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The Making of 2001's Star Gate Sequence

Posted on Sat, May 19, 2018
  • by: Hillary Brady, Digital Experiences
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When viewers filed into the seats to see 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time in 1968—shown in 70 millimeter and on wide, deeply curved Cinerama screens—they saw astronaut David Bowman travel on a voyage to Jupiter. (Spoiler alert: Things don’t quite go as planned.) When the film premiered, director Stanley Kubrick’s vision of Jupiter was also one of the first fully realized impressions audience members likely had of the planet. Unlike today, where images of the planets are high-definition and widely available, when 2001 premiered the only photos of Jupiter were fuzzy and taken from ground-based telescopes.

That left Kubrick and a team of what he called special photographic effects artists to create those stunning visuals for the audience. Among those artists was Doug Trumbull, then just 23 years old, who would go on to design some of the film’s most memorable sequences.

Everything was new and different than anything that had ever come before.

Trumbull describes himself as a filmmaker with an expertise in special effects; he directed the science-fiction films Silent Running (1972) and Brainstorm (1983), and worked on classics in the genre, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Blade Runner (1982). It was his work on a film called To the Moon and Beyond, screened in a planetarium at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, that caught Kubrick’s eye.

When Trumbull began work on 2001, he was responsible for animating the read-outs created by HAL, the film’s sentient computer—a challenge to design because the graphics in the film were beyond what computers of the day were capable of. Trumbull’s creativity and knack for tackling tough problems in new ways earned Kubrick’s trust, and soon he began working on some of the most complex sequences in the film. 

“Kubrick was very specifically interested in departing from conventions of cinema and making this immersive experience,” Trumbull said. That helped guide 2001, from plot to characterization to design aesthetic, and gave Trumbull the space to try new techniques never used before. 

“We had to build new equipment, we had to build new types of cameras, we had to build lighting systems,” he said. “Everything was new and different than anything that had ever come before.”

A white vehicle is parked in front of a movie poster for the film "2001: A Space Odyssey."

A white vehicle is parked in front of a movie poster for the film "2001: A Space Odyssey," France, September 1968.

Trumbull was responsible for one of the film’s most iconic and experimental scenes, called the “Star Gate” sequence.  Trumbull experimented with slit-scan photography, shooting the scene over and over again, to come up with the final result. In fact, Trumbull said, a portion of that scene was shown to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to help the studio understand Kubrick’s vision.

It was thanks to that culture of experimentation and trial and error (plus, Trumbull  notes, some lights, motors, and pulleys) that Kubrick and the special effects team were able to create imagery that leaves audiences today as in awe as they were 50 years ago.

“We wanted the audience to feel like they were actually going to space and on this adventure themselves, not just through the characters, but participating.” Trumbull said.

Experience an immersive art experience inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey at our Museum in Washington, DC. Reserve your tickets before the exhibition closes on May 28.