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Author: Kal Sereousz

Creative from London, United Kingdom. Freelance writer for Big Picture Film Club. Editor of TechHopUK Magazine.
Editorials

The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey

July 25, 2020
2001: A Space Odyssey

In 1968 Stanley Kubrick released a ground-breaking sci-fi movie which is widely regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time.

We previously reviewed 2001: A Space Odyssey back in 2019 and offered an opinion on the movie. This time we’ll be taking a closer look at how the movie came to life and what makes it so special.

Path to Glory

The late Stanley Kubrick was an American Film Maker born in 1928. A New Yorker born and raised. A child of Jewish migrants from Austria, Romania and Russia. His father gave him a camera for his 13th birthday, which sparked a keen interest in photography and eventually led to a job as an apprentice photographer at Look magazine. In 1958 Stanley used his savings to create a documentary film Day of the Fight (1951). He continued financing his own films and in 1956 his work caught the attention of Hollywood. Soon Kubrick would be directing the likes of Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960).

Kubrick decided to move to England and his first UK release was Lolita (1962). After gaining much critical and commercial success from movies like Dr. Strangelove (1964), Kubrick earned the artistic freedom to work on whatever projects he desired, some of which never materialised.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was a collaboration with English sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke. This was followed by A Clockwork Orange (1971), which rivalled Lolita in controversy. Kubrick went on to release a film adaptation of a Stephen King novel The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Kubrick passed away before he could complete A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) so his friend Steven Spielberg helped the movie to cross the finish line. Kubrick discusses much of his early life and films in the documentary The Lost Tapes (1966).

Stanley Kubrick: The Lost Tapes

One Small Step for Man One Giant Leap for Mankind

Let’s consider what was happening at the time 2001 was made. The Vietnam War (which claimed the lives of over 3 million people) was being waged and did not end until 1973. The Hippie counterculture had emerged in opposition to the war. The Cuban Missile crisis of 1962. The Equal pay Act of 1963 was signed by the Liberal President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in the same year. Jim Crow laws from the late 19th Century were abolished when the Civil Rights Act was penned in 1964. The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4th 1968. 2001: A Space Odyssey debuted in theatres on April 6th 1968. Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the Moon in 1969.

The Making of a Myth

Hal 9000, the fictional AI in A Space Odyssey.

Arthur C. Clarke is a well known sci-fi writer who Stanley Kubrick partnered with to write the screenplay for 2001. In the documentary 2001 the Making of a Myth (2001), Clarke shared that Kubrick believed there had been no great sci-fi movies made before theirs. Other Sci-Fi movies of the time included Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) and Fantastic Voyage (1966). Kubrick must have been aware of those notable Sci-Fi movies but is thought to be directly inspired by the documentary Universe (1960) and a movie shown at the New York World’s Fair – To the Moon and Beyond (1964).

Captain Kubrick assembled a crew to embark on a mission to create what he believed would be the first great Science Fiction Film. Key personnel were brought in to advise and engineer. Space Scientist Fred Ordway was brought in as a scientific consultant. Illustrators Chesley Bonestell, Roy Carnon, and Richard McKenna created concept drawings, sketches, and paintings of the space technology. A 55 foot long model of the Discovery One spacecraft was built. Engineering company Vickers-Armstrongs were hired to construct a centrifuge that would simulate artificial gravity. Design consultants who had worked on films for NASA and the US Air Force were brought in and 4 Special effects Supervisors were appointed: Douglas Trumbull, Con Pederson, Tom Howard and Wally Veevers.

In 1966 filming began at the MGM-British Studios in Borehamwood. The production team developed and used a number of techniques including:

  • Slit-scan photography
  • Rotating Movie sets
  • Front Projection
  • Motion Control
  • Rotoscoping

Production costs soared to in excess of $10m and went $4.5m over budget. The screens we saw in the spacecraft were made to look like computer graphics but were actually a combination of photography and animation. Actors were attached to wires and filmed from beneath to give the illusion of floating in space. The psychedelic Stargate Sequence was achieved by using a custom-built machine and thousands of high-contrast images. Kubrick opted for creating all the visual effects “in camera” to avoid degradation of picture quality which may occur when using Blue Screen techniques. Kubrick’s demands are what led to the project costs spiralling out of control. But this also resulted in the visual effects of 2001 looking spectacular and ahead of its time. A video essay published by Vulture gives a brilliant overview of the feats of engineering that were required and how the innovative cinematographic techniques were implemented in the Space Odyssey production.

To the Moon and Beyond

2001: A Space Odyssey is a sci-fi movie that tells a story of mankind, our relationship with progress, technology and the idea that there may be extra-terrestrial life. The movie builds on Darwin’s theory of evolution and asks us to question what the next stage of human evolution could be. Kubrick gave 2001 a curious ending that is open for debate. You can watch an expert panel give their take on what the movie means to them here. Does the ending suggest there will be another stage of human evolution? One that enables humans to travel through space without the use of technology? In a rare interview more than a decade after the film was made, the reclusive Director gives us his own take on the ending of the movie.

Stanley Kubrick interview (Credit: Wendelle C. Stevens)

Whatever your thoughts are on what the ending means and what the movie represents as a whole, it is a fantastic look into the future told with masterful visual storytelling. A movie that gave us a glimpse of Video Calling at a time when that technology was not available. A movie that modelled the future with photorealistic realism but contained no computer graphics to achieve that goal. A movie that has inspired filmmakers and viewers alike. A movie that will be remembered as one of the greatest movies of all time.

Also Read: The Best Sci-Fi Films of the Decade

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Editorials

Pixar and the Story of Toys

November 21, 2018

We can’t talk about Pixar without talking about George Lucas. For those unfamiliar with the name, maybe you’ve heard of Indiana Jones? Surely you’ve heard of Star Wars? Well, both of these iconic franchises are George Lucas creations. Some of the many strings to his bow include writer, director and producer but perhaps his biggest strings are visionary and futurist. THX38 was his first movie. Kanye West would’ve been proud of this beautiful dark twisted fantasy, which gave us a glimpse of a dystopian Earth set in the 25th Century.

In the late 1970s, Lucas gave us Star Wars, which turned out to be a very special space fantasy. Star Wars – A New Hope was released at around the same time that George Lucas’ company (Lucas Film) was beginning to focus on computer technology. Lucas gave us the Indiana Jones franchise in the early 1980s and during that time Lucas Film also developed the first computer-animated sequence in a feature film. This was for the movie Star Trek II.

Star Command

In 1986 Steve Jobs (the founder of Apple Computers) bought the Computer Division, a subsidiary of Lucas Film, and re-established them as Pixar. This is when the collaboration with Disney began, resulting in the revolutionary Computer Animation Production System (CAPS) technology. 1988 sees the usage of Pixar’s rendering software (RenderMan). The 3 short films they released utilizing their cutting-edge animation technology had been critically acclaimed. Tin Toy went on to win the Academy Award for Best Short Film (Animated). Lucas Film movies dominated my childhood in the late 1980s. This George Lucas influence was set to sail into the 1990s, but with a new captain and with a whole new way of telling stories.

Reach for the Sky

Toy Story is the world’s first computer-animated feature film. This ground-breaking film became the highest grossing movie of the year (1995) making $362m. With numbers like that it’s needless to say the movie was a resounding success. It gathered several Oscar nominations and took home the prize for Special Achievement. Several Pixar movies followed Toy Story’s formula and everything Pixar touched turned to gold.

Everything about Toy Story was special. The main characters were played by A-List actors (Tom Hanks and Tim Allen). It was the directional debut of John Lasseter (also Director of A Bugs Life and Cars) who was a Senior Creative at Disney that went on to become one of the most successful filmmakers of all time.

Lasseter was involved in writing the story for the movie that captured the hearts of children and adults alike. It was innovative, funny and endearing. A true landmark in cinema, which became the blueprint for how to make animated movies. Another notable thing about this movie is that one of the greatest minds of the time; Steve Jobs was one of the Executive Producers.

In the year 2000 Pixar moved to a new building in Emeryville, California. By 2006 Disney decided to buy out Pixar Animation Studios. In 2018 The Incredibles 2 marked their 20th Computer Animated Feature Film which has grossed over $1.2bn worldwide. With Toy Story 4 due to be released in 2019, Disney/Pixar looks set to have another big year on the horizon.

You are a child’s plaything

So now that we’ve got an appreciation for what Pixar has accomplished, let’s take a brief look at how they did it. These are the Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) basics that go into in every Pixar movie:

Storytelling, Illustration, editing, colouring, modelling, rigging, set building, animation, simulation, texturing, surfaces, lighting and rendering. It’s not easy being an animator. Watch this short video for a cool explanation on how these movies get made.

A big help to the animators is Pixar’s Render Man. This rendering software has been at the forefront of CGI in movies since it’s inception in 1988. Key features include 3D modelling, animation, lighting and of course rendering. The latest incarnation is version 22, which boasts a redesigned architecture, improved workflow and various tech that allows for creating more photorealistic graphics amongst other things.

In 2D animation, you must draw every frame. So if you draw a character and you want it to move, you then have to draw every single movement. Like drawing a flipbook.

The difference with 3D animation is; you would draw your character, rig it and record it moving. Rigging a character is like creating a skeleton with joints, in CGI software. This is a tedious process that needs an understanding of geometry, physics and anatomy to pull it off. But when a character is properly rigged, it enables an animator to move a character like a puppet, which gives it an amazing sense of realism.

Although rigging may seem like you get one up on 2D animation because you don’t have to draw every frame, one of the challenges in 3D animation is controlling what happens when a character isn’t in motion. This is known as moving hold; when a 3D character looks completely dead if it isn’t moving. There’s definitely a lot of skill involved in 3D animation and an animator will need some good tools to achieve a polished end product.

Let’s go home and play

Thankfully, there are a number of 3D animation software packages out there and animators may use something like 3DS Max or Blender to do their character rigging. All3DP have a pretty cool list, which shows some of the many options available.

(An exported image from the photorealistic Render Man software used in the production of the Blade Runner 2049 motion picture)

Pixar’s own RenderMan software is now available for non-commercial use. This is exciting news because so many of those incredible looking movies that we all know and love are made using this software and we can now get our hands on it for free! If anyone ever wanted to get into Visual Effects, the Khan Academy has partnered with Pixar and are offering a free on-line training course too. George Lucas and his team of pioneers didn’t have it this good! It’s amazing to see how far the animation industry has come over the years. Maybe you’ll be the one to take it further? How much further can it go? To infinity and beyond.

Editorials

Unsane and the iPhone Revolution

September 4, 2018

Steven Soderbergh (Director of Traffic, Ocean’s 11,12,13, and Magic Mike) won an Oscar for Traffic in the year 2000. Recently the Academy Award rated Best Director decided to make a new movie. It’s called Unsane. Genre wise this is a bit of a thriller and stars Claire Foy who won a Golden Globe for Best Actress with her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in the 2016 Nextflix show; The Crown. Back to Unsane; where Claire plays the main protagonist (Sawyer Valentini) who gets committed to a mental institute. This is full-blown spoiler territory now so I’ll stop here, but to be fair, the title is a dead giveaway and did I mention this movie was filmed on an iPhone?

Why would an A-List Hollywood Director, film a movie on an iPhone? Well because Steven Soderbergh (SD) is not your typical A-Lister. In an interview with Hey U Guys Steven Soderberg said it was a creative choice, as he saw the iPhone 7Plus as being a small capture device which gave him a flexibility he couldn’t get from a bigger device.

It seems the iPhone was instrumental in pulling off certain shots in this movie. So instrumental, that Soderberg also said he’d use the device again in the future! Well if It’s good enough for him, it must be good enough for us, right?

iPhone vs Arri

So now that we’ve realised we have a Hollywood capable film camera in our possession right now, it kind of begs the question: What do we actually need from a movie-making machine and what’s the difference between the iPhone and a proper film camera? There are actually many things to consider when choosing your capture device for video production: resolution, frame rates, audio bit-rate, sensor, lenses, how the camera reacts to light.

At the time of writing, a popular film camera used in Holywood is the Arri Alexa. This camera could be considered an Indusrty Standard and has been used to film movies like The Avengers, Drive and a million other huge titles. Let’s take a brief look at how that compares to the iPhone used to film Unsane.

iPhone 7Plus Vs Arri Alexa
Resolution: 4K (30 fps)  Vs 2K (60 fps)
Frame Rates: Up to 60 fps Vs Up to 120 fps
Audio: 44.1KHz Vs 48 KHz

Potato Jet did a video review which shows that although the iPhone can produce good pictures, it really doesn’t compare to the might of the Alexa. You’ll lose something in terms of quality, but then you’ll gain in terms of mobility and It’ll be great for your budget.

iQuality

With filmmaking being an art, it’s always difficult to debate whether the increasing pixel count of the new technically superior digital cameras are actually producing better images than those of analogue film cameras. Does sharper and more crystal clear actually mean the story will look better? We’ve gone from grainy black and white pictures, to full-colour Standard Definition, all the way up to 4K and beyond. But someone out there will tell you they prefer the way a vintage Alfred Hitchcock movie filmed on a Mitchell BNC looks, compared to the sharp and polished 4K look you get from a modern Red One.

iMovies

Rage (2009) may have been the first major theatrical release shot on smartphones and there’s been a number of notable smartphone movies since. #STARVECROW is the world’s first selfie movie and Tangerine was filmed completely on the iPhone 5s. This iMovement has picked up pace since it’s inception in 2010 and now the iPhone Film Festival judges received over 2000 submissions in 2017. IndieWire has some interesting movies in their iMovement list if you want to find out more about this sub-culture.

iGear

Dougal Shaw (Senior Video Journalist at the BBC) decided to delve into iPhone videography himself and his kit list included the following: iPhone 6S Plus, Filmic Pro App, some sort of rig to stabilize the phone, a collection of lenses, a tripod, a microphone and a computer with video editing software. All of this is so much cheaper than getting a pro Arri Alexa setup!

iMoney

The fact that Steven Soderbergh did shoot a movie on an iPhone, is proof that you don’t need a huge budget to film a movie. Having said that, there’s a lot more involved in shooting a movie then just having a camera and pressing record. Also, the budget for Unsane was pretty low for a Hollywood movie, at $1.5m. But that’s astronomical in terms of a low budget indie production. Unsane only made $10.7m in the Box office, which is Soderberg’s lowest grossing movie by far. I wonder if a better camera would have equated to better box office sales?

iDirector

If iPhone’s are so great, do you need to bother buying a camcorder or DSLR? This is where personal preference comes in. Me personally I know how things can go wrong with technological devices and I prefer to have separate bits to do specific jobs. The thing is sometimes we’re short on space (so we buy a printer and scanner 2 in 1). Sometimes we’re short on budget (so I bought an all-rounder DSLR instead of a camera excellent at taking stills and a separate video camera). Using your iPhone all day to film movies will drain your battery and constant charging will shorten the lifespan. Steven Soderbergh has years of experience, a team of professionals and a million dollar budget. His iPhone movie would be awesome but I doubt you could get the same results. If you’re asking me could I film a movie on an iPhone? The answer is yes. Would I? No. But Steven Soderberg did.

Check out the trailer for Unsane. The full movie is available to purchase on Youtube now.