Into the Comet: To Go Where No Lankan Movie has Gone Before…

Feature published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper, 30 March 2014

To Go Where No Lankan Movie has Gone Before…

By Nalaka Gunawardene

Photos courtesy Dreams & Magic Entertainment

Space Station being envisaged for 'Into the Comet' Sinhala science fiction feature film by Thilanka Perera

Space Station being envisaged for ‘Into the Comet’ Sinhala science fiction feature film by Thilanka Perera

A young Lankan computer animation specialist and film professional is to direct an ambitious new feature film which is all about space travel.

Thilanka Perera is teaming up his father, veteran TV and film professional Maheel R Perera, to adapt one of Sir Arthur C Clarke’s short stories, “Into the Comet”.

This will be the first science fiction movie in Sinhala, as well as the first film of any genre to be produced in 3D Stereo in Sri Lanka, according to its producers, Dreams & Magic Entertainment (Pvt) Limited.

The production process was launched at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel in Colombo on 24 March 2014 with Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa as chief guest.

The minister also unveiled the official website of the production, at http://www.intothecomet.com

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.

comet

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…

Futuristic city scape generated by computer graphics for movie Into the Comet

Futuristic city scape generated by computer graphics for movie Into the Comet

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.

See also – 2 January 2010: 2010: The Year We Make Contact…?

28 April 2008: H R Premaratne: The artist who built a space station for 2001

Into the Comet Sinhala Feature film goes into production - Ceylon Today 30 March 2014

Into the Comet Sinhala Feature film goes into production – Ceylon Today 30 March 2014

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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)