Dancing on the Ceiling: in zero gravity

After several decades, most movies tend to show their age. In the ’80s, Tron was a breakthrough in visual effects. However, watching it now, the film looks ancient, and the effects can be thrown together with today’s simplest design tools. One of the few films to stand the test of time is Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Although the film was shot in the mid-1960s, the special effects are still quite impressive, especially when you consider the fact that the entire movie was shot without digital effects (they wouldn’t be around until the ’80s). As part of the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center’s exhibit, Dancing on the Ceiling, Douglas Trumbull, the man behind most of the effects in 2001, hosted a very interesting discussion on Thursday to explain what it took in the 1960s to make 2001 possible.

When I walked into EMPAC, I was shocked by how crowded the main hall was; I hadn’t seen it this packed since convocation. I arrived slightly late (curse my broken flip-flop!) and was upset that I missed the discussion of the pre-historic parts of the film, but I still managed to hear most of his commentary, and boy, was there a lot to take in.

I never realized how easy filmmakers of today have it when compared to those of the past. If a present-day director wants to film things that are not physically possible, they simply have to walk down to the visual effects department, and in a relatively short period of time, they will have a CG render ready to go. Kubrik and Trumbull did not have this luxury, and as a result, they had to get very creative to make the distinct visuals of 2001. Nearly every shot needed to incorporate some visual trickery, from sticking a pen to a perfectly clear pane of glass to give the impression that it was weightless, to building massive sets contained within Ferris Wheel-like structures to give the impression that the actors were able to walk on ceilings.

Throughout the discussion, Trumbull kept stressing how the special effects were more engineering problems than filmmaking. The crew had to make sure that displays in sets didn’t flicker, that the animatronic ships moved exactly how they were supposed to, frame-for-frame, over multiple takes, without any digital control, and many other things; and Trumbull was happy to go into detail about all of them, because “we’re at RPI, so I can talk about this sort of stuff.”

As Trumbull went on, I became more impressed by the sheer ingenuity of 2001’s film crew. The effects were kept as simple as possible, and never felt forced—unlike today’s filmmakers, who throw in computer effects where they don’t need to be. I miss the days of huge sound stages, where everything the actor interacted with was actually there. It added a sense of realism that today’s CG-fests are lacking. I didn’t get close enough to ask a question, but one person after the show asked Trumbull what things he would change if 2001 were to be produced now, instead of in 1968. “I wouldn’t really do much different,” he replied. And I don’t think I would want him to.

The night ended with a showing of 2001 in its entirety on EMPAC’s big screen. While I am a big fan of the film, I realize that not everyone will like it, but I love watching it with people who have yet to experience it. Every newcomer has the same look on their face after the closing 20 minutes, the same look that I had after going to several EMPAC events—“What the hell did I just watch?” It wouldn’t be EMPAC without someone feeling that way.

Although 2001 won’t be playing again, the Dancing on the Ceiling exhibit will be showing at EMPAC through April 10. I didn’t get to see many of the displays, but what I did see was very cool. I especially recommend seeing the piece Just a Blink of an Eye, which has a cleverly hidden support that makes the person sitting in it appear to be on the verge of hitting the ground. The piece has a live performer, and you’ll be surprised at how realistic it looks.

Overall, I would say Dancing on the Ceiling is the best thing that EMPAC has hosted yet, if for nothing else than the discussion with Trumbull. The exhibit mixes in the experimental qualities of other EMPAC events, but keeps it approachable enough that you won’t be walking away scratching your head at it, unless, of course, you haven’t seen 2001.