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2001: A Space Odyssey Travels to Tech Night at Pops

  • Kate Repantis
  • slice.mit.edu

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Alumni will get a chance to travel through space and time at this year’s Tech Night at Pops, when 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Douglas Trumbull shows scenes from the Oscar-winning space epic. Trumbull, one of the film’s special photographic effects supervisors, will share behind-the-scenes photos of the complicated equipment and engineering feats that went into making the movie, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. The Boston Pops Orchestra will accompany the video-photo montage with music from 2001 including György Ligeti’s Atmosphères, Richard Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Johann Strauss’ The Blue Danube.

This was Trumbull’s first work on a movie, and he joined the crew after cold calling the film’s director Stanley Kubrick asking to work for him. “I thought the opportunity to work with Stanley Kubrick was an opportunity I wasn’t going to pass up,” he said. 

He attributes his youth and being an American on a majority British cast as reasons for his ability to collaborate. “I was this young 23 year-old-boy with a cowboy hat and cowboy boots from Southern California—everyone thought I was the mascot,” he joked. “The fact that I didn’t pose any threat to anybody meant that I could break through all of the traditional unionization of the studio.”

This is a complete break in the concept of what a camera is supposed to do, or what time is, or what space is.

Breaking through silos was key to Trumbull’s work creating the film’s Jupiter machine. At the time, actual images of the planet were too blurry, so he found a way to scan flat artwork on a spherical surface to make a more realistic depiction of Jupiter. 

Trumbull considers his work on the film’s Stargate scene “one of my proudest moments.” In the scene, the main character Dr. David Bowman is pulled through a vortex traveling through space and time. The screen fills with brightly colored and fast-moving shapes and hallucinogenic patterns as the viewer takes on his dizzying perspective.

While this scene would be simple to create with modern day video editing software, Trumbull had to draw upon a deep knowledge of photography and enlist many experts on the crew to help build a slit scan machine. They designed and placed high contrast imagery on glass behind a slit, while a 65 mm camera moved back and forth on a dolly perpendicular to the slit.

“This is a complete break in the concept of what a camera is supposed to do, or what time is, or what space is,” he said in a master class presentation.

To combine this artistic and technological skillset into making something that’s aesthetically beautiful….I was very lucky as a young man to work for Kubrick to get a chance to do that.

Trumbull built the machine with electromagnetic toggle switches, relays, and dark room timers so it could run automatically, 24 hours a day in order to capture enough footage for director Stanley Kubrick to select. The whole process took five months.

“To combine this artistic and technological skillset into making something that’s aesthetically beautiful….I was very lucky as a young man to work for Kubrick to get a chance to do that,” said Trumbull.

Now in its 121st year, Tech Night at Pops [pictured above] is an annual light classical and contemporary music concert at Boston Symphony Hall during Tech Reunions.

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