It’s easy to think of the films of Stanley Kubrick as the work of a singular creative vision, the result of an uncompromising director with a reputation for having things his own way. Some of the most vivid images in cinema have come out of his filmmaking and his pioneering science-fiction epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is filled with visuals that have passed into cinematic consciousness: spaceships with sleek, modernist interiors; graceful spaceflight sequences set to classical music; the mysterious black monolith; and, in HAL 9000, one of sci-fi’s most notorious bad guys.
When 2001 came out in April 1968, it looked like nothing else and was light years away from the conventions of traditional space movies. Yet the ‘look’ of the film was by no means down to Kubrick’s eye alone, nor the ideas of writer Arthur C Clarke, hurriedly finishing his novelisation as shooting began. The visual design of 2001 was the creation of a collective of several skilled hands, the most influential of whom, Harry Lange, had come directly from NASA.
In his new book, The 2001 File: Harry Lange and the Design of the Landmark Science Fiction Film (Reel Art Press), Christopher Frayling introduces some 245 pages of Lange’s preliminary sketches, drawings, paintings and final designs for 2001 and makes the case for the German-born artist and illustrator’s place in the history of production design in film.
Lange, who died in 2008 aged 77, had moved to New York in 1951 having studied commercial art and design in Hamburg and Munich, according to his obituary in the Guardian. The Korean war saw him drafted but as a foreign national he remained in the US and was instead enrolled in a technical illustration programme. Following various graphics jobs, he ended up illustrating proposed spacecraft designs for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and, in 1954, met Frederick I Ordway III, the pair setting up a publishing company together called General Astronautics. Under the technical direction of Wernher von Braun, the ABMA became part of the newly-established NASA in 1960 and it was here that Lange headed up the administration’s future projects section. Five years later, he and Ordway would sign up to a very different kind of venture with Kubrick and Clarke, turning their space predictions into science-fiction.
Frayling’s book in fact opens with a false start. In 1964, Ken Adam, the lauded production designer who had worked on Kubrick’s previous film, Dr Strangelove, declined to be involved in the director’s new project, then called Journey Beyond the Stars. At this point, Adam couldn’t face working with the demanding Kubrick again (though he would do so in 1975 on Barry Lyndon, suffering a breakdown and winning an Oscar in the process).
“Ken Adam had been originally approached for the design of 2001 and then Kubrick had done a complete volte face because he didn’t want an expressive, European-style designer,” says Frayling. “He wanted a NASA specialist. At some point he completely changed his attitude to the design of the film.” Kubrick’s sci-fi effort wasn’t going to be like Dr Strangelove, with its huge war room, it was “going to look hyper-realistic,” says Frayling. “So when Ken Adam disappears from the story, who took over? That’s one of the reasons I got interested in this.” What transpired, as Frayling explains in the book, was initially down to a coincidence.
Kubrick had been working with Clarke since April 1964 and had agreed with the writer that his 1948 story The Sentinel (published in 1951 as Sentinel of Eternity) could be the start of a film project – the discovery of an “alien artefact” would be its climax. The pair consumed space movies in earnest and, by and large, Kubrick was critical of them all aside from Destination Moon (1950) in which the illustrator Chesley Bonestell had attempted, quite successfully, to recreate a lunar landscape. Kubrick’s intention, Frayling writes, was to make a film that didn’t set out to persuade people of the need to explore the universe, but rather that took space travel as a given and postulated where it might take mankind in the next three-and-a-half decades – creating “a realistic myth based on the latest researches from NASA; a fictional documentary set in space and on a colossal scale.”
There had been manned space flights since 1961 but the cinema that reflected any contemporary cosmic ambition was either years out of date, or not serious enough in its treatment of the subject. (Kubrick wrote that he was keen to move the genre away from “monsters and madmen”.) So the seeds were sown for making a film which was as authentic as possible, even if it involved conjuring up the future. Fortunately for Kubrick, his co-writer Clark was about to bump into Ordway and Lange in New York – Clark had known Ordway since 1959. They got talking about the writer’s new project with Kubrick and, believing he had found two men capable of helping with the science of their film – the key to the realism they sought – Clark promptly went off to telephone the director. Kubrick then phoned Ordway at his hotel and asked to meet.
Lange initially signed up for six months’ work, with his involvement in the production officially announced in early October 1965. The shooting would take place in England at MGM British Studios in Borehamwood. There was still no completed script and, perhaps of equal concern to Lange, there was little description of the space hardware in Clarke’s published story, which it was hoped would play such an important role in 2001. With no experience of filmmaking, Lange was thrown right in at the deep end. “I was a spacecraft designer, visualisation expert, whatever you want to call it,” he later said. But with Ordway, Lange represented Kubrick’s link with the scientific research community, a connection which would prove to be as vital in shaping the look of the film as Lange’s own artistic skill.
“The whole thing is to make the science work so that it’s conceivable – and to make the hardware look as though it’s actually used, rather than a piece of set dressing,” says Frayling. “It’s still the movie with most scientific and technical advice ever given to a film. If you go to the Kubrick archive, the sheer number of files that are there of people they approached – all these corporations, industrial designers, commercial organisations – everything from the food that will be served in space, right through to how the computers will work, to [whether] the spaceship interiors will be ceramic or metal. They consulted everybody. I don’t think today anyone would have that luxury.”
Filmmaking is a collaborative act but the use of consultants on 2001 to such an extent counters the idea that the film was solely Kubrick’s vision. The role of outside expertise – 65 companies in all from IBM and Honeywell, to Bell, Pan-Am, GM and Whirlpool – has perhaps been underplayed over the years. “Oh certainly – and, in a way, the whole book is a kind of polemic,” says Frayling. “People refer to the film as ‘Stanley Kubrick’s 2001’ and, of course, he had the creative imagination to go to NASA and bring in NASA specialists rather than film designers. He had the imagination to ask them to get in touch with all these specialist companies and scientists who advised on the film. However, the work in doing those things was done by other people. The cinematographer, [Geoffrey] Unsworth, or the designer, Lange, or Ordway who was the scientific advisor. Every single piece of science in the film was checked with Ordway.
“Like all films, it was a team – and the director is, at some level, a sort of metaphorical concept – but within the team, there were huge contributions from other people. You’ve only got to look at Lange’s drawings to see how many of them ended up in the finished film. The ‘look’ of the film, particularly the interiors of the spaceship – white, ceramic, rather cold, cool modernist – was entirely Lange as far as I can see.”
There was a designer’s mind at work in Kubrick, too. His constant demands to make versions of things, even of objects he knew he didn’t want to film just to prove his direction of thinking, hint at an iterative approach more akin to the testing and prototyping of a product designer. “He didn’t quite know he didn’t want them until he’d seen them [and] he had to have them draw it in order to convince himself he didn’t want it,” says Frayling. “The pages of chairs and communications antennae, they’re basically thumbnail sketches that were try-outs until they get what they want. It’s that process in action.”
While the pages of sketches in The 2001 File reveal Lange’s talents as a draughtsman, not to mention his ability to conjure up a ream of ideas for a single object, the translation of his drawings into physical models was another key role in the film. Tony Masters, the film’s production designer, helped take Lange’s sketches off the page. “Lange had no experience of film design and there are moments where you can see in his drawings that he’s thinking out the science and not thinking out the audience,” says Frayling.
“The classic is HAL. If you look closely at the drawings of the intelligence room on Discovery – originally it’s miniaturised. He knew even in 1965 that the way computers were going was miniaturisation. But Kubrick knew that the audience wouldn’t believe it was a computer, so you had to have a mainframe.” For Frayling, this paradox is one of the most dated things about the film. “Lange had to learn that the science goes one way sometimes, but that audience expectations have to be taken into account as well. If you take too big a leap, the audience won’t believe you.”
Yet the result – all two hours and 41 minutes of it – blends Lange and Ordway’s knowledge of science with Kubrick’s understanding of its visual impact and this made for an experience that was as realistic a depiction of the near-future as possible, while remaining a remarkable aesthetic adventure. The research that went into the film even became the subject of an article on “hibernation in space”, says Frayling, “so the movie had an affect on academic science. All of that is in the spirit of ‘it’s got to look convincing’ and that you’ll suspend your disbelief completely. And ironically one of the strategies they used was having brands all over the place – familiar brands, so the audience goes with you.” Lange’s designs started a convention of how to depict space vehicles in film – and they remain a pivotal influence on how the future is rendered in science-fiction films today, from Alien to Interstellar.
In 2001, “you had burn holes around the engines which made it look as though they actually worked,” says Frayling. “They don’t look like pencils flying around with fins, they look like hardware in space. [Here] everything was clean and white”. For Lange, any beauty that came out of the film was really just a by-product of making things look real. All the science had been a strategy, Frayling suggests, to make a largely visual experience more credible to audiences, to help them suspend their disbelief.
While Ordway went back to NASA after filming, Lange remained in England and continued working as a film designer. “It changed his life,” says Frayling, whose book is both a testament to the significance of Lange’s contribution to 2001 but also an attempt to redress the balance of how production design is regarded within the history of cinema. We might think it doesn’t need championing, but bear in mind that Lange’s archive was only rediscovered in 2001 in a suitcase in a garage in Ruislip. “It’s indicative of the fact that whereas everybody writes about directors and screenwriters, and at a pinch cinematographers, the designers are always treated as the backroom staff,” says Frayling. “I don’t think I could imagine any other contributor to 2001 thinking that their contributions would rot away in the garage.”
For Frayling, Lange’s contribution to the production design of the film is something we should be aware of in any viewing of 2001. Studying Lange’s archive has changed his view of a film he saw twice at the London Casino cinema in 1968. “There’s the bravery of having so little dialogue,” he says. “The rest is these long musical, visual sequences; that was very new. Right from the word go, where you had this modernist version of the MGM logo with Also Sprach Zarathustra thundering out, you knew it was going to be a different sort of experience. Space had never looked like this before. And you kind of believed it.”
The 2001 File: Harry Lange and the Design of the Landmark Science Fiction Film by Christopher Frayling is published by Reel Art Press (£45), reelartpress.com. This article originally appeared in our ‘film and TV’ issue (CR March)