A new, screen-accurate, HAL 9000


Sr Member
I’m sorry, Dave.

Some of you may have seen the load of research I did on the HAL 9000 camera faceplate prop from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey. I wanted to nail down what we know for certain about this truly iconic prop, and what areas remain a mystery.

HAL 9000's faceplates - everything you never wanted to know.

I also lamented that, although there have been countless replicas - commercial and amateur - of this famous design, nobody has really got it right, despite its modernist simplicity.

Recently I was given the opportunity to put my money where my mouth is, and build an actual replica of the prop for the travelling Kubrick Exhibition - soon to make its next stop in Madrid. And, well, that was too exciting an opportunity to pass up! It took a lot of pain and money, and some challenges working with a number of machinists, but now I think I can say that I've built the most screen-accurate replica of HAL yet made.


Four sources of information made this grand claim possible. First, the discovery of the actual lens model used in the movie - a Nikkor 8mm f/8 fisheye - by Amadeus Prokopiak and others was the Rosetta Stone. Second, the 4K Blu-ray release of the movie gave us high-resolution images from the actual film at long last. Third, Adam Johnson's publication of Frederick Ordway's production blueprint verified the key dimensions of the faceplate, at least from the front. And finally Karl Tate's research, that yielded two commercial prop replicas, was invaluable.

So there we go. But is it perfect? Well, no. There are a number of minor drawbacks and limitations to my model for the usual reasons - time and money. But I think it’s still pretty good. And the team in Spain did a lovely job of installing it in their “brain room” in Madrid.

The show opens on 21 December in the Círculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid, Spain.

Exhibition Tour – Stanley Kubrick

STANLEY KUBRICK. The Exhibition - Círculo de Bellas Artes


Photo by Tim Heptner.
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The plan.

Based on my research I formulated a cunning plan.

- I would use a custom-machined aluminium frame and mounting ring. All dimensions to match the Ordway/Johnson blueprint. The outer bars would be undercut to create an overhang on the outer edge, and all bars would be slotted to fit the panel and grille components neatly. This is precise and delicate work.

- A genuine Nikkor fisheye lens. Yes, they’re crazy expensive but you can’t beat the look of the real thing.

- To save money, brushed aluminium Dibond (laminated composite) for the main panel instead of building the whole thing around a solid metal block. The brushed finish should be very subtle, and the surface black and fairly non-reflective.

- Lens to be fastened to the faceplate using its Nikon F lens mount.

- 3D printed speaker grille to implement the subtle "wave" pattern. Nobody has ever managed to produce a grille that looks like the ones they used in the film.

- The correct font for the logo (Monotype Grotesque No. 9).

- For cost and production reasons, a custom-printed vinyl logo sticker rather than the waterslide decal used in the original production.

- Internally lit with an LED for low power consumption and longevity. Warm white with a red filter to replicate the filtered tungsten light used in the film.


Of course, it wasn't an easy project. Despite its apparent minimalism, there’s more to the design than meets the eye. Plus, of course, it had to be utterly perfect and precise in its construction.

- The first machinist I hired lost all the parts in the mail, by shipping it untracked. Time being short, I had to scramble to find two more machinists to redo the parts in time for the museum deadline.

- I went through around 4 shades of black paint and 6 shades of grey paint (3 greys more failed to arrive!) in an attempt to get the panel colours right.

- I had to strip and repaint the final grille several times before the texture was satisfactory.

- I went through several different LED types to get something suitably bright, and 3D-printed some cylindrical custom holders for them.

- I also printed piles of test prints to get a grille with a wave pattern that looks like it did in the movie. I tested many different heights before settling on 0.2mm.

- Owing to design tweaks I went through several custom-cut Dibond panel pieces and dozens of MDF blocks that the frame would be screwed into.

But in the end I think it was worth it! If you’re heading to Madrid next week for the opening of the Kubrick Exhibition at the Círculo de Bellas Artes, check out my baby. :)
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Problems and drawbacks.

Is it perfect? Nope. It can't be, given what we know about the original prop or props, and what we don't know.


- We don't know the precise vertical elevations of the prop. I had to make guesses based on side views of the faceplate, especially the one in the pod bay. I’m still unsure about the ring height, and I feel that my version might be a millimetre or two too high.

- We don't know the precise colours used for the panel and grille. The shades of black and grey look different from shot to shot owing to lighting and camera angles. Therefore any colour choices are a best guess, and to taste. All we do know is that the grille wasn't bare metal, no glossy finish was used, and in most shots the panel was very dark and the grille a bit lighter.

- Another funny thing about the greys and blacks is how they vary depending on light angle. Look at the photo above - the black looks lighter than the grey in that shot! To the naked eye, and from most angles, it's the reverse.

- We know that the black panel had a subtle brushed texture. So I used brushed black Dibond, but the brushing was too obvious, and there was a slightly brown tint to the raised areas. Painting solved both problems by knocking back the height of the brush marks and making the colour perfectly consistent. I also tried lightly sanding the Dibond before painting it, and that improved things slightly but it wasn't really that noticeable.

- After testing a bunch of paints and spray matte finishes, I ended up using Citadel Chaos Black for the main body panel. It lays down smooth and flat, and is just slightly shinier than matte. It’s not quite as black as I’d like, but it’s okay. Tamiya TS-6 matt black was a runner-up, but it doesn’t lay down as smoothly.

- For the grille I used MTN 94 Metropolis graffiti art paint. It’s so dark grey as to be nearly black, but it was a huge pain to use. Very difficult to get a sputter-free and even finish, and achieve the same reflectivity across the surface. On the positive side it leaves a slightly grainy finish that resembles some industrial metal-painting processes. It was tough finding a good grey. The problem with so many grey paints is that they have pronounced casts to them - often greenish or bluish.

- We know the grille was probably thin pressed metal taken from a commercial product, but that's about it. We don't have any really good closeup views. The common opinion is that a horizontal wave-like pattern probably existed on the metal, as evidenced in some screenshots and photos. I found that a subtle wave, with a trough to crest height of incredibly shallow 0.2mm, comes close to matching the screen-used props. Make the waves any higher than that and you get horizontal stripes of light and dark, from shadowing. Those aren’t in the film. Anyway. I did a 3D resin print and it looks pretty good. The only problem is that the hole placement vertically differs just slightly from the film prop - I was out by about 0.5mm on each side, and I didn't have time to reprint to fix it.

- We don't know for sure if the top edges of the outer aluminium frame were chamfered or not. I believe they were, given how the props appear in photos, and so my faceplace has a roughly 5 degree inwards chamfer on the outer frame. This was extra work and expense, and I doubt anyone will notice it!

- How polished was the aluminium? I suspect it was lightly brushed, and definitely not polished to a mirror finish. I used 0000 grade steel wool to give it a lovely smooth finish that looks manufactured, but doesn't have a ton of visible brush lines. I think it's a bit shinier than the original props were, but it looks good, so I'm happy with that.

- We don't know the shade of blue used on the HAL 9000 logo. On film it looks a bit lighter or paler than the prop probably looked in real life. I've gone for a slightly more saturated blue than you see in the film, mainly because that's how you sort of remember it. Adam Johnson has a copy of three unused production decals, which appear quite blue, but of course we don't know if the decal colour has shifted at all over the years. However I wish that the test print I made with a slightly paler blue had worked out, since I think the blue I used is just a tiny bit too saturated. The vinyl stickers also aren't as high-rez as I'd like, and look a bit inkjetty when examined closely. I sprayed them with a semi-matt finish since the movie prop logos weren't obviously reflective. Kind of a shame as they looked better slightly shiny.

- Finally the lens itself: was it modified or not? That's a whole other area of discussion that I'll talk about next.
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Very well researched and executed Neil and congrats for having it at the Kubrick's expo(y)(y):notworthy::notworthy: As you said, many details are still unknown and that makes for a nightmare trying to reproduce accurately this prop:unsure: I'm wondering if the hole that we see in one of the pic (minus the Nikkor lens) would be a good starting point to see how the lens itself was transformed. As for the grill; sometimes I think that they used some corrugated plastic and painted a kind of mat silver over it:unsure:
Beautiful! I am so thankful for your webpage on which you collect all information - this is a great resource. And now it's nice to see how you follow this up with such a build. Congrats!
Modifying the lens.

Ah yes, the lens! So for this project I was able to get a genuine Nikkor (Nikon) 8mm f/8 lens from Japan. Fantastic. It has that amazing depth that real lenses have, and the precision machining of the metal components is just amazing.


But what about the red backlight? Well, notably there's some variation of the red light from scene to scene in the actual movie. In some shots the red is a tiny dot in the centre of the lens:

hal minimum stack.jpeg

...but in other shots the red glow seems to fill much of the lens. In closeups the centre of the light - the actual light source - is clearly yellow, not red.

2001 4K.m2ts -

I’ve pondered this for a while, obviously not having enough to do in my life. And when I got hold of the real lens, I came to the conclusion that for many shots in the film the lens was modified.

Normally when you shine a light through the back of a fisheye such as this you end up with a really tiny red dot projected onto the main lens element (the outer curved glass surface), much as we see in the screenshot above. This dot isn't very easy to see unless you're looking into the lens straight on. The reason is to do with optical design - fisheyes contain a bunch of converging lenses that focus the image down to a small piece of film.

Problem is, we don't want that! We want the red to be very obvious, because that's how most of us remember HAL's baleful crimson eye. I shipped the lens to a London camera repair shop that specializes in older film-era gear, but they couldn't figure out how to open it. £100 shipping fees later, and I had another look. After a few minutes I figured out how to dismantle the lens and remove most of the internal components - the key is that the inner barrel unscrews from the outer. Pretty simple.

In then examined what was blocking the light. Obviously as a maximum f/8 lens it doesn't have a giant aperture when wide open. So eventually I realized that the filter disc, the aperture diaphragm assembly, and all the glass lens elements except for the primary and secondary had to go. They're either threaded or screwed in place, so it's possible to remove the components and store them for future reassembly. If you're careful. I needed a lens wrench/spanner to remove an internal element, but fortunately I had one lying around from the time I wrote a book on camera lenses, which was handy!


I'm glad I made this mod, because the red light looks so much better now. Off-axis viewing of the lens, which is going to be really common in a museum setting, is greatly improved.

Now some people will notice that in my photos you can see sort of concentric rings of brightness at the centre of the lens, and that’s not how it looked in the movie. And they would be correct. What you’re seeing is the base of the lens interior plus my homemade LED holder. I ran out of time and didn’t get a thin diffuser installed at the base, which would have mitigated much of that effect. There’s also a bit of dust on the underside of the primary element that I didn’t have time to clean. Ah well!

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Attaching the lens.

As for the lens mount, we know from behind the scenes photos that they machined a recessed ring inside the HAL faceplate to accommodate the lens. It appears it must have had a bayonet mount fitted so that the lens could be installed from the outside of the plate.

For my purposes - museum exhibition - I wanted the lens to be rock solid and fixed in place. But I didn’t want to irreversibly alter the lens in any way. I went through a bunch of ideas and eventually came up with using the bottom ring from a Nikon F extension tube set. This is a machined and knurled black metal ring that mates to the mount on the lens. (ie: it’s the same mount that a camera body has)


I removed the spring leaves from within this mount, and added a 0.5mm thick piece of sheet aluminium between the lens and the tube mount. The lens then locks into place because of the tube mount’s spring-loaded pin lock. As a result I was able to attach the lens to the faceplate and keep everything firmly fastened together, but if some day someone wants to dismantle the setup it comes apart instantly.

I also needed a means to hold the faceplate into the wall. For that I put four bolts onto the back of the faceplate, and cut a pair of wooden strips wider than the plate. These are held in with wingnuts, making an easily adjustable and foolproof system for keeping the whole assembly from falling out of the wall.


I kept the half-tube sticking out the back of the lens, though I removed the tube within that that contains the rear lens elements. I used the half-tube as a lamp support.

I then 3D printed custom cylinders (the tubes with the ventilation holes) for holding the LEDs used to backlight the lens assembly. I wired up both a bright red LED and a red-filtered warm white LED to give a couple of options. The white LED is closer to the final film look, but the red has a sharper look, for what it's worth.

And there we have it. Packed into a case, along with the brain room sign, and off it goes to Madrid!


Note the extra detail on the sign: I painted up the top and bottom edges red. I noticed that this was something they did on the original prop, and it looks fantastic that way.


Another fun trick I figured out was how to get that great X-shaped reflective highlight from the stainless steel bolts. I simply stuck them into a drill chuck, spun them around, and pressed them against various grades of sandpaper. That yields a great approximation of the concentric circles marked in metal from facing the part in a lathe.

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