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Ken Adam on EA

September 04, 2005 ・ Blog

I interviewed Ken Adam last week, the production designer behind Dr. Strangelove and Bond films such as Dr. No and Moonraker. Now in his early 80s, hes an amazing man. His iconographic designs in many ways set the aesthetic for the late 20th century, such as his megalomaniac’s lairs and the war room in Strangelove, a great oppressive concrete bunker that’s dominated by huge tactical screens. Apparently when Ronald Reagan got into office in the 80s, he was surprised to see that the real war room was totally different from Kubrick and Adam’s fiction.

Ken Adam on the set of Strangelove

Born in Berlin, his family fled to London in 1934 when the persecution of the Jews began. He flew Typhoon fighter aircraft for the RAF during the war and was nicknamed Heini the Tankbuster. And he’s got two Oscars. And I got to meet him at his house in Knightsbridge, white Roller parked outside, fat cigar in his hand.

An amazing thing about him is how insightful he is about videogames. One of his most recent projects was designing environments for EA’s recent Bond tie-in game, Goldeneye: Rogue Agent. It has you playing as a bad guy stealing gold for your boss, Auric Goldfinger, and it’s not meant to be very good at all. And while he clearly found the experience eye-opening, I get the feeling he didn’t really enjoy it. Here’s a pretty long (but solid gold) excerpt from the interview:

“It became a challenge. I didn’t realise it at the time: they said, ‘Ken, you can design and you can build anything you want because we create it in the computers!’ But then I found – I’ll give you an example of Fort Knox. It was a detailed and important set in Goldfinger, but now everybody wants to go into backrooms and side rooms and the corridors and boardrooms and so on. ‘OK, I’ll do that,’ I said. The idea of Fort Knox was completely impractically filled with gold, 40 foot high. It’s the biggest gold depository and the audience wants to see all these piles. So they showed me part of the rushes or whatever it is of the videogame, and I asked, ‘Where’s the gold?’ And they said, ‘Oh, we had to put it in crates’. Why crates? Why did they have to put it all in crates? They said that they have problems with the reflections of the gold, you see, so all my reflective surfaces, like gunmetal or stainless steel, they couldn’t do. That was a disappointment in a way.

“The other thing is that I’m a bit of a minimalist designer, you know: I get my shapes, put one or two things in them and that in itself creates the atmosphere. But then I suddenly found that that the gameplay section in one studio decided that it was not good enough. They changed my design or put screens in so that they had things to hide people behind and so on. And I found out very quickly and had to allow for that, you know.

“I think it is a very new, important art form and none of the young men I was associated with had reached the age of 40. There’s so much money involved and so much pressure. Certainly in my time there they didn’t belong to any union and they were working at night! And in fact, none of the senior creative people that I was working with is still at Electronic Arts. It’s too much pressure. They made that videogame in three studios and it ended up in Montreal in Canada. I suppose 300 people were working in the art department and control is almost – impossible. They were trying to imitate my style, which was very complementary, and they used some of these inclined surfaces, but they inclined them the wrong way! Things like that! I designed it all here and I had a young assistant who would email or fax over my designs to Hollywood. But when I went there for three weeks it was a revelation, you know. The production costs were tens of millions of dollars, but they knew they were going to gross $200 million – that’s more than we made in films!”

EA later asked Adam to design for the forthcoming From Russia with Love game, but he turned the job down, in part because he hadn’t designed the original film. I said that they’re not meant to be very good games. “No, they’re not good games,” he replied.

NB You can see him in conversation with RCA head Christopher Frayling at the NFT on 14 September.