Artist Simon Atkinson’s captivating images
// 09 February 2016 //
'STAR struck' is probably a fair enough description of artist Simon Atkinson as a child. Already a huge fan of the Gerry Anderson space-themed TV animations such as Thunderbirds, he went to see the spectacular and ground-breaking 2001: A Space Odyssey at the age of eight and was hooked. He had seen the future – and his place in it.
While such interests might inspire some young sci-fans towards an aspirational and unattainable career as an astronaut, young Master Atkinson knew what he wanted to do and it didn't involve leaving Planet Earth: he wanted to be a model maker. And so it turned out. An accomplished artist, he now runs the HND model making programme at City of Glasgow College with colleague David Allen.
But a it's little bit of retro time travel to an earlier project which is occupying Simon's mind these days. He has restored a series of illustrations he completed two decades ago featuring spacecraft from what is arguably cinema's most iconic sci-fi film and is making them available to the public to buy.
Back in the early 1990s, photographer Piers Bizony contacted Simon out of the blue with a dream proposal.
Simon recalls: "I had been trying to flog a couple of paintings I had done of 2001 in a shop in London and Piers spotted them. He got in touch with me saying he had always wanted to do the definitive book on 2001: A Space Odyssey."
He didn't need to be asked twice. "It turned out it was a pivotal movie for both of us," Simon adds. "It was one of these things we didn't expect to make any money out of, but we still wanted to do it and see how far we could go with it.
"We didn't have very much information and we didn't know who was still alive from the original production.
"So I did some initial art work, a couple of elevations from one of the spacecraft featured in the film, and Piers reprinted it as a sort of calling card and used it to contact the surviving crew. It worked a treat."
As a result, Harry Lange, a NASA astronautical designer who was art director for 2001, met up with Simon and Piers. "He had tons of drawings from the film hidden at his house and he gave us the names of a lot of people who were still alive at that time, including Stanley Kubrick, the director. Kubrick was not interested in helping with the book, but we later heard that he had bought 50 copies of it, so we took that as some sort of endorsement."
The book, 2001: Filming the Future, with Piers Bizony's words and Simon's illustrations, was a great success and was popular with film and science fiction fans across the globe. It did wonders for Piers, who has gone on to write several dozen space related books and has even delivered lectures at NASA.
But beside the benefits that being involved in such a successful venture bring, Simon says the thrill of working on the project was in itself rewarding enough. "We both loved it because it was like modern archaeology, looking into the background of this incredible film. We met science advisors and technicians – pivotal people who had worked on the film. We met [US space scientist] Frederick Ordway, who was hired by Kubrick as a scientific advisor because he actually worked for NASA. He had links directly with the Aerospace propulsion laboratories in Pasadena and all three different NASA sites. He got all the aerospace technicians of the time involved in the film and that
is what makes this a unique film – because it is not just another sci-fi fantasy film, it actually had input from the space industry and that is why the spacecraft designs are still tops. You can't fault them in terms of how the technology is portrayed. When you watch it you know that what you are watching was how everybody in the space industry thought things would be in 2001."
The attention to the most minute detail makes Simon's artwork so impressive, but there were no technical drawings available for the spacecraft which appeared in the film, so how did he perfect his artwork? Simon says: "We wanted to do really accurate views that hadn't been seen before. I had a video copy of the film and I used to run it and run it and run it. I basically watched the film and worked out the pivot positions and so on. I made a cardboard cut-out with pins to see how it extended out and eventually got to the point of working it all out."
The book wasn't Simon's first encounter with science fiction productions. He began his career as an apprentice model maker with a London company called Space Models straight from school in 1976. He recalls: "I was a big fan of Space 1999 and this company had made the major models for that. I was a big fan of it and here were all these huge models lying around, it was dead exciting.
"I was taken on as a sort of apprentice and of course I didn't realize that what the apprentice did was sweep the floor and make the coffee, so I was getting very frustrated. I used to constantly hassle the four partners for the chance to work on models to the point where they would shout at me and tell me to get back to sweeping the floor.
"Of course what I didn't realize was that all that time I was spending around the model makers I was picking up loads of stuff, which is the point of being an apprentice.
"After about a year I had progressed on to working on some of the commercial production models the company made for travel agents' shop displays, then at one point the workshop foreman came and got me and said I was wanted in the office. So I got led through to the workshop, past about 14 model makers and they were all going: 'Ooh..!' and I think I'm about to get the boot because I hassled them too much. So I walked in and there was a roll of drawings on the table. One of the directors said: 'Right. You've been hassling us all this time. There's a model. Muck this up and you're out!' It was a Blake's 7 model, the London, the prison ship which appears in the first episode. So I made the model and it went great, which was fantastic."
Simon's career has taken many twists and turns – as well as taking him halfway around the world, spending several years in Australia before moving back to the UK in 2003.
Speaking of his lecturing work, Simon says: "I love it. I love working with students and of course I don't have to make models for crazy deadlines now. You might not think it but it is quite a stressful profession because you're usually working with clients who want things done in two seconds flat."
Simon says his favourite work has been film-related. "I enjoyed working on Blake's 7. I also worked on the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me and later on when I set up on my own as a freelancer with a guy called David Wightman, we worked on Terry Gilliam's Brazil. We made great big architectural works for that. We worked on one piece for about two months and it was on the screen for about four seconds. Even so, the buzz of seeing your work up on the big screen is very exciting. It has been a cracking career."
You can see more examples of Simon's work on his website at www.satkinsoncreativearts.com