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What can we learn from Stanley Kubrick? A review from Designing Worlds symposium at the Design Museum

multi screen projection of film still
multi screen projection of film still
Credit Ed Reeve for the Design Museum- Kubrick Exhibition
Written by
Post-Grad Community
Published date
04 September 2019
Article by Emma Kelly, MA Dramatic Writing at Central Saint Martins.

During a 2-day symposium on Stanley Kubrick’s legacy, looking closely at archives and his creative processes I started to wonder how? How did he manage to inspire artists, designers and scientists? How did he initiate such momentous multi-disciplinary collaborations? Ultimately, I wanted to know the secrets to the magic behind his iconic work.

multi screen projection of film still
Credit Ed Reeve for the Design Museum- Kubrick Exhibition

The research Kubrick undertook, at a time before we had the powers of google, created an extensive archive which provides insight into his practice. This is now housed at University Arts London and will inform future artists, designers, filmmakers and story tellers.

Using this huge body of research as a focus, the symposium at the Design Museum brought together many of Kubrick’s collaborators and experts in the practices that surround his work. Through the presentation of a series of essays and discussions it began to dawn on me that the secret of his success is, ‘It’s all in the details.’ Without Kubrick’s tireless desire to create immersive worlds I am not sure he would have developed the relationships with the specialists that forged his dreams. These artists worked relentlessly with often open briefs and sometimes brutal, direct feedback. They were carefully selected people, inspired and motivated by Kubrick’s vision. Sometimes he worked in a way that possibly would not be acceptable today. I can’t imagine there would be much flexibility in 2019 for filming schedules to double, or for an actress to be put under the mental stress Shelley Duvall suffered in The Shining. Even NASA could not understand how he was party to design concepts of some of their potential aircraft.

Stanley Kubrick was a life long student of film. He wrote fan letters to Bergman amongst others. In my opinion his appreciation of other’s talents was another key to his success. He possessed the ability to bring the world to his doorstep. I was very taken with the idea that his interests and obsessions led him to collaborate with NASA engineers. At the time of his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, the political nature of the space race provided him with endless funding for a film promoting the brilliance of space exploration, and by placing companies such as Pan Am at the forefront of it, he was well supported by big companies.

He was a puppeteer, facilitator, visionary collaborator and political critic of social issues. His films often were often controversial and thought provoking. I am inspired by his response to the public outrage of A Clock Work Orange.

clockwork orange costumes on mannequins at Design Museum
Design Museum Kubrick Exhibition, product and costume designs for A Clockwork Orange

‘The point I want to make is that the film has been accepted as a work of art, and no work of art has ever done social harm, though a great deal of social harm has been done by those who have sought to protect society against works of art which they regard as dangerous.’ -Kubrick

His way of working could be described as having similarities to Brecht, letting designers, musicians and choreographers play and improvise with ideas. However, there was a controlling duality to his monopoly of pre and post production roles. He was involved in research, script writing, creative visioning, directing and editing. He was instrumental in ways unimaginable in today’s film industry. He knew the craft inside out. Kubrick was skilled in all the roles and liked to train others to work in a way he liked, for instance his mentoring of Milena Canonero included advice on where to focus detail for film costume design, he is quoted as saying, ‘it’s all from the head’. He also coached her on still photography for location scouting.

Kubrick’s grounding in photography greatly enhanced his future practice as a filmmaker. The location stills inform the landscape of his creations and enhance the detail in his shoots. There is a visual poetry informed by a social commentary. I believe Kubrick aspired to make his films as a form of fine art. For instance, the cinematography of Barry Lyndon which was inspired by the paintings of the 18th century. Also, the staging of Alex’s bedroom in A Clockwork Orange had echoes of The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix.

By working closely with sculptors, designers and graphic artists on A Clockwork Orange, his concepts were drawn from the location research which focused on the brutalist utopian architecture of the time, as well as pop culture and artists such as Richard Hamilton. Using these things, he re-imagined Anthony Burgess’ novel, creating a dystopic future society with an unsettling foot in the reality of the day.

pencil comic illustration
Design Museum Kubrick Exhibition, Chris Baker 'AI' Storyboard designs

Kubrick brought the worlds of his films to England where he lived for most of his life. Working predominantly out of Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire. This was perhaps to be close to his family or due to a fear of flying. This provoked him to create the ambitious immersive sets, which one could say were an art form in their own right. In films such as Full Metal Jacket he didn’t go to Vietnam he used an old gas works near London. Instead of a real hotel The Shining was filmed in Elstree Studios. I imagine these sets helped lock the actors into the place of the narrative and encouraged a better performance.

His love of technology set the tone of The Shining with the invention of the steady cam which in turn made him take over Elstree Studios nearly in its entirety.  This was because he needed to link all the locations in the film to use the steady cam, creating a very memorable opening sequence following a small boy around the hotel on a bike from his POV. He was a massive ‘tech geek’ as his daughter calls him. He couldn’t wait for the technology he needed to make his imagined worlds real. So, he would invent it or inspire someone to invent it. The visual effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey were not computerised but devised by a performance artist and paint.

What can we learn from Kubrick? I thought it would be useful to have a ‘how to’ for Kubrick.

How to create like Kubrick

  • Have attention to detail
  • Respect the Importance of interdisciplinary collaboration
  • Value the process of re-working concepts and then re-working some more
  • Edit! Kill your darlings ask the question ‘is it necessary?’
  • Have a love and understanding of technology
  • Have a vision of humanity

All artists need a place to work so here is a ‘how to’ for institutions.

How to inspire the next Kubrick

  • Provide Certain freedoms to create
  • Provide space to create
  • Budget/funding for collaborative projects
  • Cultivate mutual appreciation of art and artists emerging and historical
  • Encourage obsession

One of the main realisations for me as an emerging dramatic writer is that I may not be afforded the freedoms of Kubrick, but I can certainly follow his collaborative practice in my second year at Central Saint Martins.

Kubrick was known to say, ‘There is no such thing as a bad idea.’ He created an environment where anything could be possible.

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