2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★★★

2001 impressions; 2016 edition

Part of Lise's Hal's Birthday Watch


I’m quite pumped for this viewing.

This 'impression' is much longer than I originally thought it would be. If you’re going to venture through, I suggest you pack a picnic lunch.

A few weeks previous, my sweetie gave me Sir Cristopher Frayling, Professor Emeritus at the Royal College of Art’s latest book, The 2001 File ( after obvious hinting, including direct e.mail of the URL to the book on Amazon ) for Christmas. Frayling’s book concentrates on the recently released hordes of design drawings and notes for 2001 by Harry Lange, who shared the Production Design duties with Tony Masters.

From the book:

Paul Sargent Clark, in the May 1968 edition of Industrial Design Magazine, wrote: “A Space Odyssey demands an unreasonably broad attention span on the part of nearly any audience, but I suspect that anyone who is interested in any aspect of design will find himself staring mesmerically at the screen long after the bulk of his blood has settled in his calves. The movie is filled with the most completely detailed equipment ever put together for a theatrical purpose ( much of it may, in fact, become part of our lives before long ) …”

I’ve always loved the design in 2001, but have always taken it for granted. This year, I’m paying attention.

It all starts with the Lippncott designed stylized MGM logo. The design was short lived, only being used in 3 films. It’s bold, modern rendering makes it seem that it was created especially for 2001. I still get shivers every time I see it.

Brilliant design begins with the opening shot, with the Earth, Moon, and Sun in alignment.

Modernism is epitomized by the light, unadorned, and beautifully graceful font used for the title.

Set Design in The Dawn of Man sequence often gets overlooked, but the painstaking work to match an indoor set with a front projected 8x10” transparencies shot in Africa, and make it look seamless is a thing of beauty, and a testament to great design, both artistically and process.

When 2001 didn’t win the Oscar for Best Costume Design, many speculated that those voting didn’t realize that the Man Apes weren’t real. Daniel Richter and his troop of hominids could create complex fascial movements and expressions by operating levers within the suits head with their tongues.

Of course the most iconic piece of design in 2001 is the Black Monolith. A slab with ratio of 1 x 4 x 9, the squares of the first 3 prime numbers, boggles the mind both aesthetically and mathematically in its purity.

In one of the most brilliant and visually elegant moments in film design ever, the viewer is transported 2.8 million years into the future while maintaining thematic coherence with a simple match cut from one tool to another. While the second tool isn’t identified as such, it is in fact an orbital nuclear bomb according to Clarke’s story and the screenplay notes. It’s interesting that there is both a thematic and stylistic tie-in a few shots later with a floating pen.

Werner Von Braun’s rotating space station gets an elegant update with Lange’s Space Station 5. Not only is the design meticulous and grand, but also the original design method to which the shot is brought to the screen. Custom mechanical clockwork rigs to move the camera and the model precisely and automatically were a film design first, and predicted what would come with computer controlled model photography.

Lange’s beautifully lined Pan Am Orion III Clipper space shuttle was somewhat precognitive of the more utilitarian NASA shuttle. This is probably due to the fact that Harry Lange realized and rendered drawings for versions of the upcoming space shuttle at his old job at NASA

The Grip Shoes that the flight attendant wears on the Orion are one of my favourite design elements. Although Space Station 5, and later in the film, Discovery, have artificial gravity created by rotating centrifuges, many weightless locations existed too. Using practical effects to try and realistically simulate ‘floating’ would have been even more burdensome on the already stressed special effects budget and schedule. The simple ‘grip shoe’ solves all that. What’s more, you only need to see the shot once, and then for every other shot where astronauts are walking on the floor in weightless conditions the audience will just assume they have ‘grip shoes’. The Grip Shoes were designed around the new miracle space-age fastener, Velcro.

Yes, that bubble chapeau may just look like a mod fashion statement, but the design goodness is that’s it’s a padded helmet for when those grip shoes unexpectedly let go when they shouldn’t. Also, today’s young viewers probably don’t even notice the seat back entertainment flat screen that pre-dates the real McCoy by a good 20 years.

The flight deck and flat panel readout design on the Orion ( and other spacecraft in the film ) are a thing of beauty. Ergonomically laid out and simply functional and informative. Like flatscreen seatback entertainment systems, it predicts the design of the ‘fly by glass’ flight deck of the space shuttle, and most modern aircraft.

The cockpit shown above is a Boeing 737-700/800 the type that my cousin John, a Captain with Southwest Airlines, flies. John and I have always been two nerd peas in a pod, and he's also a huge 2001 fan. I asked him what he thought about the Orion III flight deck, and he replied..

"My take on the Orion is this: no restraints for the pilots means difficulties in zero g and transition to spin up to match the rotation of the space station.

Also, the flat panel displays are nice, but ergonomically too far out of eye line.

We have a holographic heads up display that sits in view for low visibility take offs and landings (I can launch by hand at only 300 feet of visibility- which you wouldn't want to drive a car in)"

Ok, a bit of a fail there, especially as John's plane was commissioned in 1996, and the Space Shuttle in 1991. I'll betcha the designers of those flight systems had watched 2001, though.


If only airport security today were as simple as Voiceprint Identification. The way things are going, I think we’re going to have to give DNA next.

You’ve got to love those Olivier Mourgue designed Djinn chairs.

Men’s Fashions, not so much. The monochromatic suits ( with Velcro! ) were a perfect design element to visually comment on the unemotional banality of modern day humankind.

While the picture phone never came to be, the most original design element here that you probably overlooked was paying electronically by credit card. In this scene is seems as natural as it does today, but back in ’66 general purpose credit cards weren’t even around yet … Chargex ( which became Visa ) launched in ’68, and it was an all manual affair with an imprint machine ( why credit cards still have raised numbers ) and signatures on slips that were then mailed by the merchant to your bank for payment. Those of us of a certain age will remember the catchy ‘Will that be cash … or Chargex? (click click ) commercial.

This wouldn’t be my first choice for a liquid lunch, but, you’ve gotta eat somehow in zero g, and mashed potatoes and gravy free floating around a passenger cabin isn’t that appetizing either. So, it has to be considered as good design, and that iconography is great. In the seventy five odd times I’ve seen this scene, I’ve never noticed that one of the containers is fish. Liquid fish. That’s something I can’t un-see.

The Auto Galley that dispenses that liquid deliciousness gets a design mention more because of the designer, RCA/Whirlpool, who saw this creation as the future, and lent their ideas and industrial designers in exchange for the logo placement you see in the shot. No wonder both companies went out of business.

Back to cinematic design … it doesn’t get much better than this.. Enough so that even in 2016, Ridley Scott gave it a nod in The Martian.

The only intentional joke in 2001 pokes fun at bad design. Believe it or not, there were days of design discussions about zero gravity toilets. The final outcome was the design for a zero G toilet that was actually a mini centrifuge ( the loo would spin around at high speed to create artificial gravity so you could do your business in the usual way ) .. that would be good design, but it was deigned that it would be too hard to explain, and that the method that NASA was planning for a weightless washroom would be a bit of fun.

The flower like petals opening to reveal the moon base landing pad may not get the most practical design award, but it sure is purdy.

The Aries 1B moon transport is another wonderful Lange design that looks not unlike the LEM that would take Armstrong and Aldrin on that final leg from orbit to the surface a year after the film debut.

A design look at what a camera might look like in the future ( nope, a Nikon SLR still kinda looks basically the same today. There’s also a bit of a barb at ‘press’ photographers being tacky … see the suit.

The Moon Bus, another great Lange design. So elegant and seemingly effortless.

Sometimes you can have both good and bad design in the same shot. The moon bus instrument panel features a great flat panel display highlighting ( what would become ) computer graphics ( Douglas Trumbull hand animated all of these readouts, and they were projected from 16mm projectors built into the set on to the displays ) that show data visualization of the flight as it approaches the landing pad. Unfortunately, the same panel is also filled with Nixies, a horribly dated technology that barely survived until the early 90’s .. manly because Xerox machines used them. They look particularly bad when contrasted with the wonderful CG readout.

As we embark on our mission to Jupiter, we catch our first glimpse of Harry Lange’s masterwork, The Discovery. Evoking images of skeletal dinosaurs and spermatozoa. Lange drew well over 100 renderings of Discovery before Kubrick was satisfied. Although the propulsion system is never mentioned in the film, the ship was designed around it. ( they were Cavradyne Plasma Propulsion Engines, in case you’re interested ). In a move where Art trumps Science in the design, such an engine would require huge heat radiator fins to dissipate the enormous amount of heat created by the engine. Kubrick thought the fins looked like wings, and thought the audience would be confused, so they were dropped. A great amount of engineering assistance on this was provided by General Electric, who declined a logo placement or even a credit. The main discovery model was over 50 feet long, and the only other model, besides Space Station 5 to get the full 3D treatment.

Another design marvel, from the aesthetic and practical sense was Discovery’s centrifugal crew quarters. (a funny side note about this shot was told by Gary Lockwood at a screening I was lucky enough to attend a year or so ago. During this shot, Lockwood is strapped into the couch, hanging upside down while Keir Dullea descends the ladder. Kubrick instructed him to eat the space food, and when he forked a bite, it fell ‘down’ right through the shot. He was told not to eat after that. The centrifuge set was also an engineering design marvel, built by Vickers Aircraft, it was 40 feet in diameter and 20 feet across.

If the Black Monolith is the defining icon of 2001, then not close behind is Hal's glowing red eye. I was surprised that this design came from the IBM design team in the days before ‘Athena’ became HAL, and the days before HAL became a murderous mad computer. Many people pick up on HAL being one letter ahead of IBM. Both Kubrick and Clarke have vehemently said that this was a coincidence on many occasions, and if they had noticed it, they would have changed the name. This just in. In an interview that author Cristopher Frayling had with Harry Lange during the writing of the book, Lange refuted that story. He said that Kubrick discovered that H A L was a name one letter ahead of I B M, and chose the name for that reason. He even instructed the art department to put HAL prominently above the red eye in a similar way that they were using the IBM logo over top of the Orion flight deck instrumentation. A snip of an old interview with Clarke, he says that Stanley came up with the name HAL. Stanley is such a devil.

I like General Food’s intriguing design of a food dispenser better than the Whirlpool Auto Galley. Much more choice, like a classic New York Automat ( or modern day Dutch Feebo ). I still don’t want the fish dish, though.

Whenever I show 2001 to someone who’s never seen it ( it still happens, believe it or not ) the reaction is always the same to this scene. ‘Holy shit … Stanley Kubrick invented the iPad!!’ Well, a bit more correctly, IBM invented the iPad, as this was a design they submitted, and if you look closely, you can see the IBM logo in the lower right … if you watch it in 70mm ( or HD on a big home screen ), and look below the logo you’ll probably notice it’s called a ‘NewsPad’. Mr Jobs .. did you see this film?

In another great bit of cinematic and plot design, a central plot vector is revealed to the audience, but not our characters, with a simply elegant shot. Kubrick, masterfully, places the road show intermission at this point.

Of the five murders on the Good Ship Discovery, it’s hard to judge which is more cold, calculated, and chilling. Each of them utilizes high concept design to send the shivers through our bones without utilizing conventional cinematic means. First, when HAL offs Frank using his extension, the POD. Then, with Dave out of the way chasing after Frank careening through the cosmos, coolly and methodically electronically chokes the innocent sleepers until they are dead. Then, the final retribution; revenge by torturing them with a slow death of a thousand cuts. This is cinema design at its finest.

How do you visually represent Beyond The Infinite? How can you captive the audience with wonder as they travel to another galaxy, or maybe even another dimension? Kubrick tasked his production designers and special effects supervisors with just that question, and Douglas Trumbull came up with the slitscan machine that he used to enabled him to render the Stargate sequence that transported our protagonist to the world of the Monolith. Superb design both artistically and technologically.

Poor Tony Masters, he was the original Production Designer of the film before Kubrick brought Tony Lange onboard. He was a classy fellow though … although Lange was really only there to design the space vehicles, Masters used his design aesthetics like a bible, and crafted all the props and designs he handled based on Lange’s look. The only set that really was his alone was the much mused about Hotel Room at the end of the Stargate. A wonderfully complex mixture of the past and future where we see our protagonist Dave Bowman age before our eyes. It’s both familiar and alien, and has the perfect design form to keep the audience off balance and questioning everything … exactly what Kubrick wanted at this juncture.

Then the moment arrives. A masterclass in visual storytelling and cinematic design. In five shots without dialogue, narration, or score the film conveys mankind’s next giant leap of evolution. One, Two, Three, Four, Five. Simple as that.

Good design is always simple.

Kubrick showed us that it could be beautiful, too. At about the point when the Pan Am Orion clipper was soaring through the upper stratosphere for its rendezvous and dance with Space Station 5, I thought about this. Then I thought about Steve Jobs. He was someone who pushed for design being not only functional but beautiful. Like Kubrick and 2001, the designs didn’t come from him, they came from countless individuals he tasked with their creation … he knew what he liked. With 2001, Kubrick hit a design home run, and 2001 will forever be regarded as high art. With Apple, Jobs created the most valuable company on the planet.



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