Before astronauts of the Apollo 8 mission took the Earthrise photo in December 1968, the world had never seen a clear color image of Earth from space. That is if we discount the stunning space photography screened months earlier to the tune of the “Blue Danube” in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film “used visual effects and imagination (both to a still-impressive degree),” as Colin Marshall wrote here in a recent post, to make audiences believe that what they saw was indeed our blue marble of a planet and other colorful points of interest in the solar system—on the way to a journey into uncharted, psychedelic territory.
Eight years earlier, filmmakers Roman Kroitor and Colin Low used similar technology, “realistic animation,” writes the National Film Board of Canada, that takes us “into the far regions of space, beyond the reach of the strongest telescope, past Moon, Sun, and Milky Way into galaxies yet unfathomed.”
Their short documentary, Universe, may not be much remembered now—and may have been far outshone by both real and computer-generated footage—but in 1961, it claimed a nomination at the 33rd Academy Awards for Best Documentary Short Subject. “Upon its release in 1960,” notes Liam Lacey at The Globe and Mail, “the National Aeronautics and Space Administration ordered 300 copies.”
Another of the film’s admirers also happened to be Kubrick. Biographer Vincent Lobrutto describes the auteur’s first encounter with Universe:
Kubrick watched the screen with rapt attention while a panorama of the galaxies swirled by, achieving the standard of dynamic visionary realism that he was looking for. These images were not flawed by the shoddy matte work, obvious animation and poor miniatures typically found in science fiction films. Universe proved that the camera could be a telescope to the heavens. As the credits rolled, Kubrick studied the names of the magicians who created the images: Colin Low, Sidney Goldsmith, and Wally Gentleman.
The film was in black and white, not the eye-popping technicolor of Kubrick’s masterpiece, but he saw in it exactly what he would need when he began work on 2001. “After studying Universe for much of 1964,” writes Kubrick scholar Michael Benson, “early in the new year Kubrick decided to replicate the film’s techniques.” He tried to hire Low, who declined because of his work on “his own ambitious project: In the Labyrinth,” Lacey writes. He did succeed in hiring Wally Gentleman, the special effects artist who brought Universe’s wizardry to Kubrick’s film.
Kubrick also hired Universe’s narrator, Douglas Rain, the Canadian actor who passed away this past November but who will live on indefinitely into the future as the chilling, affectless voice of the HAL 9000 computer, ancestor of Siri, Alexa, and the many voices of GPS systems everywhere. Hear Rain’s cool, detached narration in Universe, above, and see why this extraordinary film—with the Richard Strauss-like pounding tympani of Eldon Rathburn’s score—would have inspired Kubrick to make what may rank as the most mesmerizingly cinematic, dramatically compelling, of science fiction space films to this day.
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