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.

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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.

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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.