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.

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