Last year it was Gravity; this year it’s Interstellar. In the real world of space exploration, the focus is now on robotics, like the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission that this week (semi-)successfully landed an unmanned spacecraft on a comet. But moviegoers still enjoy watching men and women personally contend with the perils of outer space. Space-travel movies date all the way back to the 1902 Georges Méliès fantasy, A Trip to the Moon. In the era of Sputnik, Roger Corman got into the act with 1958’s hilariously low-budget War of the Satellites. Of course there’ve been outer-space films aplenty. But the one that made all the difference was released in 1968. It was, of course, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
When 2001 first appeared, Time Magazine hailed it as “the most dazzling visual happening in the history of the motion picture.” Today, when asked where he’s spotted the long-range impact of Kubrick’s space adventure, film industry veteran Bruce Logan responds, “Well, everywhere. From on-screen graphics for TV stations on down.” Bruce should know. A London-born cinematographer and effects specialist, he’s worked on such classic fantasies as Star Wars, TRON, and Batman Forever. But he started out as a self-taught animator, one who began his motion picture career at Britain’s MGM Elstree studios as part of the special photographic effects unit on 2001, under the supervision of the great Douglas Trumbull.
Says Bruce, “2001 was my film school.” For the first year of his involvement, he contributed to the animation of what looked like a spacecraft’s computer screens. Given that the film was made years before such computers existed, these computers today look remarkably convincing. He’s particularly proud of his work on the read-out monitoring the “sleeping” astronauts who all flat-line, in one of the film’s most disturbing moments. It took a while, though, before he was able to fully appreciate Kubrick’s achievement: “For the first ten or twenty years after the movie came out, to me it was just a bunch of shots that I had worked on, strung together. . . . I think that the time that I saw the genius most was when I saw it about a year ago, at the Academy, without any recollection – and I was able to see for the first time what a brilliant piece of work it was.”
In preparation for filming 2001, Kubrick had his visual effects team watch such sci-fi flicks as Forbidden Planet and Fantastic Voyage (which Bruce now calls “that terrible movie with bad special effects where they go inside the body”). Ultimately, though, Kubrick’s vision was wholly unique. It’s worth remembering that when the film was being planned, NASA missions were paving the way for the 1969 moon landing of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.While Kubrick and company were deciding what the moon in their film should look like, actual photographs of the far side of the moon were starting to be made available for the first time. The filmmakers seriously considered altering their visual concept to make it resemble the lunar surface as seen in NASA’s photographs, but then admitted to themselves that “the moon looks kind of boring.” That being so, they decided to forget about authenticity and stick with their original design plan.
Though Bruce made a Roger Corman detour upon first coming to America, he’s best known for his work on big-budget Hollywood spectaculars: “I blew up the Death Star. It wasn’t Luke, it was me! That’s one of my claims to fame.”