Saturday, April 17, 2021

Building the Food Trays from "2001: A Space Odyssey"

In "2001: A Space Odyssey", food is recurring theme. Some have even claimed that the whole movie is about food (like here and here), as every important event is preceded by a scene involving food, from the very first scene of the apes, to the last scene of Dave Bowman dining with silverware. Food is served on the Discovery shuttle, before they find the monolith on the moon, and at the beginning of the "Jupiter Mission" sequence.

As a fan of movie props, I am magically attracted to the two food trays: The white one (used on the Discovery shuttle) and the blue one (used on the Aries-1B). I am not the first person to build replicas of these, in fact I was inspired by some beautiful builds that are presented at (the blue one and the white one).

Before I start, I am studying screen captures from the movie. First, the blue tray. 

The view from the side shows the shape of the white inserts.

The view from the top shows the proportions of the white inserts.

The views from the front show that the original movie prop was slightly bent. But I do not plan to reproduce that...

On the right side, the tray has a Pan Am logo (the old one which differs from the new logo) plus some instructions. 

In contrast to the instructions for the Zero Gravity Toilet, these instructions do not have any meaningful text. They were simply made from the instructions that came with the sheets of Letraset letters. Therefore, I decided not to put any instructions on my tray - just the Pan Am logo.

For the white trays, there are only two views that show details.

Estimating the Dimensions

The blue, Aries-1B tray

In contributions on, there is agreement that the flat top of the inserts is quadratic, with a size on 4" x 4". Looking at the proportions visible from the side view, I estimate that the angled piece (holding the straw) sticks out by another inch. With each insert covering an area of 4" x 5", this requires the tray to have an inner area of 16" x 10". The left and right side pieces seem to be about 3" wide. I choose the inner height to be 1 1/4". If the inserts have a height of 1 3/4", they will stick out 1/2", which is consistent with the front view of the tray.

The white, Discovery tray

The size of the white tray can be estimated by comparing to the size of the Arne Jacobsen flatware. It is widely agreed on that the four inserts each have a width of 4". A nice person on has taken an screen capture and removed the distortions due to perspective. Starting from the width of the inserts, I used this image to obtain the other dimensions.

On the screen captures it's hard to estimated the height of the tray. I decided to make as high as the blue one, which is 1 3/8".

I don't use Styrene

The original movie props were likely produced by vacu-forming. If you can't do that, it seems natural to build them from styrene. However, I have never done that before. But I have had much success working with 3/16" plywood and a laser cutter. Although 3/16" plywood is a little thicker that the original material, this will likely not be (too much) visible in the final result.

The Blue Aries-1B Food Tray

As stated, I am using 3/16" plywood that I cut with a laser cutter. Here are the first steps, starting from the single pieces, towards the tray.

Now it comes to painting. Recently, I had a very good experience with Valspar paints. I picked the "Peek-A-Boo" blue which looks good to me (and it is quoted as #3370AC, and thus close to the PanAm blue with #2767AD ) - and a foam brush.

And after a few layers, I am very happy with the result.

I still need to add the "Pan Am" logo. Then it comes to the inserts, the food boxes. I designed those in the open source desktop publishing software scribus, and printed them on 110lb (199 g/m^2) cardstock.

The graphics will later be printed on 4"x6" glossy photo paper. The image above shows a draft version of the cheese wedge glued to one of the boxes, for test purposes (colors and shapes are still wrong). For the straws, I use clear tubing: 3" pieces with an outer diameter of 1/4", plus 1/2" pieces with an inner diameter of 1/4" (btw: I had a very hard time trying to slide the latter over the former, until I had the idea of using a drop of cooking oil).

This is how everything looks together.

Then I add the (old!) Pan Am logo, printed on paper, using Liquitex Gel Medium.

That's the current status of the blue tray.

The next step is to produce the graphics for the white inserts. I don't think I will be able to make them as perfect as they were done here at, but then, as usual, 95% accuracy is good enough for me.

The White Discovery Food Tray

In the movie, the astronauts are using their "IBM Tele Pads" while eating from the white trays.

Before starting the work on the tray, I created a corresponding wallpaper for my Android tablet (using IBM Selectric Manifold and Eurostile Extended typefaces).

Then, I start with the inserts.

And then comes the tray.

Everything is glued - now comes the sanding, spackling, sanding, spackling, sanding, ...
Typically, I am not good at that - because I can not wait to paint my builds. In every new build, I try to do better - but I always fail, again and again. 

While painting the pieces, I am checking our kitchen cabinets for something that somehow resembles the tumbler from the movie. This is what I found.

A blue/white plastic cup or a red/silver tumbler. The blue/white one is, well, blue and white - but it's still an ugly piece of plastic. The red/silver one has roughly the right shape and although the colors are wrong, they look (to me) like they could have been used in the movie. Until I find a better one, I'll go with the that one.

Then, a few coats of paint later, and the final prop is revealed.

And here are the two trays side-by-side - I still need to work on the artwork for the inserts for the blue tray, and for the inserts for the white one, I may want to find a way to add some fake food.

Preparing the Food

I decided to build the food in the white tray's inserts from craft foam.

This is cut to size, 

and, with a rather sharp spoon, shaped to make it look like food being eaten,

The foam pieces are coverd in a few layers of glue, to harden the surface, and as a basis for painting.

It takes forever for the glue to dry.
Then, the painting starts.

It takes quite a few layers of paint before most of the little holes in the foam are filled, and the surface looks like I want it to look like.

And the finished white tray.

Arne Jacobsen Flatware

Something is still missing: The flatware. This was designed in 1957 by Arne Jacobsen in the "Danish Modern Style" and used by Kubrik for its beautiful, futuristic look. You can still buy these today, for example here at the MoMA store

There are some discussions among experts on the correct size of the spoon (there exist more sizes than featured in this set) - but I am perfectly happy with this.

Graphics for the Blue Tray Packages

One step is still needed to finalize the build: The graphics for food containers in the blue tray.
I have some experience with the open source software "scribus" which I previously used for photo books, a catalog for an art exhibit and for the stickers on my GERTY 3000. Now, I try to use the graphics features and it works better than I expected.

I am always starting from a basic shape (usually an ellipse), add control points, adjust their positions plus the slopes, and later add some linear or radial gradients. It is incredible, to see how a combination of very simple shapes can lead to these beautiful results. The only detail that I was not able to reproduce is the structure on the carrots. So, I simply keep them with a smooth surface.
The images are printed on 4"x6" glossy photo paper,

and glued onto the cardboard boxes.

This is the final blue food tray.

And the two trays together.

And a video of the "Making-of"

Some Afterthoughts

I had already printed the photo with Andy Warhol's VU banana, and I still needed to finish that box (this time, I cut the lower hole before finishing the box - that way, I could use my puncher).
Then, since it was so much fun recreating the food artworks from the movie, I wanted to give it a try to create some original artwork. As I was just enjoying some great Louisiana peaches, I selected those. And I like how they turned out.

Having in mind the banana artwork and a previous paper replica prop of the Soylent Green can label, my daughter bought me a bottle of "Soylent Banana". I'm not sure if I ever want to try that - but I love the composition below in which the "Soylent Banana" acts as the link between the "Soylent Green" and the "2001: A Space Odyssey" props.

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