How Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey – Part 1: The Dawn of Man

Ever wonder how Kubrick made his sci-fi masterpiece, 2OO1: A Space Odyssey? In Part 1, we take an in-depth look into the production of ‘The Dawn of Man’ sequence. I spent over a month compiling all the available information I could get my hands on to better understand the construction of this masterpiece.


Hi everybody, Tyler here. You are watching part one of a series where I analyze and uncover the production of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey. For a long time now, 2001 has been at the top of my list of all time favorite movies. Why? Because I’ve found it to be the most thought provoking movie I’ve ever seen and despite inspiring a vast collection of filmmakers and their projects, it remains the most unique movie I’ve ever seen. It is a myth. To me, this movie sits comfortably in a category of its own. There is 2001 and then there are all other movies. As an aspiring filmmaker, I’ve sought an answer to the question: How did Kubrick make this film?

After a month of research, I managed to peel back the curtain just a bit to peek at the genius of its construction.

2001 A Space Odyssey was directed by Stanley Kubrick and written by Kubrick and British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. The screenplay was inspired by Clarke’s short story titled The Sentinel, which is similar to the Floyd section of the film. In an interview with physics professor Jeremy Bernstein, Kubrick estimates just how much time was spent writing the screenplay.

Stanley Kubrick: “The thing that uh, does take all the time is to extract say, two hours and fifteen minutes of a story. And really keep distilling and distilling and distilling and distilling and distilling, uh, I would say that, um, if you count the time that’s spent during the shooting day, also working on the story— in rehearsal and rewriting it and so forth— I would say that an average of at least four hours a day has been spent on this story. Much more than that because in the real solid writing period it was like eight hours a day. But let’s just say that it averaged four hours a day for two years. Say an average of six days a week. That’s twenty-four hours a week times, uh, maybe a hundred weeks. I’d say that’s a good, uh, twenty-four hundred hours spent on, call it two hours and forty minutes of story. So that’s about a, a thousand to one, isn’t it?”

We start at the beginning of the film, but in fact, this was the end of production. The Dawn of Man sequence was shot after all the other scenes were wrapped. The establishing landscape shots were actually still photographs done by a second unit in Africa. Because Kubrick had a phobia of flying in airplanes, despite having a pilot’s license, he directed the second unit on what to capture via the telephone.

Kier Dullea: “And he had a graph with 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… going up the left-hand side of the graph and A, B, C, D, E, F, G… going off the top of the graph and he was on a direct telephone connection with these still photographers and he’d say, uh, ‘Okay, Joe, um, the mountain range should start- you’ve got it at 3B change it so now 4M.’”

These images would come in to play later on in the soundstage.

The shots involving the apes were filmed on Soundstage 3 at MGM Borhamwood in England.
“[T]he M-G-M studio is hardly distinguishable from the rather antiseptic-looking factories nearby. It consists of ten enormous soundstages concealed in industrial-looking shops, paint shops, office units, and so on. Behind the buildings is a huge lot covered with bits and pieces of other productions… Kubrick’s offices are near the front of the complex in a long bungalow structure that houses, in addition to his production staff, a group of youthful model-makers working on large, very detailed models of spacecraft to be used in special-effects photography: Kubrick calls their realm ‘Santa’s Workshop’” (Making 63).

It is possible that it wasn’t always the plan to shoot the Dawn of Man sequence in the studio. While going over information earlier in the production on “the average temperature and rainfall all over the globe at every season of the year,” Kubrick was quoted saying, “We’re looking for a cool desert where we can shoot some sequences during the late spring… We’ve got our eye on a location in Spain, but it might be pretty hot to work in comfortably, and we might have trouble controlling the lighting. If we don’t go to Spain, we’ll have to build an entirely new set right here” (Making 66).

And they did.

The plate glass photos that were captured by the second unit in Africa made up the background of these shots. How it was done was the photos were made into 8 by 10 inch Ektachrome transparencies and using a special projector they were projected from the front onto a highly reflective screen that was 40 feet by 90 feet. Large-scale front projection hadn’t been done before. At the time, this was actually the largest front projector ever made. Normally, projections like this would be done from behind the screen, but the light that was reflected onto the rest of the set and the actors was weak enough not to be visible (Making 83).

The projector projected the image into an angled two-way mirror with the camera on the other side recording the image from behind the two-way mirror. This way the camera would record at the exact angle that the image is being projected from, which would hide any shadows cast by the actors onto the projection screen.

To make sure nothing got onto the mirror, the camera operator would wear a surgical mask while shooting.

In an interview for American Cinematographer, special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull details what went into creating this effect:

“To camouflage the varying light transmission rates between rolls of the front projection screen material on the giant 40- by 90-foot screen, the material was cut up into small, irregular pieces and pasted up at random so that slight variations in the transmission rates would merge with cloud shapes or be lost altogether in brilliant sunlight effects” (American Cinematographer).

You can see some of the imperfections of the projection screen on some of the closer shots in the Blu-ray version if you look hard enough.

“Since the screen occupied an entire wall of the stage, and the front-projection rig was delicate and cumbersome, the sets were built on a giant rotating platform which covered most of the stage floor. Widely varying camera angles could then be obtained with no movement of the screen, and little movement of the projection rig” (American Cinematographer).

This “zebra” was actually a dead horse that was painted to look like a zebra. Because they were using a live leopard in the film they had tranquilizer guns on hand in case anything happened. It has been said the horse smelled really bad during the filming of this shot and the crewmembers were not happy (Making 76).

The tranquilizers did get some use as this tapir was knocked out in order to look dead during the meat-eating scene (Making 69).

The apes were played by mimes. Dan Richter, who played Moon-Watcher (the ape that discovers that a bone can be used as a weapon, was given a camera by Kubrick to go film apes in the zoo to study movement and behavior.

Dan Richter: “What I was looking for was always people I could, I could get to act a little bit because I understood that the movement wasn’t the solution. The solution was to motivate the movement.”

“The actors [playing the apes] had to have exceptionally thin arms and legs and narrow hips so that when they wore the costumes of hair they wouldn’t look bulky and like men stuffed in gorilla suits. It was an extremely complex task to produce apelike masks with delicate articulation for bearing fangs, snarling, eating, drinking. (A company that manufactured artificial limbs was contracted to produce a long-fingered, narrow apelike hand, which could be operated remotely by the actor’s hand within the sleeve of a longer arm. This failed to look convincing and was abandoned.) Facial makeup was created by making a plastic substructure skull with hinged jaw. A fine rubber mold was made with the equivalent of skin on the face; hair was added as one would put hair on a wig. Movement in the lips was achieved by having false tongue and false teeth and an arrangement of toggles that the actors could move with their tongues and that allowed the lips to curl left, right, or both directions. The eyes were the actors’: the mask was made right up to the eyelids” (Making 81).

As you can see, the precise lighting gives the set a very theatrical quality. Remember how Kubrick was concerned about having control of the lighting? Well, “fifteen hundred individually controlled lamps were on the ceiling of the sound stage” (Making 81).

Naturally, this made the set very hot.
Dan Richter discusses the harsh conditions on set in an interview for Cinetropolis. He said, “With the front projection system the demands of lighting to get the proper match and color temperatures right meant that the temperatures were sometimes over a hundred on the set. We had medical personal standing by and compressed air to be blasted into our costumes the moment Stanley called cut. The union also limited the time we could have the masks on. I and Richard Woods, who played One-Ear, had full contact lenses to color our eyes for close ups which got very painful as the dust rose” (Cinetropolis).

All of the ape sounds were recorded by Richter and his actors as well. (Cinetropolis)

In this picture, you can see one of the apes taking a break. There is a pipe in his mouth to hold the jaw of the mask open so he could breathe easier because the elastic made the mouth close automatically (Making 75).

In the same interview, Richter talks about filming the Leopard attack. “The stunt man Terry Duggan, who worked for the Chipperfields, was practicing [sic] play fighting with a lion and a leopard. Stanley in the end went with the leopard. Stanley had a cage built around him, the camera, and the crew. We put Terry in a man-ape suit and I got between him and the background man-apes. On the first take the leopard, confused and nervous, went for me and Terry tackled him before he reached me. The second take worked” (Cinetropolis).

Two baby chimpanzees were used during production that “had to be prodded by their trainer to cower with the [actors]” (Making 81).

The monolith was originally going to be a tetrahedron, but as Special Effects Supervisor Con Pederson said: “The tetrahedron didn’t look monumental or simple or fundamental. It tended to express diminution more than impressive scale. And there would be people who would think of pyramids.” (Making 76)

This monolith was twelve feet long and it was made of wood covered in black paint. It was also going to have another function:

Arthur C. Clarke: “In fact, our original idea was to have something with a transparent screen on which images would appear, which would teach the apes, you know, how to fight each other, maybe even make fire, but that was much too naïve an idea.”

Now, the best we can hope to achieve is to recognize the choices that Kubrick made and of course we can only speculate as to why these choices were made. Considering the fact that this sequence was shot after the rest of the production was completed, it allowed for a better understanding of the overall look of the film. Although it is also imaginable that the choices made here were due to production constraints. Every time they wanted to shoot a new angle, they had to rotate the set so they may use that massive projection screen.

What is interesting here is that the entire sequence seems to be made up primarily of static shots. There is the occasional very subtle movement, but no dolly or tracking shots, only slight pans and tilts. The establishing landscape shots are static (obviously, because they were still images). The theatrical lighting and composition of the shots almost seems to evoke an image of a museum diorama or zoo habitat. You’ll also notice the substantial use of long shots, which seems to lend itself nicely to the diorama idea. Whereas it is possible that this choice was made simply to make use of the full scope of the set, some have speculated that this is to make the audience feel like observers rather than participants and allow them to watch the apes much in the same way the alien presence did. And since the Dawn of Man sequence was shot last, it is conceivable that the “habitat look” was meant to mirror the final sequence of the film in which Dave Bowman finds himself in a habitat of his own. It is questionable whether or not all this was intended or simply necessary due to the inability to shoot on location.

Let’s look at the initial meeting between the ape tribes. The two tribes meet on either side of a watering hole. The shot list seems to be made up of mostly long shots from either side facing each tribe. We’ve established that there was only one projection screen and the set was on a turntable, so each view we see is of the set rotated 180 degrees. We never get a shot from the side showing both tribes on either side of the frame. Now, it looks as if these large rock formations would have prevented a clear shot had the set been rotated 90 degrees. That said, Kubrick could very well have brought the camera closer to shoot from the side. Instead, we get a reverse shot with a foreground layer of the backs of the apes looking at the tribe that we are looking at to make the meeting make sense without an establishing shot from the side. What I’m getting at is—it seems as though the physical location of the camera never crosses on to the set. Even the closer shots appear to be shot from far away with a telephoto lens—see how the apes closest to the camera seem to pass in front with relative ease. The question is—did the set constrain the production and reduce the possible choice of shots or did shooting from outside the set purposefully lend itself to the constructed habitat idea?

The camera does cross onto the set directly after this scene for the night scene and the scene with the monolith. Although, only two of these shots feature the projection screen.

For the most part, nearly every shot in the Dawn of Man sequence features the projection screen. There are the extreme long shots of: the watering hole, the flat walled off space, and the shelter space where the monolith appears. Then, there are some closer shots that seem to take place very close to the projection screen, this one is a little further back – possibly to transition from the still establishing shots, and a few medium close-up shots without the screen visible.

You’ll also notice that the Dawn of Man sequence lacks any dialogue whatsoever—it is for all intents and purposes, a silent film. It works really well as an opening to the film because it is a very simple and direct story told completely visually that perfectly sets up the concept and the overall theme of the film— a man-ape tribe tries to survive on limited food and water, there is a confrontation between two tribes over ownership of a watering hole, a mysterious object appears before one of the tribes and gives them inspiration for the first use of a weapon to kill animals for meat and to reclaim their resources giving their tribe strength and power. Despite the relatively simple story, the way it was shot stimulates our intellect upfront by lacking very many close ups. The use of many long shots and medium shots with several subjects inhabiting the frame stimulates the audience’s mind by forcing them to choose what to look at and what to notice as opposed to a close up, which directs the audience’s attention to something specific. This way, the audience is required to become more active and engage with the story. There are points of specific action to lead the viewer’s attention, but there are also several shots that are purely observational. Even some of the pivotal scenes contain a variety of shots that don’t favor any one character in particular. This perfectly introduces the pacing for the following section— our introduction to space. And the story is propelled forward by the intrigue and mystery of the monolith that links the sections together.

I feel that the way the entire Dawn of Man sequence was staged and shot meshes very well with the rest of the film and it seems that the cohesiveness would have been lost had they shot on location with potentially more freedom.

There was one shot however, that was filmed outside of the soundstage and that is the shot where Moonwatcher uses the bone to crush the skull. The sky in this shot is real. Richter performed this scene on a platform outside most likely so that they could shoot the extreme low-angle and not have to worry about lights getting in the shot (Cinetropolis).

It was reportedly after this scene was shot that Kubrick got the idea to do the graphic match-cut of the bone in the air with the nuclear satellite.

Arthur C. Clarke: “Stanley was walking back to the studio and he had a broomstick and he was throwing this broomstick up in the air and I was quite worried that it might come down on him. And I think that was when he got the idea of this transition, which is of course what happened. The bone goes up and turns into what is supposed to be an orbiting space bomb—a weapon in space. Although that isn’t made clear. You just assume it’s some kind of space vehicle and there’s a three million year jump cut.”


2001: A Space Odyssey (1968 Dir. Stanley Kubrick)

Kubrick Interview by Jeremy Bernstein (1966)

The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 – Edited by Jerome Agel (special thanks to La Familia Film)

2001: A Space Odyssey Blu-ray commentary

A vintage article from American Cinematographer by Douglas Trumbull on creating Special Effects for 2001 A Space Odyssey

Projector diagram from Taschen’s “The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey”

Similar cloud pattern

Man-ape costume

Dan Richter Cinetropolis Interview

Stanley Kubrick | 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968) | Making of a Myth

This video essay was written, edited, and narrated by Tyler Knudsen.