Ken Adam, 1921-2016: a tribute in pictures

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.

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Ken Adam on set of Moonraker (1979)

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.”

 

Adam’s design for Moonraker’s pyramid control room

Adam’s design for Moonraker’s pyramid control room
Credit: © Ken Adam Archive/Deutsche Kinemathek

“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)

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.”

 

Adam on set of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Adam on set of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Credit: © Ken Adam Archive/Deutsche Kinemathek

“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.”

 

Adam’s design for the war room in Dr. Strangelove

Adam’s design for the war room in Dr. Strangelove
Credit: © Ken Adam Archive/Deutsche Kinemathek

“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

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.”

 

Adam’s various different designs for the bombs in Dr. Strangelove

Adam’s various different designs for the bombs in Dr. Strangelove
Credit: © Ken Adam Archive/Deutsche Kinemathek

“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.”

 

The final bomb design

The final bomb design
Credit: © Ken Adam Archive/Deutsche Kinemathek

“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.”

 

Adam’s design for the interior of the supertanker in The Spy Who Loved Me

Adam’s design for the interior of the supertanker in The Spy Who Loved Me
Credit: © Ken Adam Archive/Deutsche Kinemathek

“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.”

 

Adam’s design for Fort Knox in Goldfinger (1964)

Adam’s design for Fort Knox in Goldfinger (1964)
Credit: © Ken Adam Archive/Deutsche Kinemathek

“Any film designer who sketches puts light into his sketches. You have to create an atmosphere, to give an idea of the mood you are trying to create.”

 

The great hall of cloak manor in Sleuth (1972) as envisaged by Ken Adam and later built at Pinewood

The great hall of cloak manor in Sleuth (1972) as envisaged by Ken Adam and later built at Pinewood
Credit: © Ken Adam Archive/Deutsche Kinemathek

“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.

To read the full interviews, access Sight & Sound’s unrivalled 80-year archive of film commentary and criticism with a subscription to our digital archive.

 

 

In the March 2016 issue of Sight & Sound

The S&S Interview: Jack Fisk

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.

 

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