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'2001' in 2008: A Cinematic Odyssey

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Tomhanks_l“You can look at it over and over and ponder its meaning,” said Tom Hanks, referring to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. “And it’s a singular meaning for each person. Thank God Kubrick never laid it all out for us.”

Noted space-exploration enthusiast Hanks was speaking at an Academy-hosted forum marking the 40th anniversary of the landmark sci-fi saga. While most of the nation waited to find out who’d be crowned the next American Idol, about 1,000 cinephiles crammed into the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Wednesday night for a unique behind-the-scenes look at the making of the groundbreaking 1968 film.

The event was hosted by the Apollo 13 star and special-effects legend Douglas Trumbull (pictured, left, with Hanks). It was truly Trumbull’s night — he created a presentation on his Apple laptop of never-before-seen photos, videos, and diagrams that explained how many of the film’s pioneering, Oscar-winning effects were accomplished 40 years ago.

Hanks, enthusiastically waving a laser pointer, served as the layman interpreter of Trumbull. While Trumbull plunged into the overwhelming technical data for all of the machines, motors, and models used in the movie, Hanks offered comedic commentary and continually expressed his admiration for Kubrick’s classic.

“I can hardly imagine the studio notes Kubrick would have gotten today,” Hanks added. “Um, could we have a face on the monolith that tells the apes to pick up the bone?”

Here are some of the behind-the-scenes details that Trumbull revealed:

  • Kubrick hired Trumbull after seeing his effects work for the 1964 documentary, To the Moon and Beyond. Many of the effects in that film were based on shots from a 1960 Canadian documentary called Universe. Trumbull screened a portion of Universe, and its outer-space effects were so impressive that Hanks exclaimed, “Canadians made this?”
  • The ape costumes used in the “Dawn of Man” sequence were soconvincing that many moviegoers assumed Kubrick simply trainedreal apes. This perhaps explains why the film didn’t receive an Oscarnomination for its costumes.
  • All of the computer-screen images in the film were actually 35mmmovies that were rear-projected onto blank screens (since, of course,such computer screens weren’t available in the 1960s).
  • For the computer-screen shots of the Discovery One’smalfunctioning equipment, Trumbull actually constructed a largewire-frame model of the device and photographed it multiple times.
  • All the shots of the astronauts floating in outer space (outsideof the Discovery One) were accomplished by dangling a stuntman from thesoundstage’s ceiling and then tilting the camera upward toward him.
  • Before Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) goes on his psychedelic”Stargate” trip near the film’s end, his space pod was supposed totravel through a thin slit carved into one of Jupiter’s moons. The shotnever made it into the final film.
  • The “Stargate” sequence itself was created by filming a massiveart mural through a narrow slit that had been cut into a slide ofglass. I suggest checking out the Wikipedia entry on slit-scan photography and this site, which “unwraps” some of the shots from 2001.
  • Kubrick considered a variety of alien designs before decidingthat it’d be better if we never saw any aliens, period. One trippydesign included a man completely covered in a polka-dot outfit.

The audience got a kick out of seeing this stuff, especially thefellows sitting right behind me (one man brought in a large doll ofDave in his yellow spacesuit, while the other guys talked about thespaceship models they kept in their garages).

But, I didn’t mind behind surrounded by those whom you would commonly call “geeks.” After all, 2001is one of the most awe-inspiring films you can watch, and it wasexhilarating to see so many people gathered together to grovel at itsmagnificence.

Originally posted May 23 2008 — 3:23 PM EDT

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