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How Stanley Kubrick made a pen float in '2001: A Space Odyssey'

Stanley Kubrick is undoubtedly one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema, responsible for the creation of seminal masterpieces such as Barry Lyndon and Dr. Strangelove. His works have inspired newer generations of filmmakers who have been mesmerised by his cinematic genius, including the likes of Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg, among countless others.

Although almost all the additions to his illustrious filmography are equally impressive, Kubrick’s magnum opus is the 1968 sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Described by many as the ultimate cinematic experience, 2001 paints an extensive picture of the history of human evolution as well as a bleak, apocalyptic future. Based on Arthur C. Clarke’s story, 2001 projects the fears of our civilisation into the dark reaches of space.

While describing his greatest achievement in details, Kubrick explained: “2001 is basically a visual, nonverbal experience. It avoids intellectual verbalisation and reaches the viewer’s subconscious in a way that is essentially poetic and philosophic. The film thus becomes a subjective experience which hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.”

He also spoke about 2001’s ability to go beyond its literary frameworks, claiming that the film can trigger multiple sensory organs of audiences in order to construct a compelling experience: “Actually, film operates on a level much closer to music and to painting than to the printed word, and, of course, movies present the opportunity to convey complex concepts and abstractions without the traditional reliance on words.”

The reason why 2001: A Space Odyssey is routinely celebrated by fans and scholars is because of its numerous technical innovations, ranging from the famous match cut where a prehistoric bone becomes a satellite weapon to rotating production sets. One particularly impressive achievement of the project was its rendition of zero-gravity effects.

A famous example of this can be observed in the scene where a pen floats across the screen. That was not an example of CGI since the technology did not exist in those days, as confirmed by Keir Dullea: “Not one foot of this film was made with computer-generated special effects. Everything you see in this film or saw in this film was done physically or chemically, one way or the other.”

Instead, that simple trick was done with the help of double-sided tape and a circular piece of glass to which the pen was attached. After that, the technicians rotated the apparatus to make it seem like the pen was floating. Special effects artist Brian Johnson recalled: “You can actually see [actress Heather Downham] pull it off the glass if you look carefully. I think probably if she’d twisted it slightly it might have worked better but it worked.”

Kubrick commented on the film’s relationship with human consciousness, explaining the methods through which the sci-fi masterpiece transforms into an effective commentary on epistemology: “I think that 2001, like music, succeeds in short-circuiting the rigid surface cultural blocks that shackle our consciousness to narrowly limited areas of experience and is able to cut directly through to areas of emotional comprehension.”