Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition

Celebrating the work of one of the great film-makers of the twentieth century

by Edel Cassidy
Words Edel Cassidy

London’s Design Museum is currently hosting an exhibition to mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of Stanley Kubrick, the celebrated director, film-maker and cinematic legend. This internationally acclaimed touring exhibition has already visited Frankfurt, Mexico City and Seoul, and the Design Museum is the first venue to host the exhibition in the UK, Kubrick’s home and workplace for over forty years.

Born in New York City in 1928, Kubrick turned a childhood interest in photography into an early career in photojournalism. At the age of seventeen he got a job as a staff photographer for the pictorial magazine Look, and was tasked with taking reportage-style pictures of everyday life in New York City. His work as a photographer gave him a unique understanding of lighting and framing, and this followed through into his films, where he liked to ensure that scenes were perfectly symmetrical and that each frame had the potential to work as a standalone shot. This passion for symmetry and ‘one-point perspective’, a style of filming that favours near-perfect symmetrical shots, was to become his trademark.

In the 1950s his interest shifted to the art of film, and he began with a trio of shorts before making his first feature. He spent the rest of his life obsessively dedicated to film-making. Known for his perfectionism, Kubrick insisted in having complete control over every aspect of the process, including the script, casting, editing, music and publicity. Each project he embarked on involved an extraordinary amount of research. He would voraciously read as many books as he could on the subject, and then employed teams of researchers to summarise the books he didn’t have time to read himself.

For example, when preparing for Napoleon, a film that was never actually made, he had a card index for every day of the emperor’s life. He also sent an assistant around the world to literally follow in Napoleon’s footsteps, and instructed him to bring back samples of earth from Waterloo so he could match them for the screen. 

Kubrick was famed for shooting an excessive number of takes. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the scene in The Shining where Shelley Duvall swings a bat at Jack Nicholson broke the world record for retakes, 127 in all. In the end, almost 400 kilometres of film was shot, a process which naturally took its toll on the actors: Duvall reportedly suffered from nervous exhaustion, physical illness and hair loss during filming. The process produced delirious performances from both Duvall and Nicholson, perhaps the result that Kubrick was ultimately after. 

Unlike a lot of modern directors, Kubrick did not limit himself to one genre. He worked across all of them – romance, war, history, costume drama, science fiction and horror. He was skilled at turning his hand to any genre and becoming a master of it. He chose his films based on what he considered to be a good story.

He lived in Hollywood from 1955 but, disenchanted with it, moved to the UK to make Lolita in 1961. Attracted by the availability of high-quality film technicians and by the tax incentives aimed at helping the British film industry, he made the UK his permanent residence from then on. It was in Britain that Kubrick created the battlefields of Vietnam for Full Metal Jacket  (1987), the orbiting space station for 2001: A Space Odysey (1968) and the war room in Dr Strangelove  (1964).

The exhibition tells the story of Kubrick’s obsessive genius and shows how he created genre-defining worlds for his films.

Visitors enter via a ‘one-point perspective’ corridor, mirroring Kubrick’s famous camera technique, that has screens on either side playing clips of his films. The floor is clad in a patterned carpet that has been replicated to resemble the graphic orange and brown carpet from his classic horror film The Shining.

Featuring more than 500 objects, projections and interviews, the exhibition brings to the fore Kubrick’s innovative spirit and fascination with all aspects of design, and reveals the level of detail he put into each of his films. From predicting the modern digital tablet and defining the aesthetics of space exploration in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – a year before the moon landing – to using NASA-manufactured lenses to film by candlelight in Barry Lyndon (1975), Kubrick was just as much an inventor as a filmmaker.

Expect to see the centrifuge set that Kubrick developed for 2001: A Space Odyssey, film props such as the platoon flags and the infamous ‘Born-to-Kill’ helmet worn by Private Joker in Full Metal Jacket, costumes from the set of Barry Lyndon, as well as pre- and post-production materials on loan from the Stanley Kubrick Archive held at the University of the Arts London, Archives and Special Collections Centre.

Kubrick’s philosophy and his ability to create complete worlds with each of his films are explored through a vast archive of research and production documents, props, set designs and storyboards. There are lots of fantastic clips from the films, such as key scenes from The Shining  (1980), Eyes Wide Shut  (1999) and A Clockwork Orange (1972), and visitors can hear personal anecdotes from those close to him to find out who Stanley was as a person and learn how he used innovative techniques to create pure cinematic magic.

A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1965–68;GB/United States). Screen photo. © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Kubrick’s Irish Odyssey

When Stanley Kubrick arrived in Ireland in 1973 to make his ambitious period drama Barry Lyndon, it was a very big deal indeed for a country without an established film industry. He was the most controversial film director of the time, and Ryan O’Neal, who played the title character, was by that time a huge movie star following his appearance in Love Story (1970).

Barry Lyndon was a film that came about almost by accident. After 2001: A Space Odyssey Kubrick originally intended to make a biopic about Napoleon and for two years he carried out extensive research on the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in preparation. But a potentially prohibitive budget plus the box office failure of Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic Waterlooput an end the project. So Kubrick moved on to make A Clockwork Orange. 

A few years later, determined that his research would not go to waste, he unearthed it for an adaptation of Thackeray’s 1844 novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, which tells the story of the rise and fall of an unscrupulous but likeable Irish scoundrel who marries into high society in England. Kubrick, with the help of his director of photography John Alcott, created a cinematic masterpiece that is perhaps best described as a moving eighteenth-century painting.

Kubrick felt that one of the reasons why period pieces seemed so artificial was the use of studio lighting. He was struck by the use of chiaroscuro in paintings and wanted to recreate the effect in film. Along with Alcott, he set himself the task of shooting as many sequences as possible without the use of artificial light, relying exclusively on natural lighting and candlelight. His vision was to create a film with painterly qualities and flawless, static camerawork. However, filming in natural light is a challenge and can be difficult, even in still photography.

To achieve the effect they were after, the camera needed to use a really fast lens. Kubrick researched the problem obsessively and discovered that NASA had commissioned Carl Zeiss to build super fast Planar 50mm f/0.7 stills lenses in the sixties. They had been used in the Apollo moon landings to take photos of the dark side of the moon. Kubrick promptly bought three of the Zeiss Planars, but as they were designed for a still camera he needed to adapt them for a motion picture camera. Ed DiGiulio, of Cinema Products Corporation, a manufacturer of motion picture camera equipment, reluctantly agreed to take on the challenge of modifying the lens and adapting a Mitchell BNC camera to work with it.

Paintings from the era were used as visual references. The main inspiration for the iconic interior scenes was the work of William Hogarth, a painter with whom Thackeray had always been fascinated. Kubrick also borrows from the landscapes and portraits of Thomas Gainsborough, and this influence can clearly be seen in many of the countryside scenes. Curiously, Gainsborough often painted at night by candlelight.

There is little camera movement in Barry Lyndon, but there are numerous zoom shots that magnify or reduce the whole image as a single element. Kubrick used this technique so that the characters appear to be locked within the frame, and shots are presented like eighteenth-century paintings or tableaus. Kubrick’s passion for still photography is evident, as each precisely composed frame gives viewers the impression of visiting an art gallery.

Undoubtedly, Barry Lyndon is a beautifully made film, but first reactions to it were not as enthusiastic as Kubrick hoped. However, as with many of his films, appreciation for its technical mastery and scenic beauty has grown over time, and many critics now regard it as his magnum opus. It is acclaimed as an exceptional piece of film-making and a masterclass in the process of bringing a unique film-maker’s vision to life.

Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition runs until 15th September 2019 at the Design Museum, London.

  • ‘Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition’ is published in Anthology Volume 11. Read more features from this volume or buy it now.
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