ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 4.3 - JUNE 1999
Talking With Con Pederson
by William Moritz
In early May, William Moritz visited with Con Pederson, a visual effects pioneer, who worked closely with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Credited as one of four Special Photographic Effects Supervisors on the film, he and Doug Trumbull created a myriad of stars, planets and space ships, plus the unforgettable stargate sequence.
Con Pederson. Photo by William Moritz.
WM: So, when and where were you born?
CP: I just turned 65, which means I was born in 1934, just as the Depression was easing up. We lived up in the woods of Minnesota, but then we moved to California in 1943. So from then on my childhood was spent amongst airplanes; both my parents worked building bombers and fighters. Where the LAX airport is now was just bean fields, artillery emplacements, barrage balloons and that sort of thing. I was selling newspapers during WW II and it made an effect on me in two ways: I think I'm very conscious of the global character of the 20th century, and also I learned how to scavenge, which I've been doing ever since.
WM: What led you into the film world?
CP: Accident! I think the fact that I grew up in Inglewood, which isn't far from Hollywood. After a couple of years at City College, I went to UCLA, 1951 to '53. I eventually worked on my M.A. but never quite finished because at that point I discovered the animation school over in Theater Arts at UCLA. Somebody told me that it was a lot of fun doing animation so I thought I'd try it, and made a couple of student films. The next thing you know, I was vacuumed up by Disney.
WM: What were your student films like?
CP: They were little cartoons, inspired by UPA, which in those days was the avant-garde of animation. John Hubley and the other UPA guys were doing two-dimensional design with flashy colors, like Rooty Toot Toot. Hubley was kind of an icon.
WM: So Disney hired you?
CP: Yes, I took my student films there. My instructor at UCLA, Bill Shull, who had worked at Disney, thought they might be interested in hiring me, primarily because at that point I'd already written science fiction and gotten heavily immersed in rocketry and that sort of thing. I don't think they had ever hired a college kid before, but they decided to take a chance on me for story. I began working on their space documentary series, which got me even more deeply involved. Their technical advisor was primarily Werner von Braun, who was at Redstone Arsenal at that time. It turned out to be fortuitous, because I was drafted into the army in fall of '56, and by a circuitous route I ended up in Alabama working for Werner von Braun. They had shipped me off to the First Armor Division in Louisiana, from which nobody was ever known to escape short of their time, but Walt Disney personally brought me to the attention of Werner von Braun because they had just got an animation camera there and didn't know how to use it. The next thing you know I was in a nice outfit of scientific and professional personnel at the Redstone Arsenal Army Post and Missile Agency doing very short films to present ideas to Congress, to explain what they were doing -- mostly secret undertakings of the Cold War, atomic testing in the Pacific for which we supplied short-range missiles. I got a look at what was going on in astronautics at that time, which was mainly propulsion systems.
Von Braun was primarily a chemist. He had a couple of hundred Germans there, whom they had managed to get before the Russians did. They had quite a level of expertise. These people were at White Sands for a while in '46 and eventually ended up in Alabama. We were involved with all the test procedures for Cape Canaveral. We launched the first satellite in February '58. It was an answer to Sputnik, but it took us 40 months to put something up in space. The first Explorer satellite was kind of fun. I worked in graphic engineering, which did illustrations. Mostly we worked on how to get to the moon. It was called Project Nova, but actually everything about it was used by the Apollo project. Our rocket was a much tubbier thing, more like the Soviet rockets, but basically the plan of taking off with a booster rocket, going around the earth, going around the moon, landing on the moon, and then going back up to the orbiter and bringing it back to earth, plus, the propulsion system based on unsymmetrical dimetholidozyne (which was von Braun's favorite rocket fuel) -- all of that was worked out at Huntsville in 1957 and '58. We also did a lot of stuff about Mars. Everyone was interested in rockets for military use, and they were so efficient at testing things that they were able to squirrel away hardware and stuff that could be used at the advent of NASA.
WM: You were right in the heart of things there.
CP: Yes, but when I got out, I went back to UCLA to finish my graduate work, moonlighting part time at Disney for awhile. Then that petered out because General Motors didn't want to sponsor some of the stuff Walt wanted to do, primarily a series on conservation which Walt thought was necessary at that time. General Motors said, 'We don't think that's a good idea.' Literally. So Walt broke up the unit that had been doing the documentaries, and I worked on Pluto [the animated dog] and stuff, but I really wanted to go back to school so I took off. A couple of days after I began school full time in '59, I was hired by Graphic Films. They made me an offer that was too tempting. I stayed there for six years, doing mostly Air Force films on space.
WM: Was Graphic Films a private company?
CP: Yep. They're still in business.
WM: Were you animating for them?
CP: I was directing for them at that point. That's when my son was born, so that would be '61. He's now a professor of psycho-linguistics at Oregon University. He's a world traveler, which I am not.
WM: You were a natural person to work on 2001 since you had such an extensive background in both Space and animation. How did you actually get onto 2001?
Left to right: Con Pederson, Douglas Trumball, and Benjamin Jackson working with a multi-plane apparatus for Graphic Films' To the Moon and Beyond. Photo courtesy of Graphic Films.
CP: We did some work at Graphic Films in '63 and '64 for the New York World's Fair, Flushing Meadows. It was called To the Moon and Beyond. Such stuff was being made a lot then because of Kennedy's plan to go to the moon within the decade. This was around the time of Mercury and Gemini. I both wrote and directed To the Moon and Beyond which was projected on a dome surface in 10 perforation 70mm film. We did the film in about five months. It was rather a rush. They had built the theater, and were building the projectors but they didn't have anything to project. We, foolishly maybe, leaped into the breach. It happened that Kubrick saw the film later that year -- it ran for awhile. He was interested in the space aspect of it and contacted our company. He then invited me to New York to see the script. He had a studio apartment on the West Side which was filled with storyboards, the development of 2001. It was a great script.
WM: Were the storyboards a lot like the finished film?
CP: Not really, because an awful lot of them were atmospheric. The original plan called for a large sequence of other worlds, very imaginative, but very specific types of worlds all over the place, to show the multiplicity of the cosmos. There were hundreds and hundreds of pictures of concepts and worlds, but it didn't really look like the story itself, the actual script, which nobody really saw. He had sold the film at that point to MGM. Bob O'Brien, who was the President of MGM then, was pretty much batting for him. It had a five and a half million dollar budget, which was a lot of money in those days. Now, you couldn't get an actor for that. The script itself was pretty neat. I was impressed and all excited about it. The trouble was, Kubrick stayed in the north of London and we were north of Los Angeles. (laughs) It was difficult to provide ideas and layouts and concepts for him, and he couldn't really see tactically how we would be able to work on the physical film with that distance between us, so in the summer of '65 he hired us to go over to England, Doug Trumball and myself. Doug was a young guy whom I had hired in '62 or '63 to do airbrush work. He was a terrific artist, just out of school, and fit immediately into the animation business doing backgrounds.
WM: So he was working at Graphic with you?
CP: Yes. We worked together on quite a few jobs there over a couple of years, and we both ended up going over to England to do lots and lots of stars and planets for starters.
Con Pederson, along with Douglas Trumball, was hired to do star effects, but ended up doing much more for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. © 1968 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
WM: And the other two people who have credit: Wally Veevers and Tom Howard?
CP: Wally Veevers was an old time special effects director. He went way back to Hitchcock as one of the most preeminent special effects directors in England. He knew everything about movies you needed to know to get things moved around. He was really terrific. I'd say he was the main ingredient in the special effects without a doubt, because every set up on every stage he had engineered the way it was going to work, working closely with the art department. The other name, Tom Howard, was head of the lab, so his primary assignment in the last year of production was to coordinate with Technicolor because they did all of our film work.
WM: It is wonderfully done. All the work in the special effects is seamless and there are no ugly borders showing anywhere...
CP: Thanks to Tom Howard. See, it was conceived as an art film, and the fact that we were pretty far away from Culver City made us pretty free as far as doing the work. Ultimately the film was printed in Culver City, of course, at MGM. Harry Jones was the timer there. They had a wonderful lab. I'd worked with them before. The final cut was done at MGM after a run here for a few weeks. Stanley cut 25 minutes from the film to tighten it up. There are no dissolves in the film, no opticals, it was all A and B cut, 65 negative. They made a protection internegative, but everything was done in original Eastman negative, so it has high quality. Stanley was always concerned. He would call me up years later whenever they would bring it out again to go look at the print to see if it were scratched or anything. He was fanatical about print and projection quality.
Con's first version of the Discovery spacecraft in 2001: A Space Odyssey, an 18 inch model. Courtesy of Con Pederson.
When I came back in '68, I took a couple of years off. You know, that was a long time ago but I was kinda worn out already. (laughs) I just started writing science fiction and getting to know the High Sierras like the back of my hand.
WM: 2001 is certainly different from the sort of science fiction that they have made since then. The pacing is so slow in a way and very grand, whereas the things they are turning out now, like Armageddon, there is a cut every two to three seconds.
CP: A lot of what looks like science fiction these days is really car chases. They make as many car chases as they can in Hollywood. It's the concept of action. The idea of doing a film that is an art film -- that's a dirty word in Hollywood because nobody would go see it if they thought of it that way. As a marketing thing, I think it was an accident that 2001 was successful. I never understood that. The first reviews, I have a stack of them, were mostly negative. No one quite knew what they were looking at, and they didn't know how to view it. But the generation of the '60s and '70s was such that it became a psychedelic sort of model, which had never occurred to us because I didn't know a single person in England that used drugs. We were really ordinary people, except that Stanley had this sense of adventure when it came to filmmaking. He was a cameraman. He was a photographer. He was an extraordinary filmmaker. I once asked him kind of stupidly how he thought a certain director would have done something we were discussing, and he said, "How would I know? I've never seen anyone direct." That's a good point. He was a self-educated director. I also asked him why he ended up producing all the time, because we had gone through a couple of producers on the job, and he said, "You can't get a good producer. They can't read your mind." So he was a do-it-yourself-er. He was a micro-manager. I have nothing against that. We got along great.
Con's final version of the Discovery spacecraft in 2001: A Space Odyssey, an 11 foot model. Courtesy of Con Pederson.
Sometimes it worries me because I wonder how he would have done something when I think of doing it myself, which you can't predict. I think that unpredictability is a big part of art, and basically Stanley was infatuated with the lenses and cameras. He spent a lot of time looking through cameras, the thing he knew best -- unlike, say, Hitchcock, who didn't bother with that. He would leave it to the DP. I quit directing after I left Graphic and I never wanted to direct again, because I considered it (if you're ready for this) to be not a very creative position. Too much of it is management. In order to direct you have to spend a lot of time managing and that means managing human relations, details, logistics, all of that stuff. Plus, I hate telephones. (laughs) I went without a phone for two years after that project.
WM: I knew John Whitney pretty well and he had his little sort of wire-frame version of the monolith and he claimed that he had invented the monolith.
CP: Not quite.
WM: Well, I thought not, but he was so passionate about things.
CP: We were trying to figure out a way to get him to work on it because he had worked on a show I did in New York, and oddly enough, the thing he was most interested in contributing to the film was sound. At that point in his career he had started doing a lot of sound work, music, and he was hoping to get involved in that aspect of it. Doug and I were interested in the slit scan process, although we hadn't really gotten into it. There came a point on 2001 when we were trying to devise a couple of effects that needed some sort of stop-motion smearing effect. We fiddled around with some things, but then Doug went off and bought a Mechano set. The British have incredible engineers. You can get stuff there that is just remarkable. For about £100, we bought this huge kit, like a tinker toy sort of thing, with which you could build just about any kind of mock up of a mechanical device. Doug actually built a little analog mechanical computer out of it. One thing led to another and he ended up using the same bug-eyed camera that we had used to make the dome show for the New York World's Fair, which we had coincidentally brought over with us, and built this big machine to do time lapse on a very large scale. A five foot slit with stuff passing through it, artwork on a big conveyor belt -- and that is how the stargate sequence came about, because we were looking for something besides the wet paint stuff that Stanley had done in New York, which was really his primer for the film, no pun intended. It was a paint effect that was done by a couple of guys from the Carolinas called Effects Y'All. They had done this sort of carnival medium of oil and water. They used different kinds of paint and chemicals and shot it at about 60 frames a second. The stuff was terrific. They shot an awful lot of stuff in New York in '65 and that was some of the stuff he'd shown me in '65 before the production started in England.
A model of the space station used in "The Blue Danube Waltz" section of 2001. Courtesy of Con Pederson.
It was really beautiful. Most of what we saw became the foundation of the Stargate sequence in 2001. One good story about that: Stanley got those guys, or one of them, back over to England to Borehamwood at MGM where they took a big chunk of Stage 5 and built a big enclosure with a kind of airlock, like a regular dark room. Wouldn't let anybody in. They didn't want anybody to know how they were doing this stuff, no matter where they were. They spent about a month, shooting and shooting and shooting the same exact effects of paint swirling and that sort of thing. They had thousands of feet of new stargate material. Finally, they just closed it down, decided we had enough so we could pick what we needed. Well, later on Stanley's wife, my wife, and I sat down and culled through several hours of that stuff and I don't think we used a single frame of all that stuff that they'd shot in England. Everything that was shot in New York magically just seemed to work so much better, and we never knew why. It was just amazing looking, and we didn't have to do anything to it. Although we did use some of it, and retreated it optically. In fact, we spent about a year making what we called 'purple hearts,' which were colorized versions of different effects that were composited sort of primitively together.
That whole Stargate sequence replaced what originally was a trip through the cosmos to see where the extraterrestrials were coming from. We had toyed with the idea of the extraterrestrials being defined and explained by a narrator. We thought of different narrators and I suggested a guy named Doug Raine who had done a film on astronomy in Canada that was really great. I got the film and Stanley liked Doug's voice, but it turned out that he had to have a new voice for Hal, the computer, which was originally a woman called Athena in the first version. Anyway, Hal 9000 needed a voice and Stanley tried quite a lot of people for it, and didn't care for any of the voices. At that point, we threw out the narrator -- decided it was going to be too preachy, too stodgy to have a narrator, and too much of a documentary -- so we tried Doug Raine as the voice of the computer and the rest is history: he was perfect for it! But originally he would have been the narrator of the film: there was even a prologue in black-and-white, along the lines of Cinerama, where you started in black-and-white and open up, which is by now a well-entrenched cliché, to mix a metaphor. For that we shot Carl Sagan, and a lot of the eminent astronomers of the time, talking about the cosmos. That whole thing was thrown out -- again it was too dry, too didactic. Went through a lot of permutations, there was a stack of scripts. Arthur Clarke would come from Ceylon and spend a few weeks until he'd get worried about taxes and then he'd have to leave the country and go on tour. It was entertaining.
I wish now I'd kept some of that stuff. I didn't keep anything from the picture. When we were still planning to do a lot of other-worldly stuff, I spent several months just painting pseudo-Bonestall "science fiction" things. I don't know what happened to those. They were probably destroyed, because everything Stanley could, he destroyed. We had all these scripts and one particular script I really wish I'd kept -- I had no interest in keeping that stuff at the time -- but in this one, the first page, if you turned it over, there was all this scribbling on it that was obviously written during a conversation that Stanley was having with Arthur and up at the top there were a lot of doodles and in this scribbling handwriting were sort of ideas: there was "2001" here and "an odyssey" there, and then "an odyssey in space," and there were all these little trial balloons and down at the bottom there was "2001: A Space Odyssey" underscored a couple of times, all of this in Stanley's ball-point. I just realized a few years later that I should have kept that. He burned everything that he could for a reason.
One day I was walking around toward Stage 3 and I saw this airplane -- they were making Battle of Britain or The Dirty Dozen I think it was, because they had a whole bunch of football players there from the NFL that were portraying the dirty dozen. Jim Brown was there, and I walked by this plane and thought, "That really looks familiar." I saw Stanley later on for lunch, and I said, "You know, they got a plane out there that looks like the bomber in Doctor Strangelove." He says, "What? Where?" I said, "Right over by Stage 3. They're setting it up for The Dirty Dozen or something." So he says, "Come on. Show me," and we ran over and he looks at it and he said, "Oh, my God!" You could just visualize Slim Pickens hanging out of that thing. Stanley just freaked. He called the studio and said, "You can't do this." At that point he began to realize that he had a lot of stuff that he'd shot in England on other projects that was in jeopardy of being used again, so from then on he instituted a policy of destroying everything.
WM: Slash and burn.
CP: Slash and burn so nobody could use anything that we built again, including a lot of the models, some of which were actually salvaged I guess. It's funny because you don't know how to think about props in a movie. They become valuable; antique collectors pick them up. People sell autographed stuff. You see all this stuff and you get a kind of scummy feeling about it. You don't know how to think about something that is, you might say, a second-generation celebrity, in that there is a cliché that has to do with people who are famous because they are famous and they are usually on the cover of People magazine. Don't ask me to name names. (laughs) The idea of celebrity in America, and possibly other places, is to me a little warped. (laughs) It is a little frustrating because it isn't a matter of envy that actors get all the glory and all the money for speaking lines that someone else writes. No one knows who writes a picture unless they are famous for something else. So as a one-time would-be writer and someone who has done a lot of writing (and I'm sure you can sympathize with this), I have a lot more respect for the writer anytime than I do for somebody who follows after to perform it.
WM: One last question about 2001. Is the pacing all Kubrick's? The Stargate sequence is really long; it is leisurely and grand and sort of builds and has a whole dynamic of its own. It's much longer than any kind of special-effect sequence would be in any other movie that I can think of.
CP: Everything in that film was Stanley's. Although we did storyboards and planned everything out, we never really had a sense of how long the overall film would be. We estimated it to be pretty close to what the first release was, which was 2 1/2 to almost 3 hours. There was an intermission. Though I once asked Ray Lovejoy, who was the editor and everything else in the office, I asked him some naive question about a rough cut and he looked at me kind of cross-eyed and said, "Stanley doesn't do rough cuts," (laughs) and I said, "Oh, really. That's a new one on me." Of course he makes rough cuts, everyone does -- by definition it's pretty hard to start with a finished product! But I watched 2001 being cut (because our offices were all right together, so we were cutting in the same little building). It was going on all the time. He would be cutting one sequence before it was finished, while we were working on another sequence, and obviously it was episodic, but Stanley had the last say on the timing of everything.
Also, the sequences were done out of order. The last sequence shot was "The Dawn of Man," which ended up being the first sequence in the film. It was entirely different from anything else, so it was shot with an entirely different frame of reference. Prior to that, the last sequence was really the ending, which was the bedroom scene. The Stargate sequence that proceeded that was made all through '67. The first stuff that we shot, in December of '65, mostly at Shepperton because they had the biggest sound-stage in England, was the block, the monolith sitting in the big excavation, the TMA1 site, the Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One. We shot the film, I remember, Wally Veevers had the film in the can from that set in December of '65, latent film images that were not developed, locked off cameras, a lot of footage, and Doug and I had to put earth and stars in that later on. It sat in a can on the roof of the lab building for two years, exposed film, undeveloped, and we finally got around to doing the mock-up plaster work for the horizon and put the stars and the Earth in there, and we said, "Gee, I wonder how this footage is going to work." We had some test footage and it looked okay. Would it be steady? Would the color have changed? Because people are not in the habit of leaving film in the can for two years. But it was perfect. Perfect. One of the things that I did was to keep track of all those things, the footage, the film itself, the negative. We had a lot of stuff up on the roof in a vault that you had to walk across a board on the roof to get to it. Kind of bizarre. (laughs)
WM: So what did you do after 2001?
CP: Well, I worked on a novel that I am still working on after 30 years, but I don't take it seriously. The trouble with writing is that I always sort of enjoyed treating it as a kind of cartoon. I like the fact that I started out as a cartoonist more or less, advertising art and commercials not withstanding, so I guess what writing I've done has been sort of verbal cartoons, sort of tongue-in-cheek maybe. I felt that if I wrote really serious stuff, which I have a drawer full of, when I'd look at it later, my mind set was so different that I thought, "This is crap." So I guess I didn't have to be a writer for any particular reasons. My verbal skills were sufficient so that now I entertain myself by constructing crosswords. I started high class crosswords last year. I have had several in the Wall Street Journal, a couple in the Washington Post. Crossword construction has been the hobby that has replaced stamp collecting. It's an unappreciated craft, because it's exceptionally difficult and there are only a few people who are really good at constructing crosswords, by that I mean the Sunday puzzles, the good ones that are always entertaining because of the theme. That's kind of replaced any thoughts of making a movie someday.
WM: Are you still doing special effects here now?
Con Pederson and a model of the spaceship Discovery used in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Courtesy of Con Pederson.
CP: Yeah. It is all computerized now for the last twenty years. I started doing a lot of programming back in the mid-seventies and early eighties. I guess it has been as the computer, specifically the micro-processors, got cheaper and the cost of using them for graphics became less and capacity grew, it has been one of the more thriving industries in the world. The interesting thing to me is that we end up hiring so many people from abroad. That will probably change but I think there are a lot of other countries that give you the impression they are ahead of us in some way. This company, Metrolight Studios, has been here almost twelve years, and it's such a polyglot place. We have people from Spain, Italy, South America, the Orient. It's just remarkable what an international thing the computer is. It probably symbolizes not only the computer itself but computer graphics in particular. The methodologies have been established pretty rapidly. That might be true of Edison's time too because it didn't take long for the telegraph to establish itself, and electric lights, the telephone, film and the automobile -- so there was a period of growth in the late last century. It was extremely rapid just as it is in the last 20 years of this century. I think there's a punctuated equilibrium, as it were, about the evolution of technology that is kind of elastic; there will be sort of bursts, the silicon chip made a burst, then kind of eased off. Other things took off, now it's all peripherals that are trying to match the speed of the chips, because the big problem is getting out of that micro-world and into something that is tangible, so everybody is trying to figure out what kind of storage material is the best. I'm not a technological person, I only dare dabble in it because I don't make my living in the mechanical aspects of computers at all. I couldn't put one together. Strictly software. But yeah, we do a lot of film work. It's fun.
WM: Computers also actually make animation and special effects international. Just recently in Animation World we had an article about an animation studio in Madagascar which is linked to Korea and France. They can instantaneously, on-line send what they are doing to the three different places, all of whom are participating on the same film...
CP: When we were working last year on a Tom Hanks project for television, the Apollo project, From the Earth to the Moon, which was the same title of course at the Jules Verne book, we had some Russians, they were based in San Diego, and had done some exploratory work together with them and we ended up sending stuff in a trial job to Moscow. It turned out, not only did they have the same software and hardware, Silicon Graphics, that we had, they had the newest stuff. They had better stuff than we did. And they were complaining about how hard it was to get into L.A. because of the electronic traffic on the Internet here. It's so slow. I thought it was amusing that here's a country virtually in shambles and they are first class when it comes to computer graphics. That is the anomalous aspect of Russia. They were the world leader in sound technology, music and sound effects, and then they have these soft spots economically. This whole global thing is fascinating, but Madagascar! That is wild.
WM: Yeah, it is amazing. At the time that 2001 was made, did anyone actually think that computers would end up doing the sort of things they have done in terms of this global village?
CP: If you look at the brain room scene in 2001, you see we had little Plexiglas modules that were keyed in and out of the memory -- that was kind of an abstract representation of the brain room of a computer, it was as though you were down inside of a chip. I remember that was virtually pre-chip.
WM: Oh yeah. They still had cards.
CP: Yeah, it was much later that I learned how to use key punch and paper tape. I learned to read paper tape when we were running our motion control stuff because we were not ready for computers yet. Our first computer in the '70s was an old, hand wire-wrapped core, 16 kilobyte memory surplus computer that had a lot of flashing lights on it, but was like a calculator. That's how I learned. I learned FORTRAN on one of them things. But the brain room sequence, I think, showed you a world which is totally unlike what we are going to have in a year and a half! Maybe if it had been called "3001" it might have been more accurate, but less saleable. That was true of 1984, the Orwell book. When 1984 came around, everybody said, "Gee, look how different it is. It's nothing like that! There's no Big Brother and all of that stuff." So you have a problem in dealing with a large audience, apart from science fiction people, when you put science fiction out in front of a larger audience, the dates are too small. You are not looking far enough ahead. Most science fiction movies in Hollywood are made so that we are in the year 20-something or the year 23-something. My goodness, that is incredibly far in the future, but I spent a couple of years working on a script which is a billion years in the future and I thought, "I'm never going to be able to sell this, will I?" (laughs)
WM: I wonder if you are right, about how it's going to be.
CP: Nobody wants to think that far ahead. It's because, when you look at it, Star Wars for instance is kind of a western. It is kind of a morality play, which has an awful lot of mythological models for the kind of story that it usually involves and I remember an incident when Kubrick called me just after he'd seen Star Wars, it was I think almost two years after the first Star Wars and he had just seen it, believe it or not. And he said, "It's a comic book! It's a comic book!" and I said, "Stanley, it is making a fortune." And he says, "Well, think of what we could do now. They got all these computers. You got all these computers now. Think of what we could do. You got any ideas?" And of course, I had just finished this thing that takes place a billion years in the future, but I had no desire to go back to England to do another science fiction film. So I said, "No, Stanley. I haven't been keeping up with science fiction lately and I really don't have any ideas."
He had sent me a copy of The Shining shortly before that. In fact, he wanted me to kind of comment on what I thought about it, because he knew I was into science fiction. Well, I had never read Stephen King. I didn't consider him a science fiction writer at all, because it was more horror stories. I don't begrudge him all that fame and success, but when you come out of science fiction and see somebody on the edges of it making a lot of money and nobody, Arthur Clarke included, as good as he is, makes any money in science fiction. But I read the book, The Shining, in a snow storm. It snowed six feet that night up in Mammoth. I read the whole book cover to cover in a night. That was a very sympathetic way to read the story, it takes place in the Rocky Mountains in a hotel. So I wrote a letter to Stanley and I made some suggestions, I don't remember all, but one thing, I pleaded with him, knowing him, "Don't shoot in Scotland. Don't shoot in the Swiss Alps. Shoot in the Rockies. You gotta get real Rockies." He said, "I know the Rockies. You know they are different from any mountains in the world. They are distinctive." Surprisingly he did a second unit shoot in the Rockies and that was good, because he is so, was so, kind of hermetically sealed as it were, kind of isolated. He wouldn't fly even though he went about getting a pilot's license at one time. He will only come off the island on ship. That was his way of thinking and of course, he never did leave England. So I thought maybe he would try to build a set that was too big. But he did do everything in sets in England. Everything he did was under control because it was more important to him to be able to walk from one room to another, or from one place to another and have it all there. He didn't want to go very far for anything. I resisted going back to England, even though I sometimes had the urge, just because three lousy winters there and that's why I didn't live in Minnesota anymore. (laughs) I didn't like the weather.
A space shuttle takes the astronauts of 2001: A Space Odyssey to the moon excavation site known as TMA1 (Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One). © 1968 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
Well, be that as it may, he was great. He was wonderful. A generous man. Brilliant guy and surprisingly folksy. Probably when you think about Hollywood very few people knew him here. People would go over there briefly and maybe work on a picture or something like that, but working with him for 2 and a half years very closely was a very special thing. He made an effect on me and oddly enough I think I made an effect on him too. I sort of sometimes made sense to him which I am surprised to say. He often needed somebody to bounce off; he was always asking questions about whether he was doing the right thing. People don't know that about him but he was not like most artists; they are always kind of adventuring, they are always sort of wondering how this is going to work. He was always doing things where there was a high probability of failure but he substituted something for fear and I don't know what it was. You could say it was bravery or recklessness but I don't know that much about human nature, and I decided when I flunked psychology in college that I wasn't going to find out. I think art involves too much mystery and I don't really want to know why we do art, and why we've been doing art for 35,000 years that is as sustainable as the ice age paintings that communicate so well to us after all those years that we say, "That's an old masterpiece, that's really amazing!" What drives us to draw with sensitivity, to communicate something that we see, not just what it looks like but what it is. It's the visual arts and the correlative verbal arts of writing and expressing ideas, like poetry for instance. I think all artforms are equally wonderful. I wouldn't have said that when I was younger. I like film less now than I did then, and I like the avant-garde and experimental less now. In the long run, my favorite films are really from the 1940s -- John Ford's things, but Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast is really the most perfect, wonderful film ever made. Why would anyone dare to make a cartoon version of it? And, by the way, 2001 isn't even my favorite Kubrick movie: I'm afraid that's A Clockwork Orange.
William Moritz teaches film and animation history at the California Institute of the Arts.
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