skip navigation
The Essentials - November 2003
Remind Me

Behind the Camera on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

Friday March, 1 2019 at 03:00 AM
Saturday April, 27 2019 at 09:30 PM

Films in BOLD will Air on TCM *  |   VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

The actors hired to play the apes in the "Dawn of Man" sequence were mostly mimes and dancers, though they also used two baby chimpanzees as the tribe's children. They chose actors with thin arms and legs and narrow hips so that the fur added to make them look like apes wouldn't appear too bulky. Kubrick's fear was that the body fur might make them look like actors in B-movie gorilla suits.

While the makeup was being designed, computer technicians ran a program to determine how long it would take to make the number of ape costumes they needed. When the program said it would take nine years, they simplified the makeup.

Kubrick hired a company that made artificial limbs to produce a long-figured, narrow apelike hand to be operated by remote controls placed within the costume's arms. When this didn't look convincing, it was abandoned at great expense.

To create the facial makeup, technicians first made a plastic skull substructure with a hinged jaw. After making molds of the actors' faces, the makeup men applied rubber skin to their faces and added hair one strand at a time, as if they were making a wig. Lip movements were achieved by using false teeth and tongues to hide the actors' real mouths. This freed the actors to use their tongues to operate remote controls that moved the lips. Only the actors' eyes were visible, and the masks were made up right to the eyelids.

The only scene from the film not shot in the studio was the "skull-smashing" sequence in which Moonwatcher realizes that he can use a bone as a weapon. That was shot in a field a few hundred yards from the studio on a small platform. This allowed for a low-angled shot with a vast expanse of sky in the background, though it also required a halt in shooting whenever a plane flew overhead. They almost ran out of animal skulls as Kubrick shot take after take. The final shot of the sequence was finally achieved when Kubrick walked back to the studio tossing bones into the air and filming their flight with a hand-held camera.

The first design for the monolith was a tetrahedron, but Kubrick thought that would make people think of pyramids. Next they tried a transparent cube, but it was too hard to keep it from reflecting the camera crew's lights. They tried a Lucite slab, but that didn't look convincing. Finally, they settled on the black slab shown in the film.

Filming the special effects shots took 18 months at a cost of $6.5 million (the film's total budget was $10.5 million). Kubrick was determined to make every effects shot look extremely realistic, something previous science fiction films rarely bothered to do.

Kubrick challenged the special effects crew to find a way to do the effects shots without using automatic matting. Traditionally, actors and mock space vehicles were shot against a blue screen. The images were then matted against the appropriate backgrounds, but this usually leaves a line around the images that destroys the illusion. Kubrick insisted on hand-drawn mattes instead. For a shot of a space ship flying, for example, the ship's shape would be painted out of the background shots by hand, one frame at a time, before matting in the ship itself. It's the same technique used in making animated films, only all of the images matted in for 2001: A Space Odyssey were real objects.

2001 was the first film to make extensive use of front projection to provide backgrounds against which the actors worked. Using large transparencies, the crew projected the African landscape on the set for the “Dawn of Man” sequence. The same technique was used for the moon landing.

It took Kubrick and his crew months to figure out how to make the pen float during the trip to the Moon. They couldn't come up with a wire fine enough not to show up on film. Finally they taped the pen to a glass plate held in front of the camera. If you look closely, when the stewardess plucks it out of the air, you can actually see her pulling it off the plate.

The film's spaceships were models made from wood, fiberglass, Plexiglas, steel, brass and aluminum. The fine details that forever would change the look of space on the screen were created with heat-forming plastic-cladding, flexible metal foil, wire tubing and thousands of tiny parts taken from hundred of plastic model kits -- everything from railroad cars and battleships to airplanes and Gemini spacecraft -- bought at a European toy fair. The fine details made it possible for the cameras to get as close to the models as possible with no loss of believability.

The Discovery's interior was a large, rotating tube 38 feet across and three feet wide. It rotated at speeds up to three miles per hour so that the characters could walk across it while remaining at the bottom of the screen. The cost was $300,000.

To create convincing images of nebular movement and starbursts, they photographed drops of dye moving on a glass plate.

For shots of the space ships that show people moving through the ships' windows, technicians photographed extras moving, then projected them on the windows with 16mm projectors. This led to one error in the film. The exterior shots of the ship carrying Dr. Floyd to the Moon show other passengers on board, but the interiors reveal that he's alone.

To create the spectacular space ride at the film's climax, Trumbull combined aerial footage of Monument Valley, Utah (a favorite location for John Ford's westerns), shot through colored filters, with other aerial shots originally made for Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. He also invented a split-scan effect by keeping the camera's shutter open to expose a single frame of film while he moved the light source toward the camera to create fantastic light patterns.

Most of the effects shots were made during 10 to 12 hour workdays, with some takes lasting hours. Although the crew was large, the only sound audible in the studio during each take was the sound of the Panavision camera's motors and the sound of the motors moving the ships. One technician compared it to driving a tank.

Originally, the Discovery was on a mission to Saturn. When the special effects crew couldn't come up with a convincing model of that planet, however, Kubrick changed it to Jupiter.

The first actor hired to provide the voice for HAL 9000 was Nigel Davenport. He sat out of camera range during filming of the Discovery scenes and read his lines so the actors would have something to react to. After a few weeks, however, Kubrick decided that his British accent would be too distracting. Davenport was dismissed and an assistant read the lines from off-camera. During post-production, Martin Balsam recorded HAL's lines, but still Kubrick wasn't satisfied. At this point, the film had a narration that had been recorded by Canadian actor Douglas Rain. Kubrick also decided that he didn't like the narration, but he liked Rain, who ended up playing HAL in 2001 and its 1984 sequel 2010. For that film, all of HAL's lines were pre-recorded, so although they have co-starred in two films, Keir Dullea and Rain have never met.

Kubrick hired composer Alex North, who had written the music for his Spartacus (1960), to score the film. During filming, however, Kubrick played various classical pieces to set the rhythms and moods for the scenes. He also used pre-recorded music while cutting the film, then told North he wanted to keep some of the music he'd already been working with. North objected to this, but couldn't come up with an opening fanfare Kubrick liked as much as the opening of Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra. Over a two-week period, North composed and recorded 40 minutes of music for the film. Then Kubrick decided to stick with the classical music and just use breathing sounds for many of the unscored sequences. He even dubbed the breathing himself. Years later, North's music, under the title Alex North's 2001, was released by Varese/Sarabande.

Ultimately, Kubrick's decision to use classical music for his score would cost him. Contemporary composer Gyorgy Ligeti sued over the unauthorized use of his music and the cutting of his piece "Adventures."

After the New York City preview, Kubrick cut 20 minutes out of the film, shortening several sequences. Prior to that, he had already cut a black-and-white prologue in which scientists discussed the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. After the preview, Kubrick also added the title cards "Jupiter Mission 18 Months Later" and "Jupiter Beyond the Infinite."

2001: A Space Odyssey was a huge hit with younger audiences, becoming one of the biggest cult films of the sixties. In Chicago, a group of hippies went to the film several times, sitting in the front row until the intermission. Then they would move to the floor in front of the screen to watch the final star ride from the closest possible point. According to Rolling Stone magazine, during one screening a young man rose as if in a trance at the monolith's reappearance near the end and ran down the theatre's aisle shouting "It's God! It's God!" Before the theatre's management could stop him, he had crashed through the screen.

The film also developed a celebrity cult whose members included Mike Nichols, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Franco Zeffirelli, Roman Polanski and Richard Lester. Recording artist Mama Cass Elliott said the film had changed her "chemistry."

by Frank Miller



Also Playing on TCM

Also playing
Silent Sunday Nights in March
4 Movies

Our Sunday night franchise devoted to pre-sound cinema serves up such treats as John Barrymore & Dolores Costello in When a Man...more

TCM Shopping
  • The Wild One
  • An angry young Marlon Brando scorches the... more info
  • $7.95
  • Regularly $14.98
  • Add to cart
  • The Magnificent Seven
  • Yul Brynner stars as one of seven master... more info
  • $7.46
  • Regularly $9.98
  • Add to cart
  • Guys and Dolls
  • In New York, a gambler is challenged to take... more info
  • $20.95
  • Regularly $24.98
  • Add to cart
  • Touch of Evil
  • Complete, uncut and restored to Orson Welles'... more info
  • $11.21
  • Regularly $14.98
  • Add to cart