As an art, filmmaking is a delicate tightrope walk between what is imaginable and what is producible. While the incredible innovations in computer-generated imagery have certainly provided safety mechanisms for the modern film maker, considerable effort is still required to make the impossible feel, move, and act with realism and precision. The greatest artists of the medium, then, are those most adept at taking the ephemeral visions that cinema is built upon and making them a tangible reality.
Douglas Trumbull, American filmmaker and visual effects innovator, turns 75 on April 8th. Son of Donald Trumbull (another notable visual effects luminary who helped create the visual imagery of Wizard of Oz before developing close to twenty patents for the Army during World War II), Douglas was reared into the world of technical filmmaking. His early work as an illustrator for a firm called Graphic Films caught the eye of Stanley Kubrick, who Trumbull later called directly and asked for employment.
There exists plenty of captivating writing on the collaborative process between Trumbull and Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and for good reason. The visuals of 2001, released in 1968, were revolutionary depictions of the enormity, beauty, and horror of space, all achieved through physical sets, chemical processes, or mechanical inventions. Kubrick’s incredible visual demands were met by a young Trumbull, then 24 to 25, who was given plenty of creative freedom and encouragement by Kubrick. He created the data display screen animations by photographing technical books and animating them, rendering the look of computation without coding. Iconic shots like the Rings of Jupiter, for example, were achieved by rear-projecting a spinning painting of Jupiter onto a spinning physical orb, all in darkness. Trumbull also developed the slit-scan photography process to achieve the film’s psychedelic Star Gate sequence. That process elongated light into walls of color and light that transport the viewer outside their conception of knowable reality. The effect has been used countless times since (even in Trumbull’s later work for Star Trek: The Movie) to capture the “look” of cosmic travel.
After 2001, Trumbull set up his own effects company and worked on the film adaption of The Andromeda Strain, another opportunity to showcase his work. Soon after, he directed his first film, Silent Running, starring Bruce Dern as a tortured astronaut tasked with the destruction of Earth’s final forests, floating in preservation domes through space. It fits well into the canon of literate and imaginative science fiction films that Trumbull worked in for most of his career, films that coupled philosophic, ecological, and moralistic concerns through speculative futures.
After turning down Star Wars to work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (yet again the sort of film most would die to have on their resume, here a footnote), Trumbull was tapped to step in and fix the mess that was Star Trek’s visual effects. A rival effects house had bungled the shoot, and with only six months to create hundreds of effect shots, Trumbull and his team worked almost non-stop to make the date. The strain of months of denying himself sleep and the stress of production would later hospitalize him.
Trumbull would later work on setting the tone of Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, another seminal entry in the science fiction canon. The film’s dystopic cityscape proved an enduring legend that helped set the tone for the visual iconography of the cyperpunk genre, as well as that of science fiction, in general, for years to come. But Trumbull did not finish the film, as his goals were set on his next film, Brainscan.
Trumbull, a visionary, believed that the foundation of cinematic language was always open for discussion. Years before James Cameron changed industry standards with higher frame rates to accommodate 3D effects, Trumbull had created the “Showscan” process, which would capture 70mm at 60 frames a second. Brainscan was designed to show off his process and hopefully establish it as an industry standard, but a lack of interest scuttled that aspect of it early into production.
The film itself, another high-minded science fiction, paired a young and musky Christopher Walken with cinematic legend Natalie Wood. The film followed a group of scientists who developed a process for recording human experiences in a way so that others could experience them. After recordings of orgasms and death are recorded, the device becomes of interest to the military-industrial complex. Trumbull longed to make these memory sequences hyperreal for audiences, rather than the familiar smokey and distant dream imagery so pervasive in films and television at the time.
The film became legendary under more tragic circumstances when Natalie Wood mysteriously drowned during its production. The case, which has shown signs of recent developments, all but crashed the production, leading the studio to seek an insurance claim rather than finish production. While the film was inevitably released, it was awarded little notice and was written off as a morbid curiosity.
Trumbull left Hollywood afterwards, sickened by the inhumane process of filmmaking in the studio system, though he continued to develop technology for the industry from his studio in Massachusetts. His last contribution to a film, of singular-but-critical note, was a collaboration with Terrence Malick and his effect supervisor Dan Glass on The Tree of Life. Together, they experimented with creating the sort of natural and unexpected visual events that would translate to captivating film making, the sort of emphasis on experimentation and play that allowed him to reach the heights he did in 2001.
Douglas came of age in an era of cinema that prioritized the star and studio above all else. But with innovation, experimentation, and collaboration, Trumbull helped to produce some of the most aesthetically stunning effects ever captured. His work changed the vocabulary of film forever, inspiring and changing his industry in the tradition of Georges Méliès. Even today, with recent tales of visual effect houses like Rhythm ‘N Hues Studios going bankrupt as their films win Oscars, we fail the men and women who make our dreams a reality. We should do well to remember their names, if the art they make can stir the soul and the imagination. Among the saints of cinema, Douglas Trumbull stands as a guide for us all, in his skill, his artistry, and in the stories he chose to tell.
Featured Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer