing pen that’s floated up and away from an executive who’s drifting off, himself. She gently catches it and places it back in his shirt pocket. The whole scene takes just seconds to unspool but took days to get right. Kubrick would not tolerate a jerkily hung pen, so simulating weightlessness with one experiment after another was tried until they finally settled on gluing the pen to a large sheet of plate glass, which because of its size, moved much more languidly at the end of a fishing pole line. As a result, we are actually watching that scene through an immaculately clean floating window. And that hassle was easily the simplest trick in the film.
That rotating interior, the centrifuge, where Dave and Frank spent much of their time? One of the largest indoor builds ever attempted, lit with tens of thousands of watts and 17 different cameras painstakingly mounted on gimbals attached to this huge rotating drum, strictly for projecting simulated Doug Trumball’s graphic computer images onto all the built-in screens on the walls and tables. Incredibly expensive, incredibly difficult, taking months to get right. And after the final edit? Featured for about a 80 seconds of actual rotation.
The 18-month pre-to-post production of the opening story of the apes, from location shooting to the intricate, stifling detail of the evolving costumes. The dozens of renditions of the monolith. The dance of the explosive bolt re-entry scene. The insane multi-location production of Dave’s 4th dimension journey to Jupiter.
But Kubrick had a secret weapon, which was a sort of creative equation used to this day: His credibility as the money-making director of Paths of Glory, Lolita and Dr. Strangelove + His personal relationship with the head of MGM, the movie studio honcho, from whom he extracted total creative freedom and autonomy on one of the most expensive films ever made at the time + a brilliant vision of re-inventing the sci-fi genre by creating a film filled with believable images of the future, when possible, OR — and this was key — leaving the most mind-blowing image — that of a god-class civilization of aliens taking us for a ride and toying with our existence — to the VIEWER’S imagination.
Obvious, right? Nah-uh. The whole production team struggled with creating just such credible alien lifeforms for the entire 4-year duration of the production, developing hundreds of drawings and models, only to ultimately realize that nothing could touch the human power of visualization — and just as importantly, mystery — that showing no vision would create.
Brilliance by default. Not to mention a stunner of an ending that the book’s author, Arthur C. Clarke discussed, saying “If anyone understands it on the first viewing, we’ve failed in our intention.” Which was exactly what happened in the first crucial screenings before the media started to figure it out.
How’s that for a giant pair?