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The 'Unspeakably Disgusting' Way Stanley Kubrick Created 2001: A Space Odyssey's Trippiest Scene

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Today is the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s landmark masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, and to celebrate the iconic scifi film we have an exclusive excerpt from author Michael Benson’s deep dive into the making of the film, Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece. It not only involves some dangerous chemistry but “an abandoned brassiere factory.” Intrigued yet?

This excerpt begins in early 1965, when Kubrick fired author Arthur C. Clarke from the film after he turned in the novel, only to quickly rehire him when the director realized the story wasn’t finished. But from there, it follows Kubrick as he experimented with chemicals to create the psychedelic sequence where astronaut David Bowman travels through the monolith, a process that was both incredibly complex and actually harmful—and which Kubrick subjected himself to for weeks, just to get the effects exactly right. Here’s the excerpt.


In his “Son of Dr. Strangelove” notes, Clarke wrote, for December 24, “Delivered complete copy—sacked!” It’s hard not to sense a world of hurt in those words. We don’t know what happened next, exactly. In his draft article, written as always with an eye to posterity—not to mention the knowledge that Kubrick would read every word—Clarke wrote, “The first version of the novel was handed to Stanley on the 24th December 1964, and he promptly fired me. True, I began work next day under a new contract, but I like to claim I was sacked on Christmas Eve.” (Predictably enough, Kubrick crossed this out with the comment “Confusing. No one will know what you mean.”)


Most likely, after some serious pushback from his erstwhile collaborator and a bit of pragmatic reconsideration, Kubrick rethought his cost-cutting measure, and by the time that happened in early January, Clarke’s new contract was tweaked retroactively to start directly after the previous one. He wouldn’t have done so if he hadn’t realized that they truly weren’t finished. Neither suspected that under the inexorable drive of the director’s uncompromising perfectionism, the film’s final narrative form would require another three years of unrelenting effort.

And apart from realizing that the story was really only partway there, Kubrick also knew that even without his services as a writer, Clarke was well connected in the aerospace community and was valuable simply as a consultant. In any case, Polaris would soon need to shift the burden of its financial commitments to a studio, because other significant expenses were looming as well. If the intention was to start shooting later that year, Kubrick would soon have to start hiring production staff. Studio support had become an urgent necessity.

But first he wanted to have some sequences to show. After studying Universe for much of 1964, early in the new year Kubrick decided to replicate the film’s techniques, now on 65-millimeter color stock. In January he flew in a camera from Los Angeles, contracted with a small film visual effects outfit called Effects-U-All, and rented an abandoned brassiere factory on Seventy-Second Street and Broadway. There he and his collaborators set up tanks of black ink and a particularly noxious World War II-era paint thinner called banana oil (isoamyl acetate), surrounded these with high-intensity film lights, and shot the first frames of what would become 2001: A Space Odyssey. Conducted under high security, they called it the Manhattan Project—a riff on the American nuclear weapons program of World War II.

Powerful lights permitted high camera speeds, crucial in capturing the high-speed alchemy of surface tension, color change, and chemical reaction that they were after. The overcranked camera shooting at seventy-two frames per second produced a smoothly nuanced “galactic” slow motion as they used toothpicks to drip blobs of white paint into the ink-thinner mixture. Reacting to the banana oil, the paint sent ersatz star flows and galactic tendrils streaming into cosmic space. A macro lens made an area the size of a playing card look like a nebula light years across. Parts of what would become the film’s trippy Star Gate sequences were conjured in this way on the Upper West Side in 1965, with Kubrick himself manning the camera.


Wally Gentleman, the visual effects pioneer behind Universe, had conceived of the technique in the late 1950s, realizing that “many of the truly cataclysmic things that can occur in nature really occur on a very tiny scale, so providing you can get the right flux of elements moving and photograph it, you can have something that looks gigantic. By dropping paint onto oil or other paints, you can get these explosive effects and changes in color… And the combinations are really quite endless.”

Christiane Kubrick remembers the brassiere factory scene vividly. Big, low tables supported shallow square-sided metal tanks and cans of paints and chemicals. A stink of thinner, ink, and lacquer “rotting” under the hot film lights filled the air. The materials Stanley was working with fostered bacteria growth and became “unspeakably disgusting.” Life arose in Kubrick’s ephemeral micro-universe, replicating exponentially within the expanding star clusters and morphing nebulae even as they were captured on film at high frame rates.


The tenacity that the director would display throughout the production was already evident. Returning from the factory in the early hours of the morning with red eyes and swollen from the fumes, he ignored the foul reek for weeks on end, scrupulously writing down what percentages, temperatures, and densities of which liquids required what heights to drop from to create a given effect. “The difference between a lot of us and Stanley is that he hung in there long after any of us would have lost patience, to get it right,” Christiane recalled. “And it becomes an enormously boring filing of each particular effect so you can repeat it, and repeat it with another combination, and another combination that doesn’t look like ink but looks like the universe. And that is the madness that artists should have.”

Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece is out April 3 from Simon & Schuster. Copyright Michael Benson 2018, reprinted with permission.