- Last night, I watched my favourite film, '2001: A Space Odyssey' for the first time in many years.
- Tonight, my second favourite film, 'Gravity' is up for an armful of BAFTAs.
I love 'Gravity' - don't get me wrong. It is a stupendous film which immerses the viewer in an utterly convincing 3D world of weightlessness and exhileration. Yet very little of that film existed in the real world. It was beautifully pre-visualised and rendered by computers, programmed by hundreds of skilled humans who sat at their screens every day for months. Human actors then had to bend and mould their performance to the rigid parameters set by the visual effects company's very own HAL9000.
Very little of what you see in 'Gravity' was ever built - the space stations, space suits, even the breath on the actors' visors was created and rendered on the cinema screen through the power of computing.
By contrast, most of what you see in 2001 was built. One of Kubrick's most impressive sets is the interior of the spaceship Discovery. The ship's crew compartment was envisioned as a centrifuge that would simulate gravity through the centripetal force generated by its rotation. So they, in effect, built the real thing...
Other effects were achieved through a similar combination of creative camerawork, hard work, and dedication. Every computer screen you see in '2001' has a 16mm film projector behind it projecting hand-animated images on to translucent paper. To make a stray pen 'float' in a weightless environment in another scene, it was attached to a rotating glass disk. The illusion of astronauts floating in space was created by hanging stunt performers upside down with wires from the ceiling of the studio, often for hours at a time.
Despite its subject matter, '2001' lists only 205 special effects or matte shots - a tiny number compared with today's film (or even glossy TV ad) average.
The contrast between the two films - and the greatest irony - lies in the fact that '2001' needed remarkable human effort to show mankind fading out, being rendered obsolete by super-computers. 'Gravity' had to use just this sort of super-computer to illustrate mankind's fight to survive.
The bottom line is I'd rather have Vickers-Armstrong Engineering come in and build vast rotating sets to recreate my zero gravity. It has something more of a glorious endeavour and adventure about it - something quintessentially human.
The talented human team at Frame Store sitting at their computer stations to create the world of 'Gravity' reminds me too much of poor Dave Bowman and Frank Poole on the sanitised deck of Discovery, watching, redundant, as HAL does all their work for them.
The question is - how long will it be before we just sit and watch as the computers do all the work in our world too?
To my mind, Kubrick's '2001' is still one of the finest films ever made. That said, 'Gravity' comes a well-deserved second place and I wish the film's creators all the success they deserve at the BAFTAs and Oscars.