Design for Animation, Narrative Structures & Film Language

Mise-en-scène on 2001: a Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick’s direction and vision have always been acclaimed, but why is it difficult to understand the aim of his films? And why is Kubrick claimed to be a visionary cinema director? This report is going to analyze and explain how important some details are in one of the greatest masterpieces ever made in the history of cinema:  2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Moreover, is going to underline how this film changed the history of visual effects. In order to accomplish the mission, two scenes will be examined from the film and supported by an audio-visual presentation that will list the visual language used by S. Kubrick to emphasize his shots.

How the scenes will be examinated?

The scenes are going to be analyzed by using the mise-en-scène. Mise-en-scène means the placement of actors and scenery on a stage for a theatrical, film, or television production. The theatre term for processing of deciding what to include in the scene and where it should go on the stage. According to André Bazin (a French film critic and film theorist), filmmakers use mise-en-scène to concentrate storytelling on a single image. This is what Kubrick does in his film. Kubrick does use mise-en-scène to define setting and character, but he also uses it counter-intuitively to challenge the preconceptions of the viewing audience and to pose philosophical questions about the nature of the universe and the role of humans within it.

What is the first scene?

You begin with an artefact left on earth four million years ago by extraterrestrial explorers who observed the behaviour of the man-apes of the time and decided to influence their evolutionary progression

The Film Director as Superstar, Interview to S. Kubrick by Joseph Gelmis, 1970
Moonwatcher crashing the carcass

Setting and Props

According to Kubrick’s screenplay, the setting is believed to be 3,000,000 years ago in Africa. In order to find this setting relatable to what Kubrick’s imagination was, the shot represents Moonwatcher – an alpha man-ape – near a carcass, with a bone in his hands. At first, the ape looks at the bone suspiciously but eventually realizes that it can be used as a weapon. Suddenly, when the bone is thrown, it becomes a spaceship. The implication is that the space station is just another weapon, used to put other humans into submission. 

Costume, Hair and Makeup

Thanks to Kubrick’s keen eye for detail, all the dancers that played the apes were wearing costumes and prosthetic makeup, helping the role to reach perfection in performing. However, not everybody knows that the infants were played by real chimpanzees.

Facial expression and Body language

At first, Moonwatcher is analyzing what surrounds him by digging and sniffing. Then something draws his attention: he moves his head from the left to the right suggesting that something really interesting is there and is going to happen. Finally, Moonwatcher understands his strength and becomes more excited about his power by screaming and jumping while he is crushing the skull.

Lighting and colour

Along with the scene, everything seems to be under natural lighting. However, color is an important aspect. Kubrick matches the colors of a scene to a precise meaning. In this case, the scene is quite yellowish due to a precise aim: isolating the character from the background and managing to focus the audience on what was going on.

What is the second scene?

In a timeless state, his life passes from middle age to senescence to death. He is reborn, an enhanced being […] and returns to earth prepared for the next leap forward of man’s evolutionary destiny

The Film Director as Superstar, Interview to S. Kubrick by Joseph Gelmis, 1970
Dr. Bowman points at the Monolith

Setting and Props

In this shot, the setting is a sterile room surrounded by 18th-century décor. The items are placed symmetrically apart from the chairs. To maintain this balance, the character is in the very center of the shot and is pointing at the main prop of the scene: the monolith, which makes its 4th and last appearance. It is important to underline that the monolith is what Kubrick wanted to express as an alien. His concern, at the time, was directly focused on how to represent a creature without being afraid of making the film look “old” to future generations.

Costumes, Hair & Makeup

As we are at the end of the movie, the protagonist is dying of old age. To make Dr. Bowman look like an old man prosthetics for the facial lines were applied. Moreover, it appears that the character does not have hair (an accurate surplus to help the audience identify the age of Dr.Bowman) and is lying in the center of a double bed, wearing a nightgown, to emphasize the “[…] hospital terrestrial environment […]” (The Film Director as Superstar, Joseph Gelmis, 1970) setting.

Facial expression and Body language

To understand Dr. Bowman’s body language, the audience must remember he is the one that understood the monolith as an interstellar gateway. When the aliens decided he was going to be the first “next level evolution” man, they created a mental construct using images culled from his memory, making Dr. Bowman see himself growing older until being transformed into the Star-child. That is the reason why Dave’s point terrified the monolith.

Lightning and Color

The lighting of the scene is completely artificial. The entire room seems to have high contrast lightning from the aseptic floor, bringing the monolith in the front of the scene. However, an important aspect of this shot is the color: Kubrick uses green as a symbol for life and death, meanwhile white is often used for contrast, either to allow other colors to pop.

Why is this film a VFX pioneer?

Stanley Kubrick’s film is nothing if not visually stunning. The film owes its aesthetic appeal to Kubrick’s visionary directing style, but it also owes several of its most iconic scenes to a few feats of engineering.

1. Rotating Movie sets

Kubrick commissioned to build a centrifuge which was used to recreate artificial gravity. Despite the high cost, the technique was used in a few films in the years that followed such as Inception by Christopher Nolan and several music videos.

2. Motion control

Shots of spaceships are the signature of 2001: A Space Odyssey but some of the scenes we difficult to film. Kubrick imagined precise movements for a master shot and then recreated four additional shots the scene needed. In order to achieve this vision, mechanical rigs automated the camera and ships so that the shots could be repeated and different angles could be used in the edit.

3. Slit-scan photography

To achieve this technique, filmmakers focused the camera on a narrow slit behind which were colorful transparent images of microscopic photos which moved back and forth as the camera moved on a dolly.

4. Frontal projection

As a precursor of green-screen, the front projection projects an image onto a two-way mirror which reflects the image onto a screen. CGI nowadays has largely replaced this method but it is still occasionally used to speed up the workflow of the pipeline.

What is so great about  2001: A Space Odyssey?

It is important to underline that  2001: A Space Odyssey was made during the Cold War and the Vietnamese War. Kubrick has always had strong sentiments regarding the future of humanity and their need to inflict pain on each other, so in 2001: A Space Odyssey he expresses his concern and hope that humanity might rise to a higher level of spiritual consciousness. Therefore, Kubrick’s vision has always posed questions on intelligence and gives space to the audience to draw upon their own experiences with the aim of interpreting the film for themselves.

However, Kubrick’s production design stands out in spades. Displays and buttons are similar to modern design and the universal but simplistic design of HAL (the spaceship robot) has been copied several times since.

Kubrick’s attention to detail made a huge impact on the filmmakers that followed him and moreover, the techniques they invented are still used today. It’s no wonder why the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey remains such a fixture in popular culture and a gold standard of science fiction film in space, even after half a century.

Audio-visual Presentation

Book reference

Film History: An Introduction, third edition, 2010, Kristen Thompson and David Bordwell, The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.

Film Art: An Introduction, 1979, David Bordwell, McGraw Hill Higher Education

The Film Director as Superstar, 1970, Joseph Gelmis, Doubleday and Company: Garden City

Web Reference

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