Pure fantasy

Oscars, Baftas, a knighthood, the distinction Royal Designer for Industry – film set designer Sir Ken Adam has been amply rewarded for his achievements

I paused for a moment to look at a vintage Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud convertible. It was parked outside an elegant three-storey Georgian town house in London’s Knightsbridge. This is the home of Ken, now Sir Ken, Adam, one of cinema’s most celebrated set designers. I was welcomed by his housekeeper and shown into the ’den’ where Adam was ready for our interview.

Adam has been the creative force behind the sets for 75 films, including seven of the classic James Bond films, which became increasingly ambitious, culminating in the astonishing set for The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) with its massive supertanker set containing two full-size submarines. It was the latter creation that inspired Norman Forster when designing London’s Canary Wharf Underground station. But for me it is Adam’s set for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964) that has had a lasting impact. The vast, Constructivism-influenced war room set, with its extreme triangular shape and centrepiece oval table illuminated by an elegantly suspended light ring – described by Steven Spielberg as ’the greatest set in cinema history’ – is masterful.

Adam’s own epiphany came as a boy when he saw the dramatic sets for two films: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), designed by Hermann Warm, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), with its futuristic vision designed by Erich Kettelhut. They were the catalyst for a film career that has spanned five decades. During that time Adam has been lauded with copious awards, including two Oscars for Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Madness of King George (1994) – both ironically period films – and two Baftas for The Ipcress File (1965) and Dr Strangelove. This was topped off with a knighthood in 2003, and last year he was made a Royal Designer for Industry.

Adam has inhabited the world of film production where everything was built for real. There was no computer-generated imagery. Our meeting coincided with the recent Oscars, at which the set designers Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg received the golden statue for the ultimate fusion of live action and CGI in James Cameron’s 2009 three-dimensional extravaganza, Avatar.

I asked Adam if he had embraced CGI. ’Not so much in film, but a few years ago I was asked to design the sets for the computer game Goldeneye,’ he says. He did this in his normal way, producing masses of drawings and notes. All were quaintly faxed to the digital artists in Los Angeles to render. Adam was alarmed to receive a message back asking him to produce far more sets than on a conventional film, because in gaming the player can go everywhere and anywhere in pursuit of their prey so the designer needs to create a whole world in which to play. Adam found it an eye-opening experience, but wasn’t overly impressed with the results. However, he is contemplating working on another Bond game now that the quality of rendering has improved dramatically.

Some of the most inspiring sets in recent years have come from the digital animated world, most notably from Pixar with films such as Cars, Up, Ratatouille and Toy Story 3. But an interesting point that Adam made was the significance of how a real set made the actors feel. When the actors gathered on the Dr Strangelove war room set its scale overwhelmed them, adding a further dimension to their performances. That is what a well-conceived film set can do to elevate the atmosphere.

We live in an age where anything is possible in cinema. We have become complacent about the surprise of the spectacle trailblazed by Spielberg, George Lucas, and later the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises, the latter created by the brilliant set designer Stuart Craig, who has married the real and digital worlds of set design seamlessly. Production designer Alex McDowell also embraces both with ease. He is responsible for the massive set in Spielberg’s Terminal (2004) and Tim Burton’s surreal Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Original film set design is truly alive and well in the 21st century.

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