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Mise en Scene in 2001 A Space Odyssey

Page history last edited by Air Dupaix 13 years, 11 months ago

2001 A Space Odyssey can be considered as one of the films at the forefront of innovative use of technology and visual effects. These effects help make up much of the unique mise-en-scene in the film and should be considered when discussing the aspects of this film that contribute in making it a cinematic masterpiece.


Slit-Scan Photography 

Slit-scan photography was traditionally used in still photography to create blurry and deforming effects in photographs (3). Douglas Trumbull adapted the technique of slit-scan photography to be used to create the “star gate” sequence in the film. Below is an example of the slit-scan technique used in still photography (1).




To simplify the process of this technique, we can go through the steps needed to create a single frame of film by way of slit-scan photography. A card of varying colors is placed on a camera rigging platform. This card will become the colorful stream of light seen during the “star gate” sequence. A camera which can be moved up and down is placed above the card. This set-up can be seen illustrated in figure 1. (2)


Figure 1      Figure 2     Figure 3


In figure 2 we see another card placed on top of our rainbow card. This black card has a slit cut in it so that a small strip of the color can still be seen. The red box projected on the card is the view of the camera when the exposure of film begins. The camera is then moved down towards the slit while at the same time the card with the slit is moved forward. Figure 3 shows the camera and card positions at the end of the frame exposure. The small red box is the area the camera records at the end of the exposure. This process of moving from the large red box to the small red box creates a single frame of film. Figure 4 displays the wide field of view the camera begins with, represented by the outer large red frame, and the smaller field of view the camera ends with at the end of the frame exposure, represented by the smaller inner red frame. (2)


Figure 4 


Figure 5 is an example of what the image would appear to look like after the entire single frame exposure was complete. This process creates a single frame which would be 1/24 of a second of film (with a film projection rate of 24 frames per second). In order to create a 10 second sequence this process would need to be repeated 240 times. (2)


Figure 5 


The distance which the colored card moves over the course of exposure changes the “speed” of the color movement when consecutive frames are viewed (3). In the specific case of 2001 A Space Odyssey, a flat card of color was not used but rather a rolling cylinder with varying color patterns was displayed through the slit to be captured (1). The changing color patterns coupled with the changing movement of the slit over the exposure period helps create the psychedelic flowing color warp seen in the clip below of the “star gate” sequence of the film.



This type of photography is important because it represents a world of film making prior to the world of high powered, readily available computers. The effects used to create the "star gate" could be easily manipulated using a computer program in special effects creation today, but Kubrick's special effects team worked vigorously to create this spectacle in camera. The "star gate" can be described as a symmetrical design. This is a consequence of the design and procedure of making the visual effect but can also be argued as a strategic effect to further develop the story or message of the film. The film itself can be considered a series of symmetric parts. We are shown numerous small acts in which there is "life before the monolith," then the monolith is seen and an interaction takes place with the characters of the particular act. After the interaction takes place there is then footage of "life after the monolith." Before and after scenes with the monolith being the center bar of sorts is a parallel to the symmetry of the "star gate" design. The symmetry design can also be seen repeated in multiple places in the film. The logic center of HAL, the various spacecrafts, and even the strange room where Dr. David Bowman eventually ends up in after passing through the "star gate" contain symmetric designs. One of the key players in the film is the monolith itself, which is a symmetric geometric shape: a rectangle.



The "star gate" sequence also helps develop of a sense of motion and emotion through the character of Dr. David Bowman. As seen in the clip above the scene with the "star gate" cuts back to Dr. Bowman's face inside his helmet as he experiences the "star gate." We get a sense that he is being pulled through some sort of portal at a strikingly fast pace by the speed of colors and shapes flying on the screen with the slit scan sequence. The juxtaposition of the "star gate" with the facial expressions of Dr. Bowman as he travels help create a strong emotional sense to the audience. We see horror, pain, fright, and exhilaration cast by the actor's face. We are then bombarded with an array of quickly moving psychedelic colors and patterns, creating a symphony of emotion while our brains link the actor's expressions with the "star gate," all the while based on the overall eerie and bizarre feeling of the film as a collective whole. This visual effect of the slit scan moves forward from simply looking aesthetically interesting to being a strategic tool used by Kubrick and his visual effects team to help complete the 2001 "experience."



2001 is the staple film of its time to introduce the utilization of life-like scale models of various spacecraft orbiting through the depths of Kubrick's depiction of the space community in the year 2001. Before the introduction of these models many science fiction films prior to 2001 were considered low budget, low quality films with poor visual effects and B-movie plots. Many times these B-movie type alien invasion films would be so riddled with poor quality special effects it was difficult to impossible to take the idea of future space exploration seriously. Kubrick took the idea of science fiction and space exploration to a completely new level with 2001. One of the main differences between the science fiction films prior to 2001 and 2001 itself is the use of these models (seen below). When viewing these miniature space stations and space vehicles the idea of space exploration feels plausible, adventurous, and even beautiful or whimsical. The added touch of actual human movement (created in camera with no composite shots, mind you) seen through the windows of the various spacecraft helps bring this Kubrickian space world to life. These models also launched the way for a new look for the science fiction genre of both television and film. Both the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises of the 1970s and 1980s relied on model work, inspired by those in 2001, to bring the spacecraft and space exploration and colonization features of their worlds to life. Later films would soon replace this meticulous model work with computer generated images, created in much less time. One has to question whether the use of a computer to generate this type of image and insert it into the film somehow takes away from some of the magic that Kubrick brought to outer space and futuristic exploration in 2001.






Major Edit Topics:


-practical visual effects (eg. pen floating early in film)

-front projection

-unique set construction


 Works Consulted 

(1)DeMet, George D. "The Special Effects of '2001: A Space Odyssey." 2001: A Space Odyssey Internet Resource Archive. July 1999. Web. November 3, 2009.

(2)Kelly, Martin. "The Underview on 2001 Slitscan." The Underview. 2008. Web. November 3. 2009.

(3)Rickitt, Richard. Special Effects: The History and Technique. Googlebooks. Watson-Guptill, 2000. Web. November 3, 2009.

Comments (1)

Sean Desilets said

at 12:14 pm on Nov 5, 2009

* Takes awhile to describe all this, obviously, and that has left no room for talking about what all this means. That's the page's big weakness.
* Nice responsiveness to technological history
* "Displayed was displayed"

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