The Visual Effects in 2001 – A Space Odyssey by Leonardo Costa


Stanley Kubrick’s visual masterpiece deserved the Oscar® for Best Special Visual Effects in 1968. Not only by the innovative techniques, trick camera movements and huge composition shots, but also for the introduction of new methods that changed the way of thinking and creating special effects. In the way that all the problems were exhaustedly tested and solved, which sums up in a phrase said by the Post Production Supervisor, Kubrick himself: “Do it right, do it better then do it all over again.”



With all technology today, green screen, track movements, 3D software, matte painting and advanced compositing workstations, postproduction services became more accessible and it is almost impossible to create something similar to 2001 without computer graphics. However the special effects in 2001 were all done without the benefits of computer technology. The effects were achieved with a mix of creative camerawork, dedication, experiments and hard work. In this essay I will discuss how those methods created a new comprehensive effects, and inspired a whole new generation, including me, to work in movies and visual effects. New processes were invented or improved, and today the way of thinking in special effects is based on those achievements.

The budget of the production was $10.5 million, a lot of money at the time. From these resources, $6.5 million ended up going towards special effects.1To insure that the film effects were designed to be as realistic-looking as possible, Kubrick invited Douglas Trumbull to join in the crew of the special effects of 2001. He also hired Frederick Ordway, who had worked in NASA, to be responsible for the concept design of the spacecrafts. Machines that today would be created in 3D applications had to be produced in miniatures or models with a lot of details. For the spaceship shots inside the “Discovery” they filmed using a rotating set with all lights and camera secured to the rotating structure. For that, Kubrick had a 30-ton rotating “Ferris wheel” built by Vickers-Armstrong Engineering Group at a cost of $750,0001. A lot of trick cameras in specific positions allowed to give the impression that the astronauts were really in the absence of gravity.


As a wish of the Director of Photography, Geoffrey Unsworth, most of the special effects were made as in-camera effects. Several new methods and pioneering special effects were created to be convincing for the audience. The first sequence, the Dawn of Men, were shot on an indoor set, in Shepperton Studios, England, using an elaborate front projection system created especially for the film. They built a custom projector using 8 by 10 slides and the largest water-cooled arc lamp available. Backgrounds with mountains, sky and great landscapes were possible due to this extraordinary projector, operated by the second unit photography. To provide the illusion of an outdoor scene, a 40 by 90 foot screen was projected behind the actors.1 This pioneering retro reflective matting (front projection) had been used for long time in the film industry, but it was replaced by new techniques, like a green screen, in the beginning of the 1990s.

Space travel shots were made using layers. Four separate but identical takes were be shot2. For the first layer, the spaceship was recorded mechanically alongside a track, without lights, creating a matte for the star field. For the second layer, the spaceship was lit and used as the foreground. In the third step, front-projections were screened in the windows, and finally the shooting of the matted stars would be exposed onto one of the held takes, finishing then the compositing for the scene. The camera movement was recorded and repeated, retaining absolute synchronization, the same way in pan, traveling and tilt, allowing match movement for the composition in all takes. This new technique had allowed create layers of images; compositing the scene through layers of spaceships, stars, sky and planets. Today the compositing workstations are based in this concept. Manipulating images through layers gives the compositor more control of each object of the scene.


Although, the film has only a few shots which one object overlaps another. “The reason for this is that normal matting techniques were either difficult or impossible to use and the final solution to this was meticulously rotoscoped, hand-painted mattes,”2 said Trumbull. At the present time this process of masking or matting an image is very common in post production workflows.It is usual to shoot a scene with stuntmen hanging on a wire then later the cables are removed digitally. To avoid this, Kubrick suspended the astronauts upside down on wires hanging from the ceiling of the studio and shot directly from below, in an angle that he would conceal the wires and other apparently weightless effects.



For the space travel, known as the Star Gate sequence, a new Slit-Scan machine was created by Trumbull to simulate the perception of traveling throughout the stars. This new technique allowed a scanned image, a small print used in scientific and industrial photograph, to produce two seemingly infinite planes of exposure while holding depth-of-field with exposures of approximately one minute per frame.2 This created a stunning and unusual hallucinogenic light journey effect into another dimension, which became one of many groundbreaking visual effects of the film. Chemical reactions were shot in a tank of water to create organic fluids and the effects of exploding stars, vast galaxies, immense clouds of interstellar dust and gas. It was then color corrected with proper exposure, contrast and with different hues and saturations.

It is amazing how Kubrick and his crew created complex scenes in ‘space’ that still remains real and convincing to the audience today as it was 41 years ago. The film keeps its legacy as a dazzling visual masterpiece and continues to inspire films, filmmakers, commercials and promo videos. In the present day it is a lesson in visual effects due the dedication of the team who worked hard to bring new perceptions in effects. From the big projections in the Dawn of men to the Star Gate sequence there’s a lot of complex compositions, more than 200 effects scenes, and certain that the achievement of Kubrick’s team was to set a new standard for quality in visual effects.


1 – Internet Resource Archive: The Special Effects of “2001: A Space Odyssey” 
By George D. DeMet 2 – Creating Special Effects for “2001: A Space Odyssey” by Douglas Trumbull. From: American Cinematographer 3 – 2001: A Space Odyssey (film) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


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