Douglas Trumbull interview: 2001, Silent Running, the future of cinema

Interview 29 Aug 2014 - 06:21

We talk to legendary filmmaker and effects artist Douglas Trumbull about his remarkable body of work, and his plans for the future...

Across a career stretching back to the late 1960s, Douglas Trumbull has been responsible for some of the most inventive and visually stunning moments in late 20th century cinema: the mesmerising Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey; the idyllic interstellar gardens of Silent Running; the majestic alien space craft of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind; the benighted future Los Angeles of Blade Runner. His effects work in these films has burned itself into our collective imagination, and Trumbull's influence on cinema can still be readily seen today.

Like so many filmmakers, Trumbull’s interest in science fiction began when he was a youth. A technically gifted artist, his original plan was to become an architect, yet the illustrations of space ships and alien planets in his portfolio suggested a different path. His first break came when he was still in his early 20s, when he landed a job at Graphic Films in Hollywood. There, he worked on To The Moon And Beyond, a 360-degree space exploration film which was shown at the New York World's Fair in 1964.

Fatefully, director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C Clark, who were in the early stages of collaborating on a sci-fi film production, saw To The Moon And Beyond, and it was through that film that Trumbull took the next step forward in his career. Initially hired as a production artist on Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Trumbull rapidly climbed the ranks, creating scale miniature effects, computer graphics displays, and most vitally, the remarkable Stargate scene at the film's conclusion.

A Space Odyssey gave Trumbull his first opportunity to show off his capacity for invention, and he hasn't stopped since. Today, he's devising a new kind of high-resolution, high frame-rate, 3D cinema experience using gigantic cinema screens ("It's actually a whole new medium," he says).

We were lucky enough to speak to Mr Trumbull about his career, from his interest in science fiction illustration as a youth, via his collaborations with Kubrick, Spielberg and Scott, to his potentially groundbreaking experiments in cinema presentation in the present. Here's what he had to say.

I wondered if you could talk about how you got started in filmmaking.

When I was a young man in school, I used to read science fiction and really liked it. And as I became a young artist I was filling up my portfolio with alien planets and spacecraft and things like that. Then when I started looking for a job, I was looking for something in animation, because I was watching all these Disney animated films. The animators directed me toward a specialty company in Hollywood called Graphic Films, which was doing space films for NASA and the government about the Apollo programme and space.

So I got a job there, and they got a project to do a film for the New York World’s Fair of 1964, called To The Moon And Beyond, which was in what was called Cinerama 360, a specialty giant screen film process, projected on to a circular screen. And Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke saw that film, and I ended up getting a job on 2001.

That’s the short version of the story.

Your father was a pioneering filmmaker himself. Did he inspire you to get into film as well?

Not particularly. He actually left the film industry before I was born. So it wasn’t a big deal around our house, though I knew as I grew up that he’d done The Wizard Of Oz and a number of other movies when he was young. But he’d gone into the aerospace business, and he wasn’t in the movie business for quite a few years. It wasn’t until I was making my own film, Silent Running, in the 1970s, that I asked if he could come and join me, and he was eager to do it. So he came back into the movie industry then, and became part of the whole crew that did Star Wars.

On 2001: A Space Odyssey, did you find that Stanley Kubrick was something of a like mind, because he had a technical understanding of cameras and filmmaking?

Yes. Yes, we had a really great relationship. It turned out that I had the right skillset that he was looking for, which was part art, part engineering, and part photography. One thing led to another - I was only a 20-year-old kid when I started on the movie, but he worked me up through the ranks, and by the end of the two-and-a-half years I was there, I was one of the four head supervisors on the movie.

By then I was inventing all these new photographic techniques that were kind of art and photography combined, to do the Stargate and Jupiter and the stars and planets. I was kind of central to that work. 

So that was a real proving ground for you as young filmmaker.

Yeah, it was film school for me.

Was there anything you created on 2001 that you wish had gone into the final cut? I remember you saying that for every shot used there was a ratio of 200 shots that weren’t.

They weren’t shots that didn’t make it. They were versions of shots. There was a huge shooting ratio, because Stanley was very critical and discerning, and he didn’t like anything that had any kind of error in it. So every shot you see in the movie had many takes of it, trying to de-bug it, and improve them and make small changes until they were perfect, so that led to the shooting ratio.

It’s not like there were many shots that were completely different that aren’t in the movie. 

I just remember seeing some concept art for one of Jupiter’s moons, and there’s a gap in it, and we see a pod flying into the gap.

Yeah, that was in the original story. And nobody could make that look good. There was a slot in one of Jupiter’s moons, and if you looked down through it you’d see another universe on the other side. So it was as if the slot was a kind of time-space gate. No one could make it look convincing, and no one really had any good ideas about it, so the idea of a transformational Stargate sequence emerged from some tests I was doing.

Kubrick liked it, and authorised me to make a machine called a slit scan machine to do the Stargate sequence.

How did you arrive at making that machine, because it seemed like such a jump to take the pieces of machinery that you did and the camera, and produce what you did with it?

I don’t know. That’s just something that comes naturally to me. I’m fearless when it comes to engineering and motors and gears and pulleys and glass and artwork. It all just seemed completely natural to me, and it was a good thing I was there, because I could invent this thing and work with the engineers at the studio and have them help me build it.

It was quite a large machine - about 30 feet by 30 feet. It took up a whole room. It was just, fundamentally, the idea of taking a camera apart, so that the shutter is on the artwork and not in the camera. Or like a photo finish camera you’d have at a race track or something. 

I remember seeing a presentation of yours, where you talked about the cameras they had at a horse race.

With the race cameras, the idea is that you have a very thin aperture, and the film is running past the aperture. They have them at the finish line at race tracks so they can determine which horse finished first, because the camera’s continuously operating. I knew about that, and I’d seen things like that photographed.

Salvador Dali experimented with things like that - he experimented with strobe lights and time lapse. All kinds of interesting stuff that I’d studied. So it seemed natural to say, well, let’s put the slit outside the camera and not inside the camera, and move it in three-dimensional space rather than two-dimensional space. It all worked perfectly, and it solved a problem for Kubrick.

Every movie presents unusual challenges, and I like solving the problems with a combination of artwork and engineering. Which is pretty unusual, because today the movie industry is almost entirely computer graphics.

Is it right that after 2001 you worked with Antonioni on Zabriskie Point?

Yes. I worked on it, but I didn’t finish working on it. Antonioni didn’t like what I was doing, and I got fired. And I was going to do this big, apocalyptic end-of-the-world sequence, and we had gone out to the desert and made these humongous explosions, and photographed them, and he didn’t understand. He didn’t understand the process of photographic effects being a very orderly, optical printing process. He just wanted to shoot live action; he didn’t feel comfortable with any of it. So he just decided to blow up a house with high-speed photography. I ended up having all those explosions in my library, which I used later for the opening scene on Blade Runner.

So you made Silent Running in 1971. How did you arrive at that project? Was it the theme that appealed to you, specifically, in that story?

Well, I was a young guy starting out in the movie industry, and I had friends who had been working on movies, and I was helping them do visual effects and solving problems, and it turned out that some of these friends had friends at Universal. Universal was trying this experiment, that was triggered by the success of Easy Rider, which was an independent, low-budget movie that took Hollywood by surprise, that you could go out on the road and make a movie very inexpensively.

So they decided to make five low-budget movies, and we talked them into having one of them be Silent Running, which I wrote the original treatment for. Once we got started, we were able to get writers and a crew, and that was my first project.

I think it’s interesting that it has an environmental theme, especially at that time. Was that in your original treatment, and was that why you wanted to make the movie?

No, the original treatment didn’t have an environmental theme at all. It was about alien contact. It transformed during the production. It was the 60s, it was during the Vietnam war wind-down, and everybody was very environmentally conscious at the time, and it seemed like an appropriate way to tell this story that I wanted to tell. 

What was your experience of directing that like, especially with Bruce Dern in the lead?

Initially, I didn’t even think of myself as the director, but once we were developing the movie, Universal realised that there wasn’t really anyone who could direct it except me, because it was so highly technical and unusual, and what I’d learned on 2001 could possibly be useful. So I volunteered to direct. I didn’t know anything about directing when I made Silent Running. I kind of learned on the job. I had a really great crew with me who helped me understand framing and lighting, and we kind of made it up as we went along.

Then Bruce Dern. I looked at a lot of actors, and I was just drawn to him. I thought he was really miscast in most of his movies, because he’s really a warm, loving kind of person, and he was always being cast as a monster. So when we talked to him about doing this movie, he was really thrilled and eager to do it, because he was finally getting a chance to do something outside that realm. It worked really well for him.

It’s a wonderful performance as well. How did you go about creating the effects for Silent Running, because the budget was obviously much lower than 2001.

I learned a lot on 2001. For instance, the front projection technique we used on 2001 I thought was really excellent. In 2001, it was the first time anyone had done that, on that kind of scale. The front projection system for it was very cumbersome and very expensive and took a long time to build, but by the time I knew it all worked I realised I can make a smaller one, and a very inexpensive one. And that that would be a way to do many of the effects in Silent Running, make them look very convincing and at a low cost, by pre-planning the shooting, making the miniatures in advance and making the photographic plates of the miniatures during principal photography.

Then the front projection machine I had built by a friend of mine, we just had it with us on the set. So any time we had a shot that needed front projection, we could just do it, just like a regular shot. It wasn’t one shot a day, like special effects - we were shooting something like 15 projection set-ups per day, plus our normal live-action coverage. We shot the whole movie in 32 days.

I think a lot of things in the movie industry have often been made much too complex, and there are simpler approaches. Front projection was one of them for Silent Running. It allowed us to give us a very big look on a very low budget. We were shooting on an old aircraft carrier we rented from the navy, and the interior garden sets were in an airplane hangar in an airport. It was all very low budget.

Yet the end result looked spectacular. After that, it seemed as though you had quite a frustrating period, because you had a couple of potentially brilliant film projects that never came together for one reason or another. And also, under Paramount, you had all kinds of ideas that you couldn’t quite get going.

Yes. There were many years of frustration in Hollywood. Because I just didn’t think the management at any of the studios - I was working at Fox and MGM and Warner Bros, Columbia - I just found out that they didn’t know who I was or what I was all about. They were in the business of just hiring actors and directors and just shooting live-action movies.

So doing something unusual, and breaking the mould or standards in Hollywood was really, really hard. It’s always been hard, and it’s still very hard. That’s why I don’t live there anymore, I don’t work there anymore. I’m happy at my little studio at Massachusetts doing my own thing. 

Films like Close Encounters and Star Trek and Blade Runner, the effects that you produced, they had such a huge cultural impact. You still see other filmmakers reference them. Do you see that as a vindication of what you wanted to do?

I don’t really see it as a vindication. Those movies I had the good fortune to work on, and the directors I worked with, I had really good relationships with all of them. They knew I was a director myself, and they would let me do whole sequences myself. I’d pretty much take control of whole sequences of their movies. It worked out really well, but nevertheless, the skills I would bring to this movies is not very well understood by management in studios.

I also decided to get out of the visual effects industry altogether, because the transformation from miniatures to cameras to digital computers just didn’t interest me. That was a very wrenching transformation that went on, and it drove many of my friends and their companies bankrupt, trying to make the transition, because it was extremely expensive. It created a monster, in the sense that what emerged were companies that were all computer graphics, like ILM or DreamQuest or any number of companies.

Some of them still exist, some of them don’t. But they all have the same computers, the same tools, the same artists, the same algorithms, and so the studios basically pit them against each other for the lowest possible price, and so the special effects business has become a commodity industry. The studios really don’t care very much about the individual artists - they just want to get the shots for the right price. I don’t think that’s an artform that’s based on artistry or passion or vision, or anything, it’s just a commodity, a production line.

So it becomes difficult to get an individual’s creative perspective in that environment.

Yes, yes.

It becomes a production line.

Exactly.

Occasionally, you do see films that still use miniature effects. Not so long ago we had Moon, which was very inspired by Silent Running. And you worked with Terence Malick on The Tree Of Life, which had practical effects. I wonder if there isn’t a happy medium between miniature effects and digital, where the two are integrated.

Yes, and it’s been done very successfully. Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings was one of the best blendings I’ve ever seen of miniatures and CGI and prosthetic characters and models. Weta Studios is really a most amazing place to be able to do that kind of work. So it can be done, and it’s still being done to various degrees - I just believe in a somewhat different balance of forces. I like more organic and miniature parts and only a small percentage to be computer generated. Maybe only 10 or 20 percent of the shot is computer generated, then I’m much happier with the result.

What was working with Terence Malick like? Are there any parallels between Malick and Kubrick?

No, it wasn’t the same at all. But I’ve been a lifelong friend of Terry Malick, and we’re both interested in astronomy. We’re both amateur astronomers. And when we were talking about Tree Of Life, he said he wanted to do all these astronomical things, but he didn’t want to do it with computer graphics - not exclusively, anyway.

He asked me what I would do, and I said I’d do it with tanks of liquid and organic things that will surprise us, that nobody’s seen before, that we couldn’t do with computers. That could be quite inexpensive to do. As a favour to Terry, I went over to Austin, Texas several times over long weekends, and do what we call the skunk works, which is a little merry band of likeminded artists and photographers, who would shoot these little weird tank effects with liquids and high-speed cameras and things.

It was really fun and successful for the movie, and I didn’t really hang out as a special effects guy, I just did it for Terry as a favour. And it was fun, because it led to things that I’ve been doing here on my own projects. They’ve been very helpful to know how to do. 

A lot of the ideas you had in the 70s have come to pass since, like your ideas for rides and interactive experiences and 3D and Showscan. That was way back in 1975. So how do you feel now that all that’s come round now? Do you feel as though the industry’s caught up with you a little bit?

I don’t think anyone’s caught up with me yet. What I’m doing now is a huge leap forward, I think. I just finished production on a short demonstration film that’s 12 minutes long, that I wrote and directed and shot in my studio. It uses all these techniques I’ve been developing, which is 120 frames per second, 3D, 4K resolution with very bright projection on very bright screens with Atmos sound. It’s a completely transformational movie experience - it’s kind of not even a movie, it’s something else. Almost like a live event.

I’m going to be showing it to the industry in the next couple of the months to see if they like it. If they like it, we’ll make movies that way, and if they don’t, we’ll be doing other kinds of movies for expos and theme parks and what we call the special venue business. They’re very interested in unusual photographic processes and special projection - akin to IMAX in a way. IMAX pioneered the special theatre experience, which became very popular in science museums and in space museum and stuff like that. It’s a very viable alternative business.

With regard to high frame rates, Peter Jackson introduced it in his Hobbit films, and the reaction to it from critics and possibly audiences was quite mixed. Do you think that’s something audiences will come around to in time?

Not necessarily. First of all, I was doing 48 frames per second photography and compositing back in 1990, and I was doing Showscan 35 years ago. So I’m very familiar with high frame rates and how it’s possible to inappropriately use high frame rates. One of my thoughts about The Hobbit and Peter Jackson doing high frame rate, is that first of all, he’s my hero for daring to try it, and knowing that 24 frames is lousy for 3D.

But I think applying high frame rate and 3D to a fantasy like The Hobbit may be an inappropriate application of vividness. Because it takes away from the suspension of disbelief that you need for a film like that. If you take high frame rates and apply it to a movie like Avatar, I think the result will be very positively received and very successful. And even higher frame rates.

I’ve decided that there is, in fact, what some people call an uncanny valley of sort of high frame rate but not enough high frame rate to get to a whole new level of quality. Then I realised that the projectors we have out in the industry all over the world are operating at 144 frames per second, so there’s no limitation to frame rate in theatres. And almost all digital cameras will go at least 60 frames and some will go even faster. And so I’ve just produced this test at 120 frames, in 3D at 4K, and done all the compositing in 4K, and I’ve invented a patented process for how to do it all, and the result is really stunning. Everyone who sees it here is totally blown away, and I’m going to start showing it to the industry as soon as we get past the summer - after the vacation I’ll start showing it. I’ll see if anybody bites. 

One of the things, as you said, with The Hobbit is that sometimes that very smooth frame rate can pull you out of the film. But you’re saying that your process could work with a long, narrative film like that?

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It’s just that you have to tell your story differently. You have to choose your subject matter appropriately, and you direct it differently. Because you’re creating a whole new relationship between the screen and the audience. And if you’re going to make something where the audience feels as though they’re actually with you on the set, or on the adventure, or in space or under water or wherever it is, you have to move past a lot of the old cinematic conventions of melodrama, and start treating it more like live theatre - for lack of a better example. It’s actually a whole new medium.

I decided that I didn’t want to do a technical demonstration that just showed pretty shots of flowers and horses running or something - I actually wanted to tell a story with actors and dialogue, and music, and sets, and interiors and exteriors, to actually conclusively prove to myself and others that this was a good idea. And the result, I’m really happy with. I feel like I’ve achieved something I’ve been after all my life. To really break new ground, and open up a whole new territory of entertainment that will be very immersive, very participatory and spectacular, with no nasty artefacts of blurring or low resolution or anything. You’ll have to see it to understand what I’m talking about.

Do you think that’s the future of cinema, where it’s less passive? Is it a little like the film Gravity, where it uses very few cuts to make us feel as though we’re actually there?

Gravity would be perfect. Yes. It’s very experiential. Alfonso [Cuaron] really wanted to make audiences feel as though they were in space with those people. It’s a very successful movie, and if a movie like that were to be made in this process, I think it would be even more powerful. Substantially more powerful.

Are you looking to make a new feature film of your own soon?

Yes, I am. I’ve got a screenplay that I’m very happy with, and I’ve got a studio to make it in, and I’m doing it all out of the system, through independent financing. Because I just don’t think the movie industry’s ready for what I’m trying to do yet.

And you’re directing?

Yes.

That’s fantastic news.

Oh good!

Do you know when you’re going to start production on that?

Probably within the next six months. I’m really eager to do it. I just want to do it my own way. I don’t want anybody telling me that I’m wrong, or second guess me, or do the things that happen in the movie industry that most directors are pretty unhappy with. I’m not averse to dealing with the movie industry. I’m just kind of like Kubrick or Woody Allen or somebody, who just wants to be left alone and have final cut, and do it my way.

And it’s a science fiction film?

Yes.

I was interested to see your Ufotog project, where you used high resolution cameras to take pictures of unidentified objects. Is that something you’ll still be doing?

I hope to be doing it. And I took that story, the Ufotog story, and used it in the demonstration film I was talking about.

 Yes, I saw it on your site.

It’s actually called Ufotog. It’s about a guy, like myself, who seriously thinks he can photograph UFOs. And of course the government gets pissed off and don’t want him to go public with it. So that’s a really interesting, dramatic story I can tell with it in 10 minutes.

I’ve been working on the Ufotog project for several years, and trying to figure out how to get the financing to actually seriously photograph UFOs. And I haven’t been interfered with, but I have been contacted by the CIA. And I we’ve had talks about it, and they’ve said, “Well, there are people in the government that would like to disclose what we know, and there are other people in the government who don’t want to disclose it.”

Really?

They thought what I was doing was kind of interesting, because I’m not an ex-military whistle blower, or a maniac. I think they thought, because I’m a genuine, legitimate, science fiction movie maker, it might be a good way to further disclose elements of the UFO story that haven’t been disclosed yet. But then they pulled out. They changed their minds, and I lost contact with the CIA. They don’t seem to know what I’m doing or care.

Crikey. Is that perhaps something you could fund through Kickstarter?

Yes, it’s possible. Yep, I’ve thought about it. We’re still working on it.

Douglas Trumbull, thank you very much.

Douglas Trumbull will be showing Ufotog in the Toronto International Film Festival, the International Broadcast Convention in Amsterdam, at the Giant Screen Cinema Association convention in Toronto, and again at TIFF for the Kubrick show in November.

You can find out more about Douglas Trumbull's work at his website, www.douglastrumbull.com

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