The singular production designer Ken Adam, who created the stages for both Stanley Kubrick and James Bond in the 1960s and 70s, has died at the age of 95. We look back at his extraordinary work in these sketches and photographs, accompanied by Adam’s own reflections on his craft and his work with Kubrick in quotes drawn from the Sight & Sound archive.
Ken Adam on set of Moonraker (1979) Credit: Photofest NYC
“No design is worth doing if you just reproduce reality. I don’t believe you can get a sense of reality by copying. But you must always be honest. You mustn’t do things just to create chi-chi effects.”
“I was heavily influenced by German Expressionism – I was 13 when I left Germany but as a child in Berlin I had seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and it had impressed me deeply.”
Adam (left) on set of The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) with producer Albert R. Broccoli (middle) and director Lewis Gilbert (right) Credit: Photofest NYC
“It’s terribly important that one has a close understanding with the director. One needs to develop almost a platonic love relationship to be able to give of one’s best. It’s not good enough just to sit down and draw sketches. You have to be very much more involved in the production, and only if you understand what the story of the film is about, what the director is trying to say with it, can you function to the best of your ability.”
“Kubrick wanted to know just as much about me as I wanted to know about him, and though we had arguments we always seemed to work on parallel lines. Stanley is an extremely difficult and talented person. We developed an extremely close relationship and as a result I had to live almost completely on tranquilisers.”
“My training was that ceilings had to be removable because cameramen preferred lighting from above. But Stanley insisted the ceilings in the war-room were fixed down permanently because he wanted to force the cameraman to use source lighting. I came up with a design that had a light ring as an integral part of the set. We then experimented for hours in my office in the evening until Stanley was satisfied with the way the ring would light the 26 actors sitting round the table.”
Behind the scenes of Dr. Strangelove’s war-room set Credit: University of the Arts London Archive and Special Collections Centre
“Kubrick said: “Why a triangular shape?” I said, “Why not? And anyway the triangle is the strongest geometrical shape there is.” He said that wouldn’t do. I said, ‘If we built it in reinforced concrete it would look like a bomb shelter,’ and that gave him his intellectual justification. In the end he cut out the only shot that showed the whole set. With Kubrick everything must have a realistic possibility, a potential for use. He doesn’t believe in stylisation for its own sake.”
“Kubrick has the mind of a chess player, and though he might instinctively know that my design was right he would say, ‘Think of something else,’ or ‘But can you think of a different way of doing it?’ We went through all the possible permutations until we settled on the original design.”
“I’m sure my experience as an RAF pilot helped me. I knew enough about bombs, rockets and missiles but I didn’t know what an atom bomb would look like. I had to make up my mind to go small or big – I decided to go very large. Stanley came up with the idea of putting ‘Hi, there’ and ‘Hello’ on the front of the bombs.”
“I had some problems with the source lighting on one of the gigantic sets – the interior of the supertanker. I rang up Stanley and asked him to help me set up the practical lights. He was very reluctant – he didn’t want anyone to know that he had influenced me. I finally talked him into coming to the set on a Sunday morning and guaranteed that no one else would be there. He came to Pinewood. He spent three to four hours helping me.”
“People say, ‘Why don’t you shoot everything on location?’ But on a set you can often give the director a better picture by getting away from architectural principles. Most rooms you could find on location are just square boxes and don’t give good pictures and interesting angles.”
All quotes are taken from interviews with Ken Adam by Roger Hudson in the Winter 1964/65 issue of Sight & Sound and by Geoffrey Macnab in the September 1999 issue.
Production designer Jack Fisk, who was this year nominated for his second Oscar for his work on The Revenant, has created the unforgettable visual styles of numerous classic films from the likes of Brian De Palma, David Lynch and Paul Thomas Anderson. Here he discusses the challenges of snowbound filming, the lure of the golden hour and what he’s learned from his seven-film collaboration with Terrence Malick. Interview by Finn Halligan.