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Douglas Trumbull was a visionary master of visual effects, whose work both changed the industry standard and stood the test of time for decades to come. Trumbull first gained acclaim for with his groundbreaking work on Stanley Kubrick's Oscar-winning sci-fi epic, "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). He went on to perform similar chores on the adaptation of Michael Crichton's "The Andromeda Strain" (1971) before being handed the directing reigns of the cult space adventure "Silent Running" (1972). After creating stunning imagery for Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977) and "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (1979), Trumbull proved instrumental in crafting the look of the futuristic masterpiece "Blade Runner" (1982) for director Ridley Scott. Trumbull's second directorial effort, the intriguing techno-thriller "Brainstorm" (1983), was nearly shelved by the studio after star Natalie Wood drowned just prior to the film's completion. Frustrated by the constraints of the industry, he left Hollywood to focus on work for several popular theme park attractions, including Universal Studio's "Back to the Future... The Ride" and other immersive entertainment experiences using his innovative...
Douglas Trumbull was a visionary master of visual effects, whose work both changed the industry standard and stood the test of time for decades to come. Trumbull first gained acclaim for with his groundbreaking work on Stanley Kubrick's Oscar-winning sci-fi epic, "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). He went on to perform similar chores on the adaptation of Michael Crichton's "The Andromeda Strain" (1971) before being handed the directing reigns of the cult space adventure "Silent Running" (1972). After creating stunning imagery for Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977) and "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (1979), Trumbull proved instrumental in crafting the look of the futuristic masterpiece "Blade Runner" (1982) for director Ridley Scott. Trumbull's second directorial effort, the intriguing techno-thriller "Brainstorm" (1983), was nearly shelved by the studio after star Natalie Wood drowned just prior to the film's completion. Frustrated by the constraints of the industry, he left Hollywood to focus on work for several popular theme park attractions, including Universal Studio's "Back to the Future... The Ride" and other immersive entertainment experiences using his innovative Showscan film-projection technology. Offering Trumbull a creative freedom he had not enjoyed since his days with Kubrick, director Terrence Malick brought him back nearly 30 years later to consult on his sweeping examination of humanity, "The Tree of Life" (2011). Arguably creating some of the most memorable and astonishing images ever put on film, Trumbull's achievements were all the more remarkable for being accomplished without the use of digital technology.
Born Douglas Huntley Trumbull on April 8, 1942 in Los Angeles, he was the son of Carroll Roy, an artist, and Donald Trumbull, an engineer who had received his start in Hollywood as a special effects rigger on "The Wizard of Oz" (1939). When it came to young Douglas, the apple would not fall far from the proverbial tree. From a very early age, he was interested in both art and technology, with photography a particular favorite. After high school Trumbull worked at an electrical contracting firm while putting himself through school at El Camino Junior College, where he studied technical illustration. He began working as an illustrator and airbrush artist for the animation studio Graphic Films, where he initially contributed paintings of space modules, lunar surfaces and the like on several documentaries for NASA and the U.S. Air Force. Trumbull provided similar services for Graphic when the company was contracted to produce the short film, "To the Moon and Beyond" (1963), which played at the 1964-65 World's Fair in New York.
One person to have seen and been suitably impressed by "To the Moon and Beyond" was director Stanley Kubrick. When Kubrick hired that film's director to work on the visual effects for his upcoming project, Trumbull - after some not-so-subtle lobbying on his own behalf - was also brought along to work on Kubrick's cerebral, science-fiction epic, "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). Relocating to England for the lengthy production, he began work on the film animating computer display images. Trumbull soon worked his way up the ladder to become one of four special effects supervisors over the course of the film's arduous three-year production. When the creative team found themselves utterly stumped on how to achieve a particular visual effect, Trumbull utilized his growing knowledge of experimental photography to create the revolutionary "slit-scan" photography process for the mind-bending "Stargate" sequence in which astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) passes through a vast, hallucinatory portal on his way to another dimension. "2001" would go on to win the Academy Award for Special Visual Effects that year.
Back in the U.S. and eager to go into business for himself, Trumbull set up his own production company. Taking on various freelance jobs, he employed his slit-scan technique in the promotional segments for ABC's newly-launched "Movie of the Week" format and the opening and closing sequences in the surreal sex-comedy, "Candy" (1968). Trumbull later took on the job of providing visual effects for the sci-fi thriller "The Andromeda Strain" (1971), based on a novel by Michael Crichton. Trumbull's exceptional work on the film, about a group of scientists in a race against time to save the world from a deadly extraterrestrial organism, greatly impressed Crichton and director Robert Wise, to say nothing of astonished moviegoers.
Although he went over budget for his initial "Andromeda" bid, nearly bankrupting his fledgling company, the end result provided Trumbull with enough cachet to make his debut as a producer and director with "Silent Running" (1972). An ecological cautionary tale set decades in the future, it starred Bruce Dern as an idealistic botanist assigned with maintaining the last of Earth's forests and depleted natural resources aboard a massive greenhouse spaceship. In addition to Trumbull's typically impressive special effects model work, the production made headlines for its innovative use of double amputee performers in the creation of the diminutive, two-legged drone helper robots. Despite the fact that industry insiders were amazed at the production values Trumbull had achieved on a shoestring budget and the majority of critics appreciated the film, "Silent Running" was given virtually no marketing support from the studio, dooming its theatrical release. Over the intervening years, however, it would achieve a form of cult status with sci-fi aficionados.
In the years that followed, Trumbull attempted to mount several other feature film projects, most of which stalled in various stages of development. For a brief period he was a producer on the Canadian-produced series, "The Starlost" (CBC, 1973-74), which featured "2001" star Keir Dullea as a young man who discovers his quaint bucolic world is actually just one of many societies contained on a massive spacecraft called the ARK. And while he would have preferred to work on endeavors of his own, after the failure of "Starlost," Trumbull's company was in dire need of revenue. Although he had earlier turned down an offer from George Lucas to work on "Star Wars" (1977) - his dad, Donald, however, did contribute to that film's dazzling visual effects - Trumbull was no longer in a position to be as choosy when another rising star director recruited his services. Trumbull signed on as a photographic effects supervisor for Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), where he made significant strides in the use of motion control photography, particularly where it was applied to scenes featuring the alien's massive mother ship.
Soon after completing work on "Close Encounters," Trumbull was asked to take over the visual effects work on the upcoming "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (1979), a job he had initially turned down, due to his previous commitment with Spielberg. With the first feature film based on the immensely popular television series already perilously over budget and behind schedule, Paramount Pictures was frantic to replace the original SFX company which had failed to produce satisfactory visual effects. As the release date for "Star Trek" loomed, Trumbull and his team were given a virtual blank check in order to complete the required effects on time. Working at blinding speed, Turnbull used all his previous experience to deliver such moments as the iconic streaking of the Enterprise upon achieving warp speed and the scene in which Spock (Leonard Nimoy) enters the sentient energy cloud, V'ger. For the latter segment, Trumbull did double-duty, serving as 2nd Unit Director in order to save precious time.
Despite his determination to avoid working for other directors and churning out sterile images of "spaceships against star backgrounds," as he put it, Trumbull was lured back once again by the chance to work with director Ridley Scott on "Blade Runner" (1982). The allure for Trumbull, however, was that Scott was not interested in creating a gleaming, high-tech future seen in films like "Star Trek," but in a decaying, polluted, patchwork dystopia. Using much of the technology and effects devised for "Close Encounters," Trumbull and his team created some of the most iconic and influential images in all of science-fiction filmmaking. With a combination of model work, lighting, smoke, matte painting and trick photography, he and his crew ensured that images like the hellish landscape of Los Angeles circa 2019 would still hold up alongside the computer-generated effects which would become the standard decades later. Although, much like "Silent Running," "Blade Runner" failed to find a wide audience initially, but with its subsequent release on video and then DVD, it came to be regarded as one of the seminal science-fiction films of all time, in large part due to Trumbull and his team's contributions.
Trumbull was forced to step away from "Blade Runner" midway through production in order to begin work on his next effort as a producer-director, the techno thriller "Brainstorm" (1983). The film starred Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood as scientists working on a technology that would allow sensations from a person's brain to be recorded and experienced by others. Soon, government scientists begin to contemplate frightening military applications for the device and attempt to unlock its secrets. Tragedy struck prior to the film's completion when Wood drowned off the coast of Catalina Island, CA in November 1981 while on break from the production with Walken and her husband, Robert Wagner. A financially struggling Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer initially considered writing the picture off entirely, but after two years of convincing and legal maneuvering, Trumbull was allowed to complete the film using a body and voice double for Wood's remaining scenes. Surprisingly, for a movie advertised as "Natalie Wood's last film," "Brainstorm" was barely released in theaters and quickly became another financial disappointment for Trumbull as a director.
Exhausted and disgusted by the dysfunction of the business, Trumbull left Hollywood and relocated to the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, where he formed the Berkshire Motion Picture Corporation. There Trumbull was able to let his imagination run wild as he continued to develop innovative technologies for use in theme park attractions. One of the most notable was Universal Studios' "Back to the Future... The Ride," which was developed due in large part to a suggestion made by Steven Spielberg, who was hoping to create something that would compete with Disneyland's popular "Star Tours," a motion simulator ride inspired by his friend George Lucas' "Star Wars" franchise. Not an entirely failed experiment, "Brainstorm" had been originally intended to be the first feature film to employ Turnbull's patented Showscan technology. Developed in the late 1970s, Showscan was a film process whereby 65mm film was photographed at 60 frames per second, and projected using 70mm prints at the same high rate, making for a crystal clear viewing experience the likes of which had never before been seen by audiences. Trumbull was at last given the opportunity to expose large audiences to the Showscan experience in the mid-1990s when he produced and directed several short films for in interactive/virtual reality experience, "Secrets of the Luxor Pyramid" at the Egyptian-themed Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, NV.
Not content with confining his problem solving abilities to the medium of film, a concerned Trumbull designed, modeled and filmed a demonstration for a device that could conceivably cap the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Upon release of the videotaped experiment on the Internet, his proposition went viral almost overnight. BP, however, never responded to Trumbull's offer of assistance. After nearly 30 years away from Hollywood, Trumbull was lured back to act as a visual effects consultant on director Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" (2011). Starring Sean Penn and Brad Pitt, the film was nothing less than the reclusive auteur's search for the meaning of life. Brought in by Malick - who was a fan of Trumbull's work - to consult on sequences that would depict the beginning of the universe, Trumbull suggested taking an experimental approach, much like he had done for Kubrick on "2001." Not surprisingly, "Tree of Life" was favorably compared in both scope and artistry to Kubrick's masterpiece. Trumbull was next rumored to be planning a fantasy-adventure film that would be filmed at a speed of 120 frames per second, doubling the speed used for its groundbreaking predecessor, Showscan.
By Bryce Coleman
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