Study Guide

2001: A Space Odyssey Behind the Scenes

  • Director

    Stanley Kubrick

    Stanley Kubrick makes almost everybody's list of the most influential film directors of the 20th century, and his works are well-known for their use of visual storytelling as well as his obsessive attention to detail. (Source)

    As a result of his perfectionist craftsmanship, Kubrick only directed 13 feature films throughout a more than 40-year career. There's a seven-year gap between the release of The Shining (1980) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), meaning you could earn a Ph.D. in the amount of time it took Kubrick to make one film. Of course, his films are self-contained seminars in the art of filmmaking, so they're worth the wait.

    Despite some serious love for his films, Kubrick only won one Oscar, and that was for 2001: A Space Odyssey's visual effects. Even this would prove a controversial win, as giving the Oscar solely to Kubrick cold-shouldered all the people who helped him make those special effects.

    A quick glance at his directing credits doesn't show much connection between his choices of subjects. Spartacus (1960)—which was a director-for-hire job for Kubrick after Kirk Douglas fired the first director—is about a Roman slave turned rebel, while Dr. Strangelove (1964) is a dark satire of Cold War atomic politics. The Shining is a horror story themed around alcoholism and the destruction of a family, and Barry Lyndon is an 18th-century period piece. And, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey out-sciences most other science fiction movies. Beyond the fact that Kubrick based most of his movies on novels—pretty loosely in some cases—there's not much that seems to connect them.

    Leave it to Steven Spielberg to tell us what does connect them: Kubrick himself. "The only thing that bonded all of his films was the incredible virtuoso that he was with the craft" (Source). Carl Freedman makes a similar point when he says that "a typical Kubrick film tends to remake or redefine the genre to which it belongs" (Source).

    And that's a great way to look at Kubrick and his works. His career seems aimed simply at advancing the form of visual storytelling, of creating a story through visual information and contrasting images from one frame to the other, 24 frames per second.

  • Screenwriter

    Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke

    One day Stanley Kubrick rang up Arthur C. Clarke and said, "Hey, you want to make a movie?" And Arthur C. Clarke said, "Yeah sure." We're definitely abridging that story a bit, but the history of 2001: A Space Odyssey begins when these two join forces with the goal of writing a science fiction movie.

    Ultimately, the movie's story is based on "The Sentinel," "Encounter in the Dawn," and four of Clarke's other stories, in addition to loads of original ideas conceived by him and Kubrick during the writing process (Source).

    The film's script takes many motifs and themes from Clarke's stories. For example, 2001 features technology so advanced that it has a mystic, almost magical quality to it. There's also contact with an alien species that leads humanity on an evolutionary road trip. Finally, we have an amazing attention to detail regarding the science-y part of the science fiction. Check out Shmoop's analysis of Clarke's novel Childhood's End, and you'll see all of these motifs in spades.

    Originally, Clarke was going to write the novel for Kubrick to base his film on, but as the project grew, the two works began to be developed together. To give you a sense of how the workload was divided, "originally, the film's screenplay was going to be credited to "Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke," while the novel would list "Arthur C. Clarke & Stanley Kubrick" as its authors." (Source)

    Ultimately the film's screenplay is credited to both artists while the novel is billed solely as a work by Clarke. We bring this up not to suggest that Kubrick was snubbed in the book's publication—probably it's just the way things were hashed out in the legalese of the publishing world.

    Instead, it shows how the two works diverged from one another over time. Kubrick gets top billing in the film's credits because he put his unique stamp on it; Clarke got top billing on the novel for the same reason. But both deserve credit for their own unique contributions to the story itself.

    He Said, He Said

    There are several differences between the novel and the film. Some of these are superficial changes—for example, the final monolith is located on one of Saturn's moons in the novel rather than orbiting Jupiter. Other changes run a bit deeper, down to the genetics of each work resulting in arguably different species of stories. Some of the more significant changes include:

    • The novel's Dawn of Man chapters are told from the perspective of a single early hominid named Moon-Watcher. This part of the story delves much deeper into how the monolith works and how it altered our early ancestors. It also features a brawl with a leopard. We won't say who won.
    • The novel presents space travel from Dr. Floyd's perspective, so we understand what he thinks and feels about his situation more intuitively.
    • HAL kills the three hibernating scientists while Bowman is aboard Discovery. It does so by drawing the oxygen out of the ship, and this almost kills Bowman, who barely reaches an emergency room to put on a spacesuit.
    • HAL's reasons for killing the crew are spelled out in the novel, while the film leaves the question open.
    • At the novel's conclusion, the Star Child detonates a nuclear warhead upon his return to Earth, signaling the end of the nuclear era.

    And, of course, Kubrick's visual tour-de-force, the Star Gate sequence, is an entirely different beast in the novel. Clarke's take on traveling through space-time is more of a guided tour of the unseen reaches of the universe. (And if you look to your left, you'll see the ancient civilizations of a binary star system.)

    Super Story Bros.

    Most people watch a novel-based film as a workaround to actually reading the book, but 2001 might get the distinction of being the only novel that people read so they don't have to deal with the complexities of the film.

    OTOH, some people claim the novel explains too much, axing the film's mystery and the audience's sense of discovery. Clarke's retort is that "the printed text has to give much more detail than can be shown on screen" (Source).

    There's truth to both sides of the argument. It's best to think of each as a companion piece to the other, rather than as two ways to tell the same story. Reading the novel can heighten your appreciation of the film and give you guidance for those "Whaaa?" moments. Having said that, it diverges too much from the film to be viewed as a cheat sheet. Reading the novel for that purpose is likely to get you a "See Me After Class" in big red letters at the top of your paper.

  • Production Studio


    The history of cinema is just brimming with stories about producers, directors and studios arguing over what movies should be about and how they should be made. Often these clashes end in shoot-outs with directors gasping their last in dust outside the saloon. Or are we confusing these stories with westerns again, and they actually end in a struggle of egos and contracts?

    Either way, the history of 2001: A Space Odyssey has some interesting, albeit bloodless, history behind it.

    The American studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) bankrolled the film, and production concerns were handed to Stanley Kubrick Productions. MGM financed and distributed the project because they'd previously had success with Kubrick's Lolita. They'd also had their eyes on working with Arthur C. Clarke, so the pairing proved a dynamic duo for the studio.

    Since the director owned the production studio, Kubrick was mostly able to make the movie he wanted to make—although some interesting stipulations were made by MGM during the contract drafting stage. According to James Chapman and Nicholas Cull, the studio envisioned the film as a major event and required that it be released in "Cinerama, the widest of widescreen formats." MGM also retained the right to approve the three main actors. (Source)

    Chapman and Cull noted an odd line in the contract that stated the screenplay "'shall be of at least as high quality as the screenplays prepared by Mr. Kubrick for the motion pictures Lolita and Dr. Strangelove.'" Chapman and Cull don't mention exactly how MGM planned to control this quality standard—maybe they had a proto-Rotten Tomatoes lying around—and even Kubrick puzzled over what specifically this requirement meant.

    Finally, Kubrick feared that 2001's props would be used in subsequent films, ultimately diminishing his film's value. The MGM-produced Forbidden Planet (1956) had suffered such a fate, and the film's Robby the Robot prop would be used in several TV shows and movies, making him a kitsch pop culture icon and a bit of an in-joke. So Kubrick had many of 2001's sets and assets destroyed after filming (Source).

  • Production Design

    Studio Sets and Fewer Special Effects Than You Think

    Stanley Kubrick filmed and edited most of 2001: A Space Odyssey inside a studio in England, because one can't exactly fly to the moon to film on location.

    At least, you'd think that'd be the reason, but Kubrick even filmed scenes he could have done on location, such as those featuring Africa, on a sound stage in England. Perhaps this was due to the director's fear of flying, but our guess is that the studio setting allowed the noted perfectionist more control than he would otherwise have.

    Either way, Kubrick had to utilize seldom-used production techniques and invent entirely new ones in order to make his scenes look real.

    Smoke and Mirrors

    For the Dawn of Man scenes, Kubrick's people developed a rocky stage and then used a technique called front projection to provide the background of the African savanna. 2001 was "the first film to use front projection extensively, and the glow of the leopard's eyes as it sits next to its zebra kill is the result of the projector's glow reflecting off the feline's eyes" (Source).

    For the interiors of the space stations and ships, Kubrick and his designers went totes ma goats on the scientific accuracy. Frederick Ordway, scientific consultant on the film, said, "We insisted on knowing the purpose and functioning of each assembly and component, down to the logical labeling of individual buttons and the presentation on screens of plausible operating diagnostic and other data" (Source). Keep in mind that this was all equipment and spacecraft that hadn't been invented yet. So it had to look authentic while having no real-life counterpart to work from. It had to look possible.

    But all of this technological accuracy would be for nothing if the actors and ships didn't move realistically as well. To do this, Kubrick and his people had to devise entirely new ways of designing sets.

    There are many examples of these in Kubrick and film fan circles, so we'll just focus on a few here. To start, did you ever wonder how they managed to film actor Gary Lockwood running in a complete circle aboard Discovery One?

    They built a Ferris wheel-shaped set and spun the entire thing while the actor ran through it. Ingeniously, the circular set had a split through the center with flaps covering it up. This allowed the camera to be stationary while the set passed around it, and the flaps would close to cover the channel and complete the illusion. The actor had to keep pace with the set like a hamster on a wheel.

    Similarly, Kubrick and his people were able to get the stewardess to appear weightless and walking up the walls by rotating the set and the camera simultaneously. (Source)

    The scene where Bowman blasts his way through an emergency airlock was shot in a tall, vertical set. The camera was on the floor, and they simply dropped actor Keir Dullea, who was attached by a harness and wire that pulled him back up. The resulting freefall appears like the weightlessness of space thanks to the camera angle. Dullea has noted how grateful he was that they managed to get the shot on the second take. (Source)

    Old School's in Session

    2001 came before the digital effects revolution, so its special and visual effects were created without computers. The techniques used by Kubrick and his team included practical effects, such as miniatures, as well as visual effects like rotoscoping and matte shots. The filmmakers even invented new techniques such as the slit-scan shots used for the Star Gate sequence (Source). These effects won Kubrick the Oscar for best effects in 1969—the only Oscar win for the acclaimed director.

    Yet, despite being a milestone in special effects, 2001 doesn't contain as many as you'd think. Its two-hour runtime only contains 205 special effect shots. For comparison's sake, the original Star Wars (1977) has 350 special effects shots, and Revenge of the Sith (2005) gets exponential on it, cramming in 2,200 such shots. (Source)

  • Music (Score)

    Originally, Alex North was commissioned to provide 2001: A Space Odyssey with an original score, but after Kubrick used classical compositions to edit the film, he liked them so much that he decided to keep them. Sorry, Alex. If it's any consolation, your soundtrack will eventually be released on CD for fans to enjoy.

    Kubrick's decision resulted in a score that's very different from a traditional soundtrack. In a traditional score, the music gives the audience cues about how to feel about what's happening onscreen. Just consider the bubbly pop music used in romantic comedies or the fast-paced tempo of a chase sequence, and you've got the idea.

    But in 2001, "Kubrick sections the soundtrack so that extra-diegetic music never accompanies dialogue scenes, leaving the audience bereft of normative emotional cues." (Source). In other words, Kubrick's choices of music heighten the mystery and wonder of the images on screen but still require the audience to contemplate what's presented. They can't rely on the soundtrack to tell them how to feel—like how a horror movie screams at you with shrill strings to tell you that you should be frightened.

    In Space No One Can Hear You Sing

    Let's look at some of the compositions Kubrick choose:

    "The Blue Danube Waltz," by Johann Strauss, is played during Floyd's space travel scenes. The waltz's upbeat winds and strings invite the audience to explore the wonders of spaceflight. The ships and satellites move in a graceful way, turning and turning around a focal point like a couple waltzing. The ship and station are turning in sequence while they spin (orbit) around the Earth. The combination of imagery and music transforms space travel into a technological dance of mathematically precise proportions. The major key says, "This is beautiful, safe, and natural."

    György Litgeti's "Requiem" (the Kyrie) is used when the monolith is discovered by both the early hominids and Dr. Floyd. This piece is used to give a sense of mystery and gravity to the monolith. Although there's a choir, they don't sing in words but rather intone, as though words can't properly explain their feelings. This strengthens the sense of the awe in the unknown. The music also adds a mournful quality to the scene. This wailing, mourning choir foreshadows impending death—first of the early hominids, who are replaced by humans, and then of the human species, who will be replaced by the Star Child.

    The opening section of "Also Sprach Zarathustra op. 30," by Richard Strauss, plays during the opening credits, the invention of the bone club, and the reveal of the Star Child. The section of Strauss's work is called "Sunrise," and the film made it hugely famous. It's everywhere—commercials for Toyota Camry and Coca Cola have used it; Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake even a capella-ed it for an iPhone 6 ad.

    The piece has an epic quality to it. The grand boom of the percussion and the triumphant blare of the horns signal the coming of an important transitional event, stunning and scary at the same time. It fits these scenes perfectly. The discovery of tools will change the evolutionary game for the hominids; meanwhile, the Star Child ushers in the next step of human evolution, from human to something beyond human. If God ever appears on earth again, we suggest he play "Zarathustra" before he arrives; everyone will know what's happening and change into a clean pair of jeans.

    A quick bit of history: Strauss named his musical composition after philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which introduced Nietzsche's idea of the ubermensch ("over-man" or "super-man"). An ubermensch is beyond the control of others and lives by his own values. He dominates others and can change the course of history. He will sacrifice himself to enhance humanity. (Source) You can see how this concept might fit the idea of humanity's eventual evolution into the Star Child.

    The Sounds of Silence

    Equally important are the scenes that lack music altogether but instead rely on diegetic sounds to set the mood.

    One example is the scene where Bowman takes a spacewalk to retrieve the AE-35 antenna unit. Instead of a musical cue, we get the simple, rhythmic breathing of the astronaut. To focus on something as simple as breathing reminds us just how dangerous a spacewalk really is, providing an anxious mood without any music telling us how to feel.

    Another great example is the scene where HAL murders the three hibernating scientists. Instead of bad-guy stalking music—or worse, some Hans Zimmer "Bwahh!" bleating in the background—we are serenaded with technological warning beeps on the life support monitoring equipment. It's unnerving, and the mechanical wailings characterize the violence of HAL's actions even though it's only presented by way of vital signs on a computer screen.

    No silence is more loaded with meaning than the scene where HAL refuses to open the pod bay doors. Dave keeps repeating, "Hal, do you read me?" and gets no response. Kubrick shows us extended shots of the pod and the ship suspended in the darkness of space. The utter silence conveys a sense of foreboding; Bowman is absolutely alone out there.

  • Fandoms

    2001: A Space Odyssey has its fans, but they don't fanboy it up like their Trekkie brethren. No Monopoly 2001 Edition released or limited edition cereal with monolith marshmallows. And as far as we know, no one goes to conventions cosplaying as the HAL 9000. Seriously, how would you even do that? Of course, there is a 2001 wiki and some Reddit threads dedicated to fan theories, because that's how the Internet does.

    The film's amassed legions of fans though, mostly people who really like films and those who make them. Steven Spielberg credits the film with changing the form, and George Lucas said the film had a huge impact on him and his work. The late great Roger Ebert, arguably the most famous movie critic of the past century, said, "Alone among science fiction movies, "2001" is not concerned with thrilling us, but with inspiring our awe" (Source). Baby boomers look back nostalgically to the first time they saw the film, and a new generation of fans are still debating whether HAL had a mind, and if so, why he lost it.

    The film has also entered pop culture in a huge way. People who have never seen the movie are no doubt already familiar with its most famous scenes and its choice of classical music; both have been parodied and given homage time and again.

    Mel Brooks opens his film A History of the World with an homage to 2001's first story section dealing with humanity's hominid ancestors. An episode of Mad Men is titled "The Monolith" and is full of references to 2001 and other Kubrick films, including a monolith stand-in for an elevator. And, of course, The Simpsons did it. The show has spoofed it several times, but one standout includes Homer's massage chair experience turning into the famous Star Gate scene. South Park also got in on the action: the "Trapper Keeper" episode has Kyle shutting down a Trapper Keeper-fused Cartman in a scene similar to HAL's famous death scene.

    Can we go on? How about Community, Phineas and Ferb, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dragonball Z, Spongebob Square Pants, and Epic Rap Battles of History. And let's not forget video games, where Portal's GLaDOS is clearly inspired by HAL 9000, with that calm, reasonable voice that it uses while planning your ultimate destruction.

    So while it can be difficult to point to certain people and label them fans of 2001, the movie has entered our cultural consciousness to such a degree that we're all really fans one way or another.