Douglas Trumbull – an appreciation

Doug…my mind is going…I can feel it…

Don’t worry, this isn’t an Obituary, just a tribute to Douglas Trumbull, and a snap shot of his career and influence.

2001: A Space Odyssey may be over 40 years old but its special effects laid the groundwork for the computerised methods of today. Trumbull started off on the project as an illustrator but ended up helping devise many of the complex photographic systems which the film needed. The “beyond the infinite” tunnel of light that the Bowman character travels through at the climax was largely his own work. An incredibly time consuming and complex procedure yet using simple methods, the end result was a spectacular kaleidoscopic display that led to MGM marketing the film as “the ultimate trip” on its second release.


However, Kubrick receiving the Oscar for best visual effects was a touchy subject. As an enormously collaborative effort, Trumbull felt the effects were directed by Kubrick, not designed by him. Unfortunately, due to the press simplifying matters by crediting Trumbull as the sole effects creator, Kubrick felt he was taking all the credit and they never really spoke again.

Trumbull wanted to spread his wings and his first directing project, Silent Running, was another influential but less successful science fiction film. It featured a rogue astronaut / botanist and trio of cute robots tending America’s last great forests in giant bio-domes on a spaceship travelling our solar system. Although he was perceived as a technician and could only scrape together a minimal budget, his canny money saving methods and a handy stash of second hand footage went a long way.

The original screenplay for 2001 had Discovery travel to Jupiter. When it became apparent that they wouldn’t be able to successfully realise the planet in time, Saturn was substituted. So later, Trumbull had the ground work for his planetary effects already done and had time to complete the work under budget.

Trumbull also saved money by shooting on an old aircraft carrier instead of a studio, giving its name of Valley Forge to the spaceship in the film. His most original idea came to him after watching the film Freaks. In that picture a character born without legs walks on his hands. Trumbull hired double amputeees to do the same inside the Huey, Dewy and Louie robot costumes.


Although he didn’t go on to any great success as a director, Trumbull continued to carve out a creative swathe through the visual effects industry. He was responsible for effects in many iconic movies, including Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Blade Runner, as much responsible for the look of those films as their talented directors.

It was during the making of Close Encounters that he was approached to do Star Trek The Motion Picture, but his schedule conflicted. When it later transpired the crew hired weren’t up to the job Trumbull was able to come on board. Working around the clock he and his team again produced some of the most beautiful effects work ever seen on screen. Who can forget Kirk’s inspection of the refitted Enterprise in dry dock? Whether you like it or not, you can’t help but admire the visual aesthetic he helped create in that film.

He continues to be credited as an influence by filmmakers, with Duncan Jones, director of retro “hard” sci-fi film Moon, being especially vocal in his praise. Trumbull was also instrumental in developing IMAX, used to such stunning effect by Christopher Nolan in The Dark Knight.

Douglas Trumbull and David Larson’s sadly cancelled documentary on the making of 2001: A Space odyssey was I feel partly his way of trying to set the record straight with the Kubrick estate by telling the whole story of how that momentous project came to fruition. It would have used innovative green screen to film interviewees as if on the actual sets and locations, Douglas Trumbull once again displaying what a groundbreaking talent he remains, and why he thoroughly deserved his lifetime achievement Oscar. Unused footage from 2001: A Space Odyssey has been discovered in a vault, including a nixed pre-film sequence of scientists discussing the latest theories on space travel and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Perhaps Warner Home Video intend to release an updated Blu Ray before they will consider Trumbull’s project.

As a nice consolation though, on February 7, Douglas Trumbull was chosen by the Visual Effects Society as the recipient of the 2012 Georges Melies Award. The award honours individuals who have “pioneered a significant and lasting contribution to the art / and or science of the visual effects industry by way of artistry, invention and groundbreaking work.” Trumbull’s pioneering work can also be seen in the creation / pre-life sequence of Terence Malick’s The Tree Of Life. He photographed chemical reactions in petri dishes and paint movement in water tanks: almost a throwback to techniques he pioneered in 2001 and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.


Originally posted 2012-05-31 16:21:23. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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