Archer, Ernie

Archer, Ernie
   Ernie Archer was one of the production designers on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. He was responsible for the design of the “Dawn of Man” segment, which serves as the prologue of the film. This sequence depicts ape-men at the dawn of civilization in what would eventually come to be known as Africa. Archer and a photographer went to the Namibian desert in South-West Africa to shoot transparencies of the landscape for use in filming these scenes at Elstree Studios.
   Kubrick was dissatisfied with the common method of rear-screen projection, whereby the actors would perform in front of a screen on which a projector behind the screen projected images of exterior locations, giving the illusion that the actors were in those locales. Rear-screen projection, however, yielded images that were not in sharp focus, and that was not good enough for Kubrick. So, for this segment he decided to experiment with the rarely used process called front-projection. This process involved a large reflective screen on which the background images photographed by Archer and his colleague in Africa were projected. In front of the screen Archer created the environment of rocks and desert which matched perfectly the projected background locales. Piers Bizony describes how the prologue was filmed: “In the process of ‘front projection’ pioneered for 2001, the ape-man actors were photographed in front of a huge screen, 40 feet high and 100 feet wide, consisting of millions of microscopic glass beads, which absorbed light, bent it, and then hurled it back out again with negligible loss of brightness. ” More importantly, the images projected with frontprojection were in much sharper focus than those projected in the old rear-projection process. Bizony recalled,“A transparency of the appropriate backdrop was projected onto this glassy surface, just as with a home slide projector. Illumination was derived from a powerful arc-lamp similar to the kind of bulb found in an anti-aircraft searchlight. ”
   The dark costumes of the ape-men who were performing in front of the screen did not reflect any of this image as it was projected from the projector onto the screen behind them, even when they were standing close to the projector. The combination of the images projected on the screen, plus the rocks, caves, and desert, which Archer designed and built to match the terrain pictured on the screen, brilliantly created the milieu for the Dawn of Man.
   The resulting prologue depicted the bands of prehistoric ape-men competing with each other to establish their turf and acquire food, millions of years before the film leaps from the prologue into the subsequent episodes set in the future. As Bizony observes, “Even the blandest astronauts are still little more than clever apes in disguise, with ancient survival instincts hard-wired into their brains. ” Unfortunately, only one Academy Award was accorded the film for special effects, and that went to Stanley Kubrick. Clearly separate Oscars should have been awarded to the special effects team, which, besides Archer, included DOUGLAS TRUMBULL,WALLY VEEVERS, and TONY MASTERS.
   ■ Bizony, Piers, 2001: Filming the Future (London:Aurum Press, 2000).

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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