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Stanley Kubrick’s “Manhattan Project”: How Two Experimental Filmmakers Contributed to 2001: A Space Odyssey

Fred Martin in the mid-60s (courtesy of Robert Schuhmann)

It was December 1964, and Stanley Kubrick had a problem: No one wanted his new movie.

The 36-year-old director had spent months writing a treatment for a science fiction film titled Journey Beyond the Stars with renowned novelist Arthur C. Clarke. When he started to pitch it, however, he found that no movie company wanted to produce it, with only MGM showing a vague interest.

Considering his near legendary status nowadays, it may come as a surprise to learn that in the early 1960s, despite his growing reputation, Kubrick did not yet have movie moguls at his beck and call. His new venture had another problem: Even though there was growing interest in the subject matter, fostered by the Space Race, it belonged to a genre largely associated with B-movies. All Kubrick could count on was the strength of his and Clarke’s name on the 251-page long treatment. How could he convince hesitant MGM executives, as the English writer would later put it, to “disgorge their cherished millions”?

The answer was in the wind of change, and in the dripping of paint in a bucket.

Cosmic Underground

In the 1950s, as Kubrick was making a transition from his job as a photographer at LOOK Magazine into filmmaking, a new movement was emerging in New York. At its center was the very neighborhood to which the would-be director had moved: Greenwich Village, home to a bohemian community of musicians, performers, poets and writers, several of whom Kubrick knew personally.

It was not only the time of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg but also Andy Warhol and Jonas Mekas. Influenced by its thriving counter-cultural scene, the city had developed into one of the hubs of the American avant-garde by the early ’60s. Underground cinema had blossomed into an art form that produced personal, deeply meaningful works, facilitated by the availability of low-cost equipment and inspired by art films from Europe that represented a breath of fresh air after conventional Hollywood offerings.

In this cultural milieu, Fredric Martin, an actor born in New York in 1923, had found his favorite playground. “I had studied drama at the Neighborhood Playhouse and then toured the States with Cyril Ritchard,” Martin told me from his Manhattan home, happy to recall his stint in movie history. “It was while working in the off-Broadway scene, inspired by what was going on there, that I started to take an interest towards experimental cinema.” By 1962, Martin had established his own film company, Effects-U-all, and teamed up with John Jack Malick. Born in 1939, the cameraman and amateur photographer had a penchant for frugality: Using a combination of chemicals, thermometers and filters, Malick had learned how to process color film for a fraction of what official developers charged.

“Dad was a creative and sociable guy,” says Malick’s son, Gary. “I remember a lot of people in our house, always playing with cameras and stuff…. He had met Fredric through film circles. They hit it off and went on to do crazy experimentations.” The duo started playing with film and chemicals in the basement of the Bleecker Street Cinema, one of the unofficial headquarters of New York’s underground scene, and discovered that by dropping white paint into tins of black liquid and treating it with a mixture of solvents, food dyes and other chemicals to break down the surface tension, they would obtain unique color effects when the paint spread out.

Effects-U-all had captured the zeitgeist. By that time, psychedelic imagery was on the rise in popular culture, with clubs, concerts and interior designers starting to use transparency slides with paints, the colors mixing as the heat caused the oils to move. Gary Malick remembers one of their earliest works: “There was one film they did…. It’s about a homeless guy that finds this thing in a garbage pail, and he looks into it… and all of a sudden all kinds of crazy colors come onto the screen. It was almost like an LSD trip.”

The technique debuted officially in the 1963 sci-fi short Sublimated Birth, shot on 16 millimeter color film and inspired by the “cosmic” experimental films of Stan Brakhage, James Whitney and Jordan Belson. The trade press took notice, and an article in Film Comment described the innovative method as suitable “for dream films, fantasy, science fiction, horror.”

The “Manhattan Project”

It was music to the ears of Kubrick, who by then had watched every space-related movie he could lay his hands on in order to study the various techniques used. He was looking around for something a little more exciting to show to MGM than the tome written with Clarke. From the outset, the director had realized that the success of his movie would rely on how he could offer “a majestic visual experience” that would outdo the images provided by the American and Soviet space programs. Effects-U-all promised a simple yet effective way to get it, and with an eye on the budget, too.

“Kubrick was already aware of Sublimated Birth, which was circulating in the New York underground,” recalls filmmaker and inventor Larry Lipton, a friend of Fredric Martin. It was Jack Malick, who knew Kubrick through mutual contacts in the TV business, that provided the connection. According to Lipton, “Stanley met Martin and told him he had seen his short and that he was impressed by it. I remember Fred telling me how thrilled he was.”

Kubrick quickly dispatched his scouts in search of a suitable—and low-profile—location for experiments. Sensing the potential of new special effects techniques, Kubrick did not want anyone to get wind of what they were doing, so the operation started being referred to as “The Manhattan Project,” in reference to the super-secret U.S. program that developed the first atomic bomb (that program was so named because its first headquarters were on Chambers Street).

According to Martin, “Stanley found a vast dancing room that was available for rent for various jobs. I remember it was somewhere on the West Side, 73rd or 71st. There was a fruit market downstairs. We were joined by an operator, Ray Lovejoy, a very nice man, and sometimes also by Kubrick’s wife Christiane.” The director upgraded the simple setup used for Sublimated Birth with a 65mm camera working at high speed, fitted with a macro lens pointed toward an area only a few inches wide. Despite the improvements, the procedure remained highly unpredictable and necessitated repeated attempts to get something usable. Often, the effect of the fluid mixture would deteriorate under the bright lights.

“We were there for days, until the early hours in the morning,” recalled Martin, “and the smell from the fumes stuck for even longer.” Eventually, the effort bore fruit. When applied in the right way, paint would take on organic shapes that seemed to follow the same physical laws of the cosmos and that would move in ways no traditional animation could mimic. Projected on the big screen, it looked amazing. Kubrick knew it was the breakthrough he needed.

In early January 1965, the director gave his attorney, Louis Blau, a reel of footage, as well as the treatment written with Clarke and a detailed budget breakdown, and sent him to meet with MGM executives. The company was so impressed that it agreed to finance and distribute Journey Beyond the Stars, budgeting it at an unprecedented (for a sci-fi production) five million dollars, and scheduled the release for late 1966. Thanks to his bet on two unknown filmmaking rebels, Kubrick got his deal. Now, he had to deliver.

“There was no kidding around with him!”

Eighteen months later, at the MGM Studios in Borehamwood, north of London, things were not exactly moving as planned. 2001: A Space Odyssey, as the project was now called, was lagging behind schedule and over budget by a couple of million dollars. Principal photography had ended, but the construction of the ultra-detailed spaceship models was moving slowly, and their shooting would take months. Special effects supervisor Wally Gentleman, an industry veteran, had left the project: officially to undergo surgery, actually because he was in disagreement with Kubrick’s tendency to pursue unorthodox technical solutions.

The few shots produced in New York were supposed to be part of the highlight sequence of the movie, the so-called Star Gate, where Dave Bowman, the only survivor of the Discovery mission, is projected through space and time to meet a mysterious fate. The device that would eventually render most of the spectacular effects for the trip beyond the infinite, Douglas Trumbull’s revolutionary “Slit-Scan” machine, was still on the drawing board. Under pressure, Kubrick felt he needed more footage to flesh out the sequence and turned again to Effects-U-all for help.

First, he flew in Jack Malick. As his son Gary remembers: “My dad was there for three or four months, I think. Kubrick would use him across the board…. Remember the pen flying in the air in the shuttle flying to the Space Station? My dad told me the story: He gets a phone call, goes in the office and Kubrick is there, holding up a pen. He says, ‘I want to see this pen float. Don’t try to sell me on the wires, I don’t want to hear it. And make it happen.’ Stanley didn’t really talk much; he was a very intense guy. There was no kidding around with him! So, my dad went to Panavision in London, I think, and he had them cut a mount, a round optical piece of glass, and put it on a wood gimbal and move it.”

After a few months, it was Fred Martin’s turn: “By mid-’66 a telegram came from Stanley, and I was summoned to London immediately.” The British arm of the “Manhattan Project” was about to get an upgrade, and this time no expense was to be spared: A big enclosure was built with an airlock to prevent the spread of fumes produced by the liquids, more powerful chemicals were provided, all the tools of one of the best studios in the world were made available to two underground filmmakers who only had a few short films in their portfolio. The two gave all they had, but their employer was tough to please.

One day, Kubrick came in the studio where Martin was working, on Stage 5. Huge black velvet drapes, placed all around to keep reflections to a minimum, gave a slightly sinister look to a room where people walked around wearing rubber gloves and sweating heavily under the heat of the huge lighting system. “He kept asking to get this effect, to do this and that, and I remember losing my temper and saying to him aloud, ‘Stanley, I JUST did that!’ But if there’s one thing I remember about Kubrick is that he was a really put-together guy. He didn’t say a word, he just went out of the room in silence. The guys who were around said to me, ‘You can’t talk back to him like that!’”

Kubrick’s methods did not derive from a mindless capriciousness, but from his need to challenge the ways people worked. He was trying to put on screen a spectacle never seen before, an objective that could not be attained by usual practices. Eventually, he got the amount of footage he was looking for and kept showing it with pride to all the visitors on the set—always with a mischievous glint in his eye when he was asked how he got it. Martin remembered proudly: “All the other guys said, ‘You could make a movie out of this alone!’”

“A very intense experience”

The “Manhattan Project” footage would feature extensively in the final edit of the ‘Star Gate’ sequence when 2001 was released in April 1968, 18 months late and 5.5 million dollars over the original budget. Initial critical bewilderment was soon replaced by glowing reviews; with psychedelia now in full swing, even the harshest articles emphasized the spectacular sequence and its ‘trippy’ vibe. Yet, despite a prestigious screen credit as members of the Special Photographic Effects Unit of the movie (along with only a selected few of the hundreds of technicians who worked on it), Martin and Malick faded into relative obscurity.

One of the reasons might be the plans that MGM and Kubrick had put in place to protect their investment. A contract obliged the developers of the special effects used in the film (Martin and Malick included) to refrain from using such techniques for a two-year period after the release of the movie. Not an unusual move in the business, but it meant that Sublimated Birth’s sequel, In the Beginning—made by Martin using the techniques he helped develop during the making of 2001—would only be released in 1973. By then, New York’s lively underground film scene was already starting to fade, and the unique burst of creativity which Kubrick cannily exploited was slowly becoming part and parcel of the mainstream. 

But perhaps the reason for the low profile of the Effects-U-all team was ultimately rooted in their underground ethos. According to Gary Malick, “After a work, my dad would not pay attention to it anymore. Yes, after a while he told stories about it…. But he was already on to other things and his life and stuff.” For Martin, “the idea was more about getting into acting again, and the fact of being paid for traveling in Europe was more than enough…. I was paid two thousand pounds but had finished the money so fast that my friends had to smuggle me outside the hotel I was living in! I had even written Kubrick after my work in London to ask if there was some other kind of work to be done for the movie, any kind of work; but I never heard from him again. It was a very intense experience, but it was exhilarating.”

After the success of 2001, Stanley Kubrick never had to struggle to have his movies green-lighted. His 1971 contract with Warner Bros. allowed him the creative freedom he had always craved. He moved permanently to England and passed away in 1999.

Fred Martin went back to acting and later became a stage producer, cofounding the Down East Theatre Club. He passed in 2020. Jack Malick had a long career in TV and went into space one more time—as the lighting director of the NBC special aired on the night of the first moon landing in July 1969. He passed away, too, in 2015.

As Effects-U-all couldn’t afford any more, only one copy of Sublimated Birth, the short underground movie that was instrumental in kickstarting a revolution, was ever printed—and that was lost during one of a number of relocations. In the wake of 9/11, when Martin donated all his works to the custody of the New York Public Library, it was nowhere to be found.

The drops of paint may have dissolved, but their legacy lives on.

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