What more can be said about Stanley Kubrick's imposing science fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey which forms the centrepiece of the BFI's huge Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season? Quite a bit actually, according to Sir Christopher Frayling, cultural historian, film expert and author of titles such as The Yellow Peril – Dr Fu Manchu and the Rise of Chinophobia. At a recent BFI lecture Frayling had a sneak preview of his book - The 2001 File- to offer up to audiences, using his research and series of striking illustrations from the forthcoming title to illuminate a lecture on the production design history of 2001. Frayling's particular focus however was not on on the mercurial Stanley Kubrick, though the director was certainly a very hands-on force when it came to designing his films, but on the work of one Harry Lange; a NASA engineer-turned-film designer who Kubrick recruited to help bring his singular vision to the screen.
As Frayling's book will show, what marked Kubrick's sci-fi effort out in a crowded field was the director's awareness of how the space race, and the rapidly increasing pace of technological development, meant that any sci-fi film was likely to be quickly dated. Audiences were seeing the dynamics of space travel laid out for them in increasing detail as the US's NASA programmes pushed further out beyond the stratosphere; as 2001 was being developed astronauts were already being sent out into Earth orbit and landers were touching down on the Moon: though 2001's release in 1968 would beat Neil Armstrong to the touchdown line.
2001, originally titled Journey beyond the Stars, was actually a joint project between Kubrick and author Arthur C. Clarke, the idea being not to adapt a film from a novel or vice versa but for both to be developed side by side by both creators. Kubrick and Clarke consumed a huge number of sci-fi space-oriented films in preparation for their masterwork, but Kubrick was largely unsatisfied with the clunky depictions of space travel. One film did strike him though: Destination Moon, along with the space illustrations of one Chester Bonestell - illustrations which included large circular revolving space stations above earth. Wanting to make a decisive break with the Hollywood way of making sci-fi space adventures, and present a plausible future for filmgoers evolved out of current developments, Kubrick turned to his production designer from Dr Strangelove - Ken Adam. Adam felt his imagination would be too limited by the demands of scientific realism however, leaving Kubrick to look elsewhere.
Kubrick's determined search led him to Frederick I. Ordway III and the German-born Harry Lange in 1965. The two men worked for the NASA George C. Marshall Space Flight centre in Alabama and also had set up their own company- General Aeronautics Research Corporation - to produce publicans and consultancy (with Ordway writing and Lange illustrating.) They'd both worked with the scientist who had helped the Nazis' develop rocket weapons and was now aiding NASA win the space race - Werner von Braun.
Ordway would provide scientific advice and would laisie with his network of corporate and government contacts in space and commuter fields (in some cases it seems NASA had to security clear some of the designs appearing in the film), whilst Lange would design and illustrate the space vehicles, environments and space suits. They were joined in the art department by production designer Tony Masters (Day the Earth Caught Fire and Lawrence of Arabia). They were just the men Kubrick needed, and their NASA-esque input helped give 2001 that particular edge over other competitor films: a sense of authenticity, a clinical, icy coolsheen to the design aesthetic, and a complexity to the onscreen tech. The experience was tough - Kubrick was famously finicky over details and Lange often had to see his designs junked as the director struggled to make up his mind- but Lange clearly found a taste for film work here, staying on in the industry to work on the Star Wars films and Moonraker.