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Ken Adam Exhibit

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By Bill Desowitz
It’s hard to imagine that Ken Adam was ever taken for granted, even though his sets were an integral part of the early James Bond films (including Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moonraker) as well as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. But the mere fact that his two Oscars were for Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Nicholas Hytner’s The Madness of King George prove that his Expressionistic and futuristic designs in the ‘60s and ‘70s were not as celebrated as they should’ve been. Today, however, Adam (born in Berlin in 1921) is a hero to generations of film fans. His stunning work is currently on exhibition at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences after a triumphant debut a while back in London. Now we can view the linear and circular sketches up close. And not just the famous ones. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, an unrealized Star Trek film with Phil Kaufman, Sleuth, Pennies From Heaven, and The Last Emperor are also indicative of a talented and imaginative designer whose work functions as its own character in these memorable movies.
Below the Line: Tell me about Strangelove and working with Stanley Kubrick?
Adam: That’s a long story. Do you have a week? Well, he had seen Dr. No and we hit it off immediately. And I was scribbling ideas about the War Room while we were talking and sitting down. And he asked to see it and he liked it. I thought here was this supposedly difficult director, and my first scribble was good enough. And he had a certain naiveté that fools you at first. New York and jewish, like Streisand, questioning everything. And then eventually I found out about that brain, that intelligence. At the age of 12, he was a professional chess player, and a brilliant photographer. So we hit it off. We became close friends, and what was helpful too was the fact that I drove him in my Jaguar to and from Shepperton Studio. So I spent about two hours with him every day. At first I had to keep him entertained, so we established a great relationship. And I found how little I knew about films, really, and I had to become much more flexible because he kept changing his mind. So it was a very exciting but draining experience. After that I thought once was enough. And I was able to turn him down on every subsequent film.
BTL: Except Barry Lyndon.
Adam: He tricked me into that one. When he started Barry Lyndon and he had his slide shows, the thing that he was drawn to, particularly in the interiors was Victoriana. And I said, Stanley, you can’t do that. But he said I like it. But by the time we were half way through the picture, he knew more about the 18th century than anybody else. Very complex, interesting man. He worked with some of the great English cameramen on Strangelove, but he came to me too and said he wanted me to design the whole lighting in the War Room [a suspended hoop of harsh fluorescent tubing located above the table but beneath the ceiling that is the room’s only light source]. So in the evening I sat up in a chair and studied which is the best angle. It was all done from that light and we had the phony beams coming from the sides, which were mattes. He was an innovator. He thought this was the best way photographically and artistically to show this claustrophobic atmosphere. He taught me how to be a better production designer by telling me how the sets can be just as important as where you put the camera and how you light a scene.
BTL: Is it true that he had something to do with Moonraker?
Adam: No, it was The Spy Who Loved Me. Not too many people know this, but the cinematographer Claude Renoir was having trouble lighting the massive supertanker. I rang Stanley on a Sunday and asked him if he would come and take a look. Knowing his paranoia, I assured him that only the two of us would be there. And to his credit, he came out to Pinewood.
BTL: And what was his solution?
Adam: He knew where to put the source lighting. And Renoir never knew and never had a problem.
BTL: I imagine the biggest challenge in the Bond films was trying to top yourself and at the same time not repeat yourself.
Adam: Right. What people don’t realize today is that our principal on the first Bonds was to be real. Even things that I had nothing to do with like the jet pack in Thunderball were real. And sure, the volcano [in You Only Live Twice], I could’ve built parts of it with models, but to see hundreds of stuntmen coming in on ropes and to see actual helicopters flying in added a dimension that was real. Today, they are all done by computer and nothing is left. What is that?

Bill Desowitz, is editor of Animation World Network’s vfxworld.com.

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