Thursday, March 26, 2015

Bob Balaban – Actor with the ”Smart Pants”

This veteran of Close Encounters is the scientist trying to heal his computer creation, the murderous HAL, as he faces the vastness of space in the year we make contact, 2010.


There's something scholarly about Bob Balaban. According to an MGM spokesman, "few actors can project a feeling of intelligence better than Balaban."

Perhaps it's the beard. Or the glasses. Whatever "it" is, it has led to a slew of what he calls "smart parts," as scientists in films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Altered States, and lawyer roles in such recent movies as Prince of the City and Absence of Malice.

And now his cerebral image has propelled him into deep space as computer genious Dr. S. Chandra, father of HAL, in director/writer/producer Peter Hyams' 2010, the long-awaited sequel to the Stanley Kubrick-Arthur C. Clarke epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

"Yeah, I've been labeled as smart," Balaban says with a shrug, the beginnings of a grin on his face. "It's better than people saying I look like a scowling maniac."

Balaban read the Clarke novel shortly after he read Hyams' screenplay version of 2010 and liked the adapatation. "I like to think of the book as an outline for a good movie," he says. "I liked the book and I think it provided a powerful overstructure. The movie improved on the book by expanding both the characters and their relationships."

The emphasis on character is the key difference between 2010 and 2001, a film that has become a milestone in motion picture history for its daring, philosophical storyline and inauguration of sophisticated visual effects.

In 2010, Roy Scheider plays scientist Heywood Floyd, who joins two other American scientists, John (Buckaroo Banzai) Lithgow and Balaban, aboard a Russian spacecraft bound for Jupiter, where the derelict Discovery drifts beside an awesome black monolith of alien origins. The crew hopes to uncover the fate of astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea), the malfunction that turned HAL into a murderous computer, and the secret to the alien monolith.

Meanwhile, the cold war is heating up on Earth and World War III seems imminent. And, in deviation from the book, the friction also extends to the Russian and American crew members.

Chandra (Bob Balaban) uses ski-lift cable to travel
from the Leonov to the abandoned Discovery.

Balaban's character, Dr. Chandra, has been slightly recrafted in the translation to the screen. "They changed his nationality from Indian to American," he says. "Since there were Americans and Russians together up there, they thought it would be confusing to have another nationality in thrown in there. That makes sense to me."

"I would like to have played an Indian," he adds, "although Indian people, and rightly so, would have resented that casting. I thought, in essence, the screenplay maintains his devotion to HAL and his affection for HAL. That was the most important part of the character."

Balaban had the opportunity to see how the screen adaptation fared with Clarke when the author visited the 2010 set at MGM Studios in Culver City, California.

"I was glad he came on my last day of shooting," the actor admits. "I was nervous that he might observe me playing Chandra and think, 'No, no, no, that's not my idea of Chandra at all.' I expected to be intimidated by him. But, he turned out to be a very funny, droll person. Here was this very accessible man, charming and kind, and I thought he was great."

A Human Sequel

Few sequels amount to anything more than pale imitations of the originals. Some sequels overcome that obstacle, but still falter as worthwhile films in their own right. Balaban believes, as one might expect him to, that 2010 is different.

"To me, 2010 is a good sequel. It's very different from the first one, but there are enough elements in it from 2001 to involve people who are in love with that film - and enough new material to attract a whole new crop of people who have never seen 2001," Balaban says. "2010 almost exists in a different genre than the first one did. This one is about humanity, humans and their adventures and misfortunes, while 2001 was a wonderful movie that was more about metaphysics."

Stylistically, 2010 owes less to 2001 than it does to the increased technological sophistication of movie audiences who are accustomed to seeing dazzling effects and real-life space journeys.

"The time is different now," he says. "We are much more advanced, we've done many of the things they were just thinking about when 2001 was released. In some ways, I think 2010 is much more grounded in what we are familiar with already. We all know what spaceships look like, we've seen astronauts walking in space, untethered, we've seen the Moon. So, this movie, in some respects, must be much more realistic than 2001 and rely less on hardware and more on character."

He sees 2010 as an original film, a movie "in the same ballpark but not a sequel," Balaban notes. "The trap of a sequel is that the central focus becomes tying up all the loose ends and not presenting a compelling and interesting story in its own right. I think this motion picture will stand on its own."

None of the filmmakers or cast members really expects 2010 to duplicate the sociological effects that 2001 had. That reaction is not something you can engineer in a soundstage.

Chandra is reunited with his brainchild, the HAL 9000,
and reanimates the potentially lethal computer.

"When 2001 opened," the actor says, "it had very little appeal at first. It grew out of cult status and somehow hooked into a whole cultural chain of events that was occuring. That didn't just happen the month the movie was released."

Studio execs entrusted the mammoth project to Peter (Outland) Hyams, who tackled 2010 in pure Kubrickian fashion by assuming many of the same responsibilities himself. Hyams not only directed from his own screenplay, but served as the cameraman and produced the film. And, from Balaban's perspective, Hyams has pulled it off.

"Monumentally so. He achieved the one, highly impossible thing when doing a movie of this size and scope on such a tight schedule; he maintained a wonderful good humor," Balaban says. "And that is very important to actors in films like this one. The danger of a film with many effects is that you will not be cared for by the director. Peter never lets that happen. I don't know how he managed to do it, racing between two different soundstages and dealing with all the other things he had to think about with which we never had to concern ourselves."

But Balaban is interested in those "other things," since he's now embarking on his own directorial career. He helmed a critically acclaimed short film several years ago about "a day in the life of a special effects man."

SFX1140 was screened at Filmex and at the Museum of Modern Art. If featured Mandy (Ragtime) Patinkin, Richard (Close Encounters) Dreyfuss and Wallace (Strange Invaders) Shawn.

"On the basis of that film, George (Dawn of the Dead) Romero offered me a job directing the pilot for his syndicated horror anthology Tales of the Darkside," he says. "It was like doing a little movie. It's not like directing an episode of a TV show where you know all the characters already and they all talk the same way. I can show this episode, 'Trick or Treat,' to people, and it stands up as a short movie."

Balaban's background in movies is firmly rooted in his family lineage. His father owned a chain of 175 Chicago-area movie theaters, his uncle was a Paramount Studios president and his grandfather once served as MGM's head of production. When Balaban was six-years-old, he was already making movies with his dad's 8-mm camera.

Balaban studied English first at Colgate University, then at New York University, where he chagned his major to film. His girlfriend, Lynn Grossman, suggested that he audition for the role of Linus in an off-Broadway musical called You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. He got the role and later married Grossman, now a TV writer.

Inside HAL, Chandra (Bob Balaban) inserts new program
elements, changing the thinking machine's priorities.

After bouncing around Broadway, he drifted on to TV guest shots and made his film debut in 1969 as a young homosexual who propositions Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy. Close Encounters, Altered States and other films followed (as noted in an interview with Balaban in STARLOG #44).

A HAL Scene

Currently, Balaban is developing a "medium-size comedy" to direct for MGM. He is looking forward to more work on the other side of the camera. But on 2010, Balaban's job was strictly acting, though he paid close attention to Hyams' style.

"I was more aware of what Peter's problems might be. I think the first way to get yourself hated, though, is to offer advice. I just did my job and I watched and I learned," Balaban says. "I didn't find myself second-guessing him, but I am more aware of things that, before I began directing, I wasn't much aware of."

"This reminds of a story," he pauses. "When [actor/director] Francois Truffaut worked on Close Encounters, the first thing he did, because we were all scared of him in one way or another, was to go up to Steven Spielberg and say, 'You're the director, I'm here to be an actor. I'm here to help you and be quiet and patient and obedient and not get in your way.' It was a wonderful speech."

Balaban finds some similarities between Hyams and Spielberg. Both, he says, are "actors' directors."

"I think they feel that while they are experts at what they do, they have respect for actors and they treat actors as people who might actually know something," Balaban says. "That's a very nice thing. I mean, you can go too far in that respect. They're directors who are interested in what actors have to say, but they are foolishly over-ruled by them. They're interested in what actors have to bring to the part. They see that input as a valuable part of making the movie. My favorite directors are those who know when it's important to collaborate and when to say, 'No, I want it this way and that's the way it's going to be.' "

Balaban didn't have much of a chance to work with Scheider, Lithgow and the rest of the cast, which includes Helen (Excalibur) Mirren and Elya (Moscow on the Hudson) Baskin. Most of his scenes were with an inanimate box full of fluorescent lights and colored plastic that, with a little movie magic, becomes HAL.

"It wasn't as difficult as you might think," Balaban says. "Peter pre-recorded all of Douglas Rain's dialogue as HAL. Rain is a very good actor. So, they played his voice when I did my scenes. It was very much like acting with another human being, except HAL never forgot his lines or tried to break me up. And if I was really good, he didn't goof up."

"Strangely enough," he adds, "I had no sense of acting with a recording. As far as I was concerned, if felt like he changed his performance from take to take."

The only problems that arose were technological. All of Balabans's "weightless" exploring inside HAL played havoc with the actor's equilibrium.

"After two days of being twisted around inside HAL, my inner ear got affected and I got a horrible case of vertigo," Balaban says. "That was unusual. The flying sequences were fun. It has always been a great dream of mine to fly in a movie, a play or somebody's house. Anywhere. It's been great fun, if you overlook the geophysical discomforts, hanging from wires and being poked through sets. Occasionally, I would catch a glimpse of myself reflected in glass and get thrilled about how magical it was. I didn't feel weightless. You can feel the harnesses tugging against you. I felt like a 3000-pound lead brick."

Which is what he hopes 2010 won't be at the box office come December 7.

"I'm just dying to see the movie," Bob Balaban says. "One never knows what a movie of this scope will look like. Seeing Close Encounters, one of my favorite movies ever, was like seeing a film I had never been in because the effects were so powerful. I suspect when I go to see 2010, I will feel like the audience. Everything will be a complete surprise."

(This article was originally publish in Starlog Magazine, 1984. Copyright © 1984 Starlog.)

Friday, March 20, 2015

2010: The Graphic Action Game

Movies, or rather motion pictures - being generally held by lofty entertainment philosophers as "the highest of the arts" - might not suffer the transition to the world of gaming gladly. Genre transitions are perhaps not that obvious at first glance. A second glance, however, might tell a different tale.

ColecoVision made sure to squeeze the most out of their 2010 license.

The Coleco design team created not one, but two movie tie-in games. Even the most jaded among us must tip our hats to the team. The movie itself is somewhat thin on plot, and managing to create even one game from the meager helpings would be tough indeed—the only thing coming to mind would a Jupiter Lander type piloting game, but such a game would be completely disconnected from the story. The design team at Connecticut Leather Company however managed to create not one movie tie-in game, but two (!). This article will shed some light on one of them.

The very, very simple title screen.

The name of the game is very much a misnomer. The game is not really packed with walloping action, nor is it very graphic. The player will find most, actually all of the action at the circuit boards. Some players might recognize the circuit board mini-games, they are in fact variations of Teruo Matsumoto's circuit board game. The game exists in several different mutations, and has been popular ever since it was created in 1974. Today many players might recognize it as one of the 'hacking games' that are part of the 'console hacking' portion of several first-person shooters.

The main game screen.

The game itself is precisely that: a series of circuit board games loosely grouped into five separate groups, namely Communications, Reactor, Engines, Life Support, and of course the main computer HAL 9000. These groups can be seen on the main screen.

The end of a successful misson.

The manual gives a bit of back story and presents the setting of the game. Discovery's orbit is decaying and you have arrived just in time to save her from a fiery doom on the surface of the Jovian moon Io. To achieve this you are assisted by the horribly-named repair drone/robot Waldo.

The circuit board with the various CITs.

When the player places Waldo on a damaged circuit—visible on the Discovery as white points—the view changes from the main overall view to the circuit board view. Here, the player sees the circuit board and every circuit (or CIT as it is called in the game) that makes up the board. The player must then guide energy flow from the left side of the screen to the opposite side, passing through every CIT on the board while doing so. When a damaged CIT is encountered it will blow, and Waldo can then replace it with one of the three CITs available. The CITs themselves do not have any designation, and are distinguished only by their patterns. When all the damaged CIT circuits are repaired and energy can flow freely across the board it is declared fixed, and the view changes to the main view again.

The end of a disastrous mission.

This action is then repeated on every circuit board seen on the main screen. If the player manages to repair all the boards before the Discovery crashes onto Io's sulfuric surface victory carries the day. If not, the Discovery will become a yellow heap of scrap metal on the surface of the Jovian moon.

And that, needless to say, it what we do not want.

The Package

Game package contents.

The game package itself is fairly elaborate compared to the usual slim pickens of the games of the day. In addition to the module, an 'engineering repair manual' and a 'Discovery repair manual' was shipped in the game box.

The 'engineering repair manual' presents the basics of the game; how to insert the module, how to power up the game, and how to actually play it.

The 'repair manual' again has a message from commissioner Thomas Charles from United States Space Commisson, the message being separated into a series of nine confidential transmissions. The players who are familiar with the other official 2010 game from ColecoVision - 2010: The Text Adventure Game - might recognize the name. Indeed, the same commissioner is, for wont of a better word, the same. In the other game, commissioner Charles has his full name proudly on display: Thomas Rae Charles. Not to be confused with Ray Charles, who was a kick-ass rhythm and blues powerhouse.

Discovery XD-1 exploded view.

The map is not much more than an exploded view of the Discovery XD-1 space ship. A nice touch is the names of the personel: the people on the Discovery map are the people who created the game. Keen observers might also note the centrifuge is placed horisontally in the schematic, not vertically as it is "supposed" to be. Even keener observers might notice the vertical centrifuge is a post facto diversion from Clarke's novel, which explicitly mentioned the centrifuge being vertical, not horizontal. Kubrick's movie never made the topology of the Discovery very explicit, either. His answer to Hyams' probing question regarding the inner layout of the space ship is rather telling: "who cares?"

Even more pedantic observers might feel compelled to point out there is no way to place a centrifuge of the size depicted in the 2001: A Space Odyssey movie inside the hull of the Discovery, horisontally, vertically, or otherwise. This was already mentioned by several astute movie afficionados in the 60s, but non-functioning topologies are a common thing in many movies, especially within the genre of science fiction. To make matters more complicated director Peter Hyams added even more corridors inside the already bulging Discovery hull. None of these are shown in the schematic, however.

Usefulness aside, the map makes great nerd wall art.

Final Message

There are some nice little touches in the game, small tidbits that will bring a smile on the face of the most hardened nerd.

The first one that needs to be mentioned is the pause music. When the player pauses the game, the music that is heard is a sloppy, almost drunken-sounding rendition of the song "Bicycle Built For Two", the song that HAL started singing upon being disconnected. The song has a long history in computer music, and was in fact the first piece of music ever sung by any computer anywhere, ever.

The other tidbit is the hidden message in the game. If you manage to power up all the five communication circuits on the highest difficulty setting - Level 4 - and them press both fire buttons simultaneously, you will be greeted with a hidden message.

No, we will not tell you what it is.

Where Are We Today?

There are ways to play the game on modern systems, using any one of the plethora of ADAM emulators that are available. However, since the ROM images required to play these older games mostly exist in the legally dubious twilight zone of distributed media, it is recommended you try to find an original ADAM and an original module.

If you can manage to do that, fire the system up and enjoy the game for what it is: an enjoyable time waster.

Images copyright ©1985 Coleco.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Star Child

Space cadet Sir Arthur may have grown up on a farm, but he never ceased growing. His epitaph even states so, and none can disagree.

Star Child, aged 3.
The First World War was still raging when Arthur Charles Clarke was born in the small Somerset town of Minehead, in the early Sunday morning hours of December 16, 1917.

Growing up, his first love was not the stars, however. It was the sea, the Neptunian expanse of the deep. As a child he loved to spend his time on the Minehead beach down by the ocean shore, building sand castles and exploring the tide pools. "My youth," Clarke remembered, "was spent alternating between the seaside and my parents' small farm." Until old age he stated the "only place [he] feel[s] completely relaxed is by the edge of the sea." "Or, better still," he said, "hovering weightless beneath it, over the populous and polychromatic landscape of my favorite reef." His love for the sea stayed with him throughout his life. "How inappropriate to call this planet Earth," he sometimes mused, "when it is quite clearly Ocean."

Arthur with neighbour, 1920.
When he was thirteen, his life, however, was about to change.

His neighbour Larry Kille—an "elderly gentleman" of "at least thirty" years of age—showed him the November 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, whose cover sported none other than the planet Jupiter.

"The very first science-fiction magazine I ever saw," Clarke remembered, "had a cover by Frank Paul – and it is one of the most remarkable illustrations in the history of science fiction, as it appears to be a clear example of precognition on the part of the artist! I must have seen Amazing Stories for November 1928 about a year after it had been shipped across to England—so rumor has it, as ship's 'ballast'—and sold at Woolworth's for 3p. How I used to haunt that once-famous store during my lunch hour, in search of issues of Amazing, Wonder, and Astounding, buried like jewels in the junk-pile of detective and western pulps."

Amazing Stories,
November 1928.
His detective work paid off. He was finally able to locate an issue without apparent owner.

"Sometime towards the end of 1930, in my thirteenth year," Clarke said, "I acquired my first science fiction magazine—and my life was irrevocably changed." The magazine was the March 1930 issue of Astounding Stories.  "Its garish cover," he remembered, "showed something that looked like a cross between a submarine and a glass-dome observatory."

The Killes were influential on the young Clarke; Nellie Kille's knitting machine had him hexed: precisely crafted spinning cogs could produce flawless items in less than an hour, items a person would have to spend days perfecting. "I can still hear the clicking of the hundreds of needles and the whir of the well-oiled gear wheels," he said. "My own interest in science owes much to the fascinating hardware that Mrs. Kille operated with effortless skill."

Arthur's first pulp acquisition,
Astounding Stories March 1930.
Nellie's husband Arthur Cornish was an archaeologist and Arthur was fascinated by the fossils he got to see, the ancient animals underscoring the cosmic age of the Earth. Ever since that time, Clarke was fascinated by space science in all its various forms, leading him to build his own telescope using cast-off lenses at the age of 13. "I spent my nights mapping the moon until I knew my way around it better than my native Somerset," he said.

A little later his family could watch him blast rockets into the sky from the family farm. To young Arthur, precise engineering, astronomy, rocket science, and celestial physics all melded into one singularity, called simply space. It was to define his life.

As he whimsically said; "At thirteen, science fiction changed my life. Puberty was a close second."

He began publishing his writings in science fiction fanzines in the late '30s, and joined the British Interplanetary Society while still a teenager. At BIS he was affectionately known as "Rockets" Clarke. The society was at that point, of course, examining the possibilities of a manned mission to the moon. "Everyone thought we were totally nuts," Clarke said.

In 1936, at the age of eighteen, he moved to London, and found work as a civil servant at His Majesty's Exchequer and Audit Department. It was here that he enlisted in the Royal Air Force. With the war on the continent already underway, he rightly suspected he would be unreserved at any moment, so he sneaked off during a lunch hour and volunteered at the nearest RAF office. He was in the nick of time; two weeks later the army sent him an order to show up at the Medical Corps. Always having been slightly hemophobic, he had pulled off the narrowest of escapes. At RAF he got assigned as a radar technician, later becoming the officer in charge of new experimental techniques and equipment.

In the midst of the War, in 1943, Clarke was already an instructor at the No. 9 Radio School at Yatesbury in the British Royal Air Force, when he was given a secret assignment. He was sent to a foggy airfield at the southern tip of England where he worked with the Noble prize winning inventor of the ground-controlled approach talkdown system, a young American physicist called Luis Alvarez. The radar device could bring down an aircraft, in Clarke's words, "in one piece, instead of several." He rose to the rank of flight lieutenant, but most importanly Clarke credits the CGA endeavour with allowing him the time away from the war to work on communications satellites.

Seer of Worlds

Arthur C. Clarke as a
19-year-old London teen, 1937.
It was in October of 1945—in the aftermath of World War Two—that Clarke, at the age of 28, had published a short, 4-page treatise about broadcast-transmission devices placed in geo-stationary orbit. He called the devices Extra-Terrestrial Relays, which was also the title of his paper, in passing coining the phrase 'extra-terrestrial'. He only received 15 pounds for it and no royalties whatsoever. The article was published in the magazine Wireless World to little fanfare, but it was to have a monstrous effect on the planet.

After World War Two came to an end, Clarke enrolled at London University's King's College, where he took physics and math degrees. During this time he also worked as assistant editor of the Science Abstracts periodical. He graduated with first-class honours in 1948.

Meanwhile Clarke continued his work at the British Interplanetary Society, and was to become BIS's perhaps most visible member, becoming chairman for the first time in 1946 at the age of 29.

He finally published his first science fiction story commercially in 1946. His first book, Prelude to Space, was written in 3 hectic weeks during the summer of 1947. The following summer he wrote The Sentinel, a short story which was to have a profound impact on his career. Although the short story was not published until 1951 – the same year his Prelude to Space was finally published – it instantly became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and more importantly it planted the seeds for his most well-known book, 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1951 he also published his first sci-fi novel, The Sands of Mars.

It was in 1952 his career as a professional writer began. He was already influential in smaller circles, but when he could finally live off his book advances his output became double in size. He kept writing non-fiction, as well, and he continued to do so for the remainder of his life. "My literary interests," he remarked, "are divided equally between fiction and non-fiction."

Ironically it was the proceeds from his non-fiction publications – such as his 1951 The Exploration of Space – that allowed him to throw himself at his forte: his fiction.

And that he did, with gusto.

The Godfather of the Future

His influence soon stretched further than he himself could have ever imagined. His 1951 book The Exploration of Space was used by Wernher von Braun to convince United States president John F. Kennedy it was possible to go to the Moon. On July 10, 1962, his prediction of his so called "extra-terrestrial relays" became a reality with the launch of Telstar 1. Legendary news caster Walter Cronkite from CBS requested Clarke to cover the Apollo 11 Moon landing with him. His influence was not confined to those early days, or course. Much, much later the godfather of the World Wide Web – Sir Tim Berners-Lee – mentions Arthur C. Clarkes story Dial F for Frankenstein as the inspiration for his invention.

Clarke at his home in Washington, 1952.

He foresaw a countless amount of innovations, such as the Internet and e-mail, videophones such as FaceTime and Skype, smartwatches, online shopping and banking, mobile phones, telepresence and telecommuting, search engines like Google, even laptops. Many of his causes have yet to materialize, although his unrelenting lobbying for the space elevator may one day be seen as prescience of the highest order.

Of course, his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, and the way their love-child changed the history of cinema is the stuff of legend. The movies 2001: A Space Odyssey and the sequel 2010: The Year We Make Contact directed by Peter Hyams were nominated for 7 Academy Awards combined.

He did acknowledge that his ideas had stretched the imagination of many people. "I'm rather proud of the fact," he said, "that I know several astronauts who became astronauts through reading my books."

First-rate modesty

Clarke himself was uncharacteristically modest about his achievements in science, however. Not even when the discussion touched on the fact he had conceived and conceptualized – and predicted – the communication satellite a full two decades before it became a reality, was he prepared to take any undeserved credit for his work.

I may have advanced the cause of space communications
by approximately fifteen minutes.

He did not bring about the Space Age, he said. "Well first of all I can't claim priority for any of these ideas," he said in a 2000 interview. "It’s very hard to find anything that some writer hasn't said in perhaps embryonic form some time in the past."

Clarke in 1971 with sideburns doing his best Asimov impression.

He hesitantly accepted an ancillary role as a promoter of ideas, but he consistently rejected the notion that he alone would have come up with the concept. "I suspect my early disclosure," he said in a 1982 speech, "may have advanced the cause of space communications by approximately fifteen minutes."

He also was rather unassuming about any rights associated with his designs. "You can't patent an orbit," he once facetiously reflected. "And the only reason I didn't patent the Comsat was that I didn't know how to build one. Had I been a bit smarter, I'd be a trillionaire." He did know that the concept was not possible to patent, and often joked about it. "I'm often asked why I didn't try to patent the idea of communications satellites. My answer is always, 'A patent is really a license to be sued.' "

In another case of jocular self-deprecation he said the only reason the orbit – the Clarke Orbit or the Clarke Belt – is named after him is "because it rolls off the tongue easier than geo-stationary orbit."

Yet we know that he was both secretly and openly proud of his accomplishments. And rightfully so. He was also acutely aware of the extent of his renown, and needed no public obelisks in his name to know it. His exegi monumentum, he declared, was readily available for everyone to see.

"Go to any well-stocked library," he said, "and just look around."


Endlessly fascinated, and never one to take himself too seriously, he was an inspiring visionary who never stopped growing.

Clarke wearing his favourite Nehru jacket in 2001.

The planet we inhabit today is different because he was here.

Sir Arthur Charles Clarke passed away in the early Wednesday morning hours of March 19, 2008.

He was 90.

Images copyright ©1928 Paizo Publishing, ©1930 Penny Publications, ©1919-2015 Arthur C Clarke Estate, ©2001 Shahidul Alam.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Elya Baskin – Russian Actor, American Citizen, Movie Cosmonaut


Elya Baskin first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in Russia, sitting in a cramped screening room in a private club for actors. The classic SF film was not in public release. As he watched, enthralled, the thought of someday leaving the Soviet Union and being part of the startling wonders unfolding on the screen would have seemed utterly absurd.

Today, his is a U.S. citizen. Today, he is Maxim Brailovsky, a Russian scientist aboard the Leonov in the sequel to 2001, 2010. Today, he has a lucrative Hollywood career in-the-making. Today, he is called a traitor in his homeland.

"I don't expect 2010 to be shown even in private screenings in Russia," Baskin says. "It has nothing to do with the content. Some of us were very well known ever there and have been declared traitors. Everybody who leaves Russia is a traitor. And once we are abroad, they write all these stories of how we suffer here. After all those lies, would they show all of us working in a big American film? Of course not."

Nearly a decade after coming to the United States, Baskin finally hit his career stride with a major role opposite Robin (Mork and Mindy) Williams in Moscow on the Hudson. Its box-office success paid his airfare on the Leonov. The Paul Mazursky film also earned Savely Kramarov, once the "Jerry Lewis" of Russia and a KGB agent in Moscow, a job in 2010.

For Baskin, meeting Keir Dullea – who portrays David Bowman in both 2001 and 2010 (STARLOG #88) – was an unsettling experience which rekindled memories of sitting in that dark room years ago in a different world.

"It was like meeting someone supernatural," he recalls. "Back in Russia, I would never have dreamed of meeting Keir Dullea. At that time, I didn't know I would ever come here and who would have thought it possible I would in a 2001? It would be like thinking I would meet a little green guy from Close Encounters, stepping out of a spaceship a few years from now."

Baskin didn't expect to be appearing in any type of dramatic motion picture.

"Getting the role in 2010 was a total surprise to me because I consider myself a comic actor," he explains. "In Russia, I was with the Moscow Comedic Theatre Company. I would never have dreamed that I would play a Russian cosmonaut unless it was a crazy comedy."

Maxim Brailovsky (Elya Baskin) pierces the eerie
darkness of the empty American starship, Discovery

"Now, all of a sudden, I get this film where it's a very dramatic and sensitive and wonderful part I play. I think that growing a beard helped me," he adds. "It might sound totally ridiculous, but it's changed my feeling about myself as a personality. All of a sudden, I thought I should try something different."

And 2010 certainly qualifies.

It's a sequel to a classic film and, as such, faces enormous expectations and critical drubbing. It is also MGM/UA's prize release during this Christmas/wintertime screening season, a big-budget adventure entrusted to veteran director/writer Peter Hyams and a powerhouse cast headed by proven talents Roy Scheider and John Lithgow.

2010, now in release, is a good movie. Baskin knows that, but he doubts it will ultimately measure up to the original in scope and impact. "That's because it's a completely different picture," he says. "People are very used to seeing special effects now and it's very difficult to surprise someone after Star Wars."

"The bigger difference, though, is that this film has a very clear humanistic message while Stanley Kubrick's 2001 was abstract and philosophical. So, will 2010 have an impact? I wish it would."

Screen Scenes

The cross-cultural conflicts between Russia and America depicted in the film and the tensions arising from them are familiar concerns for Baskin.

"It's a serious subject they deal with in 2010," he says. "It deals with Americans and Russians like cliche enemies and then, all of a sudden, they discover they are not enemies at all but just one bunch of people who have to survive together. I think that's a very important message and I hope it comes across and that people will be affected."

Impact or not, Baskin is certain that 2010 will be regarded as a major work, mostly because everyone else thinks so.

"Everyone, starting with Peter Hyams, was so confident that they were doing something very important, even the costume and prop people," he says. "That's very impressive. I worked on other films and they were routine work. 2010 wasn't. You could feel it, walking through the set, that this film was something with extra meaning for everyone. It gave me confidence and made me feel privileged."

Although Baskin, as Max Brailovsky, has an integral role in 2010, he had little contact with anyone except John Lithgow (STARLOG #75).

"Working with John was fantastic," Baskin says. "Our characters become very close friends in the film and I don't know how much that helped us to become close friends in real life, but we did. It became a very touching and very nice experience to work with him."

Together, they had to endure the rigors of shooting several space-walk sequences as their characters leave the Russian spacecraft Leonov to board the abandoned American vehicle, Discovery, and bring it back to life.

"We had so many technical difficulties together because of the costumes," he says. "We spent hours and hours in them and they got heavier and more uncomfortable. So, John invented a wonderful way to relax. We couldn't sit in these costumes, so we were laid down by the wardrobe people on the floor like wood. That was the only way we could rest because of the harnesses and stuff. We had fun. I was pleased, and very happy that I met John Lithgow in this movie."

He met and worked with the rest of the cast as well, but only briefly.

"I've always admired Roy Scheider as a craftsman. Just watching him work was like looking at a master," Baskin observes. "He is a fantastic professional, he knows exactly what he wants. He is very equipped. I learned from him. I didn't have too many scenes with him and privately we spent very little time together. When you work around somebody that good, it gives you a lot of confidence and inspiration."

He had no scenes with Bob Balaban (STARLOG #89), but he watched him work.

"I saw him do a difficult scene with HAL, and I was standing there open-mouthed," Baskin says. "He sucked me in right away. He's a very good performer. He's also one of the nicest, softest men in the industry. Very gentle, very much a family man. He's someone you always want to be around because he gives you a warm feeling."

Director Peter Hyams (STARLOG #85) is another type of individual.

"Peter is a closed book, you know? I was surprised how a man who handles such a difficult, complicated process with so many things that can go wrong, things that would make me explode so many times and scream and drive everyone crazy, can remain so cool and professional," Baskin says. "He was getting what he wanted much faster than he would have by blowing up. So, I think he is a fantastic organizer."
"I get a very clear picture of what he wanted from me. He was flexible if I wanted to try something different, it wasn't 'no, no, no, don't do that.' And that's a very big plus for a director - that he look for cooperation from an actor."

Moscow Memories

Making movies, as a process, isn't much different in the Soviet Union than it is in the United States. But there is a matter of attitude.

"In Russia, movie making is a business where you know you can't get fired, so you don't care that much about doing a good job. The whole process of filming is much slower in Russia. People really don't care," Baskin says. "OK, we can do it later, let's smoke a cigarette, they say. Here, too, you wait a lot and sit around, but it's different. Being an actor, you're mostly waiting. Eighty percent of the time, you spend hanging around to do your bit, but in Russia, that waiting time triples."

Big-budget films aren't uncommon in the Soviet Union. But, according to Baskin, attention to detail is.

"In Russia, money is not limited. If a film requires a high budget, the government gives it. So, seeing a big set or whatever is not such a big surprise. To see such a masterfully crafted set as on 2010, that was a surprise," the actor says. "I was shocked when I saw the work [set designer] Albert Brenner and [visual scenarist] Syd Mead had done. During the whole filming, I wandered around touching things. I was fascinated. Working with such fine craftsmen and good actors helps you do your best."

Which is what Baskin wasn't doing in Russia.

"I didn't feel I belonged there," he says. "So, I had to decide where to go. Israel or U.S.? Israel looked like it would be an easier place of an actor, but Hollywood presented the biggest challenge. Besides, it was Hollywood, you know? I left Russia the first chance I could get."

Max returns to the Russian spacecraft, Leonov.
Note the hand-held EVA thruster attached to his belt.

That was in 1976, during an era of detente between the two superpowers. "Any totalitarian country, if they are smart, will use Jews as chips for trade," Baskin comments. "At that time, a time of detente, the U.S. said, 'You let Jews out and you'll get some grain.' So, they had no choice, the let some Jews out. I was one of them. I'm single, my parents were already here – as was most of my close family."

"I was 26 when I left. I was known, but not a star. The major problem I had was language. All I knew were a few English phrases to get me through a supermarket. Acquiring English depends on what and why you need it. I needed it to survive, to work professionally. And, for me, it was my only tool. At first, I tried to lose my accent, it didn't work, so I tried to make it less obvious so I could get more parts in America."

He joined his family in Phoenix, Arizona and set out to acclimate himself to his new country and freedom.

"The best part was working as a busboy," he says. "Really! It was very prestigious to be an actor in Russia and then to come here, all of a sudden, and be like every other immigrant working and cleaning tables. Believe me, I had so much satisfaction doing that. I'm serious. It was getting in touch with the real life, how it is to have people scream at you. It's kind of a masochistic pleasure. But, I liked it."

"Look, I knew in a couple of years, I wouldn't be a busboy, but being treated like one was interesting. It's very hard to explain. I was tired like I never was in my life, getting home and falling right to sleep. I did that for four months; probably, if I had done it much longer, I would have not enjoyed it. But this was a new country and I was meeting people. I really liked it. I swear, everyday I looked forward to it. I loved getting tips."

His family became something of a local curiosity and they were befriended by the townspeople.

"There were only a few families in Phoenix from Russia so we were like, ah, attractions. People would drive by and point, there, there are the Russians," he remembers. "During the mornings, I was working as a busboy, and in the evenings I was eating dinner with all the elite of Phoenix, doctors, lawyers and such. That was why it wasn't so bad being a busboy."

And he made connections.

"I met some very, very nice people," Baskin notes. "Paul Maslansky, a producer, introduced me to Mike Fenton, a casting director who was doing Gene Wilder's World's Greatest Lover. I got a small part, a small scene that got me a nice mention in Variety [the show business trade journal]. Then, I did small parts in films that didn't do good."

Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider) pointedly instructs Walter Curnow (John Lithgow)
to be careful, as Curnow and Max (right) prepare to cross to the Discovery.

Acting wasn't going to keep him alive, however. He could see that.

"I wasn't making a living - only in the last two years, have I been able to make a living as an actor," he says. "So, I worked for the garment industry, then one year was quite good for me as an actor, but then there was the strike. I got very nervous and started a Russian newspaper and it was successful. I am still involved in it."

Hollywood Horrors

Elya Baskin's biggest disappointment was seeing Hollywood for the first time. The reality of Tinseltown was a bit different from the Russian actor's expectations.

"It really wasn't the way I pictured it, you know, as the most glamorous place of land on Earth," he comments. "To give you an idea what I thought of it, I pictured Hollywood as looking like Newport Beach. And then I go to the heart of Hollywood and it's dirty, with lots of prostitutes and strange people walking around. I rented my first apartment near Hollywood Boulevard and I heard sirens all the time and someone was shot right in front of my eyes."

"So, to me, that was Los Angeles at first. On the other hand, you learn that Hollywood isn't Hollywood Boulevard and that there are so many Rolls Royces and Mercedes that they are like Toyotas here. The more I live here, the more I like it. I miss Europe sometimes. This is home now, though. For some reason, I miss the city life here. It's a city and yet it's not a city here."

He's keeping a careful eye on the movie industry. And like others, he isn't thrilled with the trends he sees developing.

"I'm disturbed by this trend towards doing films just for teenagers. Some of it is important for the box office, but it doesn't give anything for the kids but entertainment," he says. "I was learning when I went to the cinema. I am the man I am today because of the many films I saw. Now, the only concern is box office. When I look at the films-in-production chart in Variety, I get scared because there are few adult films."

"Many movies could be like 2010 and do something both for kids and adults, but it's much easier to do Flashdance II or Friday the 13th, Part 13," he laments.

Since the success of Moscow on the Hudson, things have picked up steadily for this Russian actor in America. He can afford to be a little selective.

"I am trying to stay away from the cliche parts, though I will take a few if I feel I can change them and turn them into something with a personality and character," Elya Baskin says. "I speak with the producer and director and see if they don't want the typical thing. It's very important to me to get parts like 2010 where I can say something as an artist. Otherwise, I will be an illustration, like a character in a comic book."

(Originally published in Starlog Magazine.  Copyright © 1984 Starlog Magazine)

Monday, March 2, 2015

20,001: A Place Oddity

Of all the odd places one could go, another world might be the oddest of all. How to create one might be even odder.

The year 20,001 is mentioned at the tail end of the novel 2010: Odyssey Two, and occupies only but a page and a half of the book. In the movie the year is never mentioned at all.

When the opening notes of Also Sprach Zarathustra
start playing 
we are right there, on Europa,
spellbound by the magic.

The last scene at the very end of the movie is supposedly set in the year 20,001. The scene merely shows a tropical landscape, preceded by a montage of half a dozen shots depicting melting ice. Without any cue cards or on-screen text, the scene has bewildered many audience members ever since the movie premiered back in 1984. Some perceive it as being set in Africa — reflecting the opening scenes of the first movie - while others think it is set on Earth in the movie present. The final image of the movie is shown the moment a slow pan across the strange landscape ends and comes to rest on the familiar shape of the enigmatic monolith, ponderous and unmoving and layered with mystery.

The monolith doing what it does best.

A present past

The place is, of course, not in the past nor is it even on Earth. The place is in fact the Jovian moon Europa, unrecognizably transformed into a primordial protoplanet. The surface of the moon is reminiscent of the early conditions on Earth, so it is fairly understandable why many viewers are confused by the similarity.

Creating the primordial islands.

The shot was created and supervised by Richard Edlund's Boss Films, which was the company behind the EEG effects group that was contracted for 2010.

The Jovian moon was created surprisingly simply, although the model took a long time to set up. It is essentially a single in-camera shot of a big model, though composited from several passes. Nothing in the scene is composited from other effects shots, however, and no matte paintings were used. The only painting in the scene is the background sky, again a creation by master paintbrush artist Ron Gress, painted on a stretched fabric and mounted on a frame. The background sky frame was itself mounted on a track, similar to the 30-foot camera track, and in the shot it moves semi-synchronously with the camera, creating the illusion of a far-away sky instead of a painted piece of cloth 25 feet from the camera.

"This is where sophisticated motion control really comes into play," says Richard Edlund. "Krepela had to program both the camera and background trucks in conjunction with the pan-head with zero margin for error."

Setup of the Europa shot,
seen from above.
For the two suns — Sol and now-Lucifer, previously known as the gas giant Jupiter — the simplest possible solution was employed: two holes were cut in the fabric, and two lights of different color temperature were placed behind the background fabric. Sometimes the simplest solutions work the best.

From the beginning the shot was conceptualized as a sunrise shot. "A sunrise is a very gentle, quit time," sais visual effects supervisor George Jensen. "Have you ever taken a walk at that time of the morning? I used to jog then. There is a stillness and the light is very soft."

Built under the supervision of model maker Mark Stetson, the Europa model itself was 20x40 feet, and consisted of a flat, plywood table with the entire model mounted on top of it. The table was made as big as the effects workshop space allowed.

Initially, however, the plan was to build the model on a rooftop and shoot an actual sunrise. "We had the idea that we could build a tabletop miniature landscape of Europa and place it on a rooftop, so we could shoot using the real sun early in the morning," says art director George Jensen. "We discussed possible setups and locations for quite a while, but finally we decided we wanted to work under the controlled conditions of a studio."

Table model water test, camera track seen on the right,
smoke machine seen in the foreground on the left.

"After much experimentation," says Richard Edlund, "it was decided to shoot Europa's changes as tabletop miniatures, shot by [Neil] Krepela, [Dave] Stewart and Jensen. In the final shot, the camera tracks along the tabletop and in the background is a 35-foot long painting, which is also on track. The sunlight comes through holes in the painting."

Alien Plant Farm

The plant life models were mostly simple wire framed tree models, covered with model maker foam and clay. The plant life used also included plastic aquarium plant models, and a select few actual plants, miniature palms and cacti. "We built the surface of Europa, a small section of it," says model maker Leslie Ekker, "and filled it with some water, sections of ice, and strange looking plants."

Placing details on the Europa model.

Effects art director found some types of South American pine cones that looked positively primordial, and bought several of these for model maker Mark Stetson to use as references for his models.

"We used Madagascar palms for some of the plants," says Leslie Ekker, "because they're so strange looking already; they look quite alien. In the shallow water of the pond, built into the tabletop of the model, we had some invisible rigging that could move some very fine feathery plants in an intelligent way, as if they were motivated, under the surface of the water. That's what you see in the film when you see something moving under the water — it's actually a very fine dried plant getting pulled around by an invisible rig."

Neil Krepela and Michelle Moen fixing details.

"Originally, Peter thought of using some primitive creatures in the last shot, perhaps a little indistinct and very gently backlit," says George Jensen. "It's one of those ideas that no one really knows if it's right or wrong until you actually do it. I did some drawings with the creatures seen against the early morning light, walking in the water about knee deep ... the camera trucking with them as they start to come ashore. They stop, look at something, and maybe they are a little agitated as the camera moves off them. And then, you see the Monolith."

Oceans European

Model maker Leslie Ekker placing netting on the water surface.

The water of the primordial ocean was in fact the most problematic element to get to look right. Water, while one of the simplest elements, is notoriously demanding to shoot. Even though the greatest care can be taken to create the illusion that the water is a vast body shot at great distance — while in reality it is only 3 feet from the camera — the smallest misplaced ripple on the surface will give the deception away and the whole shot comes crashing down.

Model maker Dennis Schultz is placing tree models,
note chief painter Ron Gress in the background.

For the Europa ocean different 'fluids' were tested (essentially only mylar) but ultimately water worked the best. The mylar test included dragging a series of plastic rods beneath the thin polyester film in order to create the illusion of waves. The wave illusion never quite worked, and they were quickly discarded. Ultimately none of the mylar experiments proved successful, and water was then deemed the best to work with. A very thin net - bridal veil diffusion sheets - was submerged in the water, just below the surface, to have the water move in a way that looks more natural to big bodies of aqueous material.

The tabletop landscape being prepared.

The entire model was then covered in thick smoke. The crew present on the shot say the smoke was so thick the few real plants that were placed on the model kept suffocating, and they needed 'a couple of days' to recuperate before the next take.

Shooting the monolith.
In the final shot the pan comes to rest on a small monolith model. The monolith model had to be tailored to accommodate the severe pincushion effect of the camera lens. The top of the monolith is not flat, but had to be placed at a 2 degree angle to the side.

In fact Stanley Kubrick faced the same problem back in 1966 and 1967 when he was filming the monoliths of 2001: A Space Odyssey with his extremely wide angled lenses: the straight angles simply did not look straight.

By itself the shot is a textbook example of how 'movie magic' was created in the pre-CGI days of model making and matte painting. The movie was produced at the time when model making was at it's peak, a pinnacle that will never be surpassed. While it at the same time displayed some of the most sophisticated, state-of-the-art model shots, it was also one of the absolutely first to introduce the very CGI that was to spell doom to the art of model making in cinema.


The Europa shot is, however, a prime example of the handicraft that was the fuel and fodder of the special effects industry. The model is a plain model, and the shot is very straightforward. Yet, when the opening notes of Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra theme start playing we are right there, on Europa, spellbound by the magic.

Images copyright ©1983-1984 MGM.