'2001: A Space Odyssey': Douglas Trumbull on Stanley Kubrick's Search for "Ultimate Perfection"

The VFX pioneer also laments the "very sad" state of theatrical exhibition.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

To mark its 50th anniversary, Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey is getting a 70mm re-release, following a special screening at the Cannes Film Festival, introduced by director Christopher Nolan.

The film was a watershed in motion pictures, as well as in visual effects with its pioneering techniques. Filmmaker, visual effects specialist and inventor Douglas Trumbull handled the special photographic effects on the film.

His subsequent VFX credits included Blade Runner, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Close Encounters of the Third Kind — all three earned him Oscar nominations — and he also earned the Motion Picture Academy's Scientific and Engineering Award for the development of his Showscan system. In 2012, Trumbull received the Academy's Gordon E. Sawyer Award, an honorary Oscar statuette, awarded for technical contributions to cinema. His directing credits include Silent Running and Brainstorm.

Passionate about making cinema an event that viewers can't get at home, he’s recently developed a theatrical exhibition system dubbed MAGI that offers a giant curved screen and images projected in 3D and at high frame rates.

Speaking with THR's Carolyn Giardina from his Massachusetts studio, Trumbull remembers working with Kubrick and inventing VFX techniques for 2001, laments the “very sad” state of cinema and explains his latest development.

First of all, it feels great to see 2001: A Space Odyssey back in theaters. Second of all, I think it’s a very sad state of affairs that in 50 years, no one has been able to replicate the experience of 2001. I’m continuing to try to do so. Sadly there are no screens like the original, deeply curved, 90-, 100-foot-wide cinema screens of the day when the movie was first released. So very few people even today understand the epic nature of how the movie was originally distributed in Cinerama, Super Panavision 70mm.

Working with Kubrick on 2001 was one of the most amazing creative experiences of my life. Stanley Kubrick had an incredible genius mentality. He was really thinking very deep and heavy thoughts about life and spirituality and God.

What 2001 did that was so spectacularly different was that Kubrick’s directorial style was very much a first-person subjective, nonverbal, visual spectacle in exchange for diminishing conventional cinematic language of plot structure, character development, tension and all the kind of trappings of melodrama. Kubrick specifically did not want 2001 to be melodramatic. In the initial release of the movie, there was a lot of complete disturbance and rejection and people left the theatre in disgust. Pauline Kael and many other people gave it extremely bad reviews. Until enough time passed for them to understand that Kubrick was on the track of a first-person, subjective trip for the audience. Once everyone got their head around it and was able to kind of digest what Kubrick was trying to do, the movie got new legs and found a new younger audience that was very eager to go into this new territory of experiential, almost a virtual reality kind of nonverbal experience. That’s where 2001 was really different. The movie only has 40 minutes of dialogue in almost two and a half hours.

Stanley was definitely a critical taskmaster and was searching for ultimate perfection. So the rejection rate for shots was very high, which became frustrating for many people on the crew. I never had a problem with that and I got along great with Stanley.

I think the Star Gate was maybe my most important contribution to the movie. It was the hardest problem for him and other people to get their head around because he was trying to depict the transit of the human being through time and space to another dimension. And that’s a very hard thing to do. It’s not a physical thing.

I had an idea for how to adapt some of the early photography techniques that had been developed by John Whitney for To the Moon and Beyond, the movie that Kubrick saw at the 1964 New York World’s Fair [projected in Cinerama on a Dome screen] that I worked on. That’s how I got my job on 2001.

[Kubrick] asked "What do you need to make this happen?" I said I need to build this giant machine, 30 feet by 30 feet and 10 feet tall, and it will require a lot of glass, electronics, machines. He said "Go do it."

The idea is based on time exposure. If you can imagine that you can photograph the freeway at night with a still camera and leave the camera shutter open for several seconds or several minutes. And everything that’s not moving would be your photograph and everything that is moving would be a streak of light. All the headlights and taillights of cars would be bands of light. You wouldn’t be able to see the cars. They would be invisible. I realized that if you could control that and build a device that could turn the headlights on and off or have all the cars drive in one direction, you could create patterns of light. It required building this big slit-scan machine. The result is a controlled time exposure of thousands of frames with slight differences between each frame to create the sense of motion.

I started showing Kubrick shots of what this Star Gate could look like. And that led to that Star Gate sequence being so lengthy, and he said "I need more. I want to extend this." We just kept shooting. We had this slit-scan machine running 24 hours a day for months to produce that sequence.

Near the end of the completion of 2001, we are two and a half years into production, extraordinarily long for any movie, and Kubrick is still rejecting shots and saying "That’s just not good enough; you got to do it again." That’s why the quality of 2001 was so extraordinarily high. Anything with any flaw was rejected and redone.

Many of the seasoned professionals in the movie industry in London were completely distraught and they wanted to move on. They wanted to get off this movie, they wanted to go their next job or take a vacation, they were really tired of it.

Each day we knew, going into dailies, that Kubrick would probably criticize something we did. But those of us on the visual effects crew knew this and we loved Stanley. We would start making fun of him. One of the fun things we did one night in the dailies was we staged a "murder." We knew that Stanley would criticize a shot, the cameraman on the shot was going to blame me. And so he gets up out of his seat in dailies in the dark, gets a gun, shoots me, and I die on the floor of the screening room. This was a blank pistol. Extremely loud and frightening. We performed this "murder" right in front of Stanley Kubrick in the screening room. He was horrified that he pushed everybody beyond the brink. Then I got up and said, "This was all in fun. We’re here with you, we love working with you, it’s all fine don’t worry about it. But we’re tired and we’re trying to amuse ourselves."

Kubrick was always trying to find ways to create a better form of organization. He discovered these micro-recorders the size of a pack of cigarettes. Whenever he had an idea or something he wanted to remember, he would record his voice. He decided that maybe he could help organize production better if he gave these recorders to everybody on the crew.

There was one day where I knew exactly what Stanley was going to say so I prerecorded my answer and another person on the crew had prerecorded his report and another person said "Well yeah but Stanley’s not going to like that, we all know that." We would sit there in the dark and play these recordings to Stanley, knowing full well what was going to happen.

The bottom line was that those of us who stuck it out knew what an extraordinary character Stanley Kubrick was. And what a taskmaster he was. And how thankful we were that he was driving us to our highest possible quality of work.

My reflection on the effects would be that 2001 was the beginning of a new era of visual effects. Our discovery that we could use motors and lenses and various technologies to control the motion of the camera on multiple exposures, that was the beginning of the development of what we call, broadly, motion control.

Today, the motion picture visual effects industry has almost entirely given way to computer graphics. We’re able to do things that were absolutely inconceivable in the old days like water effects, fire, explosions, smoke. But, almost everything in the visual effects industry today is created on computers. There’s a certain commoditization that has resulted that I’m not comfortable with myself. I like miniatures and physical effects and what I call organic effects.

In recent years I’ve been developing a theatrical exhibition system called MAGI, and I come at it from the point of view of a filmmaker because I’m a writer, director, producer — technology geek — and all the other things that go with my career. I’m ready to make a film for this system and it’s a sci-fi epic. It’s about man’s destiny in the universe, and it’s a big swashbuckling action adventure.

The problem with high frame rates — what we call the "soap opera effect" or the "television look" — comes from the fact that digital projection today doesn’t have any shutter. There’s always been a shutter in the camera. When the shutter closes, the visible film remains and whatever happened in front of the camera is not captured.

The shuttering is actually integral to what we call the "film look." Digital projectors do not have shutters. The result is when you increase the frame rate, it looks exactly like television which also does not have a shutter. I discovered that by retaining the shutter, even if it is a digital shutter in projectors, you can go to 30, 60, 120, 140, or 144 and still retain the film look. [He patented such a process with MAGI].

Jim Cameron is exploring higher frame rates for [the Avatar sequels] and I’ve had private screenings of my process with him and we’ll see what he decides to do.

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