2001: A Space Odyssey – Review by Robert O’Meara [Screen]

These are four key scenes from the main sections of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that can be considered, with some reservations, a cinematic milestone in both the technical achievement and in its aesthetic exposition.

by Robert O’Meara

In a semi-arid wasteland, a man-ape discovers for the first time that he can destroy things with a bone — it is the Dawn of Man. In Clavius Base on the moon, a tall black monolith suddenly emits an ear-piercing sound — it is man’s first communication with extra-terrestrial life. On the spaceship Discovery a humanized computer lip-reads his rebellious astronauts’ plans to disconnect him — it is man’s first mission to Jupiter. Finally an astronaut enters the star-gate and travels through infinite corridors of lights, through galactic explosions and over multi-coloured terrain of worlds yet to be born — it is man’s first trip beyond infinity and into immortality. These are four key scenes from the main sections of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that can be considered, with some reservations, a cinematic milestone in both the technical achievement and in its aesthetic exposition.

The specialized and somewhat unique production techniques used in the filming of 2001 were outlined in a series of articles published in a recent edition of American Cinematographer (June 1968). This magazine appears to have a very small distribution in this country. I thought it would be of value for the readers of Screen to present a digest of the material in these articles.

The first striking thing about the film is the sharp grain-free quality of its photography despite the fact that more than half of the shots are ‘dupes’. In this kind of film which involves photographing miniature space models moving against stellar backgrounds and astronauts moving in and around their spaceships, it is necessary to duplicate and overlay the various backgrounds and foregrounds. Normally, the end result has the poor quality of a second generation print, i.e. a print made from a duplicate negative which in turn comes from a master positive which in turn comes from the original negative. Kubrick avoided this problem in two ways.

First he uses Technicolor’s duplicating process. Instead of getting a colour print from an intermediate duplicate, he uses three-colour Separation masters. Three separate strips of film each carrying one of the primary colours (blue, red and green) positive from the original negative are used as ‘masters’ to dye-print the final positive and thus, by using a physical printing process and not a chemical emulsion, there is no photographic grain.

Secondly, in many scenes Kubrick photographs the various elements in a scene on to the same original negative. Take, for example, a scene involving the fly-by of a spaceship with the miniature projection of the interior action visible through the window. Instead of photographing the spaceship on one negative and the small projected image on another and combining them on a third to get a composite image, Kubrick first photographs the movement of the spaceship with the window area blacked out. Then he rewinds the same original negative to its original frame, photographs the movement again, this time with the spaceship draped in black velvet and the interior action front-projected on to a glossy white card that exactly fits the window area. In other words, it is a method of photographing an element in a scene, making a number of exactly reproduced takes, developing one take to check for colour and movement and holding the other takes until the other elements in the scene are ready to be photographed. Only when all the elements are photographed is the ‘held Negative’ developed to produce a first-generation sharp grain-free print. This method of multiple-repeat-takes and held-negative necessitates identical camera movement for each take for each element and for each element in each scene. This is made possible through a specially constructed camera animating device with a heavy 20-foot worm-gear which enables the camera to be moved in any direction with precise accuracy and with its various functions synchronized by selsyn motors.

Two interesting problems arise. One is the problem of keeping track of the held-negatives since different elements of a scene may be photographed months apart. The other is the problem of exposure. Since all the elements are being photographed on to the same strip of negative, exposures have to be precisely balanced for, if one exposure is wrong during the filming of one element, there is no way of correcting it without ruining the other previously photographed elements.

2001 is the first film to make an extensive use of the technique of front projection. Normally, to reproduce the spectacular landscape backgrounds against which the man-apes move in the Dawn of Man sequence, painted backdrops or back-projection methods would be used. Neither of these gives the illusion of reality which Kubrick wanted to capture. Shooting on location in south-west Africa was out of the question because they would be at the mercy of the weather. Hence, Kubrick decided to use a front-projection technique. This involved the projecting of large transparencies, or king-size slides, against which the apes acted. The largest format to date was a 4 X 5 inch Ektachrome transparency. Kubrick found this was not adequate to get a sharp, clear reproduction of the background image. Lighting the foreground subjects would degrade the quality of the background. He decided on 8 X 10 inch transparencies and since there was no projector to handle this size, he built his own with a water-cooled arc so strong that he had to use slides of heat-resistant glass in order to prevent heat from peeling the emulsion off the transparency. He set the projector at right angles to the camera, also placing a 36-inch wide partially silvered mirror at about 8 inches in front of the camera lens at a 45 degree angle. The image was then projected on to the mirror and, hence, bounced on to a large screen. The camera would photograph this image through the mirror with a precise micrometric alignment of camera and projector to prevent ‘fringing’. The screen on to which the image was projected was coated with tiny mirrored beads of glass with the incredible capacity of reflecting 100 times the amount of light projected on to it. This light surplus permitted the lighting of the foreground subjects without degrading the quality of the background and, hence, producing scenes of remarkable verisimilitude. As you watch the Dawn of Man sequence, you really get the impression that it was photographed on location in south-west Africa.

The filming of the outer space scenes was a laborious painstaking operation especially with regard to obtaining proper exposure. Out of a concern for sharp photographic quality Kubrick wanted a maximum depth of field. This meant he had to work with a very small lens opening. But, as he also wanted to preserve the realistic lighting of space which consists of ‘a single bright point light source’, he could not simply increase the lighting. Therefore, he had to work at a very slow frame rate, sometimes as long as four seconds per frame. This meant that all the movements of the miniature models had to be geared down to an almost imperceptible speed. In this way he was able to photograph accurately and give the illusion of normal speed once the movements were on film. In passing it might be interesting to note the lighting in 2001 was an integral part of the set with additional lighting used only in certain close-ups.

The problem of producing the illusion of weightlessness was solved in a simple but ingenious way. Kubrick was determined not to let any of the wires supporting the astronauts show. He draped the ceiling of the entire stage in black velvet and mounted the camera vertically so that he could photograph the astronauts from below. This way no matter how much or in which way they moved, the astronauts would hide the wires with their own bodies. Hence, what appears on screen to have been shot in the usual horizontal position was, in fact, shot vertically.

The most fascinating set in 2001 is the giant centrifuge that serves as the main compartment for the astronauts on the spaceship Discovery. Built by the Vickers-Armstrong Engineering Group at a cost of §750,000, it was 38 feet in diameter, 10 feet in width with a rotation speed of up to three miles an hour. Two types of camera set-ups were used for the sequences in the centrifuge. One was mounted stationary to the set so that it rotated in a 360-degree arc along with the centrifuge. Such a set-up gives the appearance on the screen that the camera is standing still while the astronaut walks away from it, up the wall, around the top and down the other side.

The second set-up was a mobile camera mounted on a small dolly which stayed with the astronaut at the bottom while the whole set moved past him. It was necessary to position this camera about 20 feet up the wall keeping it in position with a steel cable from the outside that connected the camera through a slot in the centre of the floor running round the entire centrifuge. This slot was concealed by rubber mats which fell back into place as soon as the cable passed them. The action was directed by Kubrick from outside watching a closed-circuit monitor which relayed a picture from a closed-circuit vidicon camera mounted next to the film camera.

In an interview published in the Australian Film Guide (Vol. 1, No. 12) Stanley Kubrick said he didn’t like to talk very much about 2001 because it is essentially a non-verbal experience which is meant to be grasped at the sub-conscious level of feelings rather than at the conscious level of intelligence. 2001 was meant as a film that would break the convention of verbal experience and establish the pre-eminence of the visual experience.

Since less than half the film has any dialogue and as even this dialogue is far from giving any adequate explanatory information of what’s going on, Kubrick is justified. This is especially evident in the opening prologue of the Dawn of Man and in the final sequence of the astronaut’s galactic trip through the universe into immortality. Here we are presented only with images and sound effects. In Marshall McLuhan’s jargon, the structural form of this film is cool, i.e. there is a small amount of factual data presented. This elicits a greater participation on the part of the viewer who is called upon to fill in the mosaic presented to him.

Rather than absorb and attempt to fit the image and effects into a coherent pattern, the esoteric images and effects might bounce off the viewer so that the film fails to accomplish what it set out to do — namely, elicit participation on the part of the audience. I would think that the prologue in 2001 is an example of a mosaic of image and sound which does work on the viewer. He can absorb the elements and be able to figure out that here the film is talking about the emergence of man and the paradox that his first creative act is the weapon, an implement of destruction. On the other hand the final sequence in the film where the astronaut suddenly ages until he seems to be reborn again is perhaps too esoteric. This is possibly a case where image and sound bounces off the viewer.

Kubrick’s use of music is different from what one would normally get in a space film. Instead of the usual quick tempo, rapid beating music to give the feeling of high speed travel, the very unusual Blue Danube waltz is used to accompany the images of the space vehicles floating in outer space. Since in space one doesn’t have any immediate stationary environment to compare one’s speed with, the sensation of travelling through space is probably very slow and calm — like the slow calm pace of the waltz. Hence, the film’s use of the Blue Danube is very appropriate.

Interesting also is the change in the music at the end. During the film, the astronauts are more or less in familiar territory — hence, the familiarity of the waltz. But at the end the familiarity of ordinary space flight gives way to a trans­human journey into another space-time dimension and, hence, the Blue Danube gives way “to the strange dissonant sounds of electronic music. In the very last scene when the star-child appears over Mother Earth, the first man to be reborn again, the first man to achieve immortality is heralded with the opening chords of Richard Strauss’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra with all the connotations of the New Superman. In the traditional space film one finds the formula of (1) discovery of IT from outer space, (2) IT is a destructive monster that must be destroyed, (3) how can IT be destroyed, (4) the successful destruction of IT and (5) man returns to his womb Mother Earth safe and sound. In 2001 there is the discovery of IT, but IT is not a monster. Rather IT is something vague — like pure energy or an integrated immortal consciousness (or perhaps even GOD). IT is not destructive — rather destruction lies in man himself and in his own creations, whether it be the man-ape’s bone or the astronaut’s computer. Man doesn’t try to destroy IT — rather he tries to communicate with IT. In the end IT is the victor who has tempted man away from his womb on Earth and into trans-human experience.

Thematically, 2001 is about many things. On the lowest level there is the narrative itself as Kubrick sees it. An artifact is left on earth by extraterrestrial explorers some 5,000,000 years ago. Another one is left on the moon so that it can signal man’s first steps into the universe. Another is placed in the orbit of Jupiter as a relay. Once he has reached Jupiter the astronaut is swept through the star-gate and into another space-time dimension in another galaxy. In the end of his journey he dies but is reborn again and comes back to earth as a star-child as the first man to achieve immortality, as a superman.

However, on other levels, it means anything anybody is feeling about it and according to Kubrick-it seems to be some kind of scientific biblical odyssey. The tall black monolith emitting its energy signals is a kind of prophetic sign telling man about extraterrestrial life leading his attention away from earth and into the heavens. Man follows this sign until it brings him into contact with extra-terrestrial existence whose form is beyond comprehension — perhaps it is a sort of integrated immortal cosmic consciousness. We end up then according to Kubrick with perhaps a completely scientific definition of God.

Contact with this cosmic consciousness gives him a kind of immortality since he becomes part of it. This seems very much related to the recent interest of the West in Eastern thought and religion. Here the emphasis is on the fact that all is one, that we are part of everything, that God is a sort of cosmic consciousness; here the wise man is like a newborn child:

‘He goes without knowing where he is going and stops without knowing what he is doing. He merges himself with the surrounding and moves along with it’ (Chuang-tzu). Is this not the image of the astronaut in 2001 in his final trip through the universe?

In the original script, Arthur Clark, co-author of the screenplay of 2001, described the ape-man’s sensation as realizing for the first time that he could smash things with a bone. ‘Now he was a master of the world, and he was not quite sure what to do next. But he would think of something.’ At the end of the script a similar sensation is felt by the star-child; having detonated the circling megaton weapons by putting forth his will, ‘he waited, marshalling his thoughts, and brooding over his still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next. But he would think of something’.

2001 relates to Kubrick’s film Dr. Stranglove with its concern for the survival of the human race in an age threatened by nuclear annihilation. Perhaps interest in space exploration will be a way of venting human energy and a way out of our present stalemate. Confronted by an infinite universe to be explored and understood, men will perhaps see their earth problems as being very petty indeed and not worth fighting about.

The paradox posed in the Dawn of Man episode is that man’s first intelligent creative act was the weapon, an implement of destruction. At first he casually tosses the bone back and forth. Then he begins to smash the animal skeleton with all his might. This is photographed in slow motion forcing us to dwell on his sense of power. There is then a series of shots also in slow motion showing skeletons being smashed to pieces. In short, intelligence seems intimately related in its very beginning to destruction. Today man’s finest intelligent creations are also the most destructive weapons in history. What is the conclusion then if man equals intelligence and intelligence equals destruction? Will man survive his own creations? This is what 2001 seems to be asking.

Related to this are the creations of man which at first seem to serve him but then often end up enslaving him. This is especially so in reference to the computer in 2001. Man creates HAL 9000, an almost human computer to guide him on his mission to Jupiter. But the computer revolts, kills the astronauts and takes over the ship. Only after a nerve-racking battle does man overcome his own creation. This is one of the first films where empathy with machines is evoked. They are almost human beings. This is especially so in the series of shots showing the space pod with the astronaut in its arms begging the mother-ship to let her in to safety.

Robert O’Meara is an Assistant Editor at Samaritan Films.

Published in Screen, Vol 10 # 1, January/February 1969


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