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VES Honoree and Effects Guru Douglas Trumbull on How Technology, Spectacle Can Rescue Hollywood

The venerated filmmaker and industry pioneer tells THR he's developing a project he claims is "way beyond anything that Peter Jackson and Jim Cameron have been doing."

Douglass Trumbull Panavision Camera - H 2012
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Within three years of starting his Hollywood career, Douglas Trumbull changed the moviemaking process irrevocably; working with Stanley Kubrick on 1968’s 2011: A Space Odyssey, when he was barely 25, he not only created a landmark cinematic experience, but pioneered special-effects techniques which filmmakers continue to use even today. Since then he’s done Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, and most recently, Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. And almost 45 years later, Trumbull still doggedly pushes the industry to grow and change, even if he finds resistance – or worse, indifference - to innovations which he claims will not just revolutionize current technologies but resuscitate the dwindling receipts studios and exhibitors try to squeeze from the theatrical experience.

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At the Visual Effects Society’s 10th annual awards ceremony on Feb. 7, The Hollywood Reporter sat down for a lengthy chat with Trumbull about his award, which he sees as a symbol that at least a few of his industry colleagues are paying attention to his technological crusade. “This is really a nice honor,” Trumbull told THR just minutes after receiving the Georges Melies Award. “There’s a nice buzz amongst my peer professionals who have recognized that the thing I’m trying to do is actually important. I think that’s kind of what led to the [Gordon E. Sawyer] Academy Award and this award, that they’re saying that, ‘hey, maybe Doug’s on the right track after all’.”

In addition to describing the technological changes he’s been championing for decades, and the obstacles he’s faced in getting them implemented, Trumbull offered some details about a film project he hopes to get off the ground which he hopes will inspire nothing less than “re-evaluating the future of cinema,” and reflected on both the ups and downs of his career and a filmmaker and innovator.

The Hollywood Reporter: At this point, what does it take for you to get involved in a project in the way that you did with Tree of Life?

Douglas Trumbull: It’s just to have an idea or a vision that I know is achievable. It’s not impossible, it’s not unrealistic, I have to have a really solid, educated guess that what we’re going to attempt to do is actually going to succeed and work. And that’s kind of what I do.

THR: In an age when it seems like anything is possible, where’s the threshold for what’s achievable and what isn’t?

Trumbull: My experience has shown me that in spite of the fact that there’s incredible genius in this room, with these master craftsmen that are really holding up the tentpoles and making these amazing visions that everybody wants to see, the latest amazing thing, amazing monster, amazing place, whatever it is, there are some structural problems inside the motion picture industry and the entertainment industry, which is that the studios who are producing and distributing the content have virtually no technological infrastructure inside their management structure. They rely entirely on third-party purveyors of special services, whether they’re actors, directors, or special effects people, and so they don’t really understand the technology of their own medium. I think it would be not difficult to talk to the management of any major studio and ask them what a double-bladed shutter is in a 35mm projector and they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. If you asked them how many foot-lamberts of brightness they see on the screen, they might not know what you’re talking about. On the exhibition side, we have a similar problem in that the owners and operators of theaters all over the country and all over the world also have no technical infrastructure and rely on their purveyors, their sound-system purveyors, to deliver projectors to their theaters. So there’s no continuity and no connective tissue that’s saying, how do we make movies better? How do we make this experience more spectacular? And I’ve been after this holy grail all my life of trying to say, well, we can do higher frame rates, we can do brighter images, we can do bigger screens, we can do all of these things, and it’s been largely falling on deaf ears because it’s largely a status quo industry. It’s a cookie-packing, manufacturing and production industry that doesn’t realize that the $200 million production value that they’re putting into a movie is actually not getting to the audience for various reasons that they don’t understand.

And so I want to show people what we can do; I’ve taken it on myself to collaborate with projector companies and camera companies and post-production houses, who are all helping me right now on a mission to do some demonstrations for the industry to show what it would really be like if one of these movies was shown properly and produced properly. And I’ve come to the conclusion that if your objective as a studio producer is to make a blockbuster spectacle that’s going to take you to Pandora or another dimension or another world or [to see] vicious monsters that come out of the screen and eat the audience, we need a more powerful medium. We don’t necessarily need a more powerful medium for crime stories or love stories or musicals – you know, normal fare; I wouldn’t want to interfere with the core attributes of 24-frame-per-second movies on screens because it’s great. It’s just that we have the fact that everybody’s downloading those movies now and seeing them in mediums other than movie theaters. So my conclusion is that for movie theaters to survive as an industry, it has to dramatically upgrade the quality of the presentation, and production. That doesn’t mean it’s going to cost any more; it does mean there are more frames, and it does mean the projector is going to be brighter and the screen might be bigger, but I think we have to accept that since people can see movies in small media like an iPad or whatever, there’s really no need for small-screen multiplexes any longer. I don’t think that’s where people are at; that used to be about diversity and the convenience for people to see a movie whenever they want – go to a multiplex and see a movie at 6, 6:30, 7:30, but I don’t think that’s rational any longer. So I think the movie industry now has to rethink itself, and develop a new kind of spectacle and showmanship to get people back into theaters – if that’s what they want. If they want to get people into theaters, it’s going to have to be truly spectacular and unavailable in any other form.

THR: James Cameron has said that more relatable, intimate material may hold the key to audiences’ acceptance of 3D. Can those crime stories and love stories create that kind of experience even if they don’t have a more conventional sense of spectacle?

Trumbull: If you’re saying you want to make a movie that’s a love story or a conventional movie, it’s totally inappropriate to go to a higher frame rate or 3D or anything else. I’m just saying that content is more likely to be distributed digitally, and people are going to download it or see it at their convenience rather than go to the multiplex – so there’s no driving force. If people are going to go out, put gas in their car, go to all of the inconvenience of getting a babysitter or whatever they have to do to make the decision to go out to a movie theater, they’d better see something truly spectacular. And I don’t think the price point is nearly as important as delivering the product that the audience is willing to pay to see.  If I go to Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas or something, I’ll easily pay $75 to $150 for a spectacle because I’m not going to see it anywhere else, and I’m certainly not going to get it on TV. I think we have to start thinking about movies that way, because we’re spending 100, 200, $300 million on a movie and yet it’s being throttled down through an inefficient delivery system. The production value isn’t getting to the audience.

THR: In an industry that often values youth over experience – one that focuses on the status quo, as you said - how tough is it to mobilize a film that demands the resources to create the kind of spectacle that you want to bring back to movie screens?

Trumbull: Well, my experience is that I’m an outsider in this town. I left LA in 1987 because of the Natalie Wood disaster; I was frightened for my own life, I was standing between MGM management and a $50 million fraudulent insurance claim. It was a very, very messy situation, and it was the worst personal, professional experience anybody should ever have to go through to get that movie done. And when I got it done, I said, if this is what making movies in Hollywood is like, I’m going to go do something else. I had to consciously decide to put my directing career on hold and go do something else. I did things like the Back to the Future ride and theme parks and expos and took IMAX public and things like that, which I think have been a big boon to the movie business. But I haven’t been on the playing field as a film director, and so nobody from Hollywood calls me to direct their movies. I’m not on anybody’s A-list to do that. I’m not on anybody’s list to want to see the future of cinema, because I feel I have to do it myself. I can talk until I’m blue in the face, but I have to show them what it is. And so I’m developing my own film, well, several films, but one of these films is going to go into this new territory I’m talking about – which is first person cinema reality which is indistinguishable from reality. The screen is going to be so big it’s like a window into another world. I’m going way beyond anything that Peter Jackson and Jim Cameron have been doing or are thinking of, and I don’t expect to get traction from investors until I can show what it is. Because no one’s ever seen it before, and no one can imagine what it would be like. But I can, and I know, and so I’m comfortable with personally making the investment. I have my own studio, I work in the Berkshires, I have my own stage, my own cameras, my own lights, my own editing, my own workshop, my machine shop, and I’m trying to reinvent the movies – with no help whatsoever from Hollywood. But very good, supportive help from projector manufacturers and camera manufacturers, who are completely open to anything that’s going to invigorate their business. So I am getting support on the technical side, but I’m not getting any support on the production side – and I hope that will come.

THR: What details can you reveal about the story you’re developing for the project?

Trumbull: I can only say that it’s a 200-years-in-the-future science fiction space epic that’s going to address very big, lofty issues, like man’s place in the universe, and how our contact with an extraterrestrial civilizations that are so mind-bogglingly in advance of our own that it will go into some of the same territory that 2001 went into, and it’s going to do it in a very plausibly scientific way, not a fanciful way. There are no alien monsters, and the earth is not being attacked by anybody. It’s going to be a much more intelligent, what we call hard-science fiction, and I think there’s absolutely nothing out there like this. I think the studios believe that they have to dumb everything down and the audience is not scientific, not up for anything truly intelligent, but I think just the opposite. I think we’re in the most technologically advanced society of all time, and people can go with that immediately. Most people you poll would believe that there’s life in the universe, for sure, and the Kepler project and another project are showing that the likelihood of inhabitable planets in our galaxy alone is going to be in the billions, and so the whole plausibility of contact with extraterrestrial civilizations is becoming very real scientifically, very plausible. Talk to any scientist and they’ll say, absolutely, yes. But Hollywood is still in the monster phase, it’s in the b-movie monster phase. And I’m not saying how it should be, I’m just saying what I would like to do, and I’d like to make something more intelligent that I can really be proud of.

THR: Does the kind of spectacle you’re aiming for come at a conceptual level?

Trumbull: Oh yes, absolutely it does. Because I’m trying to explore; I mean, I don’t have all of the answers yet, but I want to explore new cinematic language, because we already have the language of cinema – it’s very well known. Everybody knows how to do a master shot, a close-up, a two-shot, over the shoulder, a single and an insert; that’s the language of movies. But when you get into this other area of first-person experiential cinema as though what’s happening is actually unfolding in real time, and it’s not overly manipulated by fast cuts and blurry fakes, it’s a whole other cinematic language that no one’s exploring. And I feel like that’s what intrigues me; I don’t like doing the same-old same-old. I’m trying to push into some new territory that I think will be interesting and stimulating and intellectually challenging for me as a filmmaker, to try to unearth some new ways to make movies. And I was doing that with ShowScan 35 years ago. Peter [Anderson] mentioned it, and we did some really far-out experiments and even fooled people like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who came into my studio and they thought that what was on the screen was really a real event, and that’s still not recognized within the main industry. The Academy is trying to archive my ShowScan negatives, but I want to demonstrate that’s all completely feasible. And the wonderful thing about digital technology now is that there’s no really substantial meaningful add of cost. People don’t know that the projectors sitting in these theaters are running at 144 frames a second, but they’re just showing every frame over and over and over. I’m just trying to say, well, give the projectors some new frames? It’s like brainless to make it brighter; it means you do have to spend some more in the lamphouse, but there’s a whole new era of laser projectors that’s entering the marketplace now that very few people have seen. I witnessed it about a month ago and it’s mind-boggling. The quality of image that we can project on screens with laser projectors is incredible color gamut, absolutely even field of light, very bright, very big, and when I increase the frame rate, it’s going to be like a window. So it’s a movie that’s more like a live show, and I want to see what that’s going to be like. I think it’s going to be really fun.

THR: Are there filmmakers working today that you feel like are even close to tapping into that kind of spectacle that you would like to see?

Trumbull: There’s only a few filmmakers that I know and I hang out with who are really in what we call the “special venue” business – it’s the kind of IMAX, science museum, historical museum. [And] there’s a small group of people who make these 4K, extremely high-resolution films, shooting 65mm negative and scanning it at 8K and putting it out digitally at 4K - a tremendous amount of detail, particularly for very large screens, which are in science museums. But in the theatrical movie industry, I’ve seen almost nothing, except people that I know and admire like Jim Cameron and Peter Jackson, who are very aware that 24 frames a second is not good enough for 3D. There’s a real fundamental technical problem that’s hard to explain, but 3D is just a slight difference between the left and right eye, and when the motion from one frame to the next becomes more than the difference, the 3D effect is destroyed in blur and strobing. And so they’ve recognized that we have to increase the frame rate if we want 3D to survive. But other people like Michael Bay have really been pounding on the industry [saying] we have got to get it brighter. These images are so dim that the audience is disappointed; they’re getting headaches and they’re getting turned off. You look at your television at home and it’s at least 50-foot lamberts, but if you look at a movie theater, the average is two and a half - it’s shockingly dim, and theater owners don’t seem to care very much about it. So I feel that it’s in the process of imploding right now, and a lot of people in this industry are very worried about that. So I’ve just take it upon myself as my mission to try to figure out how to solve that problem.

THR: Is the process of creating images and spectacle the same now on something like Tree of Life as it was on 2001 or Blade Runner?

Trumbull: I think it’s been disturbed by the fact that a lot of people bought into computer graphics as the solution to all of their problems. We’ve gotten into this period right now where in spite of the artistry and the magic of all of the people in this room, visual effects from a producer and studio standpoint has become a commodity. They bid these companies against each other, they say, well, if you’re not going to give us a better price we’re going to go to New Zealand or we’re going to go to India or someplace else to get it done, because we really don’t care about the ultimate quality. We care about price. And so there’s a really shocking lack of ingenuity that’s possible because it’s all computer graphics – there’s very few miniatures or the broader range of visual effects experimentation that I’ve done in my life because there’s almost no major companies left. One of the biggest ones was George Lucas’ company, Kerner Optical, and they just went bankrupt, because there was not enough work for them. Because the fact that the studios bid all of these companies against each other, it’s bid on the basis of computer graphics, and algorithms and computer hardware and render issue, and so there’s not a broad range of diversity to the way effects are done, or movies are done. Because Hollywood would just like to figure out how to make a movie for less money so they don’t have to build sets and they don’t have to go on location, so they do it with set extensions and digital effects to supplant what they don’t want to pay for. That’s all well and good, but it’s become very homogenized.

THR: How soon and how much are you going out to show the studios what you’re developing?

Trumbull: I did this ten years ago, fifteen years ago. I was developing all of this technology and I came to Hollywood and I had a 50-page brochure and I had a demonstration reel, and I went to the heads of production at every major studio, and I did not get one phone call in return. And that’s when I realized that I was just barking up the wrong tree; talk is cheap, and I feel that I’ve got to just do it, I’ve got to find a way to do it, and if that means I have to do it outside of the industry and find independent venture capital or private equity financing or any number of high net-worth individuals; there’s a million ways to do it. I’m not interested in playing in the normal field that everybody else is competing on, because they’re not doing what I’m interested in doing. I could easily go out and get a job as a special effects guy, but that would bore me to death.

THR: Does that mean going now to the studios and showing them what’s possible technologically, or bringing them the film itself?

Trumbull: I feel that I have to actually put together a film. Right now I’m putting it together in a couple of steps; the first step is to shoot a sequence from a film. Ten minutes of it might be enough to convince them that they should start at least seriously thinking about re-evaluating the future of cinema. And I’ll do my best to do that. If I could get private financing and do the whole film, I would do that, and as I said, it wouldn’t concern me even if I could only show that film in one theater.

There’s an interesting story that happened many years ago in the ‘50s, when the movie industry was terrified of television, and television was eroding the movie-theater audience, because movie theaters used to have 100 percent of the audience. And then along came this crazy, crackpot thing called Cinerama, which was documentary travelogues, and when they opened the first Cinerama theater in Hollywood called This Is Cinerama, they made more money in that one theater in one year than in the rest of the movie industry. So there’s plenty of room for innovation, and there’s plenty of room for profits and there’s plenty of room for improvement. That doesn’t threaten the industry – I’m not trying to destabilize anything or take anybody’s job or anything, I’m trying to say that part of it needs to be fixed right now, and I know the way to the future, and it’s kind of a lonely job. Because most people in the movie industry just don’t understand that; even the people I admire like Jim Cameron and Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas just are somehow not on the same plane as I am. [pause] I may be dead wrong, but I don’t think so.

THR: I noticed they didn’t spend much time on The Andromeda Strain during the presentation of your award.

Trumbull: Well, Andromeda Strain was a very small movie. But Andromeda Strain is interesting because I was the first guy I think to do digital compositing. We had an 8K monochrome compositor for that, that James Short built with me, and we did all of this kind of digital stuff when digital didn’t exist – it was actually film, digitized and then back to film. We had microscope photography and a lot of weird stuff we did on The Andromeda Strain. But The Andromeda Strain nearly made me bankrupt because I was so naïve; I way underbid the job, I did everything on The Andromeda Strain for an outstandingly low amount of money, and I just barely survived it. It took me about seven years to stave off bankruptcy after making The Andromeda Strain.

THR: Do you have one technique, sequence or film that you’re most proud of?

Trumbull: I think 2001: A Space Odyssey has still never been beat as a complete, standout, unique, one-of-a-kind movie, that broke all of the rules, and it was very successful, and it’s a classic movie. It’s not a disposable summer blockbuster that everyone’s going to forget. It’s a movie that everyone will remember, and that’s the kind of thing I’d like to make. I’ve tried to do that with every project I’ve ever touched, by trying to do at least sequences in it that are so stunning that the movie rises to another level and gets remembered and revered – and I think that’s great. That’s what I do.