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June 24


Summer 2018

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL, VES: Advancing New Technologies for the Future of Film


Douglas Trumbull, VES (Images courtesy of Douglas Trumbull)

As a child, Douglas Trumbull, VES constructed mechanical and electrical devices such as crystal-set radios and loved watching alien invasion movies. Unknown to him at the time he would follow in the footsteps of his father, Donald Trumbull, who was an early pioneer of motion picture special effects.

“By the time I was born he was in the aerospace industry and never mentioned much about The Wizard of Oz except that he had something to do with the lion’s tail, the apple tree and rigging the flying monkeys,” Trumbull says.

Initially, his career ambition was to become an architect; however, Trumbull’s portfolio filled with illustrations of spaceships and alien planets caught the attention of Graphic Films which made technical films for NASA and the U.S. Air Force. During Trumbull’s early tenure at Graphic Films, there were three different projects being made for the New York World’s Fair in 1964 with the most interesting one being To the Moon and Beyond, “a 15-minute journey from the microcosm to the macrocosm,” describes Trumbull.

Among the audience members at the New York World’s Fair were Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick who were collaborating on 2001: A Space Odyssey. “They asked if Graphic would be willing to do some preliminary design development. I was working on lunar bases, pods and spacecraft designs.” The production shifted to England, so Trumbull cold-called the filmmaker resulting in him and his wife moving to London.

Adds Trumbull, “The big problem with the HAL readouts was that they required so many 16mm rear-projected movies shot in 35mm on an animation stand. You needed 10 times as much readout on 16 screens simultaneously as the length of the shot.

“Bruce Logan [ASC], Con Pederson and I built our own animation stand with a zoom lens. The motor running the camera drove the motion of the artwork with a little shaft that came down off of it. I would say, ‘Take this cell, put it on for 10 frames, put a blue gel on there and flicker it.’” The inception of what became the Slitscan Machine used for the Stargate scene came from a colleague on To the Moon and Beyond.

“John Whitney was the pioneer of leaving the camera shutter open while you move things around under controlled situations so you can create a controlled blur, and repeat the moves. Jim Dickson and I adapted the camera with a shutter outside of it and a bellows gizmo that I built. Wally Veevers assisted a lot with the mechanical engineering of what we called the Slitscan Machine.”

An electron microscope needed to be simulated for The Andromeda Strain. “I devised this whole methodology for linking up a 35mm Mitchell camera to a real microscope,” recalls Trumbull. “I found a Zeiss stereo microscope with a zoom lens and came up with the idea of the microorganism being a tetrahedron-shaped molecule illuminated by a strobe light and shot with filters so that it glows. It was going to be a small two-and-a-half-inch hexagon of plexiglass mounted on a metal rod connected to a motor. The motor was going to be in this yoke and be upside down, inside out, backwards.

“Jamie Shourt worked out this program that put this thing in one position, fired the strobe, closed the camera shutter, wait, put the thing in another position, open the camera shutter, fire the strobe, and add all six sides of the tetrahedron onto one frame of film with separate exposures. The idea was these things would start folding on their edges and multiply the number of flash exposures on each frame. He wrote this program that would go on into infinity. We just had to stop after too many hours and no sleep.”

For his directorial debut, Silent Running, the three-time Oscar nominated visual effects supervisor experimented with computerized motion-control photography. “My father-in-law told me about these things called computer-controlled stepper motors where the shaft is broken into 200 segments. If you put a square wave pulse in there it will move one segment. If you can make a series of pulses, then the motor would run under automated control. I bought a stepper motor and a driver board. I figured out a way to record square wave pulses on my stereo tape recorder, play them into the motor, and repeat exactly the playout.”

The front projector system was scaled down in size by using a slide projection lamp, 35mm Arriflex camera, a beam splitter mirror on a whirl head, and 4 x 5 plates. “As long as you planned ahead and had projection plates matching the scenes that were going to be shot, then you could shoot all day long with it. Sometimes we would shoot 15 process setups in one day. Everything shot in the domes, out of the windows and behind the spaceship were front projection. There were no post-production optics. It was all shot in camera.”

A shot taken at the 1964 New York World’s Fair of the pavilion screening of To the Moon and Beyond in Cinerama.

Trumbull details the Moon Bus featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Trumbull is part of a group discussion with Stanley Kubrick on the 2001: A Space Odyssey Centrifuge set.

Trumbull’s initial responsibility on 2001: A Space Odyssey was to provide animation for the various computer screens such as those found in the Orion spacecraft.

“Spielberg wanted music to be a universal language of communication which I thought was a beautiful idea. I knew a woman who taught the Kodály method of visual hand signals that relate to musical notes; she came in and trained François Truffaut on how to do these hand signals to the notes that John Williams wrote way ahead of production which would become the theme of the movie. Those five notes are built into the score and are obliquely related to ‘When You Wish Upon a Star.’”

—Douglas Trumbull, VES

Close Encounters of the Third Kind made great use of a cloud tank. “Steven Spielberg wanted the UFOs to come out of the clouds,” recalls Trumbull. “We bought a big aquarium tank and rented a manipulator arm from Atomics International. I put the manipulator arm in the tank so I could be outside behind the camera painting clouds.”

Music plays a pivotal role in the finale where humanity makes contact with the alien visitors. “Spielberg wanted music to be a universal language of communication which I thought was a beautiful idea. I knew a woman who taught the Kodály method of visual hand signals that relate to musical notes; she came in and trained François Truffaut on how to do these hand signals to the notes that John Williams wrote way ahead of production which would become the theme of the movie. Those five notes are built into the score and are obliquely related to ‘when you wish upon a star.’”

Steven Spielberg had an idea that the visiting aliens would replicate objects from everyday life to make humans feel comfortable, as reflected in the mothership.

Trumbull discusses the composition of a shot with Steven Spielberg while on set for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The iconic blimp from Blade Runner gets constructed.

The completed effect with the blimp showcasing an advertisement with a Geisha girl as it flies over the Bradbury building.

The opening Blade Runner shot of Los Angeles 2019 was inspired by oil refineries and created by using a forced-perspective miniature made out of acid-etched brass.

The Tyrell Pyramid was the first miniature built for the production of Blade Runner.

Benefiting from the research and development conducted for Close Encounters of the Third Kind was Blade Runner. “We had learned about taking a photograph to a place that would acid etch that image into a thin sheet of brass so it had incredible detail,” remarks Trumbull. “You could light it from behind, put in smoke and it looked great. The acid-etched brass was used a lot in Close Encounters and in Blade Runner to build this infinite forced-perspective miniature of Los Angeles [which was based on an oil refinery]. It was an expansion of the lighting, smoke and  fiberoptics used on the mothership. We added projections of these explosions off the top of the towers that had a little light on them for interactivity.

“The key to the whole thing was futurist designer Syd Mead who conceptualized the city. I designed the Tyrell pyramid.” Advertisements are integrated into the urban landscape. “I came up with the idea of projecting images onto the blimp and sides of buildings with the 35mm projector onto these kind of LEGO textured things that look like light bulbs which predated what I thought would become true. Even in Los Angeles at the time they were experimenting with these signs on the freeway that would alert you to the traffic up ahead.”

Paramount approached Trumbull to fix the visual effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. “Airplanes have lights that are built into the tail fins that shine up on the tail and there are lights in the belly that shine on the logo. I said, ‘That’s what we have to do to make the Enterprise look great even if it’s in total darkness.’ I had them take it apart, rebuild lights into it, and then refinish the entire thing.”

Trumbull directed ‘Spock’s Spacewalk’. “I hired Bob McCall, who was one of the most talented and skilled astronomical space artists of all-time; he did these illustrations of seemingly irrelevant elements of planets, stars and streaks that became our guidelines for how we would do the sequence. Then we took this little miniature of Spock in his space pack and threw him through it similar to Keir Dullea going through the Stargate in 2001.” The most technologically complicated sequence was the wormhole. “The camera moved like it did for the Stargate sequence in 2001, and we modulated the laser beam so it changed shape and became complicated.”

“I started a research and development company owned by Paramount called Future General Corporation and pitched advanced ideas for the future of the entertainment industry,” states Trumbull. “Richard Yuricich [ASC] and I experimented with all of the film processes that were ever developed throughout the entire history of movies from 35mm to 70mm, D150, Todd-AO, Cinerama, CinemaScope and IMAX.” The two business partners also shot and projected at different frame rates: 24, 30, 36, 40, 48, 60, 66 and 72 fps. They discovered that viewers got more physiologically stimulated by the higher frame rates. “It led us to the Showscan process of 60 frames-per-second 70mm which was fabulous and still looked cinematic. I was under orders by Paramount management to develop a feature film that was to be shot in the process and that became Brainstorm [1983].”

Studio support waned for the project even after shifting to MGM as it was seen unrealistic to expect thousands of theaters to convert to the Showscan projection process. “I had to make the movie conventionally with it being a combination of 35mm and mono sound with 70mm and stereo sound.” During the course of the production lead actress Natalie Wood died under suspicious circumstances. “We had to finish Brainstorm on an insurance policy, so a lot of stuff that I had planned never came to fruition.”

A camera with a fish-eye lens shot footage during the principal photography of Brainstorm to be used for the memory balls.

“It’s a tragic situation where the profits generated by these movies are kept by the studio, director and actors, but almost never the visual effects people. Visual effects companies have to re-imagine themselves as producers, because they are the ones who are making the difference between success and failure.”

—Douglas Trumbull, VES

Memory balls going off into infinity made an appearance in Brainstorm, inspired by a pencil drawing by M.C. Escher featuring the artist looking at himself in a sphere that reflects the surroundings. “We had built a computerized multi-plane camera system that was used for Blade Runner and other movies. There are scenes in Brainstorm that have over 700 exposures on each frame of film. I had this whole thing in mind during the principal photography so we had another camera with a fish-eye lens shooting pieces of those shots. Interestingly, Brainstorm is now viewed as a prescient look at the potential of virtual reality.”

After deciding to leave Hollywood for the Berkshires, Trumbull created a 747-sized, 40-passenger flight-simulator ride called Tour of the Universe that played at the CN Tower in Toronto utilizing Showscan; he was then recruited by Steven Spielberg to revamp the Back to the Future theme-park ride.

“I reverse engineered the story around the efficiencies of the process so it hit the sweet spot between throwing up and being thrilled. It was a huge success running for 16 years at 115% of park capacity at Universal Parks in Osaka, Los Angeles and Orlando.” Trumbull established a new business venture called Ridefilm. “I doubled the frame rate to 48 frames a second, made the screen hemispherical, but with VistaVision instead of IMAX film, came up with a new motion-base design that is completely barf proof.” The company subsequently merged with IMAX. “We took IMAX public back in 1994, raised $350 million and brought it into the mainstream movie industry. We got AMC, Regal and other places to put IMAX theaters into multiplexes; that became what we now know as premium large-format exhibition of movies.”

Audience members are looking for a premium spectacular immersive experience. “We’re in the world where people think virtual reality is going to deliver that to them,” observes Trumbull. “From a perspective of storytelling, character development, plot, twists and suspension, all of the artform of cinema is almost impossible to execute in VR or AR because you’re giving too much control to the viewer. It becomes a completely different artform.

“I’m on the advisory board of Magic Leap which promises to be on the cutting edge of mixed reality. I have also been developing the Magi process which I think is much better and easier than VR. It’s large-group fully-immersive hemispherical-screen entertainment in 4K 3D at 120 fps.” The 3D theatrical experience is being undermined by low-brightness 2K 3D at 24 fps. “If you start out with 14 foot-lamberts and put a polarizing filter in front of the projector, the light is cut in half. When you put the glasses on the light is cut again. You end up with 3 to 6 foot-lamberts of brightness. 3D has gotten a bad name partly for that reason. Secondly,the studios don’t like shooting in 3D because it’s a pain in the neck and is complicated, so they shoot in 2D and dimensionalize in post production. That looks bad.”

Shooting the model of the Starfleet space station orbiting Earth for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Motion-control cameras were used to capture the ‘Spacedock’ sequence that reveals the USS Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

The DeLorean simulator used for the Back to the Future ride that ran for 16 years at Universal parks in Osaka, Los Angeles and Orlando.

The visual effects industry deserves more credit for their contributions to the cinematic experience. “In the making of a movie you have a screenplay, actors, director, producer, cinematographer, set dressers, makeup and wardrobe,” remarks Trumbull. “Because of the talent pool available in the visual effects industry, the visual effects are doing the lion’s share of the entire movie. They’re digitally building sets, locations, characters, wardrobe, makeup, and can add a tear to someone when they don’t feel a tear coming. People tend to be stuck in this mode of thinking that visual effects are just added to a movie. The entire artform of movies is an illusion, and visual effects has become the heart of the industry. It’s like a magic show.

“Sadly, visual effects companies go bankrupt every few months. It’s a tragic situation where the profits generated by these movies are kept by the studio, director and actors, but almost never the visual effects people. Visual effects companies have to re-imagine themselves as producers, because they are the ones who are making the difference between success and failure.”

Read more about Douglas Trumbull’s groundbreaking effects in the original Blade Runner here

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