Harry Lange: Oscar-nominated film designer

Oscar-nominated film designer

Thursday 21 August 2008 00:00 BST

Harry Lange moved from working for Nasa to being a production designer on films, including Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the first three entries in the Star Wars franchise.

Teams of modellers spent months building Lange's designs for Kubrick's film and Douglas Trumball, who led them, said the models were "probably the most precisely detailed ever constructed for a film". Lange said, "They had to be designed as if they could travel to the edge of the solar system and beyond." Despite the rigour of the work, Lange was grateful: "I got along with Kubrick very well. He was an absolute stickler for detail and a good taskmaster. That was fine with me, because I was new to filmmaking."

Born in the culturally rich German town of Eisenach, Lange intended to be an archaeologist, and prepared by studying Greek and Latin. But the Second World War intervened – as a teenager Lange was in Hamburg during the Allies' three-day bombing of the city. Post-war Eisenach became part of the Russian Occupied Zone of Germany and, at odds with the régime, Lange crossed the border into the West under cover of night.

In 1949 he began studying art in Hamburg and Munich, and two years later was working in advertising in New York. The Korean War saw him at the Craig Air Force Base, Alabama, preparing training materials for flying schools and illustrating the first complete helicopter manual. This was followed by a stint at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, creating illustrations of spacecraft and planetary missions. The military work led him to become Nasa's head of future projects, designing space vehicles and working with a team led by former Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun.

In 1965, when the Vietnam War led to Nasa's budget being cut, Lange and some colleagues left to form the consultancy General Astronautics Research Corporation. Arthur C. Clarke, who was working with Stanley Kubrick on the project that would become 2001, invited Lange, then illustrating the book Intelligence in the Universe (1966), to meet the director.

Lange almost walked out of the prickly initial meeting but at the last moment was invited to design spacecraft and their interiors for the film. After six months in New York, the production moved to Borehamwood in Hertfordshire for a further two years and Lange would stay permanently in Britain. Lange's designs were so accurate, as a result of his work at Nasa, that they had to be submitted for security clearance. He was rewarded with a Bafta and an Oscar nomination. In 2001 the Museum of Oxford exhibited Lange's drawings and some props from the film.

The success led to a new career in cinema, with an emphasis on sci-fi and fantasy. It was almost inevitable that he would work on the space-based Bond, Moonraker (1979) and the first three Star Wars films (1977, 1980 and 1983), the second of which gained him another Oscar nomination.

The Malthusian ZPG: Zero Population Growth (1972) sank without trace but Lange had more success with Jim Henson: The Great Muppet Caper (1981) was followed a year later by The Dark Crystal for which Lange drew on Celtic designs. He was also aeronautics consultant on Superman 2 (1980) and brought an appropriately Pythonesque weirdness to The Meaning of Life (1983).

Even in futuristic and sci-fi films, Lange took a functional rather than a fantastic approach and always cleaved to realism: "A piece of board with blue squares stuck on it may do for TV, but not when you want to do something on a Cinerama screen. It had to be absolutely perfect. . . it doesn't cost that much more to do something properly and accurately." His work shows an immense range of influences, from the Bauhaus through German Expressionism to his interest in archaeology.

Lange illustrated books including von Braun's The History of Rocketry and Space Travel (1966), and he also worked for US magazines and Paris Match.

Coincidentally, it was in 2001 that Lange found a previously forgotten collection of his drawings for his best-known film; they will take their place in the new Stanley Kubrick Archive at the University of the Arts in London.

John Riley

Hans-Kurt (Harry) Lange, illustrator: born Eisenach, Germany 7 December 1930; married (two sons); died 22 May 2008.

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