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The Shape Of Things To Come

By Kevin H. Martin

Sir Christopher Frayling’s extensive illustrated volume, The 2001 File: Harry Lange and the Design of the Landmark Science Fiction Film (Reel Art Press, 2015), documents the design evolution for all manner of vessel and future construct in Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking space film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Frayling, author of Ken Adam Designs the Movies: James Bond and Beyond and Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death, begins his book by detailing Adam’s brief involvement at the start of the project (the designer later would spend a short stretch involved in an unsuccessful attempt by Phil Kaufman to make the first Star Trek feature). Adam had previously created Dr. Strangelove’s startling, yet iconic war room for Kubrick, and seemed a natural choice to tackle the director’s new film. Commitments to Agent 007, however, plus the unavailability of any script, quickly made his involvement impossible.

It was Tony Masters (and later Ernest Archer) who was hired as art director on the film, until Kubrick’s interest in the realities of spaceflight led to Harry Lange, who became the film’s third art director. Lange and Frederick Ordway, the film’s chief scientific advisor, became involved through association with novelist/scenarist Arthur C. Clarke, Kubrick’s writing partner on the film, and the collective became largely responsible for the technological veracity of designs that feature so prominently throughout the film.

The first section of The 2001 File recounts the film’s production, a fascinating history with input from sources new and old. Excerpts from Clarke’s little-known The Lost Worlds of 2001 provide a timeline for the lengthy production—writing began in 1964, production wrapped by the end of 1965, and the film debuted in 1968. Interviews with Lange, Ordway and model builder David Watkins also provide new data on processes employed to fabricate various spacecraft, all while maintaining Kubrick’s notoriously exacting standards.

A few legends surrounding the film are also laid to rest, such as why the HAL 9000 computer’s acronym-moniker happens to be exactly one letter ahead of IBM—just one of many films making major contributions for the sake of early product placement. Indeed, Lange aided in dealings with various organizations that included Boeing, General Electric and Honeywell.

Others books chronicling the making of 2001 have focused on specific elements: either the writing, the logistics of production or the years spent devising and implementing visual effects that rarely have been rivaled. What differentiates this book from the rest is “The Harry Lange Archive,” consisting of artwork—most of which has never been seen—that makes up the bulk of its 336 pages. Lange’s work is divided into dedicated sections about his pre-film art, 2001’s near-Earth sequences and lunar sequences, and, finally, aboard Discovery One en route to Jupiter.

Interestingly, Lange’s designs for Discovery One reveal an initial squattier-shaped spaceship before expanding its proportions for widescreen capture (conceptual artist Syd Mead went through a similar design evolution two decades later on Aliens when illustrating Sulaco, that film’s hero vessel). This lengthier redesign also incorporated genuine science-in-space principles, justifying the need to keep crewmembers well isolated from potential drive-system dangers located astern.

The book flows with simple designs before revealing increasingly more elaborate renderings, work depicting how astronauts would move between various interiors—artwork including the hamster-wheel-style centrifuge set and ship’s pod bay, plus numerous unused illustrations of chairs that might plausibly be used in spaceflight, some of which still look striking today. These extensive designs suggest a progression retaining a NASA/near-future extrapolation while staying in sync with Kubrick’s cinematic vision.

Many of these illustrations, ranging from thumbnails to full-blown color artwork, feature annotations in Kubrick’s own hand that reveal the director’s monumental attention to detail and technical accuracy. Similarly, decades later, Steven Spielberg chose to conform Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs to established behavioral patterns as determined by paleontologists, perhaps inspired by Lange and Kubrick’s commitment to verisimilitude.

The 2001 File also reveals a number of intriguing facts, such as Lange trying his hand at different looks for the alien monolith before Kubrick chose to go with the plain black slab. But the designer’s talent clearly lies in extrapolating the possible, then turning that extrapolation into a scientifically credible—and cinematically workable—concept for Kubrick.

Lamentably, a plan to put the film’s models on display in Washington, D.C.—even, apparently, the 50-foot-plus designed Discovery—was cancelled by Kubrick after lengthy preparations by Ordway. As a result, nearly all miniatures wound up being lost or discarded. Remains of the 8-foot space station were photographed in a field years later and, miraculously, a near-intact Aries-1B model also turned up in a garage

Clearly, Lange’s work helped 2001 achieve a credibility level that has stood up in cinematic history for half a century. It also served as a point of departure for many who followed in Kubrick’s wake.

Doug Trumbull, one of the film’s VFX supervisors, made his directorial debut with Silent Running, and admitted his film was a conscious reaction to 2001’s packaged look. George Lucas used the 2001 interiors as a kind of jumping-off point for Star Wars. It was as if his ships were the same vessels, seen again after centuries of wear and tear. The film emerged as a kind of synthesis of Silent Running and 2001, as did Ridley Scott’s Alien (for which Ordway declined involvement; by way of contrast, Lange remained active in the film industry, most notably with The Empire Strikes Back after aiding Ken Adam with his final Bond film Moonraker).

With a hefty $75 price tag, The 2001 File shouldn’t be dismissed as mere pages for Kubrick aficionados. This is a comprehensive book unveiling extensive designs behind one of the most influential films in cinematic history, detailed analysis that will serve to impact filmmakers for generations to come.

Meanwhile, with new versions of Star Trek, Lost in Space and Galaxy Quest in development, it may not prove surprising to spot some variations on Lange’s snazzy unused chair designs turn up on screens in the not-too-distant future.

HD Video Pro

08 Feb, 2016

Kevin H. Martin