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Past Article

From the Drawing Board to Immersive Media with Douglas Trumbull
By Sean Axmaker
January 9, 2006 - 12:11 AM PST

"It was an incredible break."

Director, special effects pioneer, inventor - Douglas Trumbull is unique among American directors. At the age of 23, he was part of the team that pioneered the next generation of cinema special effects in Stanley Kubrick's visionary 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was an education you couldn't get in film school and he continued to expand his skills and techniques in such films as The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He made his debut as a director on the ecologically minded Silent Running, where his special effects crew included John Dykstra, who went on to become the Oscar-winning special effects supervisor of Star Wars and many other films, and Richard Yuricich, who partnered with Trumbull on numerous projects.

Trumbull's Brainstorm was all but orphaned by MGM and his directorial efforts since have been outside the Hollywood system, including short films in his own high-definition Showscan process (a large-frame film format that runs at 60 frames a second) and Back to the Future... The Ride, a multi-media mix of film, sound, and simulator ride. Yet to this day, Trumbull's name is still most closely linked with 2001 and his special effects work on the cult science fiction classic Blade Runner.

Trumbull continues to explore the boundaries of what he calls "immersive media" - 3-D, interactive media, virtual reality - and has been partnering with Professor Tom Furness of University of Washington's HITLab (the Human Interface Technology Lab) with some of his projects. In November, 2005, while in Seattle to meet with Furness, he made an appearance at the Science Fiction Museum for a special showing of Silent Running. In the midst of his multi-media presentation - using still and video footage launched from his lap-top to accompany his talk about Silent Running - he brought some of the working props form the film and donated a drone arm - his gift to the Science Fiction Museum.

At the end of the very long day (after his exhaustive presentation, Trumbull gamely spent over an hour answering questions from the audience), he agreed to sit down for an interview over a late dinner, where we talked about his work with Stanley Kubrick, his own films as a director, and why he hasn't directed a Hollywood film in over 20 years.

Douglas Trumbull at the Science Fiction Museum

You had trained as an illustrator. How did you wind up in filmmaking and special effects?

The story goes something like this. I was going to school at this community college in LA, kind of a learning illustration. I started out studying architecture and this was the pre-architecture curriculum, which was drawing, painting, water colors, graphic design. In that very first year I realized that I'm not specifically interested in architecture, I'm interested in this other thing. I started painting and illustrating and I had an air brush and I was trying to learn the skills of illustration, but I was a science fiction guy, so I had my little portfolio that was full of sci-fi, Analog magazine cover kind of stuff, and I went into Hollywood looking for a job because I had no money. I couldn't afford to stay in school. I took my portfolio around to animation studios, because that was my first inclination, animation and somehow making illustrations move. I would talk to these really nice guys and they would look at my portfolio and say, "You're not in the right place. It's great to have you here, but you should try out this place across town called Graphic Films because they're doing space films."

So I went over there and met Con Pederson, who worked on 2001, and Ben Jackson, and they were both mentors to me. They said, "Yeah, we might could use somebody like you. We'll give you a task. Paint this satellite and come back tomorrow morning," which I did, and I got a job immediately and worked at Graphic Films for a couple years.

I did some obscure films for the Air Force about the space program and then there was this one film about the Apollo program that was kind of interesting. I was painting lunar modules and lunar surfaces and the vertical assembly building on Saturn 5 rockets and animated this space stuff. And then Graphic Films got a couple of contracts to do films for the New York World's Fair in '64. It was a two year fair in 1964 and 65, and one of them was this dome thing called To The Moon And Beyond, which was kind of a Powers of Ten movie. It went from the big bang to inside an atom in ten minutes.

Is this like a 360 presentation?

It was a theater that was basically like a planetarium, a dome screen with a projector in the middle with a fish eye lens and projectors facing straight up, with maybe 400 people at this planetarium, and I did all the illustrations for it. Stanley Kubrick, who was living in New York at the time, came to the World's Fair when he was planning 2001, which was at that time called "Journey Beyond The Stars." So he's looking at all these shows and he really liked this movie and he tracked down Graphic Films, calls them up and talks to my boss, Wes Novros, and Graphic got this contract to start doing preliminary designs for 2001, doing lunar landscapes, space stations, space craft, landers, moon buses, all that kind of stuff, based on this very early draft screenplay. I was working on these things, mostly pencil illustrations, and some of them are in this book called Special Effects by Christopher Finch.

Then Kubrick decided to make the movie in London and I got laid off. The contract was over and he was going to make it somewhere else. I said, "This sounds like a good deal, I want to get in on this movie." I called my boss, Con Pederson, and I said, "I want to work on this movie, how do I contact this Kubrick guy?" He said, "I have this contract, I can't talk about it, I have a nondisclosure agreement," but I wasn't, so I said, "I'm not under contract and I'm unemployed, please help me out, Con."

So he said, "Well, Kubrick's phone number is penciled in the corner of the bulletin board downstairs in the office." Literally, that was the connection. I didn't even work there, but I went in the back door, because there wasn't any security at the time, I find this little phone and I cold call Stanley Kubrick and say, "I've been working on these drawings and I want a job," and he said, "Okay." He bought me a plane ticket and I went over there. His expectation initially was animation techniques like I had been doing before, because we'd been doing space craft and rocket flames and all kinds of animation techniques, so one of the first tasks that came up was all the animation related to HAL read-outs, the fake computer graphics. So we started filming that. Tell me if I'm making the story much too long because I can go on forever about it.

Oh no, please, provide all the detail you want.

Okay, so I'm there, and I'm kind of getting the drift about this movie, which was already well underway. A lot of the production design was underway and sets were being constructed and I was the new man on the block. It was a movie produced under this thing called the ED Program, which meant only one percent of the crew could be American and 99 percent had to be British and, in exchange for that, you got this tax break. I was part of that one percent and when Con's contract expired he was able to come over and join the crew.

So I'm there, I'm just this young guy. I was never even involved with the camera department at Graphic Films. I was just doing these illustrations, and we started taking off were you would have with normal animation. It didn't take but a few days to realize we are never, ever going to get done. If you do one frame at a time, then you need sixteen movies running simultaneously endlessly on a set while actors move around or the centrifuge rotates and we were simply never going to get done. We're going to be six years making these read-outs. So at that time, Wally Gentleman, who had come from the Canadian Film Board to help with the special effects, he helped me rig up this animation stand which was not your normal animation stand. It was a 35mm camera facing down onto a sheet of glass with lights underneath and an Ingenue zoom lens or something and a motor, and we had to figure out how to shoot animation on the fly. Put the artwork under it, snap frames, put more artwork, snap some more frames, and keep rolling.

And that was the beginning of my transformation of having to learn about photography and having to learn new and different ways to solve these problems and having the support of Stanley Kubrick who said, "Yeah, get the animation camera, you need a piece of glass? Get it. You need a light? Get it. You need to go downtown to buy a bunch of lithograph materials? Go." This led to this process of creative things, technical solutions, photography and art, all going on simultaneously. I was 23. It was an incredible break, but I was the right guy for the job because other things started to develop that needed weird solutions.

next >>>

"It was an incredible break."
"I became a director by default."
"I'm kind of an oddball in the movie industry."

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Sean Axmaker
A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.

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