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Yesterday's Tomorrow: Harry Lange and the Art of 2001: A Space Odyssey

As Brit astronaut Tim Peake readies himself for a six-month tour of space on the International Space Station, it’s hard not to picture his journey there without thinking of science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. The man to thank for this is a German artist - and NASA futurologist - called Harry Lange. A new book by Christopher Frayling explores the rich legacy of the unsung hero behind the visual aesthetic of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film.

If any man could claim to have imagined the future it would probably be Harry Lange.

Before a long career as an art designer in the film industry, Lange worked as an illustrator for America’s space rocket pioneer, Wernher von Braun. Lange’s job was to imagine proof-of-concept designs for new NASA spacecraft to fulfil America’s dreams of interstellar glory.

This experience of imagining future science brought Lange to the attention of film-maker Stanley Kubrick. The director, after the success of his Dr Strangelove film, was planning a new film in collaboration with science fiction author, Arthur C Clarke.

Kubrick and Clarke wanted to avoid the tacky Hollywood B movie style of space opera characterised by the likes of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. They wanted a serious film that painted a realistic and scientifically accurate vision of space travel.

Lange recalled: "You see, this film was generally not called a science-fiction film, it was called a science-fact film, because we totally – virtually totally – projected space travel to the year 2001, and this nobody had ever done before. The War of the Worlds envisioned it with wonderful creatures, a pure fantasy, and we stayed totally away from all that."

With his NASA experience, Lange was the perfect man for the job. However, he admitted that Kubrick was somewhat blunt in his appraisal of his talents: “He said, 'Well, I can get better illustrations in New York city a dime a dozen, but they don’t have your NASA background... You’ve been around rockets of all shapes and sizes - you know what they look like'."

The project they planned together would ultimately become 2001: A Space Odyssey - the film that would indelibly inform how later generations would imagine what future space travel would look like. The strength and longevity of Lange’s legacy is evident in virtually every subsequent film that aims to capture space travel.

From Star Wars (Lange worked as art director on two of the original George Lucas films) through to the Alien films, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Ridley Scott’s The Martian, Lange’s cold, minimalist, and scientifically-sound aesthetic has become the film industry’s lingua franca for depicting space travel and futurism.

BBC Arts

14 Dec, 2015

Editorial