sabato 11 ottobre 2014

"A spaceship of the mind": Oliver Rennert's Discovery

You may remember that in several previous posts I talked about Oliver Rennert's exquisitely detailed drawings for Piers Bizony's The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s '2OO1: A Space Odyssey', published by Taschen in July. 

I also told you how Oliver is now selling, on his website, a high-quality Giclée print of his flagship drawing, the Discovery cutaway, as a limited edition of 500 pieces, numbered and signed with certificate of authenticity.

I had met Oliver at the launch party of The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s '2OO1', chez Kubrick's, and he immediately struck me as a nice and modest guy. By then, although I had admired the amazing quality of his original artworks that were on display there, I was a bit skeptical about how a print could render such hand-made details so faithfully, despite having learned that a Giclée print is high-quality art paper printed with super-fine ink spray dots and it's almost indistinguishable from an actual painting. 

Well, my dear friend Navneet sent me one Discovery print - and boy, is it awesome!

....looks like everything is in its right place!

I therefore realized that others fans, who could be skeptical as well, might be interested in knowing how Oliver got the job, realized those drawings, and how, in the process, managed to live for eleven weeks "inside" one of the most famous fictional spaceships ever. Here's what he told me.

* * *

First of all, how did you get involved in the Taschen project?

I had never worked for Taschen before nor did I know Bizony personally (though I did have a copy of his earlier book on 2OO1, Filming the Future). It all began on an evening here in Cologne, where there was a live production of 2OO1 being staged at the Philharmonic Concert Hall, live meaning that there was a full orchestra and two choirs performing in synch to the film being screened above the musician's heads. My cousin Jan Harlan was also there. After the show we all - my wife Marion, Jan and me - went to dinner. During the lively conversation about the spectacular show we had just seen I showed Jan the Bizony book; did he know about it? Of course he did, and then he let drop the side remark that Taschen were going to do a huge book project about 2OO1, it would be unlike anything anyone had ever seen.

Oliver Rennert and Piers Bizony dedicating copies of The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s '2OO1' during the launch party (photo © Oliver Boito, from Taschen's Facebook page)

2OO1 had always been a landmark experience in my life, and here I suddenly realized that I could, as it were, pay homage to that achievement which was so much part of my formative years. With my background as an illustrator, I could possibly contribute some explanative illustrations to the book should the author and the publisher be agreeable. Furthermore, these illustrations would be the first of their kind for this film, and since I work in the time-honoured media of traditional illustrators these images would seamlessly fit in with anything Taschen would dig up in the Kubrick archives - material on 2OO1 would be at least some forty years old, way before any digital rendering techniques.

Jan thought this a great idea and forwarded me the contact details of Piers Bizony, as well as Florian Kobler at Taschen. I contacted both, and both liked the idea. Bizony was quite enthusiastic after he had seen my website, he thought here was the right man for such a job. I went and spent a week at Piers's house in England, we basically ransacked his image files for anything that could be useful and brainstormed ideas. Three main images emerged, they are the ones that ended up in the book. (the Discovery cutaway, plus two drawings about how front-projection and the slit-scan machine work) Kobler was persuaded to commissioning illustrations after I had shown him a quite-detailed line drawing of the proposed Discovery cutaway illustration - something that he would never have been able to get elsewhere, in this way. So it was all agreed and away I went.

A close-up of Oliver's detailed drawing of the Discovery insides. The real thing looks way better.

I had quite a few other ideas, but they would have involved some gentle creative input of my own that would not have been supported directly by the film material available. These illustrations would have given life to scenes the film doesn't show, but would necessarily have been part of the story. For example, I would have loved to show more detail of the docking of the Orion with the space station, also a cutaway of the station itself would have been lovely. Also a picture showing how the Aries actually docks with the station would have been nice, but all these images have no precedent in the film, and Piers was rightly adamant that the book only deal with actual, certifiable material and not go off on fantasy tangents.

The decision for the three eventual images had its base in that there should be some which explained the pioneering filmmaking techniques, which otherwise would have required lots of text - a typical case of a picture being worth more than a thousand words. The Discovery Cutaway, however, is there because I felt that this spaceship, in and around which so much of the film action happens, is a confusing maze of interior architecture which could do with some summary visual explanation. And I wanted to create something beautiful to look at as well, to go with all the other aesthetic jewels both the film and the book present. Lastly, I wanted to commemorate Harry Lange, who was one of the major designers of the film, and whom I remember, having worked with him myself a long time ago, at EMI Elstree studios, in 1980-81.

One of the other two drawings Oliver realized for Taschen: the front-projection mechanism devised for 2OO1.

How did you make up the interiors of the Discovery? I'm asking this because fans debated for decades about the odd proportions that seem to originate when you consider the various areas of the ship as seen in the movie (i.e. the pod bay and the centrifuge sections are too big to fit the sphere seen from the outside), so I was wondering if you had access to some blueprints or you worked out all by yourself.

This was actually quite tricky and involved some major brainwork. First of all, all the illustrations were done the old-fashioned way: watercolours, inks, airbrush work, coloured pens etc., they weren't created digitally. That was the intention: produce something in 2013 that looks as if it was made in 1965, so that it fits seamlessly with all the visual material that the Kubrick archives provided for Piers Bizony and the Taschen book. The actual design of the Discovery illustration was arrived at after careful weighing and assessing the evidence. I had done complicated cutaways of objects before, and it involves putting yourself at the centre of the object and looking out in a direction from which you could then, when looking in, see as much as possible of the objects elements.

With Discovery, it was obvious that the big ball should be in the foreground, that an above-deck level would be required to see behind the space pods and that there would be no way that I could show the centrifuge, HAL's brain room and the flight deck without somehow moving the last two of these out from the central area. Still, the overall sphere image also needed to be conveyed. This would also get me out of the very real conundrum of the centrifuge, pod bay and flight deck being too large for the available space. For this illustration, it all was a matter of how you look at the various parts in relation to each other in perspective while still also conveying the overall sphere image.

Thus I arrived at the peeled-orange solution you now see. The long tail was included because on the one hand it is a hallmark of Discovery and should be included in any image of the spaceship, and on the other hand it gave me a tool to allow Taschen to frame the illustration any which way they needed to. Sounds odd, but they had not given me any idea of the book's design. I had no idea what shape the book would be, I had no contact with the designers at M/M Paris. So I suppose Taschen just let me go ahead and run with my ideas. My impression is that Taschen are not a publisher who readily commissions illustrations, they much rather deal with readily available material, and thus they were possibly not used to the communicative traffic between author, illustrator and designer that usually accompanies the creative process of a production in the way I know it. They would somehow accommodate my illustration in their design.

The technical detail was worked out pretty much between Piers and myself. I had borrowed a copy of Fred Ordway's book 2OO1: The Lost Science from Piers. He also let me have some archive imagery and blueprints and I had Piers' book. And, of course, I also had a DVD of the film. In the end, it all came together without too much creative coercion. There were numerous sketches and perspective drafts until the right viewing angle and amounts of foreshortening emerged. I watched the film umpteen times, looking first for one specific detail here, then another there. It felt like living aboard the ship at times. Of course, in the end you can stretch physics only to a certain degree: there had to be the odd bit of illustrative magic applied occasionally, but in such subtle amounts that it doesn't show up noticeably in the result at all. After all, Discovery is a spaceship of the mind, the real ship only existed in several disjointed film sets. The fact that it all went together as well as it did is another credit to the original designers and hard working crew that made it all possible. Overall, the illustration took 11 weeks to complete, working pretty much seven days a week.

Oliver showing his job to other guests at the launch party. Source: Taschen on Facebook

I was told that there is the chance that an annotated version could be produced as well - where the various parts of Discovery are captioned with leader lines, like a stylish technical drawing...

To answer that I need to go back a little: I am no digital artist and have to rely on the services of the very professional folks at my printer's. Giclée prints are expensive and difficult to produce in any quality worth truly looking at, and this one is a cream-of-the-crop example. To give you an idea: where regular prints are set up to be printed at 330 dpi, Discovery gets the full 2880 dpi treatment in order to produce the nice, velvet darkest-blue backdrop. We do what is necessary. To get to where the file is now I had to spend a lot of time with a Photoshop pro to clean up the original scan data. Taschen's file is very good already, but it is geared at book print production, and the result in the book is less than half of the size the actual artwork. My prints, however, are same size to the original, every tiny little flaw would be visible, and I wanted to present a perfect image. That is why we went back to the original scan data from the illustration.

After all was done and I was ready to sell the first prints I had run up a massive bill. Putting captions and leader lines on the image file would involve additional expenditure. I figured I hold off on this until my Photoshop bill has been paid by sufficient "pure" prints having been sold. 2OO1 imagery of this nature is for a probably very limited market only: it is expensive to make and it is delicate to handle. Also, forty-something years after the film's release the 2OO1 fan base would be quite small now. Only true aficionados really are prepared to pay the money I ask for Discovery Cutaway. But may it be known here that most of the money actually goes towards production and shipping, my profit is very limited indeed. So I have to be patient and wait for more orders to roll in before I can afford further expense on this project. I am confident, though, that eventually a break-even point is reached, and when it is I'll go for the annotated version.

* * *

In conclusion: for us 2OO1 fans the Discovery is, after all, more than a fictional spaceship - it's a real machine that actually flew to Jupiter. And she belonged to our dreams for so long that it's almost unreal that, finally, an artist devoted his skills to expose - respectfully - her inner beauty for the first time. Because, after all, "machines are so sexy", as Stanley Kubrick said once!

Give yourself a little treat, contact Oliver through his website. The prints are still available, and if the Discovery is the spaceship of your dreams, you won't regret it.

lunedì 25 agosto 2014

Kubrick, George Best e la Coppa del Mondo del '66

Stanley Kubrick si trovò di certo di fronte ad una lunga serie di ostacoli durante la realizzazione di 2OO1 - organizzativi, tecnici, economici... Ma chi se lo immaginava che sul suo percorso si fosse andata a piazzare anche la finale dei Mondiali di calcio del 1966?

fonte: catalogo della mostra "Stanley Kubrick", ed.tedesca, p.281

La storia che segue è solo un esempio di quello che potrete trovare nel clamoroso libro della Taschen The Making of Stanley Kubrick's 2OO1, uscito in edizione limitata il mese scorso e subito esaurito. E' però ancora disponibile un'altra versione, sebbene costosetta, che include anche una litografia autografa dell'artista Brian Sanders, quindi chi è interessato può ordinarlo dal sito medesimo o dai distributori italiani di

Nel 1966 l'Inghilterra era la nazione organizzatrice dell'Ottava edizione della Coppa del Mondo di Calcio, che si tenne dall'11 al 30 Luglio. Tutte le partite dell'Inghilterra vennero giocate nel mitico stadio di Wembley; solo 15 chilometri più a nord, negli studi MGM di Borehamwood, stavano per concludersi le riprese live action (ovvero con attori) delle sequenze "spaziali" di 2OO1. La sezione "L'Alba dell'Uomo" era ancora in fase di studio e sarebbe stata girata solo nell'agosto-settembre 1967, e la troupe si era messa al lavoro sulle sequenze degli effetti speciali.

Tali riprese richiesero una quantità senza precedenti di prove e sperimentazioni e durarono più di 18 mesi, principalmente poiché Kubrick era deciso ad un approccio "senza compromessi" per quanto riguardava l'aspetto dei modellini, in modo da rompere con il look non abbastanza verosimile che questi avevano finora avuto nel cinema di fantascienza. Il regista decise di esplorare ogni strada possibile, tra il tentativo di migliorare le tecniche di ripresa pre-esistenti e lo sviluppo di nuove metodologie.

Questo sforzo portò, per esempio, alla costruzione di un modello della Discovery lungo 16 metri (probabilmente ancor'oggi il modello di una nave spaziale più grande mai costruito per un film). Sarebbe stato impossibile, come si faceva usualmente, muovere il modellino attorno alla cinepresa: in questo caso era questa a muoversi attorno al modello, lungo una rotaia di una cinquantina di metri, per mezzo di un massiccio meccanismo a ruota dentata importato apposta da una fabbrica automobilistica di Detroit. Utilizzando questo meccanismo di precisione, facendo muovere lentissimamente la cinepresa ed impressionando solo pochi frame al secondo, con un'apertura ridottissima dell'obiettivo della macchina da presa, la squadra di effetti speciali capeggiata da Wally Veevers riuscì a ottenere una profondità di campo tale da avere la lunghissima Discovery a fuoco e nitidissima da un capo all'altro. Tale processo era talmente lento che venne descritto da Kubrick "come fissare la lancetta delle ore di un orologio".

Una rara immagine della Discovery lunga 16 metri. Kubrick aveva vietato di proposito fotografie di questo innovativo "modellone". Fonte:

Lo stesso lentissimo metodo venne usato per girare la splendida sequenza in cui la stazione spaziale ruota attorno al proprio asse, con stupenda ed inarrivabile fluidità, nella scena in cui Floyd la raggiunge a bordo dell'Orion. Poiché per ottenere pochi minuti di filmato utile bisognava far muovere la macchina da presa per ore, non era ovviamente possibile accorgersi di problemi nel movimento dei modellini (per esempio oscillazioni o movimenti imprevisti degli stessi o della macchina da presa) se non dopo aver sviluppato la pellicola, cosa che a volte avveniva molto tempo dopo, e obbligava il già esausto team di effetti speciali a rigirare la scena.

Un giorno, controllando queste riprese risalenti a qualche settimana prima, Kubrick si accorse di un tremore evidente ed improvviso della stazione spaziale, che era sembrata letteralmente "sbandare da un lato all'altro dello schermo". Una veloce ricerca nei diari di produzione rivelò che quella particolare ripresa era stata effettuata nel pomeriggio del 30 Luglio. Cos'era successo?

Il modello della stazione spaziale aveva il diametro di quasi tre metri. Fonte:

Molto semplicemente, la sequenza era stata girata esattamente durante la finale della Coppa del Mondo tra Inghilterra e Germania Ovest. Molti membri dello staff erano venuti a lavorare quel giorno solo a condizione di poter piazzare un televisore negli studi, in modo da poter dare un'occhiata di tanto in tanto...  Allo stesso tempo, nello studio di ripresa di fianco, il modello della stazione spaziale ruotava lentamente, ripreso al ritmo di un fotogramma ogni sei secondi - e per soli diciotto secondi, vale a dire tre fotogrammi, a metà strada del girato, il pavimento aveva tremato. Verso le 17, tutti avevano saltato di gioia all'unisono - Geoff Hurst aveva segnato il gol vincente dell'Inghilterra!

Geoff Hurst segna il gol vincente della finale dei Mondiali: risultato finale, Inghilterra 4 Germania Ovest 2.

Il capitano inglese Bobby Moore con la Coppa Rimet (il trofeo che veniva assegnato all'epoca ai Campioni del Mondo, poi rimpiazzato dal 1974 dalla Coppa FIFA)

Nonostante la Coppa del Mondo avesse interferito con la realizzazione del suo capolavoro, Kubrick non se ne ebbe troppo a male. Sì, continuava a restare un newyorkese, tanto da farsi spedire videocassette di football americano da sua sorella rimasta negli USA, e in seguito - con l'arrivo dell'epoca delle pay-tv - gli piaceva gustarsi i playoff dell'NFL. Ma, come residente in Inghilterra da metà degli anni '60, era anche diventato capace di apprezzare il nostro calcio, e amava chiacchierarne con amici come il suo attore e futuro assistente Leon Vitali.

Citando di nuovo la figlia Katharina,
Mi ricordo che gli piaceva la squadra in cui giocava George Best - era il Manchester United? Era un grande fan di George Best. Ma non credo fosse "tifoso" di qualche squadra in particolare. Credo guardasse una partita quando le squadre giocavano bene, quando era un bello spettacolo da vedere - alcune partite sono noiose, e altre invece hanno giocatori interessanti.

E quel bellissimo modello della stazione spaziale? Sopravvissuto al "terremoto" causato dalla Coppa del Mondo, qualche anno dopo fu caricato per errore da una ditta incaricata di trasferire i magazzini della MGM e trasportato in una discarica lì vicino. Uno studente locale fece in tempo a scattare qualche foto, ma essendo in Vespa non riuscì a portarsi via niente - quando tornò con un mezzo più adeguato il tutto era già stato sfasciato da ignoti ragazzini del posto.

History in the making: Kubrick & the 1966 World Cup

Stanley Kubrick had to overcome several obstacles in order to get his space vision right in 2OO1. But who would have thought that one of such annoyances was the 1966 World Cup Final itself?

Source: Stanley Kubrick exhibition catalogue, p.281

The following story is only one of the many recounted in the majestic Taschen's book The Making of Stanley Kubrick's 2OO1, that sold out almost immediately in its limited 500€ edition. The even more limited 1.000€ version, including a signed print by 2OO1 art advisor Brian Sanders is still available, so hurry up and head to Taschen's web site.

the official poster of the 1966 World Cup

In 1966 England hosted the 8th FIFA World Cup, that kicked off on July, 11 with the England-Uruguay game at Wembley. By that time, the shooting of the live action sequences set in space were almost finished (the "dawn of men" section was still being planned and ended up being shot in august-september 1967), and the 2OO1 crew was working hard to get the special effects shots done right. This required an unprecedented amount of testing and experimentation that lasted more that 18 months, both improving old techniques and developing new methods of shooting spaceships in a "believable" way, as Kubrick was committed to a level of smooth movement and pristine look of the models previously unseen in science fiction movies.

Such commitment led to the building of the largest spaceship models ever built, such as a 54-foot model of Discovery, that was obviously impossible to move around a camera - it was the camera that moved, very slowly, around it, activated by a massive worm gear imported from a Detroit automobile plant, on a mini-railway 150 feet long. By shooting only several seconds per frame, the special effects team was able to obtain the deep-focus photography that made the model look, on the screen, pin-sharp from one end to the other. The excruciating slowness of the process was described by Kubrick himself as "like watching the hour hand of a clock".

A rare picture of the 54-feet model of the Discovery. Kubrick banned any casual photography of the larger model. Source:

The same method was used to shoot the beautiful space-station model that, on screen, rotates so swiftly and majestically above Earth. Because of the time required to get a few seconds of footage, occasional wobbling movements of the models couldn't be spotted on the fly, and were detected only after the film was processed, sometimes weeks later - causing the frustrated fx crew to go back and shoot the sequence all over again.

One day, checking the dailies, a particularly shaky movement of the space station showed up on screen. The station suddenly seemed to "lurch from one side of the screen to another". A search in the log sheets revealed that the event took place during a long exposure sequence in the afternoon of July 30, 1966. What had happened?

The 8-feet model of the space station. Source:

Quite simply, that sequence happened to be shot in the very day when, only 10 miles away from the MGM Borehamwood studios, England and West Germany took the field to play the World Cup final in Wembley. Yes, the greatest moment in English football history happened during the shooting of one of the greatest movies ever.
"Kubrick now remembered that many of his staffers hadn't been willing to work that day unless they could wheel a TV set into the shooting studio and look at it from time to time. [...] in the same instant, they'd all leaped up to applaud England's winning goal. Meanwhile, on its reinforced shooting stage, the space station had been turning gently for three hours, while the camera snapped doggedly away at six seconds per frame, for 1500 frames, enough to generate about a minute's worth of footage. And of for three frames somewhere about halfway through that 1500, the studio floor had shaken". (Taschen's "The Making of Stanley Kubrick's 2OO1", pp.178-9)
Geoff Hurst's winning goal in the 1966 World Cup Final. Final result: England 4, West Germany 2.

 The iconic picture of Bobby Moore, England's captain, in triumph with the FIFA World Cup original prize, awarded until 1970: the Jules Rimet trophy.

Despite the fact that the World Cup interfered slightly with the shooting of his masterpiece, Kubrick wasn't one of those american "soccer haters" at all. Yes, he was "a nice boy from the Bronx" as he was described by Craig McGregor, and as such he enjoyed watching the videos of american football games that his sister used to send him. But, as he had lived in England since the mid 60's, he also liked "our" football, and loved to talk about it with friends like his former actor and then assistant Leon Vitali.

Quoting Katharina again from an old alt.movies.kubrick message,
I do remember him liking the team that George Best played for - er, Manchester United was it? He was a big G. Best fan. But I don't think that he "supported" any team in particular. I think he watched a game on it's own merits, some are good entertainment and exciting and full of tension and some games are boring, and some teams have interesting players.

And that beautiful space station model? It survived the World Cup Quake, but a few years later it ended up in the entrance way of the local corporation dump in Stevenage - it was later smashed up by kids. The whole (sad) story is available here.