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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (alllovely 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 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.
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.