Remembering Two of Kubrick’s Key Collaborators

The Daily — Nov 20, 2018
Pablo Ferro’s lettering in the opening title sequence of Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

This month has seen the loss of two of Stanley Kubrick’s key collaborators. As different as each of their contributions were, both remind us not only of Kubrick’s sharp eye for unique talent but also of his penchant for exploring the ways we tend to anthropomorphize our machines. Douglas Rain, the voice of the supercomputer HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), passed away on November 11 at the age of ninety. And Pablo Ferro, the animator, filmmaker, and extraordinarily innovative title designer who created his signature font for the opening titles of Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), passed away on Friday. He was eighty-three.

Though Rain would eventually rack up dozens of film and television credits, the Canadian actor was primarily known in the world of theater, especially for his performances in works by Shakespeare. He was also a member of the company that founded the internationally renowned Stratford Festival in Ontario. Earlier this year, when a slew of new books and revival screenings were marking the fiftieth anniversary of the release of 2001, Gerry Flahive told the story in the New York Times of Kubrick’s search for—what else to call it—the personality of HAL, who’d oversee nearly every function aboard the Discovery One spacecraft hurtling toward Jupiter. Visually, HAL would be represented as an immobile but seemingly omnipresent and all-seeing glowing red orb with a tiny flaming yellow dot at its center. The voice would have to do all of the heavy lifting, and Kubrick ran through several candidates, including Martin Balsam, before settling on the one he’d heard in one of his favorite documentaries, Universe (1960).

As Flahive observes, Rain’s HAL “has become the default reference, not just for the voice, but also for the humanesque qualities of what a sentient machine’s personality should be. Just ask Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home—the cadence, the friendly formality, the pleasant intelligence and sense of calm control in their voices evoke Mr. Rain’s unforgettable performance.” Before 2001, most on-screen robots and computers interacted with human characters in a chopped-up monotone that suggested its creators couldn’t imagine that our machines might one day acquire a degree of emotional intelligence above and beyond their mathematical smarts.

HAL, though, is introduced as a somewhat chillingly benevolent presence on Discovery One, asking Dave Bowman, for example, if he might see some of the astronaut’s latest sketches. After complimenting Dave on his improvement as an amateur artist, HAL shifts the conversation to the mission at hand, seeking either to confirm his own suspicions that there may be trouble ahead or to update his psychological profile of Dave. Neither option is particularly comforting. 2001 steadily builds toward a confrontation that plays on our fears that, once a technological singularity is triggered, one of the superintelligence’s first realizations will be that we humans are simply in the way. That confrontation, one of the most famous scenes in all of science fiction, is all the more effective in that it’s underplayed—by Kubrick’s direction and sound design, by Keir Dullea as Dave, and especially by Douglas Rain as HAL:

Kubrick’s introduction to the work of Pablo Ferro was fairly straightforward. He saw Ferro’s showreel and asked him to make a trailer for Dr. Strangelove. By that time, the early ’60s, Ferro was one of the truly mad men of the Mad Men era, hosting the likes of Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono at gatherings in his New York City loft. When he was twelve, Ferro’s family had immigrated from Cuba, and he worked his way up in the fields of animation and advertising fast, drawing comics for Stan Lee and cofounding an agency, Ferro, Mogubgub and Schwartz, before becoming the “darling of Madison Avenue.”

Kubrick, being Kubrick, convinced Ferro to move to the UK for half a year, leaving the agency to fend for itself back in New York. It was only after the trailer was completed that Ferro and Kubrick began brainstorming together to come up with ideas for the opening credit sequence. Speaking to Art of the Title in 2014, Ferro described the eureka moment: “We looked at each other and realized—the B-52, refueling in mid-air, of course, how much more sexual can you get?! He loved the idea . . . There’s one particular angle where the planes were attached to each other and they were swaying up and down, up and down.” It was Kubrick who brought in an instrumental version of “Try a Little Tenderness,” and Ferro realized that “the music was doing the same thing! It was swaying up and down. ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ . . .  I didn’t have to adjust anything in the cut.”

But the job was only halfway done. The actual credits would have to be overlaid, and when Kubrick saw Ferro’s first version, he said, “Pablo, I don’t know whether to look at the lettering or look at the plane. We have to see both at the same time.” Ferro’s solution was to create a set of elongated, pencil-thin letters that could fill the screen without blocking out the view of the bombers (the font is seen again in the credits for Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense [1984]). Nearly a decade later, Ferro would also cut the electrifying trailer for A Clockwork Orange (1971), using only dailies since Kubrick wouldn’t let anyone near his original negatives.

Spend some time this holiday weekend with Art of the Title’s interview if you get the chance. Ferro talks about meeting Hal Ashby when he was doing the titles for The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), which Ashby was editing. Ashby got Ferro a job on The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), which led not only to working with Steve McQueen on Bullitt (1968) but also to further collaboration with Ashby on Harold and Maude (1971), Bound for Glory (1976), and Being There (1979). Beyond movies, Ferro’s life was perhaps more eventful than he might have wished for. His companies rose and fell, he once got shot (a near-fatal case of mistaken identity), and his brother tried to steal his name and his business; but his son, Allen Ferro, turned out to be a creative and supportive partner. When asked which of all his works he’s most proud of, Ferro’s answer may come as a surprise. It’s not Dr. Strangelove, but rather, A Clockwork Orange. “Stanley Kubrick left me completely alone,” said Ferro, “and I was able to do a trailer that cannot be copied because every cut will take you a day to do.”

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