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Special Effects by Douglas Trumbull
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Douglas Trumbull Profile

Douglas Trumbull may not be a household name, but most classic movie fans are very familiar with his work. As a true pioneer in the field of Special Effects, Trumbull has given his magic touch to films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and Blade Runner (1982).

Trumbull was born in Los Angeles on April 8, 1942. His father, Don, was a mechanical designer and engineer who had worked in Hollywood on 1939's The Wizard of Oz (and would later work with his son on several projects, including Star Trek: The Motion Picture), but when the United States entered World War II, he left to work in the aviation industry. Douglas Trumbull went to college intending to be an architect, but switched his major to illustration at El Camino College in Torrance, California. The cost of tuition prompted Trumbull to get a job at Graphic Films, a production company that made animated films for NASA and the United States Air Force. Trumbull's portfolio of space illustrations had impressed Graphic Films and he became head of the background department, where he worked on Lifeline in Space for the Air Force and Space in Perspective for NASA. Another of Graphic Films' projects was a film produced for the 1964/1965 New York World's Fair, entitled To the Moon and Beyond, described in the World's Fair Guide Book as "the most fantastic, incredible voyage through billions of miles of space...from its utmost outer reaches...back to the Earth itself, and into the center of the minutest atom. All through the magic of Cinerama!" Shot in the Cinerama 360 process, it was projected onto a 96 foot globe. One of the attendees of the Fair was director Stanley Kubrick.

Kubrick had been planning a film for MGM called Journey Beyond the Stars (the working title of 2001: A Space Odyssey) and was so impressed with To the Moon and Beyond that he sought out Graphic Films and requested some drawings. When Kubrick moved the production to the Borehamwood Studios in England, he cancelled the contract with Graphic Films and established his own team in the U.K. Trumbull, now out of work, called Kubrick and asked for a job. Kubrick agreed, and at the age of only twenty-three, Trumbull became the youngest member of Kubrick's special effects team.

His first assignment was as an airbrush artist, later making animated graphics to simulate computer readouts on the computer screens. Along the way, he painted star backgrounds and learned cinematography, animation, photography and miniatures. He helped create a system to automatically photograph spaceship models and developed new animation techniques. Trumbull's greatest contribution to the film – the "Star Gate" sequence - helped it to win an Academy Award® for Best Visual Effects.

After 2001, Trumbull returned to Los Angeles, where he started Trumbull Film Effects, which produced visual effects for TV commercials. He also created the network identification spot and graphics introducing programs on ABC. Trumbull Film Effects was hired, along with James Shourt to do effects for The Andromeda Strain (1971), directed by Robert Wise. At the same time, Trumbull was hired by Universal Studios to direct a film, despite having never directed before. After the success of Easy Rider (1969), Universal wanted to produce several low budget films to be partially financed by the studio in order to generate similar profits. Trumbull chose the Michael Cimino, Stephen Bochco, and Deric Washburn screenplay for a science-fiction film called Silent Running (1972). The film is set in a future in which the Earth is devastated by pollution and the last forests are placed onto spaceships. With a $1.3 million dollar budget and a crew that now included his father, Trumbull shot the film in only 32 days between February and March 1971, using college students for model-making and other special effects. The film received excellent reviews by the critics but did poorly at the box office due to a low key, ineffective marketing campaign.

Following Silent Running, Trumbull was to make a futuristic film called Pyramid, in which mankind struggles to survive while the sun burns out. As so often happens today, MGM went through changes in administration and the new team decided to cancel all the films greenlit by the previous administration, which killed Pyramid before it could be produced.

With the failure of Pyramid, Trumbull's company was running out of money, when a deal made with Frank Yablans, the President of Paramount, allowed him to create Future General Corporation, a research and development company in the coastal community of Marina del Rey. Financed by Paramount and run by Trumbull, they created new film technologies and film formats. In the first year alone, they developed Magicam, a new version of compositing in which an actor acted in front of a blue screen. 3D arcade games and an IMAX prototype were also developed at this time. The biggest project was Showscan. A fan of widescreen films since his childhood, Trumbull created a 65mm process, as opposed to the normal 35mm or the 70mm of other widescreen formats. In his experiments, Trumbull learned that when film was projected at 60 frames per second rather than the normal 24 frames, "the surface of the screen disappears. It becomes completely fluid; it's like a window on reality." Unfortunately, just as Trumbull was gearing up to fully develop Showscan, Paramount, like MGM went through a regime change. The new administration did not want to put any money into the project, but they didn't want Trumbull to leave the company, either. "I was just sitting around, twiddling my thumbs and collecting a paycheck," he said.

Trumbull was finally able to return to films with Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind in which his special effects earned him an Academy Award® nomination; followed quickly by Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The latter was highly challenging as Trumbull and his crew had only five months to create hundreds of effects when the original effects company was fired and their footage deemed unusable. Working round the clock, Trumbull was able to complete the film in time for the Christmas release. It earned Trumbull another Best Effects Oscar® nomination.

Another Academy Award® nomination was given to Trumbull for Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, in which the mold for the mothership from Close Encounters was used to make the landing dock on the police station roof. ("We had no money to invent new gizmos, so we took a very conservative approach.") Ten years after Silent Running, Trumbull was able to direct another film, Brainstorm (1983) which would be Natalie Wood's final movie.

In a 1993 interview with Popular Science, Trumbull prophetically theorized that "movies are dinosaurs" and that the future of entertainment would be interactive film experiences and ride simulations. To that end, he worked in rural Massachusetts doing multimedia technologies for theme parks like Universal Studios' Back to the Future ride, several World's Fairs, and developed the In Search of the Obelisk film experience for the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, which features Trumbull's Showscan technology.

In 1993, Douglas Trumbull was awarded a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award, along with Geoffrey Williamson, Robert Auguste and Edmund DiGiulio, for the "CP-65 Showscan Camera System for 65mm motion picture photography (the first modern 65mm camera developed in 25 years)."

by Lorraine LoBianco

Britton, Peter The WOW Factor Popular Science, Nov 93
LuBrutto, Vincent Stanley Kubrick
Morton, Ray Close Encounters of the Third Kind: the Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic
Rickitt, Richard Special Effects: The History and Technique
The Internet Movie Database
Turan, Kenneth Now in Theaters Everywhere: A Celebration of a Certain Kind of Blockbuster