Future of Film: VFX Legend Douglas Trumbull's Plan to Save the Movies
The 72-year-old, who's best known for his work on '2001: A Space Odyssey,' says he's figured out how to win the battle against big TVs and smartphones — from a studio on his farm in the Berkshires
A version of this story appeared in the Sept. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.
On a sunny August day in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, Douglas Trumbull, the 72-year-old visual effects legend, welcomes me to Little Brook Farm, the sprawling 50-acre property on which he lives and works with his wife of 13 years, Julia Trumbull, as well as an assortment of free-range donkeys, goats, chickens, roosters, cats and dogs. In addition to their home and animals, the compound also houses Trumbull Studios, a 10-building, state-of-the-art filmmaking facility that was financed with his proceeds from the IPO of IMAX Corp., where he once worked. "We're not a movie lab in the sense that we process chemicals," says Trumbull of the operation. "We're a movie lab in the sense that we're looking for the future of movies."
Trumbull drives me a short distance from his home to a full-size soundstage and escorts me into a screening room that he has constructed to meet his ideal specifications: a wide wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling curved screen, with surround sound, steeply rigged stadium seating and a 4K high-resolution projector. As I put on specially designed 3D glasses and settle into stadium seating, he tells me, with an unmistakable hint of nervousness, "You're one of the first people on the planet to see this movie."
Ten minutes later, the lights come back up and I sit in stunned silence. The short that I have just seen, UFOTOG (a blending of the words "UFO" and "fotog," the latter slang for press photographer), is stunning not because of its story — we've all seen movies about UFOs — but because it shows, as it was designed to do, what movies can look like if theaters, studios and filmmakers embrace the MAGI process through which Trumbull brought it to the screen: bigger, brighter, clearer and with greater depth-of-field than anything ever seen in a cinema before.
All of the aforementioned conditions are part of the MAGI equation, but the most essential element is the rate of frames per second at which a film is projected. In the beginning, the Lumiere brothers projected films at 18 fps, slow enough to result in the appearance of flickering — hence the early nickname for the movies, "the flickers" or "the flicks." That figure eventually increased to 24 fps, and has remained there, for the most part, ever since.
In 2012, Peter Jackson dared to release The Hobbit's first installment at 48 fps, which was supposed to create a heightened sense of realism, but which instead struck many as strange-looking and some even as nauseating. Many deemed the experiment a failure. Trumbull disagreed. He felt that if a digitally shot film was projected even faster — markedly faster, as in 120 fps, via a bright projector and onto a big screen — then the movie screen itself would seemingly disappear and serve effectively as a window into a world on the other side that would appear as real as the world in which one sits.
Trumbull was more or less born into the VFX business. His father, Donald Trumbull, worked in special effects in Hollywood — "He was on a fishing rod with a monofilament line moving the tiger's tail in The Wizard of Oz," his son says proudly — and the youngster quickly developed an interest in movie magic. He decided, however, to become an architect, which led him to take classes in illustration, and his talents at creating photorealistic art landed him a job at Graphic Films, which produced shorts for NASA and the Air Force and had been contracted to make a film for the 1964 World's Fair in New York.
To the Moon and Beyond featured a 70 mm circular image projected onto a dome screen and took viewers on a journey "from the Big Bang to the microcosm in 15 minutes." Two of the thousands who saw it were Stanley Kubrick, the filmmaker, and Arthur C. Clarke, the writer, who came away from it convinced that an A-level sci-fi film — which eventually became 2001: A Space Odyssey — was possible. Kubrick contracted Graphic Films to produce conceptual designs for the project, but, once it got off the ground, moved it to London, at which point 23-year-old Trumbull cold-called the director and got a job on the film. His greatest contribution to it was devising a way to create a believable "Star Gate" effect, representing "the transformation of a character through time and space to another dimension." Even though Kubrick alone claimed screen credit and an Oscar for the film's VFX, Trumbull instantly became a name in the business.
A few years later, he made his directorial debut with Silent Running (1972), a well-received film that landed him deals at Fox, MGM and Warner Bros. — but all of them "unraveled for stupid reasons." By 1975, "desperate because you can't live on development deals," he and Richard Yuricich proposed the creation of the Future General Corporation, through which they would try to identify ways to improve the technology used to make films. Paramount agreed to sponsor the endeavor — which, to them, was a tax write-off — in return for 80 percent ownership. Within the first nine months of its existence, Trumbull says, "We invented Showscan [a manner of projecting films at 60 fps]. We invented the first simulator ride. We invented the 3D interactive videogame. And we invented the Magicam process [by which actors can perform in front of a blue screen, onto which nonexistent locations can be projected to create virtual realities]." And yet, in the end, Paramount "saw no future in the future of movies" and failed to support their efforts, devastating Trumbull, who was under exclusive contract to the studio for the next six years. (The studio's one gesture that he did appreciate: loaning him out to Columbia to do the special effects for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)
Trumbull got out of his Paramount contract in 1979 thanks to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The original effects team that had been engaged for the highly anticipated film couldn't handle the job, something the studio realized only six months before its long-scheduled Christmas release date. The studio begged Trumbull to take over, and he agreed to do so — provided he was paid a considerable fee and released from his contract. He got what he requested and, to the detriment of his health, also got the job done on time.
Newly a free agent, Trumbull continued to take on special effects jobs for others — for instance, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) — but his primary focus was on directing a film of his own that would demonstrate the capabilities of Showscan. For the project, which he called Brainstorm, he secured a top-notch cast, led by Natalie Wood, and a major distributor, MGM. Production got underway and was almost completed when, on Nov. 29, 1981, tragedy struck: Wood drowned under circumstances that remain mysterious to this day. Since Wood had only a few small scenes left to shoot, Trumbull felt that he could easily finish the film, but MGM, which was in dire financial straits, filed what he deemed a "fraudulent insurance claim" because "they wanted to get out of it."
When Trumbull, interviewed by Lloyd's of London, candidly shared his views, MGM turned on him and the project. "I was afraid for my life," he says. "My lawyer said, 'Don't get on any airplane that's been booked by MGM.' So I said, 'Whoa, this is Hollywood? This is the movie industry? This is what I love?' That was when I decided, 'I'm not going to direct anymore. This is just too hard.' I came here to the Berkshires a few months after we finally did get it finished, and I was almost PTSD. I was completely freaked out. And it took me several years of therapy and whatever to kinda get myself back together."
Then, in 1990, he was approached about making a Back to the Future ride for Universal Studios venues in Florida, Hollywood and Japan. Others had been unable to conquer it, but he made it happen — and in a groundbreaking way: "It took you out of your seat and put you into the movie. You were in a DeLorean car. You became Marty McFly. You became a participant in the movie. The movie was all around you." It ran for 15 years, he says, but was "dismissed as a theme park amusement." He felt it was something more. "This was a moment where, for the first time in history, you went inside a movie." Even though others failed to see larger possibilities, he says, "That kinda kept me going for a long time because it validated that we could be here in the Berkshires and make breakthroughs that no one else was able to do in Hollywood or anywhere else."
In 2009, James Cameron's Avatar, a digitally shot 3D production that grossed a record $2.8 billion worldwide, changed everything. Its success spurred, at long last, filmmakers to transition en masse to digital photography and theaters to transition en masse to digital projection — at which point Trumbull made a crucial discovery. He realized that digital projectors run at 144 fps — twice as fast as Showscan had been able to — but films were still being made at 24 fps, with each frame just flashing multiple times. "Could we do a new frame every flash?" he wondered. If so, he reasoned, it might just give people a reason to put down their smartphones, tablets and laptops and actually buy a ticket to see a movie in a theater.
After years of work on his farm, Trumbull is finally ready to unveil UFOTOG. Its first public presentation will take place on Sept. 11 as part of the Toronto International Film Festival's Future of Cinema conference (at which Trumbull will also give a keynote address), and it will also screen days later at the IBC Conference in Amsterdam. At both venues, he says, his message will be rather straightforward: "It's not rocket science, guys. It's just a different shape, a different size, a different brightness and a different frame rate. Abandon all that crud that's leftover from 1927. We're in the digital age. Get with it."
The cost of these changes, he insists, will be rather negligible: projectors are already equipped to handle faster frame rates, and would require only slightly more data time and render time; theaters are already adopting brighter projectors that employ laser illumination, which uses a longer-lasting bulb to produce twice the amount of light; and theaters, he believes, will soon recognize that they are in the "real estate business" and that it is in their interest to have fewer total screens but more big screens, for which the public has demonstrated a willingness to pay a premium.
Trumbull's main objective, though, is "to show the industry what it is possible to do" with MAGI. He says he's "dying to show" UFOTOG to filmmakers such as Jackson, Cameron and Christopher Nolan, whom he regards as kindred souls. But mostly, he wants to challenge the industry one more time, warning it, "If you want people to come to theaters, you better do something different."
Read more from The Hollywood Reporter's "Future of Film" special report: