How Douglas Trumbull Changed Movie History

We might not have 2001, Close Encounters, and Blade Runner without the visual effects wizardry of Douglas Trumbull.

Blade Runner

It’s no exaggeration to state that filmmaking, especially in the fields of science fiction and fantasy, might not be what it is today without the pioneering work of the legendary Douglas Trumbull.

The director and visual effects designer, who passed away on February 8 at the age of 79, had a hand in creating the screenscapes for some of the most influential genre films of all time, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner. He pioneered techniques that allowed those films and many others to visualize the vastness of space, the magnificence of alien spacecraft and the eeriness of dystopian futures with a sense of scale and realism that elevated sci-fi cinema beyond its reputation as a dumping ground for hoary, cheap-looking B-movies once and for all.

Born on April 8, 1942 in Los Angeles, Douglas Trumbull followed his father Donald — who worked on the visual effects for The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, as well as some of his son’s projects — into the filmmaking business after first studying to be an architect. After a few years of producing short films for a company called Graphic Films, a piece about space flight produced by the firm caught the attention of Stanley Kubrick, who gave Trumbull his first feature film job on nothing less than 2001: A Space Odyssey.

From there, Trumbull continued to supervise visual effects for a number of iconic productions, as well as developing and directing his own. But after seeing one project after another fall down the rabbit hole of “development hell,” he left Hollywood behind in the early 1980s and moved to a property in western Massachusetts, where he continued to develop new visual effects techniques and film projects.

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He briefly emerged in 2018 to supervise the effects for the Sam Elliott indie film The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot, and was planning for the last several years to present a new digital system called Magi that would project images in 3D, 4K and at 120 frames per second — five times the speed (24fps) at which traditional film frames are viewed.

In the pantheon of visual effects titans who are no longer with us, including Ray Harryhausen, Willis O’Brien, Georges Melies, Stan Winston, Dick Smith and others, Douglas Trumbull now stands proudly among them. Here is a brief list of some of his most notable work:

The Stargate from 2001
MGM

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

After Stanley Kubrick decided not to retain Graphic Films for his then-developing space project, Trumbull called Kubrick himself and asked to stay on. Kubrick agreed, encouraging the young technician — who was only in his mid-20s — as he first created the data and computer displays for the spaceship interiors and eventually came up with the classic “Stargate” sequence, using a technique called “slit-scan photography.”

2001 singlehandedly elevated science fiction into a genre to be taken seriously in film, and its realistic depiction of space travel, the cosmos itself and a technologically advanced future all paved the way for everything from the space opera of Star Wars to the more cerebral, literary likes of Arrival. Given his first big break by Kubrick, Trumbull rose to the challenge and helped change film history.

The Andromeda Strain
Universal

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

Robert Wise directed this incredibly tense, frightening adaptation of an early novel by Michael Crichton, in which a team of scientists struggle to contain an extraterrestrial virus before it escapes a lab and wreaks havoc on humanity. This was the first film Trumbull worked on after setting up his own production and effects company in Hollywood, and he was tasked with creating both the images of the organism itself as well as the many computer displays and readouts through the lab.

Although some aspects of the film are now dated, it’s still a marvel of design, suspense and paranoia, with Wise getting the most out of the material. In a world ravaged by a pandemic, The Andromeda Strain is worth looking at again.

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Silent Running
Universal

Silent Running (1972)

Trumbull made his directorial debut on this film, which was also based on his original idea. Bruce Dern stars as Freeman Lowell, a botanist on a ship towing great domes containing a polluted Earth’s last forests around the solar system. When the crew is ordered to destroy the domes, Lowell takes matters into his own hands, doing everything necessary to ensure that the planet’s last flora and fauna survives.

Made at a cost of just $1.3 million, Silent Running was sadly still a box office flop — although its pro-environmental message is perhaps even more urgent now. Among Trumbull’s innovations for the film are Lowell’s three drone assistants — arguably prototypes for the more famous R2-D2 — and a white-knuckle sequence in which Lowell flies the ship on a dangerous course through the rings of Saturn.

The Mothership from Close Encounters
Columbia Pictures

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

After several of his own projects fell through and he turned down the opportunity to work on the movie known back then as just Star Wars, Trumbull took the job as visual effects supervisor on Steven Spielberg’s classic tale of first alien contact.

The film advanced what could be done in motion control photography, while Trumbull also collaborated with the brilliant artist Ralph McQuarrie and the model builder Greg Jein on the UFOs — which were designed to look like sculptures of light instead of flying saucers — and the awe-inspiring mothership, which was created to look like a massive city in space. The film remains one of Spielberg’s — and Trumbull’s — finest moments.

Star Trek: TMP
Paramount

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Let’s face it: the visual effects on the first big-screen adventure of the U.S.S. Enterprise slingshot wildly between magnificent and embarrassing. But that’s because getting them finished on time for the film’s premiere in December 1979 nearly turned into a disaster that even Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock might not have been able to warp their way out of.

Trumbull was actually the first visual effects supervisor approached for ST: TMP (he had previously worked with director Robert Wise on The Andromeda Strain), but he was busy with Close Encounters. Wise and Paramount turned to another company that ultimately could not meet the challenge: the film’s effects were in bad shape when the desperate studio asked Trumbull to come aboard and complete the job — nearly a year behind schedule and with nine months to go before the premiere. Somehow, ST: TMP was finished on time, with freshly struck prints literally transported from the studio directly onto waiting airplanes for delivery to theaters. Yet amidst the chaos, shots like the first view of the Enterprise and the extraordinary tour of the gigantic V’ger spacecraft still endure.

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Blade Runner
Warner Bros.

Blade Runner (1982)

Trumbull was ready to quit visual effects supervision entirely for anything but his own projects when he got the call to work on Blade Runner with Ridley Scott — an offer he couldn’t refuse. Using techniques he had developed for Close Encounters (which themselves evolved from 2001), Trumbull created the polluted, neon-lit, dystopian Los Angeles using models, mattes, motion control photography and just about every other available resource of the pre-CG era.

The result was a portrait of the future as grim and decaying as Close Encounters was inspiring and optimistic, with Blade Runner’s esthetic influencing not just countless films since but proving to be a key component in the development of the cyberpunk subgenre of sci-fi. And once again, Doug Trumbull was right there on the bleeding edge.

Brainstorm
MGM

Brainstorm (1983)

Brainstorm is now better known as the film on which Natalie Wood died; the actress drowned under still-mysterious circumstances during production, although she had completed nearly all her scenes. Trumbull’s second and last feature directorial effort, about the development of a technique to record the perceptions and emotions of a person from inside their mind, was waylaid by Wood’s death as well as the studio trying to shut the production down before Trumbull could finish it.

Trumbull planned to use Brainstorm to debut his revolutionary “Showscan” process, in which images would be projected at 70mm and 60 frames per second — in theory creating an even more lifelike and immersive experience. But theaters refused to purchase the necessary equipment. If this all sounds familiar, it’s because filmmakers Ang Lee and Peter Jackson have both released films in recent years in both 60fps and 120fps — with the results resoundingly rejected by exhibitors and audiences.

Back to the Future: The Ride
Universal Studios

Back to the Future: The Ride (1991)

Trumbull did co-direct (with David De Vos) the film component of Back to the Future: The Ride, a simulator ride that opened at Universal Studios’ Florida and California theme parks in 1991 and 1993 respectively. Riders boarded mock DeLoreans and viewed the ride’s narrative on a gigantic IMAX screen, with the motion simulator and immersive images making you feel like you were actually moving through the story (future Ant-Man director Peyton Reed contributed to the script).

The ride closed in 2007, but it did give untold numbers of visitors to the parks the chance to experience the kind of fully enveloping cinematic experience that Trumbull experimented with for the rest of his life.

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Tree of Life creation scene
Searchlight Pictures

The Tree of Life (2011)

Trumbull emerged from his self-imposed exile in 2011, almost three decades after leaving Hollywood, to provide visual effects for Terrence Malick’s brilliant, philosophical The Tree of Life, in which one family’s memories and history are explored against the context of all of time and space.

Wanting to avoid using CG, Malick asked Trumbull to use the kinds of effects he had achieved in his past work for the astonishing “creation of the universe” sequence halfway through the movie, in which we see the birth of the cosmos, the emergence of Earth, and the rise and fall of the dinosaurs. At once haunting, poetic, mind-bending and movingly beautiful, it was the kind of filmmaking magic that leapt — not often enough in the grand scheme of things — from the mind of Douglas Trumbull.