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.
Paintings of satellites, spaceships, planets and planetary surfaces were among Lange’s specialities while at NASA and were frequently employed for promotional purposes. Image from The Harry Lange Archive courtesy of The Boynett Collection. Image at top of post: The 12ft high, matt black rectangular monolith which Lange called “a very, very simple and basic idea – in perfect proportion”. Prior to working with this design, Lange had conceived of the monolith in a variety of different shapes, including a pyramid (see below). Photo: TCD.fr
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.
Harry (Hans-Kurt) Lange (1930–2008). Image from The Harry Lange Archive courtesy of The Boynett Collection
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.
Towards the final design for the Orion-III space plane, this version features a detachable propulsion system. Image from The Harry Lange Archive courtesy of The Boynett Collection
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.”
Early blueprint for Discovery (command module on left) with cylindrical fuel storage. Image from The Harry Lange Archive courtesy of The Boynett Collection
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.
Early concept artwork for Space Station 5 and the final blueprint drawing. Images from The Harry Lange Archive courtesy of The Boynett Collection
“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