Stuart Freeborn looks back at his work on the classic film.

Anybody who had the good fortune of meeting Stuart Freeborn knew he was a born storyteller. Freeborn, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 98, was a frequent visitor to IMATS London, where he was often surrounded by a crowd of spellbound listeners, right up until the moment he was packed into the back of a car to go home.

I spent endless hours myself sitting happily on the floor of Stuart’s living room, as he talked about everything from Star Wars to Superman. On one memorable occasion, he discussed his two-year stint working for director Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey. With that now-classic sci-fi film celebrating its 50th anniversary, I’m taking a back seat and letting Stuart Freeborn tell you some of that story himself …

Stuart Freeborn in the 2001: A Space Odyssey lab
Stuart Freeborn in the 2001: A Space Odyssey lab | All photos MA archive

Five months he said. I still have that letter from Stanley Kubrick, where he said we were going to work on 2001 for five months, maybe six. We were on it for over two years!

Stanley and I had already worked together on Dr. Strangelove and I rather liked him. We had a lot in common; his sense of humor was the same as mine, so we always had little jokes together, and he was also good at sleight of hand, which I did in my younger days too. But on 2001, he was altogether different, and seeing I was puzzled about his attitude, which was not as friendly as it was before, he said, ‘I want to show you this letter.’ It was from the money boys, which basically said, ‘When the hell are you going to show us something?’ He said once he got over here and shot something, they would be committed, and he could go on. That’s when I realized the enormous pressure he was under, so I went along with him. A lot of people didn’t, so an entire department would leave and then another one, but I thought, ‘I’m going to stick this out regardless of how difficult it is!’ because I had faith in him and I knew 2001 was really going to be something. At the same time, I was also getting new opportunities to expand my knowledge. I was the first to know about new things like artificial flesh (which was not easy to imitate with plastics), and it was like that all the way through filming.

Stuart Freeborn monkeying around on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey
Freeborn monkeying around on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey

The monkeys were the biggest challenge. They were originally just going to have a few bumps on their forehead and that was about it. The problem was, they couldn’t be photographed that way.  They had to be shot full length, so I said to Stanley, ‘How can you have them stark naked, full length?’ He said, ‘Oh, don’t worry; I’ll shoot them from the waist up, in long shots or close-ups!’ So, he tried that, and it didn’t work, so we had to go back another million years or so when there was sufficient hair all over their bodies.

"How the hell am I going to make these suits?" - Stuart Freeborn

I couldn’t make one suit that fit every artist, so we lifecast every one of them; not just their heads, but the entire body, hands, feet; everything. Wardrobe was going to do the ‘costumes,’ so they were hiring ape skins, but of course they couldn’t make them fit and Kubrick said, ‘What the hell are you doing? These are no good at all!’ In the end, wardrobe got fed up because they didn’t know how to make a costume that looked like a monkey, so they said, ‘Look, we do costumes, not animal skin. This is the make-up department!’ so Stanley phoned me and said, ‘Stuart, the wardrobe department has made a statement that it’s not wardrobe. It’s make-up and I think they’re right!’ I hadn’t perfected everything else I had to do yet, so I was working seven days and nights a week, and then they threw this at me, so the question was, ‘How the hell am I going to make these suits?’ 

A skull frame for
A skull frame for 2001: A Space Odyssey

I also had to make up Keir Dullea’s character, who was supposed to be ancient. He was described as being somewhere around 120 years old. That wasn’t in the original script; it came up quite a bit later, so I didn’t have a lot of time to do anything, because I was working on everything else that Stanley wanted, so making up actors was just a small part of my job. I was still perfecting the creatures and masks for the other scenes.

Freeborn working on the Old Man character

I needed to do a lifecast of Keir Dullea because I had to make all the pieces, but I only had one Sunday off in three and I was working 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, so I was pretty damn tired, but this meant I had to work on my one Sunday off to do a lifecast on Keir Dullea and model all those pieces. There were seven different sections separately molded to make the foam-rubber pieces, which were put in the oven early the next morning. When they were just about cooked, I took them out of the oven and I had no time to wash them, but fortunately they were perfect. This was still the early days of foam rubber, so nine times out of 10, you had to do it again, but I was lucky, and the pieces came out OK. I didn’t even have time to practice the make-up; I just put it straight on him and did the whole thing without any trial or error. There was no time to practice; I did it for the first time, once only, and it was an enormous strain. I said to Stanley, ‘Okay, please try and shoot this all today, and tell the folks that you’re going to be shooting late, so they expect to work late!’  So, we did, and fortunately everybody knew the problems I was going through.

Finished Old Man make-up

I went to set to see how it was going, and Stanley said, ‘Stuart, I’m having a few problems here, and I don’t think I’m going to shoot it all in one day; what about carrying on tomorrow?’ I said, ‘Please don’t do that; I’m sure the rest of the crew will understand!’

Test make-up for 2001: A Space Odyssey

We ended up shooting those scenes all day. I had said, ‘I don’t care what time I start, even if it’s 3 in the morning if necessary to get him on set by 8:30, but please try and shoot it all in one day!’ This was something they sprung on me at the last minute. Those scenes weren’t going to be in there, so they were something extra that had been put in.

Ape make-up fitting and in full-action on set of 2001: A Space Odyssey

So, was 2001 worth the two years I put into it? It was tough, but I was young enough to take it, and I thought, ‘I’ll never get another opportunity like this!’ I learned so much and got so much knowhow, because money was no object, so I could bring in specialists from chemical companies to advise me on different things I never would have been able to talk about on another film, so I took full advantage of that. I had to anyway, to succeed on that film and make things work. But I wouldn’t want to have done another one like that. One experience like that was enough!

"So, was 2001 worth the two years I put into it? It was tough, but I was young enough to take it, and I thought, ‘I’ll never get another opportunity like this!'" - Freeborn

Stuart Freeborn at IMATS London 2002

Stuart Freeborn at IMATS London 2002

Stuart Freeborn and Michael Key at IMATS London 2002

Stuart Freeborn and Michael Key at IMATS London 2002

Make-up legends Dick Smith (left) and Stuart Freeborn during an IMATS London 2002 appearance

Make-up legends Dick Smith (left) and Stuart Freeborn during an IMATS London 2002 appearance