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Ken Adam
The 007 set at Pinewood, built for “The Spy Who Loved Me”, with Cubby Broccoli and Ken Adam. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME © 1977 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. and Danjaq LLC. All rights reserved.

All just scenery, theatre, stagecraft? Far from it. James Bond movies like “Dr. No” and “Goldfinger” and the “War Room” for Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” made him famous. The opulent volume “The Ken Adam Archive” not only brings together designs, drawings and plans by the most famous of all production designers. It also shows what designers can learn from Sir Ken Adam and the design processes of film.

Review by Thomas Wagner

Cinema creates its own world. It is, more accurately, created by the set or production designer. Of course, the plot of the movie is crucial, but so are acting, direction, production, and sound. However, the film’s locations and landscapes are determined by the production designer. He is an expert in all visual aspects of buildings, both exteriors and interiors. He discovers or constructs the settings for the story. He chooses the camera angle and lighting, and thereby creates the atmosphere that shapes the film.

“Bigger than life” was Ken Adam’s design philosophy. “Ideally,” he said, “the production designer manages everything visual: sets, locations, props, clothing coordination within sets…. Personally, I prefer to be involved from the start, ideally in script discussions with the director and cinematographer. To offer myself greater creative freedom, I always work with an art director who acts as a personal assistant in terms of practical organisation and finances.”

The Captain and his Eye

Few set designers have created sets as detailed and expressive as Ken Adam. He designed sets for more than 70 movies. Many of these are strongly imprinted in the visual memory of viewers. “My work,” he added, “begins with the script and my visual interpretation of it.” I search for appropriate outdoor and indoor locations and create the studio and other sets. I also supervise construction and handle my department, the art department…. The director is the captain of the ship, and I attempt to be his eye…”

Ken Adam
The amphibious Lotus Esprit in “The Spy Who Loved Me”. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME © 1977 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. and Danjaq LLC. All rights reserved

Treasures from the Archive

Since 2012, Ken Adam’s archive has been kept at the Deutsche Kinemathek. It contains more than 5,600 of his drawings, including designs for unrealized projects and other architectural works. There are also images and films from the research and set, biographical documents, and multiple awards, including two Oscars. There have been plans for a comprehensive and richly illustrated book since the exhibition “Bigger than Life. Ken Adam’s Film Design” opened in late 2014. Sir Ken Adam and Sir Christopher Frayling spent a lot of time in the archive to prepare it. They sorted through the material and selected the best ones. They also conducted a series of in-depth interviews.

As a result, the lavish and informative book “The Ken Adam Archive” is now available. It shows a comprehensive range of Adam’s designs for the first time. This includes everything from rough sketches to the finished product on the screen. It also reveals and honours the importance of production designers in all of its facets. They are the ones, according to Adam, who translate words into a visual world, thus realising the thoughts of producers and directors.

This physically heavy volume offers so many different perspectives on Ken Adam’s work (and beyond) that they cannot be listed or reproduced here. Not only are all of the projects reproduced. To name a few topics, Adam’s reference to sailing, the distinction between studio and street, and the distinction between photographic (realistic) and painterly (artificial) become obvious. It’s unfortunate that the fascinating documentary and illuminating conversations with Sir Ken are only available in a hand-signed “Collector’s Edition” at a price that may be prohibitively expensive for many. Therefore, the only alternative can often be a (well-worthwhile) visit to a library that has the opus in its collection.

Ken Adam
The Greek galley in Helen of Troy, © Deutsche Kinemathek – Ken Adam Archiv

Drawing with Flo-Master

Even the early sketches demonstrate Adam’s designs’ richness, clarity, and conciseness. Adam has frequently drawn more than 50 sketches by the time the concepts are finalised (and we’re back to the design process), which allow a preview of the sights afterwards caught with the camera lens. Frayling tells how Adam gradually relaxed and freed himself the fear of letting go. Instead of constructing a “camera projection” right once, he began to push his ideas forward in drawings.

Ken Adam
Concept for docking bay inside the supertanker Liparus, from The Spy Who Loved Me. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME © 1977 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. and Danjaq LLC. All rights reserved
Ken Adam
Scale 1:200 model of the interior of the supertanker Liparus, made for the 2014/15 exhibition ‘Bigger than Life. Ken Adam’s Film Design’ at the Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen, Berlin. © Studio OZA-Berlin, Photography: Matthias Karch
Ken Adam
Docking bay inside the supertanker Liparus, from The Spy Who Loved Me. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME © 1977 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. and Danjaq LLC. All rights reserved

It enabled him to act more freely and creatively by using a Flo-Master pen rather than a pencil: “The pen takes a variety of felt tips, from the very fine to the coarse wedge-shaped tip, filled with non-erasable ink in various colours.” I mostly used the wedge tip since the broad strokes forced me to loosen up and be more bold. Suddenly, the entire tone of my sketches shifted…. One or two lines might serve as the base of my design, and it is typically the flaws of the sketch – combined with a dramatic treatment of light and shadow – which create unique compositions and moods.”

“I mean, with any movie you have to sell your ideas to the director and the producer – but in Stanley’s case it was more an exercise in psychoanalysis. But once we agreed, he supported me to the end. Thank God he couldn’t draw, though. I was the only person who could put ideas on paper for him – so he could take them visually whether he liked them or not…”

Adam about Kubrick

From Fort Knox to the War Room

Adam’s set designs have various facets that contribute to their immense fascination. At first look, not all of them are obvious. The sheer size and extravagance of the rooms immediately impresses. A closer look reveals how perfectly he has customised them to the characters who feature in them. It’s as if the rooms are extensions of the protagonist’s physique and character, even his charm or aura (who is often a villain or considers himself to be an outstanding specimen of the human species). They radiate out into the (fictional) world of the the movie’s story.

Impressed by expressionism’s dramatic light-shadow effects, Adam shone his light directly into the heart of modernism’s darkness. It’s the “Rumpus Room” and Fort Knox in “Goldfinger,” and his underwater flat in “Dr. No.” It is merely the first of many megalomaniac constructions by megalomaniac men, ranging from hidden missile launch bases and a supertanker capable of holding many submarines at once to the futuristic space station in “Moonraker.” The scary “War Room” with its huge, circular poker table under a ring of lights in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Love the Bomb” It is the arena of a destructive force and its desire to destroy.

Ken Adam
Filming the destruction of the model of the space station for Moonraker – 20 feet in diameter – at Pinewood, where the special effects on the 007 stage were completed. MOONRAKER © 1979 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. and Danjaq LLC. All rights reserved.

What Does It Take to Become a Film Designer?

According to Frayling, Adam always addressed the inevitable question “What does it take to become a film designer?” Of course, talent and imagination are required, but so are luck and being in the right place at the right time – as well as the ability to communicate your ideas to others. However, success in design processes based on division of labour is primarily achieved by more technical skills: the importance of drawing, a strong (visual) overall concept, effective teamwork, and the search for and collaboration with professionals you can trust. Above all, it requires persuasion: “I always felt happiest,” Adam adds, “when I could create a different form of reality than the one the director had in mind – and I usually got away with it.”

Ken Adam
Ken Adam at his desk at home, from the installation “Lines in Flow” in the exhibition “Bigger than Life”, 2014, © Boris Hars-Tschachotin, “THIS IS THE WAR ROOM” (2017). Film still by Andreas-Michael Velten

Sir Kenneth Adam

Sir Kenneth Adam was born Klaus Hugo Adam in Berlin in 1921. His parents Lilli and Fritz Adam were part of an upper middle-class Jewish family. Together with his brothers Georg, Siegfried and Otto Adam, they owned a chain of department stores with branches in Berlin, Hamburg and Chemnitz. The department stores also included the S. Adam sports fashion shop on the corner of Friedrichstraße and Leipziger Straße. In 1934, the family had to flee to Great Britain due to the National Socialists’ racial policies. During the Second World War, Ken Adam flew missions as a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force “against the Nazis and Hitler, but not against Germany”. Sir Ken Adam died in 2016 in his adopted home of London.

© Christopher Frayling

The Ken Adam Archive

In collaboration with the Deutsche Kinemathek, which since 2012 has been home to Ken Adam’s personal archive

Hardcover, bound in iridescent bicolour fabric, with 4-phase hologram

36 x 36 cm, 3.88 kg, 360 p., with engraved acrylic book stand

Edition of 1,200 numbered copies signed by Ken Adam

850 Euro


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