An architect of dreams: Douglas Trumbull, 1942-2022…

The Architect.

The movie industry lost a true legend this week. Douglas Trumbull, a visual effects producer and film director who revolutionized the art of motion pictures over the past six decades, succumbed to complications from mesothelioma at age 79. Visual effects were literally in Trumpbull’s genes, as his father, Donald Trumbull, worked on the landmark effects for 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz.” Doug Trumbull’s own career began in his twenties with the production of a short film called “To the Moon and Beyond” (1964). That project brought him to the attention of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who hired the young film wizard to work on his groundbreaking “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). The spaceship miniatures and visual effects of that film have yet to be fully matched in their prodigious quality, even now, when computer graphics can deliver pretty much anything imaginable. During his career, Trumbull pioneered multiple techniques (slit-scan, smoke-lit miniatures, show-scan, etc), creating visual aesthetics still widely emulated today.

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A twentysomething Doug Trumbull working on a Lunar Bus, during production of “2001: A Space Odyssey”; the film that launched the film producer/artist’s career.

As a film director, Trumbull helmed the 1972 ecological-themed sci-fi film “Silent Running”, starring Bruce Dern, which is an unsung favorite of mine. He would later go on to direct “Brainstorm” (1983), starring Natalie Wood, Christopher Walken and Louise Fletcher. “Brainstorm” was a troubled production whose release was long-delayed, due to the tragic death of star Natalie Wood in November of 1981. The film was to showcase a new process of Trumbull’s known as “Show-Scan,” which would’ve ran the dream sequences of the movie in high resolution 70mm film at 60 frames per second, giving the ‘dreams’ of the film a kind of hyper-reality. The process would be reintroduced and rebranded in the digital age under the generic name of HFR (high frame rate). The process, used in Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” movies, and in James Cameron’s upcoming “Avatar” sequels, was met with mixed reactions, with many (including myself) thinking it looks more like videotape. Arguably, this effect might’ve been richer and more realistic if rendered in high-resolution, large-negative 70mm film, as Trumbull originally envisioned.

Rather than give a detailed accounting of the many accomplishments and technical innovations of Trumbull, perhaps it’s best if we just let his work speak for itself…

The Films of Douglas Trumbull.

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The 50 ft./15 meter filming ‘miniature’ of the spaceship USS Discovery, as seen in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The level of detail in the miniature (much of it kit-bashed from various commercially available model kits) made it easier to give the immense model an illusion of even greater size. The model would be recreated some 16 years later (in a smaller size, of course) for the sequel “2010: The Year We Make Contact” (1984), which Trumbull did not work on. All of the sets, miniatures and other production pieces were ordered destroyed by director Stanley Kubrick after filming on “2001” wrapped, as Kubrick didn’t want unscrupulous filmmakers to appropriate miniatures made for his film in lesser efforts–a common practice in those days (see: the extensively repurposed Robby the Robot costume and spaceship miniatures of 1956’s “Forbidden Planet”).
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The ‘star-gate’ sequence of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, as astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) rushes headlong into the transcendental dimensions of the alien monolith, through an unimaginable corridor of light and exotic imagery. The corridor sequence was made using a then-revolutionary “Slit-Scan” process; where parallel planes of glass moved along tracks across a stationary piece of backlit artwork, creating the illusion of a vast corridor of light and color.
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Admitting he underbid on the job, Douglas Trumbull would also produce the exotic microscopic visual effects for the deadly, crystalline-based airborne pathogen code-named “Andromeda” in 1971’s “The Andromeda Strain”. An excellent article by Jim Bloom details the film’s production: https://ascmag.com/articles/the-andromeda-strain-may-1971
Putting on the director’s hat, the 28 year-old Trumbull would direct Bruce Dern in the ecological sci-fi film “Silent Running” (1972), which saw 21st century Earth’s last remaining forest, tropic, desert, and other habitats placed in large bio-domes on gigantic space freighters orbiting near Saturn. The hope was to use the domes’ surviving flora and fauna to replenish a deforested Earth. Unfortunately, the order is given to destroy the domes, with the freighters returning to ‘commercial service’; once again putting profit over our planet’s fragile ecology. With rapidly escalating climate change in our own time, the movie is as relevant in 2022 as it was in 1972.
Using the decommissioned US naval vessel Valley Forge (CV-45) to shoot the interiors of the fictional spaceship Valley Forge, Trumbull was able to give his film tremendous production value on a somewhat limited budget, by using actual corridors, control centers and even hangars of the ship as sets. The sequence of the Valley Forge’s passage through Saturn’s rings (“shooting the rapids”) seemed directly inspired by Trumbull’s own star-gate sequence from “2001.” The film’s space freighter miniatures and FX shots would later be used to depict the “agro-ships” of the Colonial fleet, in Universal’s 1978 space-war saga “Battlestar Galactica”.
Douglas Trumbull would later work with director Steven Spielberg on the groundbreaking UFO epic “Close Encounters of the Third Kind. While Trumbull had pass up working on George Lucas’ Star Wars” (1977) in order to work on Spielberg’s UFO opus, I daresay it was worth it. Trumbull used large aquarium tanks, mixing salt and fresh water, along with injected layers of latex paints to create the complex optical cloud formations used to hide the alien spacecraft in the film. These cloud tanks would also be backlit at strategic points to give the illusion of bright alien spacecraft hiding within.
Worked on by several model makers, including Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Greg Jein, the truly awesome (in the genuine sense of the word) alien mothership was inspired by Spielberg’s nighttime drive past an electrical plant during the film’s shoot in rural India, as well as his own memories of seeing the breadth of San Fernando Valley’s street lights at night in southern California. Trumbull would shoot the meticulously-detailed miniature (which included a tiny R2-D2, as a nod to George Lucas) through layers of smoke…a look that gave the craft a hazy, ethereal, almost dreamlike appearance. Large, smoke-lit miniatures would become something of a Trumbull trademark in later projects.
Having seen “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979) on the big screen more times than I can remember, the film’s images combine the skills Trumbull and his team acquired from “2001…” and “Close Encounters…” with the majestically reimagined USS Enterprise and the immense, cloud-shrouded alien starship-being known as “V’ger.” Trumbull was brought onto Robert Wise’s troubled production in order to complete the visual effects after original FX contractor Robert Abel and Associates were unable to meet both quality standards for the film or its December 1979 release date. Having worked with director Robert Wise on “The Andromeda Strain,” Trumbull’s Future General FX company was already approached by Wise earlier, but was underbid by Abel & Associates for the job. To their credit, Abel’s team had completed several miniatures for the film, including the Enterprise and an orbiting space station, but Trumbull’s crew had to repaint and re-scale the miniature spacecraft for a new shooting standard. As he’d later recount, the heavy, unwieldy USS Enterprise model was not easy to work with during the film’s rushed production.
The beautiful smoke-lit “V’ger” interior would combine hard miniatures with a laser-lit fog tunneling effect very commonly used in the late 1970s in such productions as Disney’s “The Black Hole” (1979) and PBS production of “The Lathe of Heaven” (1980). The dramatic if arguably overlong passages through the V’ger spacecraft interiors were the result of the rushed effects being delivered into the film at the last minute, which didn’t allow for the usual editing finesse for such a sequence. Robert Wise has famously said that completed reels of the film were rushed to the premiere still wet in their film cans! As a result, many critics felt the long, unbroken FX shots tended to drag the film’s pacing down to a crawl. Personally, I didn’t mind the slower pacing of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” as it allowed the gorgeous imagery created by Trumbull and his team to settle nicely into my pupils.
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After his difficult rescue mission on “Star Trek,” Douglas Trumbull’s wizardry would be put to great use in what some consider his finest work, in director Ridley Scott’s 1982 dystopian sci-fi noir-thriller “Blade Runner”. In a rare, but welcome departure from space-based projects, Trumbull and his team built an entire cityscape of a hellish future Los Angeles. Giant skyscrapers and video advertisements abound as acid rain seemingly pours nonstop upon the environmentally-devastated cityscape. Blimps float by with huge Jumbotron-ads extolling the wonders of a “new life in the off-world colonies”, in an iconic image from the film.
Using multiple techniques, including smoke-lit miniatures, front-projection filmed ads on simulated video billboards and optically-inserted “Spinners” whooshing by the screen, Trumbull’s Los Angeles of an imaginary 2019 is both spellbindingly beautiful and nightmarish. For a detailed account of the making of the movie, including its complex visual FX work, seek out “Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner,” by Paul M. Sammon. Well worth a read.
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Doug Trumbull would also direct MGM’s troubled production “Brainstorm”, which was shot in 1981 but due to the death of star Natalie Wood, the film’s release would be delayed until 1983. Sadly, I have to confess that this is one film of Trumbull’s that I never caught theatrically, only seeing it on cable TV sometime in the 1990s. While its subject of using machines to read the minds and memories of people is a fascinating sci-fi notion, the film itself is not quite as wondrous as Trumbull’s other projects. It arguably might’ve been had Trumbull been allowed to shoot the ‘brainstorm’ memory sequences in his revolutionary Show-Scan process, but unfortunately, theatrical distributors balked at the necessary upgrades to their equipment needed for the 70mm, 60 frames-per-second projection. At the end of the day, economy won, and the film was released in standard 35 mm prints–though the FX were completed in 70mm.
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Despite its troubled production, Trumbull’s “Brainstorm” featured a terrific cast, including Christopher Walken, Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher, the late Natalie Wood, and seated in the chair, the late Oscar-winner Cliff Robertson. The tragic, stressful, and suspicious drowning death of Wood was a central reason that Trumbull chose to opt out of the director’s chair and return to the world of visual effects creation.

Trumbull himself would receive technical Oscars for his many innovations to film technology, though he would never receive an Oscar for the work in any of his groundbreaking films. “2001…” would win an Oscar for best Visual Effects at the 1969 Academy Awards ceremony, though the actual award went to director Stanley Kubrick, who was also credited as Visual Effects Producer.

Meeting Douglas Trumbull.

From Star Trek’s Las Vegas Convention of 2019.
The 40th Anniversary panel for “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979) featured Michael and Denise Okuda (longtime Star Trek graphic illustrators and authors of “The Star Trek Encyclopedia”), artist Rick Sternbach (longtime production artist for Star Trek) and Douglas Trumbull (far right).

In those innocent days before the COVID pandemic, I attended the annual Star Trek convention at the Rio hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Arriving with my wife and meeting several friends there as well, one of the panels I was keen on attending was the 40th anniversary panel for “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” The panel consisted of longtime Star Trek graphic designers/historians Michael and Denise Okuda, as well as longtime Star Trek designer/illustrator Rick Sternbach and, of course, FX legend Douglas Trumbull–whose well-documented role as the savior of the film’s visual effects was reiterated in firsthand accounts at the event.

A travel pod model docks with an oversized miniature section of the USS Enterprise during production of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”

At the panel, with accompanying slides, Trumbull told the story of his involvement with the troubled production, which has since been reevaluated by many as an unsung sci-fi masterpiece (an opinion I’ve had of the film since my teenage years). After the panel, the emcee announced that the Okudas, Rick Sternbach and Douglas Trumbull were going to be signing their autographs (for free!) in the back corner of the main auditorium (dubbed “The Leonard Nimoy Theater” for the event). Having already met Sternbach and the Okudas at other conventions (all lovely people), I was determined to meet Trumbull, a childhood hero of mine ever since I could remember reading his name in the pages of the now-defunct magazines Starlog, Cinefantastique and Cinefex.

My own photo of Doug Trumbull, taken in August of 2019, at the Star Trek Las Vegas convention. Meeting him was a genuine thrill, as I’ve been a fan of his work in visual effects since I was a kid. 

My turn in the queue came, and here I was, face-to-face with the legend himself–a quiet, soft-spoken gentleman under a single lamp in a darkened corner of the cavernous auditorium. I only had my convention program for him to sign, which he did. I babbled on about enjoying the panel and his movies, before shaking his hand and thanking him–hopeful and perhaps even a bit confident that I would see him again at another convention someday. Sadly, the COVID pandemic hit a few months later, and there would be few conventions in 2020, let alone appearances by Douglas Trumbull.

Unfortunately, Trumbull would be reaching the end of his own struggle with mesothelioma, sadly losing that battle yesterday, on February 7th of 2020. I count myself lucky that I got a chance to meet him, however briefly, though I’m selfishly lamenting the lost opportunities to meet him again someday…

Douglas Trumbull, 1942-2022.


Stay Safe.

To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic.  The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 900,000 (and around 5.7 million worldwide) as of this writing, so please wear masks and get vaccinated (with booster shots) as soon as possible to prevent infections and protect your loved ones through the holidays. Please continue to wear masks in public venues, and please remember that the N95/KN95 masks have proven more effective. With a bit of optimism and practicality, we can persevere our way through this pandemic. 

Mask up and stay safe!

Images: Paramount, Warner Bros., Universal, MGM, Alamy, DenOfGeek.com, Author.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. ghostof82 says:

    Trumbull’s passing was such a shock. Is it selfish to complain that so many people I read about in Starburst, Fantastic Films, Starlog etc in the 1970s and 1980s are now gone? I know its an inevitability of being 56 now myself but some of the greats that have gone over the years – Kubrick, Bradbury, Horner, Clarke, Sagan, Frazetta, Buscema, Cobb, just to name a few off the top of my head, and so many actors, too many to mention…

    It just gets depressing. And especially Trumbull. I’ve bought films on 4K UHD just because of his effects work, never mind the quality of the films themselves. And yes, while I never had opportunity to have met him, he was clearly a nice guy.

    Its also depressing that Silent Running gets increasingly timely as the years roll by. Maybe Trumbull’s film will turn out a better prediction than Kubrick’s 2001. Wouldn’t that be ironic.

    So anyway, last night I rewatched Brainstorm. Its not a great movie, more one of those ‘what might have been’ films, but I’ve always been a fan of it (I adore the music score by Horner). The Blu-ray isn’t a perfect image quality, but hey, Brainstorm’s not the kind of film to ever get an exhaustive remaster. It is an interesting viewing experience: the ‘ordinary’ sequences are pillar-boxed above, below and on the sides, almost to 1:66 frame, and the film only opens up to widescreen and stereo when in one of the ‘Brainstorm device’ sequences. It gives a minor insight into Trumbull’s original intentions. God bless him, how in the world he thought the industry would adopt Showscan just for his Brainstorm movie, upgrading cinemas and projectors to do it.

    1. The process he was pioneering in those days (Show-Scan) is more or less the analog film-version of what Peter Jackson & James Cameron are doing now, four decades later. Though, to be honest, 60 fps looks terrible to me, but I think that ‘soap opera’ effect I saw in “The Hobbit” would be mitigated if they used 70mm film, as Trumbull originally envisioned.

  2. scifimike70 says:

    R.I.P., Douglas, and thank you for all your wonderful visual effects. Especially the stargate for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    1. Using that brilliant slit-scan process. Still holds up very well today; better than most CGI, in fact.

      He was an innovator and there will never be another quite like him.

      1. scifimike70 says:

        I became a fan of that slit-scan effect before seeing it in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when I first saw it adapted for the Doctor Who intro in the mid and late 70s. It’s indeed better than most CGI.

  3. Dave B Bryan says:

    Re: GhostOf82’s comment:
    “Trumbull’s passing was such a shock. Is it selfish to complain that so many people I read about in Starburst, Fantastic Films, Starlog etc in the 1970s and 1980s are now gone? I know its an inevitability of being 56 now myself but some of the greats that have gone over the years – Kubrick, Bradbury, Horner, Clarke, Sagan, Frazetta, Buscema, Cobb, just to name a few off the top of my head, and so many actors, too many to mention… It just gets depressing. ”

    I’m age 59 and in the same boat. Some in the recent past that I’ve met at conventions whose deaths have hit me hard include Carmine Infantino, Berni Wrightson, Len Wein, Harlan Ellison, and very recently Neal Adams and George Perez.

    Harlan Ellison and Douglas Trumbull worked together on “The Starlost” TV series. Although there was obvious contention between them over the series. Boy, to be a fly on the wall and have heard THOSE conversations !

    I was unaware till your post that artist Ron Cobb had passed.

    The blessing is that these creators will live on and continue to speak to us forever through their work. That much endures.

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