In the short story, which was originally published in the American Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1960, the entire story takes place inside a spaceship carrying a group of scientists to study a comet at close range.
“It is a challenge to turn this story into a full length movie, which we currently expect to run into around an hour and 40 minutes,” Thilanka said at the launch. “Our efforts will boost the capacity for movie special effects and Computer-generated imagery (CGI) in Sri Lanka.”
Thilanka, who first made a name for himself in computer animations when he was 12, has since gained industry experience in photography, videography and other digital technologies. This will be his maiden cinematic venture.
For co-producer Maheel Perera, ‘Into the Comet’ film has been in the making for over 15 years. Research and development work started in the late 1990s, but the film did not go into production as the necessary technology and resources were not available.
“We always wanted to do a world class production, and received Sir Arthur Clarke’s blessings at the time,” Maheel recalled. “We presented him an enlarged photo of the original spaceship envisaged for the movie, which he hung in his office room wall.”
This time around, Kelaniya University physics lecturer Charith Jayatilake has joined the effort as co-producer, providing the investment.
“Our cinema industry is hesitant to leap forward, to take chances with new technologies. It has not been easy for us to find a financier willing to support our innovation,” Thilanka said.
Maheel Perera serves as script writer and Stereo 3D adviser for the movie, while cinematography will be handled by Kavinda Ranaweera.
Thilanka hopes to identify his cast in the coming weeks primarily from among stage actors.
The movie’s success will depend critically on a strong cast and characterization. Some elements are to be added to the original storyline so as to provide an enhanced sense of drama and human touch, he said.
When Arthur C Clarke wrote the short story, which he originally titled “Inside the Comet”, the Space Age itself was in its infancy (having started in 1957). At that time, no human had yet traveled to space (Yuri Gagarin went up in April 1961).
Also, little was known about the make up and inside working of comets, periodical icy objects that come hurtling towards the sun every now and then. But Clarke extrapolated from what astronomer Fred Whipple had theorised in 1950.
Whipple speculated — correctly, as it turned out — that comets were really ‘dirty snowballs’ with their nucleus, a few kilometers in diameter, made of ices of water, ammonia, carbon dioxide and methane. There are also dust particles, which together make comets spectacular phenomena when they approach the sun.
The story involves a hastily assembled spaceship to get closer look at a spectacular comet that appears once every two million years. Astronomers on board accomplish their mission, but as the ship readies to return to Earth, its onboard computer suddenly malfunctions.
The disabled spaceship can no longer automatically plot the right path. The crew and craft risk being whisked off into deep space with the comet.
Then George Pickett, the sole journalist on board who is part Japanese, has a brainwave. He remembers how his granduncle used the Abacus – an ancient calculating tool still in use in parts of Asia and Africa – when working as a bank teller. He persuades the ship’s crew to use improvised abacuses to manually carry out thousands of calculations needed for maneuvering the spaceship…
Clarke envisaged more than half a century ago how a multinational space crew embarks on a scientific expedition – comparable, in some ways, to polar expeditions on Earth.
“Into the Comet” the movie will go into production later this year, and is due to be completed in 2015.
Several Arthur C Clarke stories have formed the basis of cinematic or TV adaptations in the past. The best known is 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), whose core story came from a 1948 Clarke short story titled ‘The Sentinel’. It was expanded by director Stanley Kubrick who co-wrote the screenplay with Clarke.
In 1984, Peter Hyams directed 2010: The Year We Make Contact based on 2010: Odyssey Two that Clarke wrote in 1982 as a sequel to the original. And in the mid 1990s, Steven Spielberg optioned the movie rights to Clarke’s 1990 novel The Hammer of God. But the resulting movie, Deep Impact (1998) was so different from the book that Clarke did not get any on-screen credit.
Renowned Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. He was also a fiction writer, publisher, illustrator, calligrapher, graphic designer and film critic.
In 1967, Ray wrote a script for a film to be called The Alien, based on his own short story “Bankubabur Bandhu” (“Banku Babu’s Friend”) which had appeared in Sandesh, the Ray family magazine, in 1962. The story was about an alien spaceship that landed in a pond in rural Bengal, carrying a highly intelligent and friendly alien being with magical powers and best capable of interacting with children.
Ray was keen to collaborate with Hollywood for making this movie that required special effects and a higher budget than his other movies. His friend Arthur C Clarke recommended and introduced him to Hollywood, but the film never reached production. Years later, when Steven Spielberg made ET, Ray and his friends noticed remarkable similarities between the two stories. Coincidence?
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I relate the story behind the story of what happened to The Alien. This is reconstructed from Ray’s own published account, Ordeals of The Alien. I’m grateful to writer and film historian Richard Boyle for sharing excerpts from his as-yet unpublished manuscript on this topic, one of the greatest might-have-beens in the history of the cinema.
S M Banduseela is widely recognised as Sri Lanka’s foremost translator of science and science fiction. Beginning in 1970, when he translated into Sinhala language The Naked Ape by zoologist and ethologist Desmond Morris, Banduseela has introduced Sinhala readers to over two dozen world acclaimed titles.
He is best known as Arthur C Clarke’s Lankan translator. In the mid 1970s, he translated Clarke’s landmark 1962 volume Profiles of the Future, which was well received. Encouraged, Banduseela took to translating Clarke’s key science fiction novels beginning with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Over the years, he rendered into Sinhala all four Odyssey novels, as well as other works like The Fountains of Paradise, Rendezvous with Rama and The Hammer of God.
In this wide ranging interview, published in the Sinhala Sunday newspaper Ravaya (24 Nov 2013), I discuss with Banduseela various aspects of science fiction in the Lankan context: the niche readership for this literary genre; its enduring appeal among Sinhala readers; and prospects of original science fiction in Sinhala. He also recalls the challenges he faced translating Clarke’s technically complex and philosophically perceptive novels. I ask him why Sinhala readers have yet to discover the rich worlds of science fiction written in countries like Russia, Japan, China and India.
Feature article published in Ceylon Today broadsheet newspaper on 3 February 2013
Although Ceylon gained Independence on 4 February 1948, the formal ceremony took place on February 10 with the Duke of Gloucester representing King George VI of Britain. The impressive ceremony was held at a colourful Assembly Hall at Torrington Square in Colombo.
When it was confirmed that Ceylon was soon to be granted independence, the country’s rulers wanted to build a new meeting hall in Colombo for the occasion. But there was just no time.
Then somebody had a bright idea: convert an aircraft hanger – a relic of World War II — into a temporary but grand hall. The task required both engineering skills and familiarity with the country’s traditional arts.
This extraordinary responsibility was entrusted to a talented engineer in the government’s Public Works Department. His name was Hapugoda Rankothge (H R) Premaratne.
The department, better known as the PWD, was one of the largest and oldest government departments in Ceylon with its history going back to 1796. Before the proliferation of state bodies, it maintained public infrastructure, key government buildings and airports.
Even among the PWD’s experienced fixers, however, Premaratne was a rare breed – one who blended technical functionality with good design sense and fine aesthetics rooted in the country’s cultural heritage.
Veteran journalist D B Dhanapala, in his book Among Those Present, recorded it thus: “H R Premaratne had converted an enormous, ugly aeroplane hanger left behind by the RAF at Torrington Square into a veritable Palace of Pageantry. Kandyan ‘Reli Paalams’ by the hundred, each the size of a bridge turned into a solid rainbow, spanned overhead turning the ceiling into the finest riot of colours this Island had ever seen on a single occasion. Sinhalese designs, writ large, blazoned from all the pillars, themselves richly decked…”
Dhanapala was full of praise for the man behind this transformation: “It seemed the palace was some kind of new Oriental Valhalla transported into Ceylon by a new electroplated Vishva Karma working with all his hands…”
The hanger was solidly built, but decorating this high-roofed structure was indeed a mammoth task. Some 20,000 yards of white cloth, and nearly 20,000 yards of colour paper were used for the ‘reli paalam’ alone. Another 9,000 yards of jute Hessian covered up the ceiling.
Adding to the décor were ancient Sinhalese (lion) banners, Nandi flags from Jaffna, as well as cultural motifs that represented the muslims. At that time, such an inclusive approach was a matter of routine.
Having pulled off this small miracle, Premaratne didn’t stop there. In those days before colour photography, he was determined to capture the moment for posterity. So he drew a full scale oil painting of the occasion.
Decades later, this historic painting was purchased by President J R Jayewardene who added it to the art collection at the President’s House in Colombo where it is still on display (main photo).
The stately assembly hall was the most talked about structure prepared under Premaratne’s overall supervision during those hectic months. He helped renovate several key buildings as well.
Chief among them was the Colonial Secretary’s residence ‘Temple Trees’, originally built in the early 19th century, which soon became the official residence of the first Prime Minister D S Senanayake.
Premaratne restored a condemned postal structure into the Senate Building, and renovated the inner chamber of the State Council building at Galle Face to accommodate a larger number of members elected to the 1947 Parliament.
“We added a floor, and altered seating arrangements in the chamber,” he reminisced in an interview with me in 1990.
Those key renovation and restoration projects had to be done on parallel tracks, while chasing seemingly impossible deadlines.
“We worked day and night. We had a very good chief architect, a Welshman named Wynn Jones. It was shortly after the War, so some construction materials were in short supply. But in the end, we completed everything in time and in quality,” he said.
Shaping New Nation
Premaratne was a member of the British qualified and nationally minded team of technocrats who took over Ceylon’s affairs when the British left. Along with the elected representatives, they shaped the young nation — yet remained, for the most part, in the background.
After graduating with a BSc in civil engineering from the University of Edinburgh in 1931, Premaratne joined the PWD in 1935 as a Junior Assistant Engineer. In all, he spent 30 years there, capping his career as its director from 1957 to 1965.
During that time, he rose to many and varied challenges, combining the roles of engineer, designer, administrator and trouble-shooter at large.
The massive Dry Zone floods of August 1957 took place within weeks of his becoming Director of Public Works. PWD was the first to go to Batticaloa, as soon as the flood waters allowed, and within hours made the main roads accessible again.
When ethnic riots erupted in May 1958, Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke assumed direct control appointed Premaratne as Competent Authority in charge of all relief operations. Working with civilian and military personnel, Premaratne set up temporary shelters for the displaced, ensuring their safety and providing amenities.
If that was demanding, more was to follow. One day Premaratne received urgent summons from the Governor General. In the presence of the minister in charge Maithripala Senanayake, Sir Oliver revealed how the Nagadeepa temple (a key Buddhist shrine on a small island off the Jaffna peninsula) had been damaged during riots.
Premaratne was asked to urgently repair it – but in utmost secrecy. The astute Sir Oliver knew that this news, if it spread, could provoke a new southern backlash.
“Sir Oliver arranged everything directly and discretely. Even my ministry’s secretary wasn’t told. Within hours, the Air Force flew me to Jaffna — I couldn’t tell even my wife where I was headed. Once there, the Navy escorted me. I met the Nagadeepa chief priest, and realised the damage was considerable,” Premaratne recalled.
Returning to Colombo after two days of assessment, Premaratne moved swiftly. He assembled a team comprising a contractor, building overseer and some trusted workmen and embarked on a fast-tracked restoration.
While they carried out that task in record six weeks, Sir Oliver used the media to repeatedly pooh-pooh ‘rumours’ of Nagadeepa being damaged. (D B Dhanapala’s biographer Gunadasa Liyanage believes that Sir Oliver actually took key newspaper editors into confidence. Either way, it never leaked.)
Mission accomplished, Sir Oliver organised a special pooja and invited devotees to ‘go see the intact Nagadeepa temple’. Everyone involved in the operation remained silent – not under any oath of secrecy, but because they realised the implications of loose talk…
The real story of Nagadeepa restoration didn’t come out until many years later. Such a covert operation is inconceivable today with modern communications technologies!
After retiring from the public service in 1965, Premaratne devoted all his time to artistic pursuits. He copied key temple paintings and Sigiriya frescoes. He also developed a method of making authentic fibreglass replicas of moonstones, Buddha statues and other historical artefacts.
Using this method, he made over 20 replicas of prominent statues of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa for an exhibition on ‘Ceylon Through the Ages’ the National Geographic Society organised in Washington DC in 1969-70.
Recommended by his friend Arthur C Clarke, he spent a few months at MGM studios in Borehamwood, London, during 1966-67 where Clarke and Stanley Kubrick were filming their movie 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 building the spectacular space station,” Clarke said. (See: The artist who built a space station for 2001)
Premaratne was an erudite, soft-spoken man who remained creative into his 80s. I am privileged to have known him in his last few years. Some of his paintings are on permanent display at the National Art Gallery in Colombo and at the British Museum in London.
In my Ravaya column (in Sinhala) for 26 August 2012, I’ve written about the making of Ran Muthu Duwa, the first colour Sinhala feature film made in Sri Lanka, was released 50 years ago in August 1962.
Ran Muthu Duwa was a trail-blazer in the Lankan cinema industry in many respects. It not only introduced colour to our movies, but also showed for the first time the underwater wonders of the seas around the island.
The year 2010 has finally arrived, but as they often say in the imagination business, the future isn’t what it used to be.
Actually, any number of futures can be anticipated — but only one of them becomes real. Which one does depends on an infinite number of actions (and inactions)…
2010 holds a special significance for science fiction and movie buffs because both a well known novel and a movie have been set in that year by the grandmaster of near-future imagination, Arthur C Clarke.
The story is about seven Russians and three Americans who embark on a joint space mission to Jupiter to figure out what happened to the previous Jupiter mission nine years earlier. They start off as acquaintances and end up as friends – the author hoped that would help improve understanding between the US and the USSR.
The book was dedicated to celebrated cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and Andrei Sakharov, physicist, Nobel laureate and humanist, whose outspoken views led to his internal exile in Gorky until 1986.
In fact, the spacecraft in 2010 is named Alexei Leonov. As Sir Arthur recalled a dozen years later: “I had just sent the manuscript of 2010 to my editors when I visited Russia for a most memorable and enjoyable visit. In between toasts at Leonov’s apartment, I revealed that most of the action in my novel was taking place on board the Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. A delighted Leonov quipped: ‘Then it must be a good ship.'”
The novel was adapted as a movie by Peter Hyams and released in 1984. Its promotional title was2010: The Year We Make Contact! (although this never appears in the film itself.) Unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey, the novel and the screenplay were not written simultaneously, and there are significant differences between the two. According to the Wikipedia, the film was only a moderate success, disappointing many critics as well as viewers.
If nothing else, the book and movie of 2010 remind us how difficult it is to write near-future stories — most of them are completely overtaken by reality.
Several elements in 2010 have become anachronistic in the years following their original release. The most striking is the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the once mighty Soviet Union (which ceased to exist in 1991).
As Sir Arthur said in an interview in May 2005: “I’ve been more interested in the medium to long-term prospects for humanity, rather than in near-term developments. Politics and economics are so unpredictable that it’s practically impossible to make geopolitical forecasts with any degree of certainty.”
Interestingly, he had peppered the novel with names of various Soviet dissidents, including physicists Andrei Sakharov and Yuri Orlov, human-rights activists Mykola Rudenko and Anatoly Marchenko, Russian Orthodox activist Gleb Yakunin, among others. That was the author’s not-so-subtle jibe at the Soviet Union, despite the fact that he was both admired and respected in the country that pioneered humanity’s entry into space.
At first, this had somehow gone unnoticed by the Soviet censors. The Russian language youth magazine Tekhnika Molodezhy began serialising 2010: Odyssey Two. Halfway through the story, the serialisation was abruptly stopped. The Central Committee then summoned Cosmonaut Leonov to ask why in the novel the crew of the spaceship Alexei Leonov consisted of Soviet dissidents. (Clearly, that was another regime that couldn’t discern between fictional and real worlds — and tried, in vain, to rule over both.)
That’s when Leonov, Hero of the Soviet Union and one of its most decorated citizens, told off the Central Committee: “You aren’t worth the nail on Arthur C. Clarke’s little finger.” This was revealed years later in Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race, co-authored by Alexei Leonov and American astronaut David Scott (Simon and Schuster, 2004).
As Sir Arthur – a long standing friend of Leonov – remarked in a review of their book, Leonov was “perhaps the only man in the USSR who could have got away with that kind of remark”.
Well, that 2010 is finally here — even though Sakharov and Clarke never lived to see it, Leonov is very much with us. We are not yet heading to Jupiter, but at least the Cold War is now history…
Who can predict what surprises await us as the real 2010 unfolds?
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.)
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.
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.”
“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.