Classic Scene: 2001, A Space Odyssey

2001 TitleThough full of grandiose sequences, it’s the little things that make Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey an effects groundbreaker, as Drew Turney discovers.

If you watch enough films you can see some very shoddy work on screen these days. Pixelated CGI, bad transitions and unconvincing reality abounds in cinemas, and the fact that a film like the visually stunning 2001: A Space Odyssey, came out in 1968 makes it even less forgivable in the modern era when computers can supposedly do anything.

There are a few directors working today who craft every scene, back-loading the plot, mood and the very DNA of the movie into every frame. But Terrence Malick, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, Michael Winterbottom or Pedro Almodovar all owe a debt to Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick was so exacting about what he wanted to see it wasn’t unusual for him to shoot a scene dozens and in some cases several hundred times to get what he wanted.

Say what you like about 2001 (whether a modern sci-fi classic or disappearing up its own proverbial – debate about the hotel room climax rages to this day), Kubrick knew tone and pace. Everything about 2001 is slow and considered, giving us a leisurely and (it’s not over the top to say it) loving glimpse at the future.

A classic example is the pen scene. To the strains of The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss, we see the passenger cabin of the docking ship on its way to the moon station. Astronaut Floyd (William Sylvester) has fallen asleep and let go of his pen, which drifts throughout the cabin in zero gravity.

We see Floyd’s hand floating in the air beside his seat and the pen glides softly into the frame. Keep your eyes peeled – the key to how they managed the effect is that it only spins through two planes rather than in three.

Whether there was a warning system or Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke thought there’d be particularly good service in 2001, the white clad stewardess appears in the cabin and makes her careful way down the floor towards Floyd’s seat to retrieve the pen. She teeters slightly against the low gravity effects and we see her velcroed shoes gripping the carpet as she approaches.

We cut back to the view along the cabin, the pen floating just in front of us, and the stewardess reaches out and plucks it out of the air to tuck back in Floyd’s pocket.

Some people say if you look closely you can see the slight resistance the pen offers the actresses’ fingers, but we couldn’t pick it. The pen, you see, is affixed to a sheet of clear glass that was slowly rotated by crew members off screen to give the illusion of weightlessness.

Why is that not just clever, but a feat of location engineering? Think about how many light sources, reflections and flashes must have existed on such a futuristic set like the docking ship interior. True to Kubrick’s reputation, you don’t see a single reflection that gives the game away.