Ken Adam: The Art Of Production Design by Christopher Frayling (book review).

April 17, 2020 | By | Reply More

After reading ‘Nobody Does It Better: The Complete Uncensored Unauthorised Oral History of James Bond’ by Mark A. Altman & Edward Gross back in February, Ken Adam’s name instilled in my head and a check to see if someone had though to do a book on the film production designer.

The book cover on-line belies the size of this 2005 softcover, although oddly there isn’t as many illustrations as I would have liked to see. Towards the end of the book, Ken Adam reveals that many of the studios kept his illustrations, didn’t archive them sufficiently and often had them destroyed.

What this book does have is author Christopher Frayling conducting several interviews with Ken Adam about his early life and career. Born to a Jewish family in Germany, they saw trouble in 1933 and he and his siblings were moved to London while their parents finished commitments before joining them. Adam’s description of how his mother ran a boarding house and had various people dining there instilled the artistic teen and told to get some training in architecture by Alexander Korda no less, even if he didn’t complete a degree which served him in good stead.

Interestingly, it isn’t until Adam goes over his World War Two career in the RAF as a fighter pilot that his original name came up as Klaus Hugo Adam. Rather than direct translating his name should he crash in Germany, he chose to call himself Ken Adam.

It’s when we come to chapter three that we see the start of Ken Adam’s film career and the paradox that you can’t work in the film industry unless you have a union card and you have to have 6 weeks work to get it. As we always want to note firsts, Adam worked on ‘This Was A Woman’ in 1947, his first major film, Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N.’ (1950) and ‘The Crimson Pirate’ (1952) when he is credited.

When you work in design, you aren’t sitting at a table just drawing but out with the special effects and in these early films out with the scaled boats. Keep your notepad ready as you will certainly get the ache to look at some of these films if you’ve missed any of them and did he work on a lot of them. From a genre point of view, he did design on ‘Night Of The Demon’ (1957), which is a classic film.

Something Ken Adam says as a production designer is as much as he likes to fulfil his directors’ desire for a realistic background, he also wants to be creative to allow some stylising. Later in the chapter, he also points out that it is part of his job to sell his ideas to people as much as draw. The freedom to being creative brings the reality to life. A useful application in all acts of creativity. He also won his first design award for ‘The Trails Of Oscar Wilde’ (1960).

The chapter devoted to Stanley Kubrick focusing on ‘Dr. Strangelove’ and ‘Barry Lyndon’ and then a comparison with the latter to his work on ‘The Madness Of King George’ is interesting, especially as the latter two also earned him Oscars. The insight into Kubrick who couldn’t do design is very illuminating and also shows how much any director relies on their production designer to getting things organised. If you’ve watched ‘Dr. Strangelove’, then you’ll have fun seeing how the effects were put together and the famous War Room.

Obviously, a large chunk of this book is devoted to Ken Adam designing the enhanced reality of the many James Bond films he worked on. It’s important to note that he weaponised the Aston Martin DB5, the autogyro Little Nellie and the submersible Lotus Elan. Where the DB5 was concerned, Aston Martin were reluctant to provide the two cars needed but with a 47% sales boost after ‘Goldfinger’, they became willing participants. Oh yes and a certain Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is also in his credits. He also designed the Pinewood 007 soundstage.

I hadn’t realised that Ken Adam had been involved in one of the early attempts at the first ‘Star Trek’ film before the Nick Meyer version.

Towards the end of his career, Ken Adam even worked for Electronic Arts rebuilding his designs for their ‘Goldeneye’ James Bond game and learning a whole aspect with four walls. He also points out that modern film designers have to work a lot more with CGI than practical building and locations and roles such as his have drastically changed.

Do I need to go on to convince you to have a look at this book, providing you can get a copy? Ken Adam died at the age of 95 in 2016. This book is a marvellous tribute to his career and gives a lot of insight into the directors he worked with, let alone the films. Overall, he worked on 75 films and although not all are covered, certainly the most significant ones are. There’s certainly more room to explore more but this is a good way to start.

GF Willmetts

April 2020

(pub: Faber & Faber, 2005. 316 page illustrated indexed softcover. Price: I pulled a copy for £ 6.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-57122-057-1)

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Category: Movie books

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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