2001: A Space Odyssey Interview Series: Bryan Loftus

 Cinematographer Bryan Loftus (The Company Of Wolves, Siesta) talks with TV STORE ONLINE about getting his start with Stanley Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove (1964) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
TV STORE ONLINE:   Before we get into 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, I wanted to ask you quickly about your involvement in the 1970 documentary film THE BODY, which Pink Floyd's Roger Waters scored the music for...
LOFTUS:  Yes, right.   Well,  that was quite a long time ago.  I did all of the optics for the film.  It's part of post-production now, but back then it was a bunch of opticals and mattes for the camera.
TV STORE ONLINE:   So how did you come to work on 2001 with Kubrick?
LOFTUS:  Well, the basic reason was that...The first real work that I ever did in the film industry was on matte paintings.  Stuff like a painting of a landscape that you would put in around a castle and then re-photograph.    I had acquired experience working that way but with separation masters, which was when color film was broken down into three different layers of colors.  It was a good way of reproducing imagery because effectively you were working with black and white film as a result, and it would produce a very fine grain image.  Because of all of the special effects shots in 2001, Stanley had decided that he wanted to do the entire film via the separation process.  This detailed, taking a shot of the spaceship in 2001, and then adding a matte of the stars in behind it and then re-photographing it and adding other elements in as well and then re-photographing the entire thing all together.   He wanted to use the separation process because when you worked that way you could instantly be able to see in the shot if anything had gone wrong in the re-photographing when you put the YCM (Yellow, Cyan, Magenta) colors of the film back together again off of the negative. 
Geoffrey Unsworth (C) and Stanley Kubrick (R)
Stanley also liked working with younger people as well because they were more flexible than other more experienced technicians.  He used to like the fact that younger people wouldn't tell him if something couldn't be done because they effectively didn't know it couldn't be done because they had never tried it. 
Every shot in 2001 that required process work went through the YCM process, and at the end of it we had something like 250,000 feet of film that we had worked on.  The film was shot on 65mm, and there was only one optical printer in the world that could accommodate that.  It was owned by Linwood Dunn in Hollywood, and Stanley had it flown over to England and I was the person who was put to the task of running it.  
TV STORE ONLINE:  This process also applied to the Stargate Sequence is it appears today in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY?
LOFTUS:  Yes, but with the Stargate, the YCM process was done incorrectly, therefore, when we would combine the colors back together from the separation process the colors would be put back together out of order.   We called it "Purple Hearts", because there was an amphetamine drug at the time going around that had the same name.   The combination of colors that were used on the landscapes for the Stargate, ultimately, we went through all of the combinations that we could think of.   You had three color strips, and you took those and made three high contrast versions off of the negative, and then three low contrast versions.  Effectively you would be creating twelve different stripes of film for every shot in the Stargate off of the positive and negative film.  So by effectively combining those the wrong way you would end up getting lots and lots of different colors on the film.  You couldn't predict the color combination and how it would come out.  So we just had to keep going and going through all of the combinations.  Stanley finally said, "Well, I think I've seen everything that we can do.  Can we get other combinations?"   So,  I came up with the idea of random combinations.   
Bryan Loftus behind the camera in 2010
We had three cardboard lids that came off of the filmbacks that Kodak used to give out. I made up three spinning rotors that were effectively like roulette wheels.   And on the cardboard we wrote various settings down - different apertures for the printer, color filters, ect., and then spun it and what came out is what we tried.  There was no human thought that went into it really.   Once you tried all of the combinations, the human mind sorta shuts down unconsciously, so this was the only way that we could get over being stuck on that particular ideology for the Purple Hearts. 
Stanley really wanted color combinations that had never been seen before.  That was his thing.   His approach was that if you were doing something that you knew or something that you had experience in, then you weren't going to be able to achieve something that had never been done before.  He was always pushing us into that area, and because of that we found color combinations that had never been seen before.   It was a wonderful way to work. It was like having the keys to the kingdom. It was fantastic fun.  He used to say, "I want you to do what you don't know what you can do."   (Laughing)
TV STORE ONLINE:  Was it ever frustrating trying to achieve that Kubrick level of perfection?
LOFTUS:  I never got frustrated, but some did.  I could see that it got to some people.  Stanley would come in and say, "Try it again. Do it again."  We did lots of experiments that never made it into 2001.  I remember he came in one day with this new type of microscope that allowed you to take pictures, for example you could throw dust up into the air and allow it to land, and then you could take whatever it landed on and put it under this microscope and get these amazing photographs.    He brought in photographs of crystalline structures in metal.  The imagery in these were amazing.  It looked like temples of an alien civilization. The Stargate stuff was shot by Doug Trumbull on this giant camera system.   From there, that footage was taken and put into separation masters and we would change the colors in that footage.
TV STORE ONLINE:  You worked with Geoffrey Unsworth a great deal on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY as well?
LOFTUS: I did.  Stanley had this habit of collecting people for the future.   He would employ you knowing that he would need you later on.   When I first came on 2001 I was brought on as Unsworth's Camera Assistant.   
My credit on IMDb for 2001 is that of a "Focus Puller", which is quite silly because I was a SFX Supervisor on the photographic side.  I believe my credit on the film is the same, and there are six of us on the title card.    After a few months of working on the film I went up to Stanley one day and said, "Stanley, I'm bored. I'm here but I'm not really doing anything."  So he put me up in the front office with Con Pederson and my new job was to keep track of the progress of the special effects shots down in what we called the "Brain Room".   The film had something like 700 special effects shots in it.   It was a tremendous task to keep track of those. 
Each of those shots had to be individually created.  I handled the technical organization of that, and Con Pederson handled the artistic side.  Ivor Powell was there with us as well, and he handled the scheduling of the crews that were working on the shots because they were running twenty-four hours a day.   It was a fantastic operation really.  I don't think any film before it had run in quite that manner.
TV STORE ONLINE:  With everything that has been said about Stanley over the years...Was he a good collaborator?
LOFTUS:  I thought so.  He had a fantastic sense of humor and memory.  He remembered everything, and keep in mind we were on the film working for two years.  He would come up to you and remind you of something that you had told him six months prior.  You would give him an answer, and he would say, "No, No.  You told me this six months ago...."   He didn't like to be lied to.  He would say, "If you don't know the answer, tell me that you don't know the answer."   He was a great chess player and he always had a twinkle in his eye.  Organizing 2001 was a wonderful chess-like construction.   
TV STORE ONLINE:   Did you work on any aspect of the Centrifuge set?
LOFTUS: I didn't, but I did watch a bit of it.  I still remember the first time they turned it on after they had finished putting it together.  It started to turn around and all you could hear were hundreds and hundreds of nails dropping.    They had to run the Centrifuge for about a week before they could shoot on it to clear all that out.
TV STORE ONLINE:   Do you remember seeing any of the variational ideas for the Monolith as it was being conceived for the film?   I've read about it being all sorts of different shapes and glass with televisions inside of it....Or how about the different attempts at sanding it down and painting it because the light would reflect off of it and not be consumed by it which I believe was what Stanley had wanted it to do....
LOFTUS:  Right,  he wanted it to be a sort of Black Hole.  He didn't want the light to come back from it once it had hit it.  I wasn't involved in any of that but I know that those people that made it spent ages and ages on it trying to get it just right.
Kubrick's black comedy originally was to end in a pie fight.
TV STORE ONLINE:   Going back to something I forgot to ask you at the start...I read somewhere that you actually got your start with Stanley on DR. STRANGELOVE (1964)?
LOFTUS:  That's correct, yes.   I worked on the effects that come at the end of the film with the bomb going down with Slim Pickens.   That was the first time I met Stanley.    The whole process for the bomb went the hard way.  We shot Slim on the bomb in front of a blue screen, and then we shot the background, which was the base slightly spinning.  It was a bit crude really, but we got away with it because the film is a comedy.   We combined the base spinning with the blue matte, and because it was shot in black and white, it made it quiet easy.   
TV STORE ONLINE: Were you around the set of STRANGELOVE when they did the infamous cut pie fight scene that was to occur in the war room?
LOFTUS: I didn't actually see them shoot that but I remember going to lunch at Shepperton Studios and everyone was standing around covered in custard pie!   I said, "What's this all about, then?"  Someone said, "They're shooting the pie fight today."    The War Room set was one of the most incredible film sets I've ever worked on.  Ken Adams did an amazing job on that set. You walked in there and your jaw dropped.  It was stunning.  Stanley had the floor polished over and over so the lights would reflect off of it. 
TV STORE ONLINE:  So you started with Stanley on STRANGELOVE, worked with him for two years on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY...Was there an invite for you to follow along and work on NAPOLEON with him?
LOFTUS:  Well, he was researching NAPOLEON while we were shooting 2001.    He had a huge collection of books.  The joke was, "Who is going to play Napoleon?  Who do you think? Stanley!" (Laughing)  He was very Napoleonic.  It was a tragedy that WATERLOO (1970) got made before and ruined his chances to make that film.  Stanley had First Editions of almost every book on Napoleon.  You would walk down the front office and you could drop in on Stanley in his office and he would be reading about Napoleon.   He was a great guy, and I was very sad when he passed away. Ivor Powell and I had been talking for quite some time about organizing a 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY reunion and we wanted that to happen in 2001, but of course that never was to happen.
TV STORE ONLINE:   The film was marketed at a certain point as "The Ultimate Trip".   I have to wonder, considering you were a younger man at the time the film came out, if you didn't partake in psychedelics when you went to see it on its release?
LOFTUS: (Laughing) I didn't, but I knew quite a few people that did at that time.  It was the sort of thing to do then, wasn't it?   I did go to see the film when it was released and I was completely blown away at the sheer scope of it.   It's one of those films that shouldn't be allowed to be seen on home video.   It's such a big film, and when I was working on I had no idea that it would've turned out like it did.  I had only seen a few of the scenes when I was working on 2001.   The studio backers came to visit and ask Stanley, "What's going on? You've spending a great deal of money  for two years on this!"  Stanley had put together this reel of some of the scenes that equaled about fifteen minutes.   It was all spectacular stuff.   I was just walking by the preview theater one day and Stanley saw me and he said, "Brian! Brian! C'mon on here, and take a look at this."    He dragged me in and it was just him and I.  The thing that impressed me the most was the music he had put to it.  I said, "My God Stanley, what is that music?"  He said, "It's Mahler's Third."   I've never seen that footage again with that particular music to this day, but when the backers saw it, they said, "How much more do you need?"    It was powerful stuff.   
I spent a lot of time with Stanley in the cutting room.  We would go through all of the process shots and he would approve some and tell me to cut out the others, and while I was in there with him I was privy to him asking me questions about whatever he was interested in.  He had no sense of true hierarchy.  If you worked on the film you were involved with everything.   I was in there the day that Ray Lovejoy put on this LP of music called 'Classical Hits', and while they were cutting it together 'The Blue Danube' came on!  Someone said, "That's it!"  I remember that distinctly.   The Ligetti music that Stanley used in 2001 was suggested to him by his wife Christiane.  She had been at home listening to it on the radio because there had been some sort of concert on the air and when she heard it -- she rung him up and told him about it and he put out a memo that read something like: In case it is as extraordinary as Christiane says, we should be prepared to contact the composer..."  (Laughing)
Stanley would say to people, "Do this. Do that."   Then they would either do it or they would forget to do it.  If you forgot to do it, then he would get annoyed.  So he developed this memo system where if he needed you to do something he would send you a memo.  Then if you forgot to do something he woulds say, "Didn't you get the memo?"  People started telling him, "I'm sorry Stanley, I did not receive that memo."  So Stanley created a new system where if he had sent you a memo you had to write a memo back to him confirming that you received his first memo!  It was extraordinary.  Everyone was typing memos.  It got out of hand to a certain extent.  He was so wonderful at devising systems like that on the spot.  He employed three girls to type memos for him while we were shooting 2001.  
When handheld tape recorders first came out, Stanley got a hold of two of them while we were shooting the film.  I remember one day while we were in the rushes theater, he had one recorder in his left hand, and the other in his right.  He would speak into one recorder, and then play it back while recording it with the other.  I saw him doing this and I said, "What the hell is he up to now?"   What he wanted to know what how many times he could record backwards and forwards before the audio became unintelligible.   That was typical Stanley. He always had to push technology to realize its limitations.
Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung
2001 a space odysseyBryan loftusBryan loftus cinematographerInterviewsStanley kubrick