Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ken Adam

The prankster principle

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Totoro in Toy Story 3

In an interview with McKinsey Quarterly, Ed Catmull of Pixar was recently asked: “How do you, as the leader of a company, simultaneously create a culture of doubt—of being open to careful, systematic introspection—and inspire confidence?” He replied:

The fundamental tension [at Pixar] is that people want clear leadership, but what we’re doing is inherently messy. We know, intellectually, that if we want to do something new, there will be some unpredictable problems. But if it gets too messy, it actually does fall apart. And adhering to the pure, original plan falls apart, too, because it doesn’t represent reality. So you are always in this balance between clear leadership and chaos; in fact that’s where you’re supposed to be. Rather than thinking, “Okay, my job is to prevent or avoid all the messes,” I just try to say, “well, let’s make sure it doesn’t get too messy.”

Which sounds a lot like the observation from the scientist Max Delbrück that I never tire of quoting: “If you’re too sloppy, then you never get reproducible results, and then you never can draw any conclusions; but if you are just a little sloppy, then when you see something startling, you [can] nail it down…I called it the ‘Principle of Limited Sloppiness.’”

Most artists are aware that creativity requires a certain degree of controlled messiness, and scientists—or artists who work in fields where science and technology play a central role, as they do at Pixar—seem to be particularly conscious of this. As the zoologist John Zachary Young said:

Each individual uses the store of randomness, with which he was born, to build during his life rules which are useful and can be passed on…We might therefore take as our general picture of the universe a system of continuity in which there are two elements, randomness and organization, disorder and order, if you like, alternating with one another in such a fashion as to maintain continuity.

I suspect that scientists feel compelled to articulate this point so explicitly because there are so many other factors that discourage it in the pursuit of ordinary research. Order, cleanliness, and control are regarded as scientific virtues, and for good reason, which makes it all the more important to introduce a few elements of disorder in a systematic way. Or, failing that, to acknowledge the usefulness of disorder and to tolerate it to a certain extent.

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

When you’re working by yourself, you find that both your headspace and your workspace tend to arrive at whatever level of messiness works best for you. On any given day, the degree of clutter in my office is more or less the same, with occasional deviations toward greater or lesser neatness: it’s a nest that I’ve feathered into a comfortable setting for productivity—or inactivity, which often amounts to the same thing. It’s tricker when different personalities have to work together. What sets Pixar apart is its ability to preserve that healthy alternation between order and disorder, while still releasing a blockbuster movie every year. It does this, in part, by limiting the number of feature films that it has in production at any one time, and by building in systems for feedback and deconstruction, with an environment that encourages artists to start again from scratch. There’s also a tradition of prankishness that the company has tried to preserve. As Catmull says:

For example, when we were building Pixar, the people at the time played a lot of practical jokes on each other, and they loved that. They think it’s awesome when there are practical jokes and people do things that are wild and crazy…Without intending to, the culture slowly shifts. How do you keep the shift from happening? I can’t go out and say, “Okay, we’re going to organize some wild and crazy activities.” Top-down organizing of spontaneous activities isn’t a good idea.

It’s hard to scale up a culture of practical jokes, and Pixar has faced the same challenges here as elsewhere. The mixed outcomes of Brave and, to some extent, The Good Dinosaur show that the studio isn’t infallible, and a creative process that depends on a movie sucking for three out of four years can run into trouble when you shift that timeline. But the fact that Pixar places so much importance on this kind of prankishness is revealing in itself. It arises in large part from its roots in the movies, which have been faced with the problem of maintaining messiness in the face of big industrial pressures almost from the beginning. (Orson Welles spoke of “the orderly disorder” that emerges from the need to make quick decisions while moving large amounts of people and equipment, and Stanley Kubrick was constantly on the lookout for collaborators like Ken Adam who would allow him to be similarly spontaneous.) There’s a long tradition of pranks on movie sets, shading imperceptibly from the gags we associate with the likes of George Clooney to the borderline insane tactics that Werner Herzog uses to keep that sense of danger alive. The danger, as Herzog is careful to assure us, is more apparent than real, and it’s more a way of fruitfully disordering what might otherwise become safe and predictable. But just by the right amount. As the artist Frank Stella has said of his own work: “I disorder it a little bit or, I should say, I reorder it. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to claim that I had the ability to disorder it. I wish I did.”

“Open the bomb bay doors, please, Ken…”

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Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove

After the legendary production designer Ken Adam died last week, I found myself browsing through the book Ken Adam: The Art of Production Design, a wonderfully detailed series of interviews that he conducted with the cultural historian Christopher Frayling. It’s full of great stories, but the one I found myself pondering the most is from the making of Dr. Strangelove. Stanley Kubrick had just cast Slim Pickens in the role of Major Kong, the pilot of the B-52 bomber that inadvertently ends up triggering the end of the world, and it led the director to a sudden brainstorm. Here’s how Adam tells it:

[The bomber set] didn’t have practical bomb doors—we didn’t need them in the script at that time—and the set was almost ready to shoot. And Stanley said, “We need practical bomb doors.” He wanted this Texan cowboy to ride the bomb like a bronco into the Russian missile site. I did some setups, sketches for the whole thing, and Stanley asked me when it would be ready. I said, “If I work three crews twenty-four hours a day, you still won’t have it for at least a week, and that’s too late.” So now I arrive at Shepperton and I’m having kittens because I knew it was a fantastic idea but physically, mechanically, we couldn’t get it done. So again it was Wally Veevers, our special effects man, who saved the day, saying he’d sleep on it and come up with an idea. He always did that, even though he was having heart problems and wasn’t well. Wally came back and said, “We’re going to take a ten-by-eight still of the bomb bay interior, cut out the bomb-door opening, and shoot the bomb coming down against blue backing.” And that’s the way they did it.

I love this story for a lot of reasons. The first is the rare opportunity it affords to follow Kubrick’s train of thought. He had cast Peter Sellers, who was already playing three other lead roles, as Major Kong, but the performance wasn’t working, and when Sellers injured his ankle, Kubrick used this as an excuse to bring in another actor. Slim Pickens brought his own aura of associations, leading Kubrick to the movie’s single most memorable image, which now seems all but inevitable. And he seemed confident that any practical difficulties could be overcome. As Adam says elsewhere:

[Kubrick] had this famous theory in those days that the director had the right to change his mind up until the moment the cameras started turning. But he changed his mind after the cameras were rolling! For me, it was enormously demanding, because until then I was basically a pretty organized person. But I wasn’t yet flexible enough to meet these sometimes impossible demands that he came up with. So I was going through an anxiety crisis. But at the same time I knew that every time he changed his mind, he came up with a brilliant idea. So I knew I had to meet his demands in some way, even if it seemed impossible from a practical point of view.

Which just serves as a reminder that for Kubrick, who is so often characterized as the most meticulous and obsessive of directors, an intense level of preparation existed primarily to enable those moments in which the plan could be thrown away—a point that even his admirers often overlook.

Design by Ken Adam for Dr. Strangelove

It’s also obvious that Kubrick couldn’t have done any of this if he hadn’t surrounded himself with brilliant collaborators, and his reliance on Adam testifies to his belief that he had found someone who could translate his ideas into reality. (He tried and failed to get Adam to work with him on 2001, and the two reunited for Barry Lyndon, for which Adam deservedly won an Oscar.) We don’t tend to think of Dr. Strangelove as a movie that solved enormous technical problems in the way that some of Kubrick’s other projects did, but like any film, it presented obstacles that most viewers will never notice. Creating the huge maps in the war room, for instance, required a thousand hundred-watt bulbs installed behind perspex, along with an improvised air-conditioning system to prevent the heat from blistering the transparencies. Like the bomb bay doors, it’s the sort of issue that would probably be solved today with digital effects, but the need to address it on the set contributes to the air of authenticity that the story demands. Dr. Strangelove wouldn’t be nearly as funny if its insanities weren’t set against a backdrop of painstaking realism. Major Kong is a loving caricature, but the bomber he flies isn’t: it was reconstructed down to the tiniest detail from photos in aeronautical magazines. And there’s a sense in which Kubrick, like Christopher Nolan, embraced big logistical challenges as a way to combat a tendency to live in his own head—which is the one thing that these two directors, who are so often mentioned together, really do have in common.

There’s also no question that this was hard on Ken Adam, who was driven to something close to a nervous breakdown during the filming of Barry Lyndon. He says:

I became so neurotic that I bore all of Stanley’s crazy decisions on my own shoulders. I was always apologizing to actors for something that had gone wrong. I felt responsible for every detail of Stanley’s film, for all his mistakes and neuroses. I was apologizing to actors for Stanley’s unreasonable demands.

In Frayling’s words, Adam was “the man in the middle, with a vengeance.” And if he ended up acting as the ambassador, self-appointed or otherwise, between Kubrick and the cast and crew, it isn’t hard to see why: the production designer, then as now, provides the primary interface between the vision on the page—or in the director’s head—and its realization as something that can be captured on film. It’s a role that deserves all the more respect at a time when physical sets are increasingly being replaced by digital environments that live somewhere on a hard drive at Weta Digital. A director is not a designer, and even Adam says that Kubrick “didn’t know how to design,” although he also states that the latter could have taken over any number of the other technical departments. (This wasn’t just flattery, either. Years later, Adam would call Kubrick, in secret, to help him light the enormous supertanker set for The Spy Who Loved Me.) A director has to be good at many things, but it all emerges from a willingness to confront the problems that arise where the perfect collides with the possible. And it’s to the lasting credit of both Kubrick and Adam that they never flinched from that single combat, toe to toe with reality.

The tarantula room

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The tarantula room in Dr. No

[The tarantula room in Dr. No] was a complete afterthought. We’d all forgotten that we needed a room where Professor Dent talks to Dr. No, and it was in the last week of shooting so I had only £450 left. So I came up with that idea. I built the set on a platform in forced perspective with that big circular grille…It’s amazing to talk to Bond aficionados and critics, wherever they are in the world, because they always mention that set. They think it established a style. It was dressed with just one table, one chair, and one tarantula, and it is my favorite scene in the film—an example of stylization to achieve a desired effect.

Ken Adam, in Ken Adam: The Art of Production Design by Christopher Frayling

Written by nevalalee

March 13, 2016 at 7:30 am

Three lessons from 007

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Yep, Skyfall is pretty great. It doesn’t quite rise to the same level as Casino Royale, which combines grittiness with sheer escapism in a way that few movies, before or since, have ever managed. (I loved the first Daniel Craig installment when I first saw it, but it’s gradually risen even further in my estimation, thanks largely to the greatest Blu-ray ever, until it’s become one of my five or six favorite movies of the last ten years.) Yet the new film, which finally completes what must be the most protracted reboot in cinematic history, is by a long ways the handsomest Bond movie ever made, and Sam Mendes, a very intelligent director whose projects haven’t always lived up to his craftsmanship, has clearly put a great deal of thought into how a film like this should look, move, and feel. From the opening credits, with their subtle nods to Vertigo—the camera zooms into Bond’s eye, and later moves directly into his open grave—we can tell that we’re in good hands. And the difference between Skyfall and the wretched Quantum of Solace only highlights some of the lessons that Bond, and his best interpreters, have to teach the rest of us.

1. Skip the backstory. Yes, we’ve been over this ground before. But Skyfall provides a fascinating test case, in that it comes right to the edge of revealing too much about Bond’s background, only to dance nimbly away. We learn more here about Bond’s past, especially his childhood, than we’ve ever discovered before, but the movie wisely couches it in vague—and predominantly visual—terms. When M asks Bond how old he was when his parents died, he replies: “You know the answer. You know the whole story.” Which is the only answer he could possibly give. Like Hannibal Lecter, Bond becomes less plausible, and less interesting, the more we learn about him, and it’s nice to see a movie that understands this. (It isn’t quite as graceful when it comes to its primary antagonist, played by Javier Bardem: he’s a fine, sinister presence, but he’s also allowed to talk for about thirty seconds too long about his past grievances, when this information would best have been put into the mouth of another character. True villains never complain and never explain.)

2. Keep it simple. The Bond movies aren’t generally known for their restraint, but some of their most unforgettable effects have arisen from the simplest possible means, like Ken Adam’s brilliant set for the tarantula room in Dr. No: it was cobbled together at the last minute from a table, a chair, and a grille in the ceiling, but it’s far more memorable than the massive volcano lair in You Only Live Twice. The most grueling scene in Casino Royale centers on its utter simplicity, as the villain helpfully explains: “You know, I never understood all these elaborate tortures. It’s the simplest thing to cause more pain than a man can possibly endure.” And it’s no accident that the most suspenseful sequence in Skyfall involves nothing more than a pair of dueling pistols and a glass of scotch. (That said, it’s possible that the villain’s plan, when finally revealed, is a little too simple: it involves a complicated scheme to infiltrate MI6, but in the end, it’s nothing he couldn’t done merely by visiting a costume shop and taking a cab to the Ministry of Defence.)

3. Clarity is key. It’s a rare movie that causes you to breathe a sigh of relief in its first few minutes, but after the awful opening chase in Quantum of Solace, in which every shot was sliced up into tiny fragments that made the action impossible to follow, it’s a pleasure to watch a set piece like the one that opens Skyfall, which is intricate, breathtaking, and totally absurd, but never anything less than spatially and geographically grounded. Much of this is due to the return of genius editor Stuart Baird, who follows up his fine work on Casino Royale with another master class in the art of editing. Mendes and Baird even indulge in what must be the single longest static shot in all of the Bond movies, Bardem’s delicious opening monologue, in which he advances from a tiny figure in the background to a tight closeup, like a sinister Omar Sharif. And the plot, too, follows a nice, clear line, focusing entirely on the threat to M, which is a narrative masterstroke: we know our hero will survive, but it’s quite possible that he might lose someone he loves. The result is a movie that generates a surprising amount of tension for a series with an invulnerable leading man. Because Bond, as Skyfall makes abundantly clear, will never die.

Written by nevalalee

November 15, 2012 at 9:56 am

Ken Adam on sketching

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As we’ve discussed, I had a good grounding in architecture, design and composition. Drawing with a hard pencil and a T-square certainly appealed to my pedantic sense, and these beautiful drawings, these early drawings, were a kind of self-defense, really. I was playing safe. I was inhibited. I was afraid to let go and express myself…So with the help of felt pens—which had recently been invented—I changed my drawing technique completely. My designs became much bolder and more expressive. I increasingly used a felt pen with a wedge-shaped tip instead of a pencil, conté or pen and ink. A Flowmaster, rather than a hard pencil. I used broader strokes and eliminated unnecessary details…And I now begin with a sketch, rather than a technical drawing—which was important in helping me to visualize the eventual effect in three dimensions—however rough the sketch. It has something to do with the way my mind works.

Ken Adam, production designer of Dr. Strangelove and the James Bond films

Written by nevalalee

September 30, 2012 at 9:50 am

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