Trumbull doesn’t wait for the future

Special effects icon continues to set standard for sci-fi films by creating technology

Staff writerMay 9, 2014 

If the men and women who create special effects for the movies were as heralded as actors and directors, Douglas Trumbull would be a household name.

After all, Trumbull has brought the futuristic worlds of “Blade Runner,” “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” to life.

Trumbull will be feted all this weekend at Seattle Cinerama’s Sci-Fi Film Festival. The Oscar-winning special effects master and director will be present for screenings of “2001,” “Close Encounters,” and “Brainstorm,” which he directed.

Massachusetts-based Trumbull also is premiering his new short film, “UFOTOG,” which demonstrates the cutting edge and possible future of cinema technology.

If Trumbull, 72, actually met one of the aliens that have populated his movies, he knows how he might describe his life’s work.

“To tell a story in a way that is highly immersive and experiential,” he said. “So that the imagery is so strong and so beautiful that there is less need for dialog and all the conventions of movies.”

Few movies exemplify that more than “2001.” Through the use of a wide-screen format, top-quality special effects that hold up today, very little dialog and long, uninterrupted sequences, Kubrick created a groundbreaking vision of space travel in 1968.

“(‘2001’) had, and continues to have, a profound effect on what I’ve been trying to do,” Trumbull said.

The story, by Arthur C. Clarke, is a mix of futuristic adventure and a murderous computer. It’s all set against the backdrop of a benign alien presence that has apparently guided humankind from our primitive beginnings.

Trumbull was only 23 when Kubrick tapped him to work on “2001” — then called “Journey Beyond the Stars.” Kubrick and Clarke had both seen an immersive-style film Trumbull had worked on, “To the Moon and Beyond,” at the New York World’s Fair.

“I think that was a pivotal part of their comfort and conclusion that a movie like ‘2001’ was even feasible. That was what led to my job on ‘2001,’” Trumbull said.

Kubrick, Trumbull said, did not want to use traditional movie conventions for “2001.”

“He kept tasking me with these hairy problems. One of which was Jupiter,” Trumbull recalls. In the original story, the ship Discovery was on a mission to Saturn. But the difficulty of creating a realistic looking Saturn caused Kubrick to switch to Jupiter.

But Jupiter turned out to be just as difficult to make, Trumbull said. The young special effects artist created something commonplace today but didn’t exist in the mid 1960s: computer graphics. He also detailed the spacecraft models for the movie, the biggest of which was 50 feet long.

Trumbull still speaks of Kubrick with reverence.

“He wanted to take the audience on an adventure. I think he succeeded. Fabulously.”

Following the success of “2001,” Trumbull had enough clout to make his own movie. “Silent Running,” released in 1972, was the result.

Though “Silent Running,” a futuristic tale with an environmental message, was a conventional 35mm film, Trumbull had high hopes for wide-screen formats following “2001.”

But his optimism was short lived. Cinerama and 70mm fell by the wayside, and all over America big screen movie houses were being chopped in two or razed completely.

“I got acclimated to the potential spectacle of movies and I’ve been frustrated ever since. We multiplexed ourselves into small screens,” Trumbull said.

“Now, when a filmmaker is tasked with making a movie, they know their movie better work on a small screen. The story has got to be very strong and the pacing has got to be very fast. In that medium there is no room for spectacle. You can’t rest on a beauty shot like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ coming out of the desert for a minute and a half.”

But Trumbull hasn’t given up.

“My objective now is to make something that is so spectacular and so giant screen and so immersive that it will probably make no sense on a tablet or a smartphone.”

It isn’t the first time he’s tried this. The last time cast him out of Hollywood on a self-imposed exile.

The science fiction premise of “Brainstorm” had scientists, one played by Natalie Wood, creating the technology to record and play back the thoughts of others. Trumbull had developed a new technology, Showscan, that he wanted to shoot the playback sequences with. But the studio didn’t want to spend the money on the technology that was needed to project it.

“And then I get the movie nearly finished and Natalie Wood dies. You’ve probably heard a lot of stories about that. I frankly don’t think the story will ever be told,” Trumbull recalls.

“The studio was very corrupt. They filed a fraudulent insurance claim that the movie couldn’t be finished without Natalie Wood – which was completely untrue. I had to battle for over a year to get ‘Brainstorm’ finished at all.”

Feeling defeated by the movie industry, Trumbull sold his house in Los Angeles and moved to Massachusetts. Soon, he was working on the “Back to the Future” ride for Steven Spielberg and Universal theme parks.

“It was one of the most fun things I ever did because it was another important stepping stone on this whole vision of immersive cinema.”

The ride made millions of dollars and was in operation for 15 years at three Universal parks.

Before Trumbull left Hollywood, he had made 1982’s “Blade Runner” with Ridley Scott and 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” among others. Both movies represent Trumbull’s trademark: creating spectacular science fiction visuals that don’t rely on dialog. In “Blade Runner” it was a dystopian Los Angeles and in “Encounters” it was an alien spaceship.

“My personal passion is to do science fiction because I’m a complete science fiction space freak,” Trumbull said.

His next project, he hopes, will be a space epic that he said is as close to “2001” as any movie has gotten.

“It’s fascinating to me that ‘2001’ is so highly regarded because of its quality and its beauty. But it’s about alien contact that started millions of years ago. It’s an important and profound story and it’s one of the hidden reasons why the movie still resonates today.”

Sci-Fi Film Festival

When: Through Sunday

Where: Cinerama, 2100 Fourth Ave., Seattle

Tickets: Prices vary per event, check online schedule

Information: 206-448-6680

Trumbull films (with Q and A)

“Brainstorm” 4 p.m. Friday

“2001: A Space Odyssey” 8 p.m. Friday

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” 2 p.m. Saturday

“2001: A Space Odyssey” 7 p.m. Saturday

“UFOTOG” 12:30 (world premiere), 3 and 5 p.m. Sunday

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@ thenewstribune.com

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