giovedì 17 ottobre 2013

2001: The aliens that almost were

(pour les visiteurs francophones, voici la traduction en français, merci a;
La mia versione in italiano invece si può leggere qui)

1. Early conceptions

In a film like 2001, a project that started with the explicit purpose of investigating the possibility of extraterrestrial life, it comes as no surprise that Kubrick decided very soon in the production to tackle the problem of how to actually depict the extraterrestrials themselves.

Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke had met for the first time in April 1964: by the last months of that year the director had already set up a team working on hundreds of drawings about possible E.T. shapes - his wife Christiane was on board as well and worked on preparatory drawings - and in late 1965, the young and recently hired collaborator Anthony Frewin joined the team, researching on modern sculptures, paintings of German artist Max Ernst and modern art in general to try different ideas. (Here's a detailed account by Frewin about his appointment to the movie and about Kubrick fondness of Ernst; thirty years later, Ernst's influence resurfaced in a Ian Watson interview about the making of the early Kubrick project that turned into Spielberg's Artificial Intelligence).

Some of those eerie alien landscapes can be seen in the 'bonus materials' of the DVD edition of 2001 issued in 2007 (and captured in screenshots and videos in these three fine websites); here's an example of the material and a comparison with a famous painting from Ernst.

Author unknown, alien landscape, pre-production drawing for 2001 (source). We can see some insect-like beings similar to those later described by Arthur Clarke in a script draft.
Max Ernst, Europe After The Rain (1940-42)

Another reason for such an early start in the quest for a credible alien came from the script evolution. Arthur C. Clarke gives us an interesting hint about the many ideas pursued and abandoned; starting with an entry in his diary dated October 6, 1964, reproduced in the book The Lost Worlds of 2001:
Have got an idea which I think is crucial. The people we meet on the other star system are humans who were collected from Earth a hundred thousand years ago, and hence are virtually identical with us.
The earliest outline of the story drafted by Kubrick and Clarke featured the discovery of a extraterrestrial artifact as the climax and not at the beginning of the story (as in The Sentinel, the 1948 novel that was chosen as a basis for the movie);
Before that, we would have a series of incidents or adventures devoted to the exploration of the Moon and Planets. [...] The rest of 1964 was spent brainstorming. As we developed new ideas, so the original conception slowly changed. "The Sentinel" became the opening, not the finale.
So, now that the plot focused on an early meeting of alien and men that had to take place on earth, the script had to feature an explicit description of the alien. In a draft from 1965, the main alien character even had a name: Clindar, straightforwardly borrowed by Clarke from his old novel Encounter in the dawn (1954), originally collected in the anthology Expedition to Earth.

The cover of Expedition to Earth (1954) and the Kubrick-Clarke duo in a 1964 photo (source)

Although not included in the series of novels whose rights Clarke had sold to Kubrick as a basis for the 2001, Encounter will end up giving the first part of the final movie its basic structure: Clindar is a very human-like alien who "could pass for an human with some surgery" and he's basically an anthropologist that helps the struggling ape-men on Earth, showing them, among the other things, how to kill a hyena with a bone. Clearly, Clindar's function is the same of what the monolith turned out to have in the finished movie: he's a catalyst for the potential of the human race.

Slowly, Kubrick and Clarke decided to move the actual meeting of aliens and humans to the climax of the movie, in the final scene after the Stargate - basically trading places with the appearance of the alien artifact; and the monolith, that at this stage had already appeared on the moon as a pyramid as in The Sentinel, would take the place of the aliens as catalyst/teacher on the prehistoric earth.

2. from humanoids to gargoyles

During the subsequent development of the script, Clarke slowly drifted away from a humanoid depiction of the aliens: in a later draft (late 1965), after crossing the stargate David Bowman makes a fly-by over an alien city, where bipeds lizards glances at him with little interest, and other mantid-like and globular beings simply ignore him.

No explicit input from Kubrick on the topic of the physical resemblance of the aliens is documented in this phase of the development, until the appearance of a note in Clarke's diary dated May 25, 1965:
Now Stanley wants to incorporate the Devil theme from Childhood's End....
The resigned tone of the note is a telltale sign of the growing desperation of the writer to come up with interesting themes for the demanding director; but it's also a reminder that Kubrick was not only aware but also very interested in Clarke's 1953 book Childhood's End since the beginning of the project. Kubrick apparently tried to buy the movie rights of the book, but they were already under option, and the same Metro-Goldwin-Mayer was in talks of producing a movie based on the book to be directed by George Pal and scripted by Howard Koch. (The project disappeared after MGM committed to 2001).

The book, one of Clarke's best, had a large influence on 2001 and we will deal with it in a later article. What is important right now is the fact that the revelation of the physical appearance of the aliens in the book is one of the most shocking in sci-fi history: they turn out to look like the traditional human folk images of demons - large bipeds with leathery wings, horns and tails. Maybe Kubrick was amused by this shocking revelation and the effect that it might have had on the audience?

This is how artist Neil Adams imagined the Overlords for a Childhood's End movie project that never came to be (source)

This purported devilish theme was quickly dismissed and never resurfaced in later script drafts, although some echoes might be still recognizable in the following pictures of the alien sculptures produced for the movie:

These aliens look very much like gargoyles, the grotesque statues seen on the walls of churches, cathedrals especially from the medieval age. They were produced in rubber, and in a recent comment made by Katharina Kubrick in the alt.movies.kubrick Facebook group, I learned that some of them were sculpted by Stanley's wife Christane:
My mother Christiane also spent time making aliens out of clay in her studio at Abbots Mead. They were cast in rubber and painted in weird colours and I'm guessing they could have been manipulated a la Muppets. Of course they were never used and ended up dotted around the garden. Too funny to see people reactions to these rather unusual garden gnomes.....
Source: Douglas Trumbull

Source: Taschen's The Making of Stanley Kubrick's 2001, via Twitter user @kubrickfaves

3. FX people have their say

The humanoid-alien concept was slowly morphing into something else, as in subsequent scripts drafts the authors looked prone to experiment in different directions. In The Lost Worlds of 2001, Clarke recount scripts in which aliens were described with a typically "elongated" silhouette, similar in many ways to the sci-fi cliché that later movies will popularize, starting with Close Encounters of the third kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977).

One of the members of the special effects crew of 2001, Wally Gentleman, recalled for Cinefex magazine that
In one treatment, the alien was to come along and take Bowman by the hand. It was going to be a towering insect-like creature - rather light and vaporous. One logical way to do this would have been to shoot the creature with a variable anamorphic lens to elongate the image onto film. With such a lens, you can squeeze the image from side to side and from top to bottom, and you can increase or decrease the ratio of the squeeze. Then, by projecting that squeezed image onto a mirror positioned in front of Bowman at an angle 45 degrees to the camera, we could have made the alien appeared to be standing right next to him, and it would all have been on the original negative. Quite traditional, really - the technique goes back to the stage arts.
Attempts were made to realize this concept, with an actor wearing a white suit; the results were judged "dull and unconvincing".

 Author unknown; alien landscape, pre-production drawing for 2001 (source). Some "elongated" aliens, definitely humanoid-looking (arms, torso, legs).

 The insect-like alien from Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Gentleman recalls also that
There were many other alien concepts - most of them created after I left. One was a cone-shaped thing with pea bulbs all over it - a tall mass of glittering light that looked like a Christmas tree. Kubrick had Doug Trumbull working on the thing, but Doug was rather contemptuous of the whole idea. Doug would always state just exactly what he was thinking - about everything - which I think nettled Stanley in the beginning, but he gradually got used to it. Doug was, after all, dealing from a position of authority since his work was so good, from concept to execution.
One of the special fx supervisors, Douglas Trumbull adds:
We spent an enormous (in italics in the original text) amount of time trying to design extraterrestrials that we could include in the film. I produced quite a few alien effects using video feedback. Video feedback has a strange kind of lifelike quality to it, so I made a video feedback system for creating totally nonhumanoid shapes of pulsating light.
'T.V. man': the video-feedback alien (source:
I also created some aliens using the same concepts as the City of Light (an effect conceived for the stargate sequence, later discarded), only rather than having a lot of little light bulbs, I put together a kaleidoscope projector that produced varying-diameter shapes, and then multiplied those into four facets and projected them onto a piece of white cardboard. As this thing moved in space, it would create a light image of variable volume that would be somewhat humanoid in shape. By changing the patterns in the kaleidoscope from a small diameter to a sudden larger diameter, I could roughly create the shape of a head, shoulders, arms, body and legs. Yet it was all just volumetric light that looked sort of like a jellyfish - transparent luminosity. There were things about it that worked and things about it that didn't - such as, it was very difficult to get thee light characters to move or articulate. It just got to be terribly complex.
The 'jellyfish' alien. Source: The Making of Kubrick's 2001

Two more alien attempts. Source:

Brian Johnson, one of the special effects assistants, was also involved in developing a number of alien concepts, which, like all of the others, would never reach fruition.
Stanley wanted something that was really different, but didn't know just what. At one point he wanted something like a Giacometti sculpture - humanoid in shape, but very thin and distorted. So I got involved in producing a suit of light with about five thousand tiny bulbs wired onto it. The idea was to put one of the dancers we had choreographing the ape sequence into this suit - which was made out of black velvet - and the photograph him with star filters on the lens and various other things. The lights alone would define the creature.
Then we were going to squeeze the image in some way and distort it so that we'd have this weird creature that would float about. I worked on that for quite some time. We also went through a variation of that idea, utilizing a black velvet suit with a whole series of front-projection dots that we projected images onto. The thinking was that, without thousands of pea bulbs wired onto his suit, the dancer would have much greater flexibility of motion. But all this was near the end of production, and it never got cut in. I don't think it was quite what Stanley wanted.
A Giacometti-like sculpture made for 2001, called by the fx people "Reddy Kilowatt" (source: Stanley Kubrick Archives)

Reddy Kilowatt (left) is a branding character that acted as corporate spokesman for electricity generation in the US for some six decades. (source)

Alberto Giacometti's famous sculpture "L'Homme qui marche I" (The walking man I) became in 2010 the most expensive sculpture ever sold in an auction: US$ 103,7 million, including the buyer's premium. (source)

4. Last attempts: The Polka-dot man

Summer, 1967: the movie is almost finished, desperation is kicking in. Make-up maestro Stuart Freeborn recalled for Cinefex the late experiments he supervised:
Stanley came up to me one day, and he said: "I've got an idea. What if we do a kind of optical illusion?" He had seen a dotted pattern somewhere, in front of a dotted-pattern background - and the result was something that was virtually invisible, yet somewhat visible just because it was on a different plane than the background. It was an intriguing idea, and Stanley asked me to begin working on something along those lines. So we got a performer, and I made a white bald cap that fit him nice and tight; then I put black round spots evenly all over it. I did the same thing on a pair of tights that covered the rest of his body. We got the largest paper hole-puncher we could locate, and stamped out perfect rounds of black paper, which we glued all over his white form. We covered him completely - right over his feet, all down his legs, everywhere.

Then we stood him against a white background with the same-size black dots all over it. The effect was stunning. Standing still, he would disappear into the backing; but when he moved, you could just make out a shape. It was an amazingly weird effect - quite extraordinary - but I don't think it really fit in the movie. I could never see how Stanley was going to use it - and, of course, he never did.
Dan Richter, the mime actor who played "Moonwatcher" - the leader of the ape-man pack in the "Dawn of men" segment of the movie - talked about this experiment in his book, Moonwatcher's Memoirs: in an entry of his diary dated September 5, 1967 he recalls Kubrick asking him to stay a little longer, after finishing the shooting of the ape-men scenes, to try some shots using high-contrast film. After having all the "dots" put over his body and being placed on a rotating platform, Richter asked Kubrick:
"What do you want me to do, Stanley?"
"Well, Dan, we'll start with you completely still, and when I give the word, move very slowly and sinuously".
"Like this?" I hold my arms out to the side and move them in a wavelike manner as I slowly turn my head.
Source: Stanley Kubrick Archives

"That's great, Dan. Do exactly that."
I sit on the platform facing the camera with my legs in a relaxed lotus position and my arms out to each side. At the last moment, when Stanley is ready, I close my eyes and polka dots are applied to each eyelid.
"Action." I hold very still.
"Okay, Dan, now you can move."
I slowly undulate my arms and head as I turn from side to side. We try it a number of ways and that is that.
The next day at rushes, the footage comes up and, while extremely interesting, it is clear that you are looking at a person decked out in polka dots.
The effect doesn't work. Stanley doesn't mention it again.

 Source: 2001 in 2008 flickr set from Bernard Rodriguez

Source: (copyright Stanley Kubrick Archives / TASCHEN / Via 2014 Turner Entertainment Co.)

5. Yes, but who got the idea, anyway?

According to Arthur Clarke, it was the famous scientist Carl Sagan that, asked for a suggestion on the topic, proposed to hide the aliens altogether from the movie, during a meeting at Kubrick's house in Manhattan, in 1965. Quoted from Clarke's biography, here's Sagan recounting the episode thirty years later:
They had no idea how to end the movie - that's when they called me in to try to resolve a dispute. The key issue was how to portray extraterrestrials that would surely be encountered at the end when they go through the Star Gate. Kubrick was arguing that the extraterrestrials would look like humans with some slight differences, maybe à la Mr. Spock (Ed. note: like Clindar). And Arthur was arguing, quite properly on general evolutionary grounds, that they would look nothing like us. So I tried to adjudicate as they asked.
I said it would be a disaster to portray the extraterrestrials.
What ought to be done is to suggest them. I argued that the number of individually unlikely events in the evolutionary history of man was so great that nothing like us is ever likely to evolve anywhere else in the universe. I suggested that any explicit representation of an advanced extraterrestrial being was bound to have at least an element of falseness about it and that the best solution would be to suggest rather than explicitly to display the extraterrestrials.
What struck me most is that they were in production (some of the special effects, at least) and still had no idea how the movie would end.
Kubrick's preference had one distinct advantage, an economic one: He could call up Central Casting and ask for twenty extraterrestrials. With a little makeup, he would have his problem solved. The alternative portrayal of extraterrestrials, whatever it was, was bound to be expensive.
... And here's a quote from Arthur Clarke, commenting Sagan's words:
A third of century later, I do not recall Stanley's immediate reaction to this excellent advice, but after abortive efforts during the next couple of years to design convincing aliens, he accepted Carl's solution.
It is to be said that another version of Clarke's recount about the topic, in 'Space Sage', (1997), goes more in-depth and suggests that Kubrick and Sagan didn't go on very well together at all, a passage that Clarke omits in a reprint of "Space Sage" appeared in the anthology Greetings, Carbon-based bipeds (1999). Maybe he felt it was better to forget it, giving that Kubrick and Sagan had since, sadly, passed away.

Nevertheless, in the book Are we alone? (2005) which reprints the interviews to various scientists on the topic of extraterrestrial life that Kubrick wanted to show in a short prologue to 2001 and were later discarded, Anthony Frewin (longtime Kubrick's aide) settled the record straight, and talking about Sagan's story (that appeared also in the scientist's biography A life, pp.178-9), he says:
[...] This makes a good story, but it is simply not true. SK was exploring ideas for the aliens later in 1965 and through 1966 when Christian Kubrick was still sketching designs and I continued researching Giacometti's sculptures (SK was much taken with them), Max Ernst paintings and fantastic art generally, looking for alien ideas. None of this would have been done had SK followed Sagan's advice. SK realized himself in the end that showing them was a Bad Idea, just as the end pie fight in 'Dr. Strangelove' was also a Bad Idea and was similarly abandoned. (Are we alone?, p.13)
In a interview given in the same year about the editing of the book The Stanley Kubrick Archives (where, for the first time, many images of the aliens were published) Frewin gives a slightly different account, adding some depth to the topic:
The aliens were never going to be shown in the film. Stanley considered – but only considered – showing them. He was not happy with how they came out (remember, this was long before CGI) and that – coupled with his realization, from a dramatic point of view, that it was better not showing them – deep-sixed the idea.

6. Conclusion

In a 1970 interview, Kubrick said
From the very outset of work on the film we all discussed means of photographically depicting extraterrestrial creatures in a manner that would be as mind-boggling as the being itself. And it soon became apparent that you can not imagine the unimaginable. All you can do is try to represent it in an artistic manner that will convey something of its quality. That's why we settled on the black monolith - which is, of course, in itself something of a Jungian archetype, and also a pretty fair example of "minimal art."
Yes, Kubrick's final choice was a stroke of genius, as witnessed by the unmatched symbolic status of the monolith in contemporary popular culture. Nevertheless, given the available evidence that his research for a way to actually show the aliens on-screen continued in an almost uninterrupted fashion until a few months before the premiere of the movie, we could summarize the whole ordeal by saying that Kubrick tried to the last minute not to follow Carl Sagan's advice.

The monolith, in its different shapes, and the actual presence of the aliens have co-existed for a long time in the development of 2001. The monolith is somehow the only alien presence left in the movie rather than an alternative idea; in a way, the 'survivor' of the many different attempts made by K. and his crew and killed in the process.

I leave the last word to Arthur C. Clarke and its imaginative prose:
Our ultimate solution now seems to me the only possible one, but before arriving at it we spent months imagining strange worlds and cities and creatures, in the hope of finding something that would produce the right shock of recognition. All this material was abandoned, but I would not say that any of it was unnecessary. It contained the alternatives that had to be eliminated, and therefore first had to be created. [...] just as a sculptor, it is said, chips down through the stone toward the figure concealed within. (The Lost Worlds of 2001, p.189, 199)
* * *

(updates: OCT 22: A new quote from Mr. Frewin was added in the last paragraph and the conclusions have been slightly edited to reflect this; OCT 24: Corrected the english version of Mr. Frewin's original passage from "Are we alone?", thanks to; JAN 25: added Neal Adams link in the Overlords picture; MAR 31: added the 'Close Encounters' picture AUG 15 added pictures for the polka-dot man and Mrs.Kubrick's alien; DEC 15 minor editing)

24 commenti:

  1. Bob Nadkarni is credited as "blob artist" on the list provided by Anthony Frewin (he is credited as Bob Nadkami). He currently lives in Rio de Janeiro and is the owner of "one of the best jazz clubs in the world" (Downbeat Magazine).

    His Facebook page:

    1. Lucas, thank you very much for the info. I'll try to make contact with mr.Nadkarni.

  2. Thank you for this excellent article.

    1. Peter, thank you for taking the time to read it! :-)

  3. Good luck, Simone. I met him once during an interview on another subject, and he was very nice.

    Also, congratulations for the wonderful blog!

  4. Very interesting. The fact that Kubrick was so reluctant to omit the aliens seems to discredit this interpretation, which is a shame because I really liked it.

    1. Thank you. I read some of those speculations, they are interesting in their own way. I prefer to stick to the facts, and let the people involved speak; although talking about the meaning of the movie was the ultimate purpose of Kubrick and Clarke, after all!

  5. Simply spectacular, you spared no expense on the research (yes, I just paraphrased a Jurassic Park quote, deal with it). I gave you an honourable mention on my blog. I assumed I knew all there was worth knowing after having read Piers Bizony's book on the Making of 2001, you have proven there's much more to uncover about this unforgettable film.

    1. Thank you so much, and I love your Jurassic Park quote! :-) I already had the chance to read your Prometheus series, and I'm currently delving into The Terminator :-)
      Bizony's book was excellent, and he will be back in march 2014 with a "definitive" edition, realized after years of work in the Kubrick Archives. He promised me some excerpts and an interview for the spring. I can't wait!

    2. What a coup! I'll be sure to keep a weather eye on your blog for further developments. Keep up the fantastic work, I really enjoy reading it. Now I'm off to go explore the rest of your blog.

  6. It's also Alberto Giacometti, not Antonio. But yes, great read. Thank you!

    1. How could I miss it! (shame) Thanks Chason!

  7. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment! Cheers!

  8. What an excellent blog post. definitely going to share this around. Thank you!

    1. Matt, thank you very much! Because of the constant re-blogging and sharing of readers like you I got more than 500,000 views!

  9. That dotted man reminds me of the Zarn from Land of the Lost!! same time period by a couple years. Great article!

    1. Very cool! Never seen that, thanks for the tip!

      Of course, there is also the ending of the "Sledgehammer" video (Peter Gabriel)

      and "Tainted Love" by Soft Cell (the '91 reissue video):

  10. Thank you for this.

    In the actual year 2001, I had a professor of Western Civ, Alan Nuccio who ought to have looked a lot like a cousin of Stanley's. Alan was a strange man, a smart man, but still to this day the most inspiring teacher I've had. He liked to use films to teach us. Ridley Scott's Gladiator to teach about ancient Roman values, a few others, but it was the first week of class that he showed us Kubrick's 2001. My brain nearly imploded, and then all he asked of us was to discuss the film in class. He didn't assign any paper to go along with it. I remember that. He only wanted us to think critically, and outside of the box. He wanted us to find meaning and purpose in this film, and 10 months later, after somehow relating 2001 to every topic possible from Dante Alighieri to to chess to the one and only woman he ever loved, he asked us one question on the final exam. What is the meaning and purpose of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey?

    Was it a complete coincidence that I came into his class that year? That he looked, to me, a lot like Stanley? Yes. Did I get an A? You bet I did, but only because I tried. There was no right or wrong answer. There were better answers, but everyone was given a fair shot if they were able to think just slightly outside of the box. Because really, there was nothing my little mind could garner at the time that would have been all that insightful. Still so. But I tried to think outside of the box. I tried. And of course, I filled up two of those little blue books. So yeah, I think Alan and Stanley made an impression on me.

    My name is Michael Aronson, and I'm a filmmaker.

    1. Michael,

      thank you so much for your comment. Luck is important in life, and probably those of us who had good teachers and professors in our youth know how important they were - maybe more than we can possibly imagine.

      I remember being overwhelmed by 2001 the first time I saw it (I was 9 or 10) but I remember also that I got only an average mark when I wrote a school paper about it in 5th grade. I distinctly remember my mother saying, "well, so much for your favourite movie".

      I guess I had to try harder, and basically I'm still re-writing that paper today, as a blog.

  11. Regarding the Alberto Giacometti sculpture, is it just a coincidence that they remind about the post-apocalyptic robots in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) , the movie projects Kubrick never finished, but which was completed by Spielberg?

    1. According to Frewin, Kubrick was very much taken with AG, but I guess that the 'elongated alien' form was popularized by 'Close Encounter', (1977) and later became one of the reference shapes for how to depict an alien in movies... the connection between Giacometti and AI seems far-fetched to me, but it's still an interesting connection.