Revisiting Cinefex (20): 2010

Cinefex 20 - 2010Gracing the cover of Cinefex #20 is a haunting image of the enigmatic Starchild from Peter Hyams’s 1984 film 2010. Visual effects supervisor on the film was Richard Edlund, who had recently left Industrial Light and Magic to take over Douglas Trumbull’s EEG facility, soon to become Boss Film Corporation. Here’s what Edlund had to say about the facility’s work on 2010 at the time: ‘I believe the quality of special effects on the screen is the highest ever achieved in a film.’ It’s a big claim. Let’s see if it’s justified by re-reading this issue’s single article, which spans 68 pages.

  • Jupiter Revisited – The Odyssey of ‘2010’ (article by Adam Eisenberg and Don Shay)

This issue of Cinefex is impressively weighty. Maybe it’s something to do with Jupiter’s gravity. More likely it’s because the film under discussion is the sequel to one of the true classics not only of science fiction, but of cinema as a whole. I’m talking of course about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Add to that the presence of legendary VFX supervisor Richard Edlund, whose amassed film credits go not only to Jupiter but more or less beyond the infinite. Finally there are our ever-reliable mission pilots – Adam Eisenberg and Don Shay – who are guaranteed to show us wonders we never dreamed of.

Okay, so I’m waxing lyrical. That’s partly because I remember 2010 with great fondness, partly because this really does feel like an ‘event’ edition of Cinefex. 2001 holds such a special place in so many hearts that any attempt to resurrect HAL and set the Discovery back on course was always going to met with considerable interest. Nearly thirty years on, 2010 sits meekly in the shadow of its predecessor – if indeed it’s remembered at all – but that’s no reflection on the care with which Hyams, Edlund and all the rest of them went about putting it on the screen.


For director Hyams, taking up Kubrick’s reins was a daunting prospect. When MGM approached him to direct an adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s sequel novel, his first reaction was, ‘No way.’ Reading the novel changed his mind and he set about writing the screenplay himself. The tight timescale imposed by the studio meant that even before the script was finished, work on the movie – and in particular the effects – had begun.

rc20tt2Luckily, Hyams is a visually-savvy director. An interview with EEG art director George Jenson gives us great insight into Hyams’s process of shot design, which featured ‘very classical, clean compositions.’ Edlund picks this up with his comment that outer space ‘doesn’t offer a lot of compositional possibilities unless you create them.’

With its vision of the abandoned Discovery spinning rapidly on its axis in orbit around Jupiter’s moon Io, Clarke’s storyline already offered great opportunities for striking visuals. Hyams built on this by making the crew quarters of the Russian ship Leonov rotate as well. Edlund calls this decision ‘a stroke of genius.’ Certainly one of the images from this film that sticks in my mind – and which drew me back to the cinema for a second viewing – is the stunning choreography in which these two massive craft pirouette in perfect synchrony through space.

The more you scan this Cinefex article, the more you realise just how many similarly smart decisions were front-loaded into the production during this highly compressed development phase. Shot composition informed spacecraft design (it can’t have hurt that Syd Mead, already well-known for his work on Star Trek, Blade Runner and Tron was on board too). Another early choice was to light the ships with just a single keylight to simulate the high-contrast environment of outer space. This apparently simple decision defined the appearance of the ships in space, and had serious repercussions on the entire VFX workflow.

‘When I told Richard we’d be using a single key light approach,’ says Hyams, ‘he said, “Well, you have to put a little fill light in there to overcome the blue spill.”‘ But Hyams didn’t want any fill at all, so, ‘Richard, being Richard, came up with the solution.’ That solution was a front-projected bluescreen approach using equipment rented from Apogee and modified for its new purpose.

The new ‘blue flux’ process typifies Edlund’s approach to the many of 2010‘s effects. It’s not so much revolutionary as carefully crafted to create the precise end result the director wants. The same is true of the spacecraft models, the construction of which is described here in great depth. When you add up all their rotating parts – not to mention the special rigs needed to spin them reliably in front of the camera – you end up with what Edlund calls ‘probably the most complex [models] ever built for a space film.’

That’s not to say there wasn’t a little revolution going on as well … of the computer generated variety.

‘I think more time and effort was spent on physically getting Jupiter to look like Jupiter than has ever been spent on any single image in the history of motion pictures,’ Hyams remarks. The challenge was to recreate the swirling cloud patterns famously captured by the Voyager probes and set them in motion. To do this, Edlund turned to John Whitney Jr and Demos of Digital Productions. After much R&D, the final solution involved painting huge cylindrical projections of Jupiter’s clouds based on JPL’s Voyager data. Once digitised, these images were animated using fluid simulation mathematics.

The Jupiter simulation of 2010 another step along the way in the great CG journey of the 1980s, one that in this case involved a Cray supercomputer and much hair-tearing since there was no scanner big enough to digitise the artwork in one go, meaning it had to be broken down into tiles. The article devotes many pages to the creation of the Jupiter images, covering everything from the technicalities of gas densities in the Jovian atmosphere to the aesthetic decision to dial up the windspeed, simply to make the cloud motion read on screen. And Craig Upson lets slip the now-astonishing fact that, after all this effort and computation, the only way to transfer the final images to motion picture film was ‘filming off a CRT face about five inches across.’

rc20tt1As well as spaceships and planetary atmospheres, Eisenberg and Shay’s article features a great interview with actor John Lithgow, who tells us all about his hair-raising experiences hanging in a spacesuit from wires. ‘I just loved it,’ he says. ‘It was like the ultimate amusement park ride.’ Much as I read Cinefex primarily to hear from the VFX pros (as I’m sure you do too), it makes a refreshing change to hear from the talent as well.

Other sections cover cel animation of tiny tether lines for the long shots of astronauts swinging through space, the disastrous first attempt at creating a Starchild puppet and, of course, the recreation of the iconic monolith from 2001. This latter was realised with matte paintings, which sounds simple until you hear Matthew Yuricich talking about it. ‘Michelle Moen did most of the monoliths,’ he says, ‘and it was a real labor … they really are just made out of different tones of black.’

The monolith was also created in three-dimensional form for the final shot on a transformed Europa. Modelshop supervisor Mark Stetson details the design and construction of the miniature landscape and sunset. He also confesses that the top of the monolith had to be chopped at an odd angle ‘because it was the only way we could make it look right to the camera, since the lens … had a lot of pin cushion distortion.’

Fittingly, the article closes with some thoughts from Mark Vargo about the various challenges faced by the optical department. He discusses in detail the pros and cons of Edlund’s blue flux system, comparing it to the frontlight/backlight process that was also used. Effects editor Conrad Buff outlines the complex problems of the spacewalk sequence, when strong lighting on spinning ships and floating astronauts made for some tricky continuity problems.

In short, we hear from pretty much everyone involved. Cinefex generally gets good access to productions, but in this issue it seems particularly comprehensive. The article is particularly strong in its use of lengthy verbatim quotes from the various interviewees. Eisenberg and Shay score highly in this respect with their combination of heavyweight reporting and a remarkably light narrator’s touch.

It’s interesting to log the number of superlatives used by Hyams and Edlund when talking about this film. I’ve quoted a few of them here. Both men were clearly committed to producing work of lasting quality, and believed in their achievements. We’ve seen in earlier Cinefex articles how critical Edlund can be of his own work, so when he says, ‘we created a look that has never been seen before in a space movie,’ you have to take him seriously. I think their pride is justified – I remember being pretty blown away by 2010‘s visual effects, not only by the quality of the models and optical work, but especially by the conceptual design and choreography. The DVD transfer I’ve seen doesn’t do it justice and by all accounts the Blu-ray isn’t great; isn’t it about time we had a restoration of this forgotten classic?

I use the word ‘classic’, although the film isn’t without its faults. The Cold War storyline has dated badly, and the final resolution of Dave Bowman’s repeated statement that ‘something wonderful’ is going to happen doesn’t work as well on screen as it does in the pages of the original novel. And was this movie ever going to be able to stand up against the behemoth that is 2001?

What the film does deliver is the kind of science fiction that’s sadly lacking today. The visual effects boom of the 1980s meant that some of the dazzling conceptual visions of science fiction literature were suddenly becoming achievable on screen. At the same time, however, science fiction in the movies was becoming increasingly associated with action and violence. 2010 is that rare cinematic beast: a poetic futuristic vision that puts big ideas about what it means to be human ahead of crowd-pleasing antics. It’s far from perfect, but it’s the kind of thing I’d like to see more of on the screen of my local multiplex.

The pictures

This issue of Cinefex features some particularly good photos of 2010‘s huge spacecraft models both under construction and on the EEG/BFC bluescreen stage. My favourite shot, however, shows a tiny astronaut puppet suspended on a motion-controlled needle in front of a patch of bluescreen material on the Oxberry animation stand. 2010 might have been ahead of the curve in planetary simulations, but for some shots they still had to just make a little guy from clay and stick him in front of the lens.

Did you enjoy this Cinefex retrospective? If so, click here to read the others in the series.

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