Vast, lucid, chilling: how the Bond production designer Ken Adam transformed film sets

The production designer Ken Adam, famous for his work on Dr Strangelove and seven James Bond films, has died at the age of 95.

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When the legendary cinematographer Douglas Slocombe died a few weeks ago, the critic and broadcaster Matthew Sweet tweeted images from two of the films Slocombe shot – the British portmanteau horror Dead of Night, from 1945, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, from 1981 – with both stills showing a wide-eyed face lit spookily from below.

 

 

It was, Sweet observed, “something to undermine auteur theory”. Any such riposte would arguably be even mightier in the case of the peerless production designer Ken Adam, who died yesterday, a mere pup at 95 compared with Slocombe’s 103 years.

Adam’s magnificent designs, vast and lucid and expressive but often with an undercurrent of chilling horror, transformed those films in which they were featured; a movie designed by Adam would be a visual knockout if nothing else.

He was best known for his work on the James Bond series: the island lair in Dr No, Fort Knox in Goldfinger, the inside of the volcano in You Only Live Twice, the spider-like hideout and the supertanker in The Spy Who Loved Me. Working on the Bond series, he had carte blanche to take leaps into the aesthetic unknown.


Purpose-built set of extinct volcano headquarters, designed for You Only Live Twice. Photo: Getty

He decided, he said, to “forget the old way of making sets – wood and paper and so on – and try to do it all for real. I had the chance to let myself go because there was nobody looking over my shoulder.”

It was for his work on Stanley Kubrick’s sly and sumptuous 1975 period drama Barry Lyndon that Adam won his first Oscar, though this was not an assignment that he found particularly fulfilling.

“Stanley wanted it in a way to be a documentary on the 18th century,” Adam said, calling his work “much more reproductive than imaginative . . . We did enormous amounts of research. That’s why it was never that exciting to me as a designer, even though I won the Academy Award for it.”

Most audiences would agree that his greatest achievement was Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, notably the War Room with its eerie ring of light suspended over the circular table, the two shapes mirroring and mocking one another.

“With Kubrick nothing is impossible,” he said. “For example, he insisted I build a ceiling for the War Room in concrete to force the director of photography to use natural light instead of artificial lighting which we use in studios. Before installing my circular lighting, he made tests with the actors to study the height from every possible angle, for all the characters were going to be lit from above. When I thought up that huge curcular table, Stanley said to me, ‘It’s interesting because it looks like a gigantic poker table. And the president and the generals are playing with the world like a game of cards.’ So we developed the idea.”

Less well-known but just as ambitious and lovingly detailed were his designs for the underrated Hollywood adaptation of Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven, on which he was visual consultant, and the Gothic comedy sequel Addams Family Values. He won his second Oscar for The Madness of King George. His influence spread throughout architecture, design and, naturally, movies.

“One of our key points of inspiration was Ken Adam,” said Lou Romano, production designer on the Pixar adventure The Incredibles. “His work has a bold, clean look and feel to it. He works with big, broad forms and always finds interesting ways of using materials like concrete, metal, wood and stone.”

Have a look at some of his designs and drawings in this fond visual tribute from Sight & Sound. Then go back to the movies – on the biggest screen you can find.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.