2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), To Space and Beyond

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), To Space and Beyond

“You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.” – Stanley Kubrick


2001: A Space Odyssey is always associated with “gorgeous,” “epic,” and inevitably “impossible to understand.” Released in 1968, 2001 is a truly timeless piece that takes time to think over and digest. Not only because it triggers questions such as homo sapiens’ existence and evolution, the relationship between a tool and its operator, and extraterrestrial life, but also because it posts these questions with the marvelous visuals and unique rhythm that make it such a sensational film. When Wally Pfister, the cinematographer of Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) and The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012), introduced 2001 to the audience of “The Last 70mm Film Festival” this August, he explained, “Kubrick’s massive canvas took me directly into outer space, with the perfect dark compositions, the space station slowly floating in hypnotic rotations, and a musical score that matches the grace and power of the brilliant images on the screen.”

Originally filmed in 65 mm negative and later blown up to 70 mm, the details, precision, and contrast that 2001 achieved were spectacular. Kubrick hired Douglas Trumbull, the man who later did special effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Robert Wise, 1979), to be the special effects supervisor of 2001 after watching To the Moon and Beyond that he made for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The crew built a space station miniature that was 300 feet long, and one version of the Discovery spaceship that was 54 feet long: almost too large to be called “miniatures.” Prototypes of the design of Discovery could be found in railroad wagons, battleships, aircrafts, and early spacecrafts. Discovery was also equipped with a centrifuge that was 38 feet in diameter and rotatable. The camera was attached to the centrifuge so that it saw the spacecraft cabin as stationary even though it was moving. The reverse was done to show the astronaut floating and rotating in the cabin at the same time. (Numbers taken from “Encyclopedia of Movie Special Effects,” by Patricia D. Netzley. )

What of the illusionary “intelligent lights” the main character experienced while he traveled through the time corridor? How was the effect created, noted that no digital effects were used? Trumbull invented a new projection technique called “slit-scan filming” to create varying light streams in camera. The filming process took place in a completely dark room with a specially designed a 65mm auto-focus camera whose shutter remained open for a long time. The camera was then used to film a movie that consisted of abstract artworks and electronic-microscope photographs of molecules and crystals, and that was also projected onto rotating screens that were moving towards the camera’s lens.

Because of Kubrick’s preference that all effects be created in-camera (in other words, to be photographed together as opposed to being later combined in post-production), even the commonly used matte technique became challenging. Special effects pioneer at the time, Tom Howard, developed a technique called large-screen front projection especially for the filming of the “From Bone to Satellite” chapter of the film. Mirrors and a 40×90 screen made of highly reflective materials were used to blend the apes, played by mimes, dancers and actors in costumes, and the background setting of the wild.

2001: A Space Odyssey is much more than its dazzling effects (indeed it cost $10.5 million to make). On the other hand, it might have also set its standard of “being meaningful and inspirational” too high in that it only won an Academy Award for its special visual effects. It took Woody Allen three screenings over a couple years years to appreciate the film, and changed his attitude from “disappointed” to realizing “ the artist is much ahead of me.” How many screenings will it take for you to grasp the wisdom of 2001?


  • A flash explanation of 2001: A Space Odyssey on Kubrick 2001.
  • The Kubrick Site: Everything about Kubrick saved as an internet archive
  • A short excerpt of a rare recording of Kubrick talking about the space and stars at the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey in New York

  • The trailer for a currently temporally suspended documentary project on the making of 2001:A Space Odyssey