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The Art of Artificial Intelligence

As a major A.I retrospective gets published, conceptual artist Chris Baker talks about working with Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg on the film

As a major A.I book gets published, conceptual artist Chris Baker talks about working with Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg on the film

If you get an invite to Stanley Kubrick’s house, never refuse. I was fortunate enough to be invited by the University of Arts and the Kubrick family to an intimate evening in Harpenden to celebrate the launch of Thames & Hudson’s book Artificial Intelligence: The Vision Behind The Film. Stepping into the manor’s reception room, the Venetian masks from the infamous Eyes Wide Shut orgy peered down from the walls. I went to take a picture but was swiftly reprimanded. “No cameras allowed”. Oh, the irony of being in the house of one of cinema’s greatest directors but unable to take a photo – Kubrick may be dead, but the air of secrecy still lingers thick. I made my way down a grand, glass-floored corridor and entered his red walled library, packed full of medical tomes, history books, sci fi novels and a smattering of awards. I was told later that he used to keep his Special FX Oscar on the kitchen table. On a shelf just out of reach, his copy of Arthur C Clarke’s 2001 stood gathering dust next to a comprehensive collection of J.G.Ballard novels. A dystopian fetishist’s wet dream...

Amongst the guests of Kubrick’s widow Christiane and her brother Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s longtime producer, were sci fi novelists Ian Watson and Brian Aldiss, whose book Super Toys Last All Summer Long inspired the film. But the star of the evening was Brummie conceptual artist Chris Baker, whose futuristic sketches dominate the A.I book. I sat down with Baker to talk about his work on A.I, his relationship with Kubrick, and how his sketches were re-interpreted by Steven Spielberg after the director’s passing in 1999.

DD: How did you get involved with Stanley Kubrick?

Chris Baker: Stanley had no idea what I did, he just happened to see the first graphic novel I had done, which was based on a book called Legend by David Gemmell. It was a bizarre chain of events really. He saw the graphic novel, really liked something about it and tracked me down through Ken Slater who was a book dealer. I started work on A.I in 94. The weirdest thing was when I was 15 years old and it was my final year of school and instead of doing art, for the whole year all I did was a graphic novel adaptation of 2001.

DD: So you were always inspired by Kubrick’s work?

CB: Yeah but I hadn’t seen the movie. I bought the book, The Making of 2001 which I was mesmerized by for years. It came out in the 70s and I just wore it out, read it cover to cover and was just totally mesmerised by the images. I hadn’t seen the movie because in those days you only saw an old movie if it was re-released in the cinema, so I’d never seen 2001 and I didn’t get to see it till quite some years later. I did read the book and I also read The Lost Worlds of 2001 and I just started to adapt it to my own comic book version. It’s a really weird kismet of doing that and finally meeting Stanley and doing A.I.

DD: What was it like for you to not only to be asked to come and meet him but get asked to come and work with him?

CB: Well initially meeting him for the first time was slightly intimidating but it was very relaxed. We met at Jan Harlan’s house and we just chatted in the kitchen about my work and other movies, we didn’t really discuss A.I. Once we started working I would be on the phone to Stanley faxing him stuff every day and getting his feedback. It worked really well because I think I kind of got Stan. It’s easy for me to say I got him and understood him but it was a really good working relationship and it’s a shame that we didn’t get an opportunity to work together again but it’s fate, if you call it that.

DD: And that led to you working with Steven Spielberg

CB: Yes, I got to work with Spielberg. It was just a great time to work with him, because not many people have. When I went out to Hollywood to work with Spielberg the name Kubrick brought with it a lot of Kudos. Fans of his, people that wanted to work with him in the industry gave me a lot of respect, which I didn’t really deserve to be honest, I just did this one little thing.

DD: So how would it work, would he fax you over ideas?

CB: No, we had an outlay, a treatment, and I worked from the treatment and just doodled. In a way it was almost a process of elimination. With Stanley he would know what he wanted when he saw it so I would just keep throwing ideas and images at him. Each day he would come back to me and say if he liked something that he saw maybe push it in a direction slightly different. It is an artist’s dream to just keep doing that every day, sketching out ideas. I spent a year 2 years working like that.

DD: Then the project crumbled apart. What happened?

CB: He gave it to Steven to direct but he had Eyes Wide Shut on the go and decided to go and direct that. I guess the plan would have been, after Eyes Wide Shut, he would have done A.I.

DD: The popular reason that is cited is that Kubrick didn’t think visual technology had caught up to speed with what you were designing.

CB: But it had caught up but then. Because originally he had the idea that you might be able to create a robotic boy with a robotic puppet or whatever but Christiana his wife still thinks the Stanley would have come back to A.I after Eyes Wide Shut. Even the people who made it, even Steven and those people, the other producers though ‘we’d still love to see Stanley’s version’.

DD: Being someone who has worked so lose to the project and has seen Stanley and Spielberg’s version as well, and the differences, what do you think would have changed if Kubrick had done it?

CB: You are not going to get me on that! It’s hard to tell. A lot of stuff that’s in the Spielberg version is in Stanley’s original take on it. I think probably what Steven did was make a story that was filmable on a budget. The film he could produce efficiently. It could easily be a film that would spend years in development and go over budget as many films do these days. I think what Steven did do is pay homage to what Stanley wanted to do but at the same time Stanley wanted Steven to do it and he did it.

DD: Some of the cityscapes are quite similar to the Allen Jones human tables in A Clockwork Orange.

CB: Yeah, but it was things like that Steven wasn’t happy with.

DD: What, big fallaces and suggestive holes?

CB: Yeah. If I designed Rogue City now I would have been a little bit more subtle. I would have stopped it from being overly feminine as well because it’s one sided, It’s very female oriented. I would have intertwined it so you were not quite sure what’s male and what’s female. I have always thought of it as being the sexual equivalent of Las Vegas.

DD: It must have been amazing going from your drawing board to the finished thing.

CB: Yeah it was amazing. It just came from sketching things like this. It was great to have little sketches lie this become finished images in the movie. We had a good time.

A.I: The Vision Behind the Film is published by Thames & Hudson