Designing the Future – The production design of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Posted on September 28, 2010


On my tenth birthday I had a friend come to stay for a sleepover. One of the things we were planning to do was to stay up and watch a movie (or a video as we called them back then.) My mum took us to the video shop (for those of you too young to remember, this is a place where you could hire films on VHS for an evening) where, on the squeaking, spinning racks, I discovered Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. From the blurb on the back it sounded reasonable enough, but it was the stills from the film that caught my imagination. It looked, to my ten year old eyes, the very definition of what a science fiction film should look like. Despite my mother asking me if I was sure and in spite of the half-hearted protest from my friend, I was insistent. This was the film I wanted to see.

"Read my lips, no more HAL."

When we were finally ready to watch the film, we slipped it into the top-loading video-recorder and sat back to watch what I think we both felt might be another Star Wars. The incredible symmetry of the opening shot of the Moon, Earth and Sun in perfect alignment, built up the anticipation. Then…

We watched the Dawn Of Man in silence. This really wasn’t the film either of us were expecting it to be. It was measured and quiet. It wasn’t the pace or the volume either of us were used to. Long, lingering wide shots of African expanses. Rough haired apes fighting for water. My friend became agitated. Wasn’t this a sci-fi film? Where were all the spaceships? I wasn’t sure either, but still, I was fascinated. I watched a story unfold in pictures, the way a great film should. Rather than the fidgety boredom of my friend, I was becoming entranced. Of course, I didn’t know it then, but I was about to have my World changed forever.

The World's best infinity pool at sunset.

The Monolith, framed against the sky, the crescent of the Moon and the Sun, was striking and unsettling. With that image, I immediately realised the power of framing a shot so precisely. By the time Moonwatcher threw his bone into the air and Kubrick’s legendary match cut turned it into an orbiting spaceship, I was sold on the power of film-making in a way I had never understood before. For a ten year old, the suddenness of that crashing change was certainly a moment of confusion – I won’t pretend that I instantly grasped it, all I knew was the way it made me feel. If the purpose of art is to challenge us and to make us think, for me, this one cut achieved that purpose. I suddenly realised I was no longer watching a science fiction film. I was watching art.

The infamous 2001 match cut.

Which brings me neatly onto the subject of the design of this film. There have been many films whose production design have effected me profoundly over the years. Star Wars, Dr. No, Bladerunner and Alien have all left their indelible mark on my mind, however, 2001 has to be the first film where I was acutely conscious of the design. When I watched Thunderball or The Empire Strikes Back, I was aware of the design, but it was a part of the overall ethic. It was a synergy of narrative and environment. With 2001, the design was entirely its own entity.

HAL turns murderous in one of the most suspenseful sequences in cinema.

Perhaps this comes down to Kubrick’s astonishing attention to detail. As I’m sure many of you know, Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke decided to write the story together. It was Kubrick’s wish to create the “proverbial good science fiction film” and so, in order to do this, he approached the proverbial good science fiction writer to help with the story. Kubrick and Clarke were originally to write the screenplay and novel simultaneously and respectively, however, due to the constraints of the film business, they ended up essentially collaborating on both.

Kubrick was a perfectionist, of this there is little doubt, so it speaks volumes that he deferred to Clarke on so many aspects of the story. It was on the recommendation of Clarke that Kubrick hired spacecraft consultants Frederick Ordway and Harry Lange, who had worked with NASA in developing advanced space vehicle concepts. It would be these two, rather than a conventional production designer, who would be responsible for conceiving the technological world of 2001. It would be down to production designer Anthony Masters and art director Ernest Archer to make their design concepts a reality.

Production sketches accurately reproduced from the originals by Simon Atkinson.

Kubrick and his designers were obsessed with detail and accuracy. Every single detail of the production design, right down to the seemingly most insignificant aspects, were to be designed with technological and scientific accuracy in mind. Frederick Ordway notes that in designing the spacecraft

“We insisted on knowing the purpose and functioning of each assembly and component, down to the logical labeling of individual buttons and the presentation on screens of plausible operating, diagnostic and other data.”

Indeed, NASA administrator George Mueller and astronaut Deke Slayton are said to have dubbed 2001’s production facilities “NASA East” due to the level of accuracy in the designs and the amount of scientific hardware at the studio.

The intention was to create as accurate a depiction of the future as was possible at the time. Whilst many of these visions of the future have not come to pass (amongst the most obvious being inter-planetary space travel, AI computers and moon bases) a great deal of the technological advances have. At one point Bowman, an astronaut on the Discovery, uses a flat screen tablet device, not entirely dissimilar to an iPad. We’ve all seen in-flight entertainment TV monitors in the back of headrests. In 1968 this was completely unachievable, but, perhaps due to the influence of 2001, today it is commonplace.

"Yeah, but it's only got one USB port!"

HAL beats Poole at chess. At the time, computers beating humans at chess was still far off in the future.

However, put aside all the technical accuracies for one moment and look at the design purely from an aesthetic perspective. The design might be adhering to accuracy, but it also just looks so damn cool. The graphic displays on HAL’s screens use muted tones and bold typefaces, so redolent of the period.

Perhaps it is this that I love so much about 2001. The Discovery and HAL are a product not of 2001 the year, but of the 1960’s. With all that stark white accented with reds and burn orange, how could it not be? 2001 is a look to the future from our past – an ambitious and hopeful vision that we now look back upon fondly. Because 2001‘s vision of the future is inescapably influenced by the period, what we end up with is a kind of retro-futurism. It’s the same aesthetic you get when looking at the Bond films or something like Bladerunner. It’s a nostalgia for how we used to view our future.

"I'm sick of primary colours, HAL."

Another thing that 2001 brings is a sense of wonder and unreality. The way the floor arcs away into the distance in Space Station 5. The  way the flight attendant walks through 180º or the centrifuge sequence when Bowman climbs down a ladder, walks around the wall to sit with a seated Poole above us are initially mind-bending.

One second later, she was covered in the vegetarian special meal.

All of these moments that are routed in the physics of space, but seem so magical. And, indeed, they are magic, if you believe that magic is illusion. For Kubrick pulls off the greatest magic tricks in this film, completely selling the illusion of zero gravity or space travel by simple camera tricks.

Centrifuge shot explained.

Stewardess shot explained.

The centrifuge sequence was achieved by creating a massive, spinning set, the same way Christopher Nolan achieved the corridor fight in Inception. Kubrick was able to achieve the illusion of zero gravity by clever use of camera angles and wire work.

The Beyond The Infinite Stargate sequence, where Bowman passes through into a new stage of human evolution and development, was achieved by slit scan photography and, for the forming nebulae image,s filming coloured water as it was dropped into a tank. What is interesting to me is that, at the time, it was this sequence that the film seemed to be drawing so much attention. Indeed, the tagline for the film was “The Ultimate Trip” in order to bring in a counter-culture audience. However, it is not the Stargate that blew my mind, but the design of the rest of the film, and it is the production design of the Discovery, for example, that has remained in the public consciousness.

The infamous Stargate sequence.

Finally, after our trip through the Stargate, we are confronted with Bowman’s transformation in a stark, white classical room, with a brightly lit floor. In this room, time and space seem to warp. Bowman ages and sees himself. The furniture, the pod and the Monolith itself seem so incongruous in this space, but it also seems so powerful and somehow it all works.

Interestingly, the design of 2001 has often been referenced in bars and restaurants. See Phillipe Starck’s Hudson Bar in the Hudson Hotel, or Sydney’s Orbit Bar, for example.

Side by side comparison between the Hudson Hotel and 2001.

Side by side comparison between the Orbit Bar and 2001.

Unfortunately, many of the original drawings and models were destroyed at the end of filming. However, back in 2001 (the year,) I was fortunate enough to visit an exhibit of what did remain, including models and production sketches, as well as the original helmet worn by Keir Dullea and the Star Child model. Some of these sketches in the exhibit were original production illustrations from designer Harry Lange, whilst others were recreations by artist Simon Atkinson who managed to painstakingly recreate them from video stills for the book 2001: Filming the Future, by Piers Bizony. A fantastic book, by the way. I lent my copy to a designer friend of mine some years ago. If you’re reading this, Kevin, I’d like it back.

The stunning and precisely detailed recreations of the Discovery pods by Simon Atkinson.

Side view of the pod.

For those of you, like me, that find you have a soft spot for the production design, or if you’d prefer your computer to be more like HAL, but without all the homicidal tendencies, why not install the HAL 9000 project‘s screensaver, as I did. A recreation of the graphic displays on HAL’s monitors, it is incredibly accurate and looks absolutely beautiful.

2001 continues to be a strong influence not only upon myself, but new and emerging technology and design. Its influence can continue to be felt in many science fiction films. It is often copied, often parodied, but never bettered. I will always have a very special place in my heart for this film, not simply because of the ambitious scope or the impeccable direction, but because this film really was the first film to make me sit up and notice production design, and perhaps design in general. A love affair which has yet to lose its lustre.

HAL’s demise. One of the most memorable deaths in movie history. It’s hard not to get a lump in your throat, despite his murderous actions.


A huge thanks to Simon Atkinson for the images.