Tag Archives: Stanley Kubrick

How we made the future in the past.

 

 

Decisions. Decisions. Today’s blog was a toss up between another drone update (probably next week) and some optimistic technology news (for a change). Instead, I decided to go another route entirely. This week FastCo blurbed a piece on the “new” limited edition book collection, “The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. It’s no so new, the 4 volume set that sold for $1000 sold out in no time, but the story is a compelling one. The $70, second printing is on my Christmas list. There are a dozen fascinating angles to the 2001 production story. FastCo’s article, “The Amazingly Accurate Futurism of 2001: A Space Odyssey“, focuses on the film’s “attention to the technical and design details that made the film such an enduring paragon almost 50 years after its release.” I could not agree more. This latest book’s author, Piers Bizony wrote a predecessor back in 1994 entitled “2001: filming the future.” This book is currently out of print, but I managed to snag a copy for my library. It’s a captivating story, but like FastCo, I am in awe of Kubrick’s brilliance in the team he brought together to build the sets and design the props.

“He assembled a skunkworks team of astronomical artists, aeronautics specialists, and production designers. Aerospace engineers—not prop makers—designed switch panels, display systems, and communications devices for the spacecraft interiors.”

The objective was realism and total believability. It worked. I remember seeing it in the theater on the BIG screen (I was five years old). There was nothing else like it — ever— a testimony to the fact that we still marvel at its accuracy nearly fifty years later.

Clearly Kubrick was a visionary, but what might be more impressive is how they made it look so real. Today, we watch tidal waves take out New York City, and 20 story robots transform into sports cars. It has almost become ho-hum. To capture the effects that Kubrick did it required an inspiring level of ingenuity. Much of this goes to his production designers and the genius of Douglas Trumbull. These special effects, people walking on walls, floating in weightlessness, or believable spacecraft gliding through the cosmos were analog creations. Take for example the gracefully revolving centrifuge: they built it. Or the spacewalking scenes that I believe are every bit as good as 2013’s Gravity. The film was full of artifacts from the future and a tribute to design and engineering problem solving that was and is most rare.

Kubrick's-Centrifuge
They built it!

I could rave about this movie all day, but I can’t sign off until I rave a bit about the film itself. By this, I mean the story. First released in 1968, at the crux of this narrative is an Artificial Intelligence that becomes self-aware. It is so freaking convincing that I leave with this clip. You can also get a taste of how truly visual this film was.

Photo from 2001: Filming the future. Piers Bizony 1996
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Is all science fiction automatically design fiction?

It is probably helpful to reference evolutionary geneticist and science lecturer David Kirby who coined the term “diegetic prototypes” (Kirby, 2010). It is Kirby’s assertion that scientists often use cinema to further their projects and interests. “The presentation of science within the cinematic framework can convince audiences of the validity of ideas and create public excitement about nascent technologies”(66). Kirby’s analysis included classic, technology-laden films such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Stephen Spielberg’s Minority Report, among others. In his view, scientists and engineers go to elaborate lengths to make these technologies as realistic as possible. “The most successful cinematic technologies are taken for granted by the characters in the diegesis, and thus, communicate to the audience that these are not extraordinary but rather everyday technologies. These technologies not only appear normal while on the screen, but they also fit seamlessly into the entire diegetic world”(50).

I think there are two specific variables to the answer. First, there is the perspective and intent of the creator, and second, the audience. The SF creator could be the author (in the case of literature) and the director (in the case of film). If we look at the archetypal stories of Philip K. Dick or Arthur C. Clarke, a sense of realism and plausible science make the speculative future seem more real, and believable. When Stanley Kubrick took 2001 to the screen, “Kubrick wanted absolute realism: he wanted the hardware on screen to look as though it really worked” (Bizony, 1994:81).

If you accept science fiction author Bruce Sterling’s (2012a) definition of design fiction as “…the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” then deliberate intent is specific and we would have to examine our science fiction on a case-by-case basis.

When the designer becomes science fiction author the intent of design fiction is perhaps most obvious. Bleecker, Candy, Dunagan, Dunne & Raby all fall into this category, and I submit, so does my graphic novel. Perhaps a science fiction writer (using a heavy dose of creative license) might simply decide what the world will be like 147 years from now. But in the context of this project, the designer is compelled to follow a course of due diligence before speculating on the design, the culture and the infinite number of possibilities that could affect it. Many believe that technology will have the greatest affect on design by enabling designers to imagine things heretofore unimaginable. That technology and the subsequent advancements in biotech, artificial intelligence, medicine, energy and transportation will send ripples into politics, religion and humanity.

Though there are perhaps as many definitions of science fiction as there are science fiction authors, most would agree that, in the final analysis, it is about people.

“[Social] science fiction is that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance on human beings.” — Isaac Asimov, Science Fiction Writers of America Bulletin, 1951 1

The use of diegetic prototypes can suspend disbelief about the future scenarios, and through an examination of culture and context, individuals can contemplate present-day decisions that will affect the future on an individual basis.This brings us to the remaining variable: the audience. If design fictions can engage the average person-on-the-street to dialog about the imminent future, then perhaps individuals will become more aware of their ability to engage in discussion and thereby help to direct the future rather than being directed by it.

So, whether it is design fiction, science fiction or both, it is important that we not lose sight of its ability to make us think, and perhaps accept our responsibility to do so.

 

Bizony, P. (1994) 2001 Filming the Future. London: Arum Press Limited, p.81.

 

Kirby, D. (2010) The Future is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating

Real-world Technological Development. Social Studies of Science, 40 (1), p.41-70.

 

Sterling, B. (2012a) Sci-Fi Writer Bruce Sterling Explains the Intriguing New Concept of Design

Fiction. Interviewed by Torie Bosch [radio] Tempe, AZ, March 2, 2012.

 

1. http://io9.com/5622186/how-many-defintions-of-science-fiction-are-there

 

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