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Douglas Trumbull, the visual effects visionary who, without CGI, fashioned the kaleidoscopic finale for 2001: A Space Odyssey, concocted the creepy cloud formations in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, filled the Blade Runner universe with smoke and fireballs, and helped create the birth of the universe that opens The Tree of Life, has died. He was 79.
Trumbull died Monday after a “major two-year battle with cancer, a brain tumor and a stroke,” his daughter Amy announced on Facebook. She told The Hollywood Reporter that he died in Albany, New York; an obituary from the family said the cause of death was complications from mesothelioma.
“My sister Andromeda and I got to see him on Saturday and tell him that we love him, and we got to tell him to enjoy and embrace his journey into the Great Beyond,” she wrote.
The son of a man who did effects work on The Wizard of Oz, Trumbull also directed two sci-fi features: the eco-themed Silent Running (1972), starring Bruce Dern, and Brainstorm (1983), featuring Natalie Wood in her final film.
The Los Angeles native received three visual effects Oscar nominations (for 1977’s Close Encounters, 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture and 1982’s Blade Runner) in a six-year span. The Academy awarded him a Scientific and Engineering Award in 1993 for the creation of his Showscan Camera System and the Gordon E. Sawyer statuette in 2012 for his career contributions.
Director Robert Wise hired Trumbull to handle special photographic effects skills for The Andromeda Strain (1971), then asked him to helm two memorable sequences for the first Star Trek movie — the docking sequence aboard the Enterprise and Spock’s spacewalk.
On Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, Trumbull’s responsibilities grew rapidly as production moved along, and he found himself tasked with what would become his signature creation, the out-of-this-world corridor of light finale dubbed the Star Gate sequence.
He recalled a camera technique that he had seen animator John Whitney use at the 1964 World’s Fair where he left the camera shutter open “while you move things around under controlled situations so you can create a controlled blur, and repeat the moves,” he said in 2018.
Expanding on that concept, Trumbull built a six-foot-tall rotatable rectangle of sheet metal and cut a narrow slit in it. The sheet was placed in front of a 12-foot-long backlighted glass panel through which various lighting patterns were shined.
By tracking the camera toward the light source with a long exposure, the kaleidoscope of lights appeared to dart toward the camera from a single point. The whole process took six months.
While on 2001, Trumbull began conceiving his directorial debut, Silent Running. The film’s ecological theme of a greenhouse botanist in space achieved cult status, all on a $1 million budget.
“I wanted to say something about the future that would be very much human, and very real, but I wanted to take the sterility and the mechanisation out of it,” he said in the film’s making-of documentary. “I don’t think astronauts have to be automotons, I don’t think they have to be emotionless.”
Throughout the 1970s, Trumbull was so in-demand, he declined work on George Lucas’ Star Wars.
Around the same time, Steven Spielberg, then 29, began principal photography on his own sci-fi epic, Close Encounters. In preparation, he rewatched Kubrick’s 2001 and found the masterpiece intimidated him more than it inspired him.
He noted the visual effects crew were predominantly based in Britain, except for L.A. resident Trumbull, who was under contract at Paramount Pictures. Spielberg hired him on a loan-out to contribute special effects.
Early on, Trumbull suggested using motion control, a process that allowed filmmakers to pan, tilt and dolly while still locking their visual effects in the frame. It marked a huge leap in technology from the B-grade sci-fi movies of the 1950s in which a model UFO flimsily floated across a locked-off camera.
In one of the film’s most memorable sequences, ominous clouds begin encasing Devils Towers, warning of the alien mothership’s arrival.
Trumbull created the effect in a huge aquarium tank filled with fresh and saltwater and by injecting white liquid tempera paint to create the strange cloud formations.
He also contributed the idea to use hand signals, invented by John Curwen in the 1800s and later adapted by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, to communicate with the aliens. He knew a woman who taught the method and got her to train Francois Truffaut, who played French scientist Claude Lacombe in the film.
Two years later, Trumbull answered an SOS from Wise, who was directing Star Trek. He was unhappy with film’s visual effects in production, and a lawsuit loomed from exhibitors if the movie was not delivered on schedule.
Trumbull agreed to take on the tight deadline — six months to complete more composites than Star Wars and Close Encounters combined — in exchange for a considerable fee and release from his Paramount contract. Three crews worked across 24-hour periods, seven days a week, to beat the deadline.
Wise allowed Trumbull to re-conceive and direct the film’s most celebrated sequence, the shuttle pod circling the majestic Enterprise before docking. It contains no dialogue, a decision Trumbull credits from working with Kubrick, who taught him to “stop talking for a while and let it all flow.”
Trumbull also helmed Spock’s spacewalk, which clearly borrowed from his 2001 Star Gate sequence. “I thought it would be fun to just get kind of abstract and make it a fantasy dream sequence in a way, not literal,” he said.
As special photographic effects supervisor for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Trumbull devised the concept of projecting images onto blimps and buildings and was the driving force behind the use of smoke to create the illusion of depth and distance.
For the famous opening of fireballs exploding over Los Angeles in November 2019, Trumbull used unreleased footage of explosions he had shot for Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970).
About one-third into principal photography, Trumbull left to begin work on Brainstorm, a sci-fi concept of transferring images and sensations from one human to another.
The film was to introduce his Showscan process (70mm film photographed at 60 frames per second) during the virtual reality sequences, but MGM balked at the idea because of the cost. Then, during a production break in November 1981, Wood drowned under mysterious circumstances during a boat trip to Catalina Island.
MGM filed an insurance claim, and Lloyd’s of London put up the remaining money to complete the film. The dedication “To Natalie” appears after the closing credits.
The circumstances of Wood’s death and his battles with MGM affected Trumbull greatly, he said, and he moved to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. “I just had to stop,” he told THR‘s Scott Feinberg in 2014.
“I had been a writer-director all my life,” he noted, “and I decided it wasn’t for me because I was put through a really challenging personal experience. … I decided to leave the movie business.”
He redirected his passion into work on new technology for cinema and filmmakers and created the Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios.
Trumbull was lured out of a 30-year movie retirement by Terrence Malick to work as a visual effects consultant under Dan Glass on Tree of Life (2011), and he came up with elements of the mind-blowing opening sequence that shows the creation of the life in about 20 minutes.
Trumbull used all his practical knowledge from the previous six decades — fluorescent dyes, smoke, high-speed photography, chemicals, frame rates and folded lenses — to create a sequence he was born to build.
During a 2011 appearance at the Museum of Moving Image in New York, Trumbull noted that Malick “doesn’t like drawings, doesn’t like storyboards, doesn’t even like planning. He hopes some mysterious unexpected event is going to happen while the camera happens to be running. And I thought, ‘This is totally cool, this is more what I think filmmaking should be like.'”
Douglas Huntley Trumbull was born on April 8, 1942. His mother, Marcia, was an artist. His father, Don, lent his special effects knowledge to the flying monkeys and talking apple trees and controlled the Cowardly Lion’s tail with a fishing rod and monofilament line for The Wizard of Oz (1939).
(His dad received two Scientific and Technical Achievement Oscars and worked with his son on Silent Running and Close Encounters before his 2004 death at age 95.)
As a teenager, Trumbull constructed crystal-set radios, fell in love with sci-fi films and serials, and dreamed of becoming an architect. He worked at an electrical contracting firm as he out himself through school at El Camino Junior College, where he studied technical illustration.
Southern Californian production company Graphic Films, which produced content for NASA, was impressed with his portfolio art of spacecrafts and planets and hired him to paint a rotating spiral galaxy for their 1964 New York World’s Fair film To the Moon and Beyond.
Shot in Cinerama and running 18 minutes, the experimental piece used a fish eye lens and was projected at the custom-built dome in the Transportation and Travel Pavilion.
Among the 51 million visitors to the fair were author Arthur C. Clarke and Kubrick, who then hired Trumbull (and Graphic Films director Con Pederson) to work on preliminary designs for 2001.
Trumbull began drawing sketches of moon bases and spacecrafts before Kubrick suddenly moved production to England, leaving him to make ends meet by working for a furniture company.
Frustrated, he asked Pederson for the reclusive director’s private phone number, which Pederson surreptitiously suggested just might be written on his office bulletin board. Trumbull cold-called Kubrick, who offered him $400 a week to come to England.
His initial remit was designing computer-screen readings and data that scrolled and flashed on the Discovery One spaceship monitors. A practical solution was to photocopy thousands of pages of graphs and charts from Scientific American magazine.
“We set up our own 35mm Mitchell camera with stop-motion motor, and with the help of a very talented and artistically oriented cameraman [Bruce Logan], we began the job of pasting up and juggling around artwork under the camera as we were shooting,” he told American Cinematographer magazine in 1968.
An impressed Kubrick began sharing his philosophy to the impressionable Trumbull. “If everybody is doing something one way, I want to do it another way,” he told him. “I don’t care what it is, we’re going to do upside-down if right side up is correct.”
What many forget about Trumbull’s 2001 legacy is that he also was responsible for another key moment in the film: the killing of the hibernated crewmembers. Early script revisions had them remaining alive while Bowman (Keir Dullea) enters the Star Gate alone.
But in Michael Benson’s 2018 book, Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece, Trumbull recalled entering Kubrick’s office with a suggestion.
“Isn’t it kind of messy to leave all those guys back on the ship?” he asked. “Isn’t there some way to kind of get rid of them? I don’t think this story’s going to work if you leave them behind, unresolved.”
Kubrick was incensed. “Get the fuck out of my office and pay attention to your own goddam business. I’m the director of this movie,” he replied.
But four days later, revisions to the script were passed around, and now the rest of the crew has been murdered by the HAL 9000 computer. “Drastic, but it seems right,” Trumbull wrote in his journal. “After all, Odysseus was the sole survivor.”
In 1974 he and partner Richard Yuricich set up a research/visual effects house, Paramount-based Future General Corp., for testing and developing cinematic technologies. That year, he also formed Magicam with Paramount; that was an advanced, real-time visual effects system for compositing live actors into miniature sets.
Twenty years later, Trumbull merged his Ridefilm Corp. with Imax and helped develop the plan to take Imax public, raising more than $300 million in a successful IPO. He then served three years as vice chairman of Imax.
Trumbull also created the Star Gate-esque title sequence for the anthology series ABC Movie of the Week, was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010, and received the George Méliès award from the Visual Effects Society in 2012.
In addition to his daughters, survivors include his third wife, Julia; stepchildren Emily, John and Ethan; grandchildren Julian, Lily, Willow, Oscar, Jasper, River, Jackson, Tyler and Sarah; and sister Betsy. His second wife was the late Ann Vidor, a wardrobe adviser on Silent Running.
2001 may have kick-started his career, but it also caused him to have a falling-out with Kubrick — all over a film credit.
Trumbull is one of four men (along with Pederson, Tom Howard and Wally Veevers) who receive a stand-alone title card of “special photographic effects supervisor.” However, it was Kubrick, credited with “special photographic effects designed and directed by,” who received the visual effects Academy Award in 1969, the film’s lone Oscar.
Trumbull disputed that Kubrick designed the effects and thought the filmmaker should have lobbied the Academy to allow four recipients.
Subsequent interviews and articles about the film often referenced Trumbull as creating the special effects, a description that infuriated Kubrick to the point he sent stern letters to Trumbull.
In 1984, the issue reached a boiling point when Hewlett-Packard published an ad crediting Trumbull solely with the visual effects. Kubrick and MGM threatened legal action, and the ad was removed.
Kubrick then bought his own full-page ad that quoted the Hewlett-Packard ad and noted that “Mr. Trumbull was not in charge of the Special Effects of ‘2001’. He also listed all five men in order of their “comparative contributions,” and Trumbull came in third.
For a decade the two did not speak until Trumbull cold-called him (again) to thank him for the impact he had on his career. Kubrick replied, “Wow, thanks.” It was the last time they would speak.
Kubrick died in March 1999 of a sudden heart attack. Trumbull attended the funeral at the filmmaker’s estate at Childwickbury Manor in England, and Spielberg, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were among those who spoke. Mourners were invited to take a rose off the top of the casket, along with a pinch of earth, and drop them into an open pit at the base of an evergreen tree.
At one point, Trumbull managed to slip away and sat alone on a chair beside Kubrick’s open grave. He later told Benson what he said beside the casket:
“Stanley, all this crap that happened was stupid, and that’s not what it’s all about. We’ve had our disagreements, and that’s been challenging, but I don’t care. I don’t care. None of that is important to me. I’m here because I love you, and I think that what you did was so important to cinema, and to my art form and to my life, and I’m honored to be here. Thank you for changing my life.”
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