Scene is Believing – 2001: A Space Odyssey


Going For A Spin: The Centrifuge Set, Borehamwood

In 1964, Stanley Kubrick was MGM’s golden boy. He had just delivered them a critical and commercial hit with Dr Strangelove: or, How I learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.  The studio was willing to back whatever he next had in mind. What he proposed to make, co-writing with visionary author Arthur C. Clarke, was 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film surpassed all expectations, baffled critics and audiences, yet remains a landmark in cinema, a technical tour de force as much as a thrilling, sensous, philosophical trip “beyond the infinite”.

The budget ballooned from $2 million to over $10 million, and the production stretched on for over three years. Nine shooting stages were taken up at MGM Borehamwood, as well as Elstree and Shepperton. One of the most impressive and technically audacious sets was the centrifuge, the revolving, gravity simulating hub of the spaceship Discovery.

This set was a huge drum, nearly forty feet in diameter and twenty feet wide, constructed to exacting standards at a cost of $750,000. The actual shooting set inside the middle was considerably narrower: sandwiching it on either side were all the lights and electrical equipment that made the astronauts hub look so convincing. Film projectors provided the graphics for the computer screens inside. Giant air conditioning tubes sucked away the incredible heat generated by the lighting units while pumping fresh air into the shooting section. When shooting to illuminate the inside as if by strip lighting, the outside would glow like a giant roman candle.


Inside, the crew had to wear hard hats, as invariably forgotten tools, or broken glass from overworked lights would tumble down as it revolved. In contrast to the smooth, stately motion on screen, the steel support struts would creak and groan as the finely calibrated load adjusted itself.

There were two basic camera set ups. In the first, the camera would be bolted to the floor and the operator securely strapped to his his chair while they both wheeled around the set, the chair gimballed so the operator would remain oriented. Meanwhile the actors at the bottom trod along on the spot. As the camera wheeled past it appeared as if they were walking around while the set remained still. At one point, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) exits a hatch from the middle pillar and climbs down the ladder to the floor. The angle at which the camera was set made it look as if it was a semi-sideways movement. Once on the floor the centrifuge was set in motion and he strolled until Frank poole (Gary Lockwood) revolved around to meet him. Up to this point Lockwood was firmly strapped down to his chair behind a desk and sitting forty feet in the air. Kubrick’s camera angles and Lockwood’s unconcerned appearance create confusion in the viewers mind over what is “up” and “down”.

kubrick 2001 set

A clever sleight of hand occurs when Poole jogs around, shadow boxing, the camera either in front of him or behind, as computer panels, desks and suspended animation chambers whiz past. The camera was kept in place directly in front or behind, about twenty feet from him, held in place by a steel cable fed through a slot in the floor. As the camera moved, rubber mats fell back in place to obscure its passage, while the actor merely moved on the spot.

2001 70mm camera centrifuge

Kubrick directed operations from a small office next to the set, using closed-circuit T.V, and an early type of video tape for instant rushes, a forerunner of today’s video village, used by so many directors on large complex productions like The Lord Of The Rings, or the Star Wars prequels. The rim of the drum was carefully marked so that operators would know exactly how far to rotate it for each shot. Actors within used internal furniture and fixtures as markers for their performances.

The precision engineering for this set, and other mind boggling tricks would inspire a host of new film-makers, especially James Cameron. He was inspired by Kubrick, as well as low budget mentor Roger Corman, to achieve effects “in camera”, and bring his love of engineering to the fine detail of many props and models in his science fiction films. Most recently, Christopher Nolan has created a similar set for the gravity defying hotel corridor fight in Inception, a film I’m sure Kubrick would have approved of, seeing as he viewed cinema as a “waking dream”.

Although mankind has had a stop/start approach to space travel since the heyday of the 1960’s, 2001’s  craft still seem incredibly realistic, and plausible. Arthur C. Clarke’s brother, on visiting the set remarked that “You could almost imagine they were bulding a prototype for the real thing.”

Originally posted 2012-01-30 23:10:04. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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