H R Premaratne: The Lankan artist who built a space station for 2001

2001 A Space Odyssey movie poster from 1968

2001 A Space Odyssey movie poster from 1968

The Sunday Observer, Sri Lanka, reproduces this story on 11 May 2008

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the release of classic science fiction movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held a commemorative screening last week in Hollywood’s MGM theatre.

In May 1964 director Stanley Kubrick and science fiction author Arthur C Clarke embarked on a creative collaboration: a novel and a screenplay inspired by Clarke’s 1950 short story “The Sentinel.” In December 1965, many ideas, drafts, and titles later, filming commenced on 2001: A Space Odyssey. The futuristic epic, placed in the first year of the new millennium, premiered in the US in April 1968 — and went on to become one of the finest science fiction movies made.

Official MGM trailer for 2001: A Space Odyssey

As the Academy noted on its website: “With its epoch-spanning storyline and its nearly dialogue-free script, 2001: A Space Odyssey combined the production value of Hollywood film-making with the artistic sensibility of European cinema. Its cerebral approach to the genre helped usher in a new, more literate age of science fiction cinema, and its extraordinary imagery – the widescreen 70mm cinematography of Geoffrey Unsworth, the visually dazzling and scrupulously researched production design, and especially the Oscar®-winning special effects – instantly became the benchmark by which all space films would be judged.”

The film’s best known connection to Sri Lanka is that its co-creator Arthur C Clarke had by then settled down there. During the 1964-68 period that he was associated with the production, Clarke would make periodic returns to his Colombo home — first from New York, where he brainstormed with Kubrick for weeks, and then from England, where the movie went into production. Filming of 2001 began in December 1965 in Shepperton Studios, Shepperton, England. Soon, filming was moved to MGM-British Studios in Borehamwood.

The anniversary coverage has triggered my memories of another, much less known Sri Lankan connection with the film. The accomplished Sri Lankan engineer, painter and sculptor H R (Hapugoda Rankothge) Premaratne worked on the movie’s special effects, all of which was hand-made. (Not a single computer was involved in creating the movie, which still awes movie-goers many of who take computer generated imagery, or CGI, completely for granted today.)

H R Premaratne

I got to know Premaratne (in photo above, affectionately known as Prema) in the late 1980s when he was special assistant to Arthur Clarke, in whose Colombo office I started working as a research assistant in 1987. I have just unearthed, from the depths of my own archives, an illustrated profile I wrote on Prema which appeared in The Island newspaper (Sri Lanka) on 26 January 1991. In a 2,000-word biographical sketch of the man that veteran journalist and biographer D B Dhanapala once called ‘a modern day Viswakarma’, I chronicle how Prema came to be associated with the movie’s production.

Prema had just retired in 1965 as Director of the Department of Public Works – in other words, the Ceylon government’s chief builder. By happy coincidence, 2001 was just entering its production stages around this time, so Clarke put Prema in touch with the Borehamwood Studios where elaborate sets for space scenes were being constructed. There, Prema worked with British and American set designers and special effects specialists.

For his efforts, he was listed as a member of the full production crew – even though he would go uncredited in the movie itself (as did dozens of others). When the Internet Movie Database was created decades later, he would also earn himself an entry there as Hapugoda Premaratne.

Space station in the movie 2001, envisaged in the mid 1960s

Space station in the movie 2001, envisaged in the mid 1960s

Harry Lange, chief designer of Hawke Films Limited who was in charge of production designs, later wrote to Prema: “Not one model could have been brought to the exceptionally high standard required in this production without the skills and imagination of people like yourself.”

Harry Lange recalls the making of 2001

“Prema was a very skilled architect, his best known work being the magnificent Independence Hall,” Clarke recalled years later in his tribute to Prema upon the latter’s death in the early 1990s. “During his stay in England in the mid 1960s, I put him in touch with Stanley Kubrick, who was then making 2001: A Space Odyssey. Prema’s expertise in art and engineering was very valuable in the production of the movie’s special effects, and he assisted in the building of the spectacular space station.”

Excerpt from 2001: Arrival at the space station in Earth orbit

Prema capped his long and illustrious public service as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Burma, concurrently accredited to Thailand, Laos and Singapore (1974-78). From 1983, he worked as Clarke’s special assistant, while pursuing his own painting, sculpture and design work from his home at Wijerama Mawatha, Colombo — a short walk from Clarke’s own residence at Barnes Place.

I remember visiting Prema at home on several occasions. After his wife passed away and son moved overseas, he lived alone in a large, old house that was teeming with works of art – it was like a private art gallery or museum. All over the garden, there were scaled replicas of famous rock sculptures from places like Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. He pioneered a method of creating fibre glass replicas of archaeologically valuable statues and artefacts. These were used to showcase the best of Sri Lanka in major exhibitions in London, Washington DC and other capitals of the world in the 1980s.

In the late 1980s, Prema also painted a life-size portrait Arthur C Clarke as Chancellor of the University of Moratuwa, which is still on display at the Arthur Clarke Centre there (photo, below).

It’s a bit cliched to say this, but they don’t seem to make renaissance men like H R Premaratne anymore. He straddled the arts and sciences with equal dexterity and with impressive results in both spheres. He not only built bridges in newly independent Ceylon, but was himself a bridge between the Two Cultures of the sciences and humanities.

Just like his friend Arthur C Clarke was…

Sir Arthur Clarke with his Chancellor portrait by H R Premaratne, circa 1990

More information on making 2001: A Space Odyssey is found in the documentary, 2001: The Making of a Myth.

The making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Richard Boyle (The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka, November 1998)

3 Responses to “H R Premaratne: The Lankan artist who built a space station for 2001”

  1. Sandra Says:

    You gotta be kidding that the movie that introduced HAL 9000 the supercomputer was entirely hand-made without the aid of a single computer! Are you sure about this? I can’t believe it….

  2. Space Viz Says:

    Nalaka, this is a very well written, artistic and inspiring blog with some fascinating information both about the production of “2001” (the film) and “Prema” (the artist and scientist).

    Has Prema’s former-residence become an hommage to him? Is it now an official museum filled with Prema’s creations and visions?

  3. Nalaka Gunawardene Says:

    Dear Space Viz: Thanks for your kind words. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka is not a country that recognises and celebrates its artists. Prema had an illustrious career straddling the arts and the sciences, but today very few people remember him. In fact, most people – including engineers, painters, sculptors – have no idea who this man was. And his Colombo house has been demolished, and I have no idea what happened to all his work. The only ones that I can track down are a few portraits kept in the National Art Gallery in Colombo.

    Prema’s only son migrated to Britain two or three decades ago, and I’m not sure if there is anyone who could have kept the legacy going. As it happens so often in such instances, things have been neglected by default.

    Some of the very same engineers and artists were talking about building physical monuments to honour Sir Arthur when he passed away in March. In fact, Sir Arthur didn’t want any. Once, when asked the question by a journalist, he said: walk into any good library and you will find my monument on its shelves…

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