Trumbull, Douglas

Trumbull, Douglas
(1942– )
   The special effects director on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was born on April 8, 1942, in Los Angeles. He studied architecture at El Camino College in Torrance, California. (PIERS BIZONY, in his book on STANLEY KUBRICK, mistakenly calls Trumbull “a Canadian lad. ”) Trumbull then joined Graphic Films in Los Angeles to collaborate on recruiting films for NASA and the U. S. Air Force. Kubrick happened to see Trumbull’s first promotional short, To the Moon and Beyond (1964), which was shown at the New York World’s Fair. He invited Trumbull to work on the special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) while Trumbull was still with Graphic Films. He eventually asked Trumbull to come over to England to be one of the supervisors of the special photographic effects on 2001, the film which confirmed Trumbull’s reputation as a special effects expert.
   Trumbull recalls in Bizony’s book that he jumped at the chance to work on 2001 in England. He phoned Kubrick and said,“Hey, I want really to stick with this thing. Can I come over and work on it now?”“Sure,” Kubrick replied. Trumbull comments, “I sensed this was a big opportunity for me, though when it began I really had no idea where it was going. ” As one of Kubrick’s staff put it, “Douglas Trumbull had Kubrick’s greatest respect. He worked very hard and very creatively. He was a driven young man. ” Kubrick put Trumbull in charge of a crew of special effects artists. “The whole crew—we were learning as we went along,” says Trumbull. “It was like a film school for me. ”
   In May 1966, Kubrick finished shooting with the cast and then went on to spend another year and a half creating the 205 special effects process shots which comprise about half of the total film and account for more than half of the movie’s budget. Kubrick did everything possible to make each special effect completely authentic, seeing to it that it conformed to what scientists projected, on the basis of known data, that space travel would be like in the 21st century.
   When the script called for a process shot that no known cinematic technique could provide, Kubrick, Trumbull, and their technical staff had to devise ways of creating the effect in question. Jeremy Bernstein, who visited the set of 2001 while the film was in production at Borehamwood studios, outside London, remembers watching a group of Trumbull’s staff working on minutely detailed scale models of spacecrafts that would be made to look, through the wonders of process photography, like the real thing. (Kubrick referred to their working area in the studio as “Santa’s Workshop. ”) Trumbull even studied model spaceships which he had gotten from an international model exhibition in Germany in order to help him with the design of the Discovery, the spaceship which is on an expedition to Jupiter in the film. Each special effects shot might include several elements, each of which had to be photographed separately. For example, one shot might include a scale model spacecraft sailing through the atmosphere with drawings of the various planets in the background that would be visible at this point in flight. The shot of the spacecraft would have to be superimposed on the shots of the planets in order to create a single image on the screen.
   Joseph McBride writes that Trumbull and Kubrick experimented with concepts of alien beings which materialize at various points in the movie, but the tests proved too costly and time-consuming. Kubrick finally decided not to risk losing credibility with the audience by showing aliens on screen. As Kubrick said to JOSEPH GELMIS, a filmmaker cannot design a preternatural being “that doesn’t look either very humanoid or like the traditional bug-eyed monster of pulp fiction. ” He continued, “You can’t hit something like this head-on—without its looking like instant crackpot speculation. You’re got to work through dramatic suggestion. ” As a result, he and Trumbull decided against presenting these extraterrestrial creatures in concrete form. “The film’s elliptical approach,” concludes McBride, “befitted Kubrick’s detached, cerebral view of mankind’s first contact with extraterrestrials. ”
   The special effects work was the principal cause of the escalation of the film’s budget, and Kubrick had an abiding gratitude for ROBERT O’BRIEN, who was in charge of production at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer when 2001 was being made. “He realized,” Kubrick told Gene Phillips, “that it was necessary for us, somehow, to overcome the previously unsolved problems of making the special effects in the film look completely realistic, and he understood that new techniques were being devised. There were probably great pressures on him from the other studio executives, but he never mentioned them to me. ”
   Trumbull’s crowning achievement was the dazzling cosmic ride experienced by astronaut David Bowman (KEIR DULLEA), the only astronaut to survive the Discovery mission to Jupiter. At the film’s finale, Bowman goes off in a space capsule to encounter fresh experiences in space. For this segment of the picture, sometimes called “the Stargate corridor of light” sequence,Trumbull employed aerial shots of Monument Valley, Utah, photographed through colored filters, which were combined with footage utilizing a “slit-scan photography process,” which creates the impression of headlong motion. “One of the best examples of my contribution to the film is what’s known as the slit-scan sequence, the Stargate sequence,” Trumbull explains in JAN HARLAN’s documentary, STANLEY KUBRICK: A LIFE IN PICTURES (2001). “There was a lot of evolution to the concept of how you would be transported from one dimension to another; it was never really solved in the screenplay. I had remembered knowing of an experimental filmmaker who was exploring this whole idea of long time exposures; while the camera shutter was open he would move all kinds of art work or slits around in front of the camera to scan colored objects onto the film in a rather unusual way.
   “And I thought, if you took what he was doing, you could create this streak exposure—a streak exposure is like a time exposure of car headlights on a freeway. If you leave the camera shutter open, the car headlights become a streak of light. It occurred to me that there might be some way to apply that to the Stargate sequence. ” He walked immediately down to Kubrick’s office and said, “Stanley, I think this is the answer to the Stargate. ”Kubrick replied,“I think you could be right. You have carte blanche to do whatever you need to do. ” That incident typified Trumbull’s experience on 2001, he continued; “support from Stanley to experiment, take risks and produce something that is different. ”
   For the slit-screen effect, Frank Miller writes, Trumbull “kept the camera shutter open on a single frame of illuminated artwork, while moving the light source toward the camera. ” When the entire reel of finished and processed footage was projected on a motion picture screen at the normal speed of 24 frames per second, the effect was one of rapid motion, sometimes creating fantastic patterns. The resulting kaleidoscope of colorful images gives the viewer the impression that Bowman is flying through the vast outreaches of space. “The Stargate tunnel of light,” Bizony affirms, “was Douglas Trumbull’s particular achievement. ” Kubrick spurred Trumbull on to create this episode as imaginatively as possible. “Kubrick’s attitude was that people never knew what they were capable of achieving if they didn’t keep trying, and he didn’t know precisely what he wanted until he saw it,” says Trumbull. He concludes, “I was supposed to be on the film for nine months and ended up there for more than two years. ”
   Bizony asserts that the Motion Picture Academy’s bestowing a single Academy Award on Kubrick for best visual effects was an inadequate accolade for 2001. Certainly Trumbull and the other principal special effects artists should have received individual Oscars along with Kubrick. Yet Trumbull was often referred to in the press in subsequent years as the artist who “did the special effects for 2001. ”Trumbull remembers that Kubrick would phone him, after reading such an item and inquire, “Why are you claiming to be the only guy who did the special effects?”Trumbull would then explain, “I never said that”: He points out that he feels that the special photographic effects in the picture were designed by him and his colleagues and directed by Kubrick. “I think it is one of those rare times in movie history,” he points out, “when a director was so integrally involved in the effects; but it was a collaborative process involving a lot of people. ” Critic Barry Norman said it all when he stated that 2001 “is so imaginative, it breaks new ground”; so that “it stands as a landmark in the evolution of cinema. ”
   Trumbull turned director himself after 2001 and made Silent Running (1971), with Bruce Dern, about botanists in 2001 attempting to restore vegetation on planet Earth in the wake of a nuclear explosion. He then created the special effects for STEVEN SPIELBERG’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which concerns aliens landing in a spaceship in Indiana farm country. Joseph McBride cites Spielberg as paying tribute to Trumbull by saying, a year after the movie was released, “I’d still be on the Columbia back lot trying to get a cloud to materialize out of thin air,” if it had not been for Trumbull’s contribution to the movie. Trumbull then did the special effects for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), with Harrison Ford tracing down androids in 21st-century Los Angeles.
   Still,Trumbull hankered to return to directing, so he took over a stalled project, Brainstorm (1983). His technological expertise, however, could not save the film, which was doomed not only by a weak script but by the death by drowning of star Natalie Wood late in production. After directing two more films, New Magic (1984) and Leonardo’s Dream (1989), both of which sank without a trace,Trumbull moved away from Hollywood altogether.
   As Douglas Gomery indicates,Trumbull founded Future Generation Corporation in order to develop his pet project, Showscan: “Shot at sixty frames per second (versus twenty-four frames per second for traditional 35mm film),Trumbull sought to bombard the viewer with 150 percent more visual information. By using a larger screen, set closer to the audience, plus a powerful, state-of-the-art stereo sound system, plus 70mm film stock, Trumbull wanted to make the ticket buyer unaware she or he was even watching a motion picture. ” But Trumbull’s dream never passed the experimental stage. He was unable to persuade the mass audience to want this “super realism. ”Trumbull gave up and turned to designing rides for theme parks, among them the “Back to the Future” attraction at the Universal Studios theme park.
   His work as special effects artist for the films of Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, and Ridley Scott remains his finest, lasting achievement.
   ■ Bernstein, Jeremy, “Profile: Stanley Kubrick,” in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews, ed. Gene Phillips (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), pp. 21+;
   ■ Bizony, Piers, 2001: Filming the Future (London: Aurum Press, 2000), pp. 121+;
   ■ Gelmis, Joseph,“The Film Director as Superstar: Stanley Kubrick,” in Stanley Kubrick Interviews, ed. Gene Phillips (Jackson: University Press, 2001), pp. 80+;
   ■ Gomery, Douglas,“Douglas Trumbull,” in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers:Writers and Production Artists, vol. 4, rev. ed. , ed. Grace Jeromsky (Detroit: St. James Press, 1997), pp. 836+;
   ■ McBride, Joseph, Steven Spielberg (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997);
   ■ Miller, Frank Movies We Love: Classic Films (Atlanta:Turner, 1996);
   ■ Norman, Barry, The 100 Best Films of the Century (New York: Carol, 1993).

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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