Sir Ken Adam had a magical, inspiring career and a long run when he died last week at age 95. He remains best known for his work on the James Bond films of the 1960s and 1970s, Dr. Strangelove, and Addams Family Values.
Eschewing the idea of small sets, and simple materials, Adam thought big, and created big; the sprawling, futuristic lairs of the supervillains who populated the Bond films starting with Dr. No’s secret island complex in the first 007 film in 1962. He worked on all the Bond films that starred Sean Connery through Diamonds Are Forever, and then with Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me (for which he received an Oscar nomination) and Moonraker.
let’s forget the old way of making sets with wood paper and that sort of thing, and try making them for real.
For Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, he designed the famous war room. Kubrick offered him 2001: A Space Odyssey but Adam turned it down.
The scale of Adam’s sets didn’t overshadow his eye for meticulous detail, or his ability to advance the story telling in each of his films. He recalled several incidents where critics thought he was actually inside the restricted confines of Fort Knox during the making of Goldfinger or inside of an actual volcano for You Only Live Twice. He told the Los Angeles Times:
One critic asked, ‘How did you ever get inside the volcano?’ I didn’t get inside the volcano! I think that is the function of a film designer, to create something which the audience has never seen.
His physical storytelling led to specific script developments. According to his biographer, Christopher Frayling; About halfway through the Bond films, they were actually constructing the scripts around his sets. A former pilot, Adam had the idea for the ejector seat in Bond’s Aston Martin DB5.
Clearly slightly evil (which we like), he also had a sense of humor and designed the film world, and the car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. His last credit was a videogame: the 2004 Bond title GoldenEye: Rogue Agent.
An innovator and an inspiration, we owe Sir Ken a debt. He will continue to inspire us.