“Breaking new ground has always been in the medium itself” – An Interview With Douglas Trumbull

On Saturday, February 11, Douglas Trumbull will receive the Gordon E. Sawyer Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his contributions to the technology of the industry. Trumbull has over a dozen patents in his name, and developed or improved upon many of the filmmaking techniques that are standard in today’s industry, among them miniature compositing, high frame rate photography and motion control photography. This is his second special Oscar—though nominated for his special effects work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Blade Runner, his only previous Oscar a Scientific and Engineering Award from 1993, for his work developing the 65mm Showscan Camera System.

To mark the occasion, I have revived and expanded an interview I conducted with Douglas Trumbull in 2005, originally published in shorter form on Greencine in January, 2006.

Douglas Trumbull at the Science Fiction Museum in 2005

Douglas Trumbull is unique among American filmmakers. At age 23, he was part of the team that pioneered the next generation of cinema special effects in Stanley Kubrick’s visionary 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was education you couldn’t get in film school and he continued to expand his skills and techniques in such films as The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He made his debut as a director on the ecologically minded Silent Running, where his special effects crew included John Dyksra (who went on to become the Oscar-winning special effects supervisor of Star Wars and many other films) and Richard Yuricich (who partnered with Trumbull on many subsequent projects).

Trumbull’s second feature as a director, Brainstorm, was all but orphaned by MGM and his directorial efforts since have been outside the Hollywood system, including short films in his own high-definition Showscan process (a large-frame film format that runs at 60 frames a second) and Back to the Future… The Ride,” a multi-media mix of film, sound, and simulator ride. More recently, Trumbull worked with Terrence Malick (another maverick director who commands complete control over this films) to create the birth of life sequences for The Tree of Life. Yet to this day, Trumbull’s name is still most closely linked with 2001 and his special effects work on the cult science fiction classic Blade Runner.

Trumbull continues to explore the boundaries of what he calls “immersive media”–3-D, interactive media, virtual reality–and has been partnering with Professor Tom Furness of University of Washington’s HITLab (the Human Interface Technology Lab) with some of his projects.

In November 2005, while in Seattle to meet with Furness, he made an appearance at the Science Fiction Museum for a special showing of Silent Running. In the midst of his multi-media presentation – using still and video footage launched from his lap-top to accompany his talk – he brought some of the working props form the film and donated a drone arm: his gift to the Science Fiction Museum.

At the end of the very long day (after his exhaustive presentation, Trumbull gamely spent over an hour answering questions from the audience), he agreed to sit down for an interview over a late dinner, where we talked about his work with Stanley Kubrick, his own films as a director, and why he hasn’t directed a Hollywood film in over 20 years.

Sean Axmaker: You had trained as an illustrator. How did you wind up in filmmaking and special effects?

Douglas Trumbull: The story goes something like this. I was going to school at this community college in L.A., kind of learning illustration. I started out studying architecture and this was the pre-architecture curriculum, which was drawing, painting, water colors, graphic design. In that very first year I realized that I’m not specifically interested in architecture, I’m interested in this other thing. I started painting and illustrating and I had an air brush and I was trying to learn the skills of illustration, but I was a science fiction guy so I had my little portfolio that was full of sci-fi, Analog magazine cover kind of stuff, and I went into Hollywood looking for a job because I had no money, I couldn’t afford to stay in school. I took my portfolio around to animation studios, because that was my first inclination, animation and somehow making illustrations move,. I would talk to these really nice guys and they would look at my portfolio and say “You’re not in the right place. It’s great to have you here but you should try out this place across town called Graphic Films because they’re doing space films.” So I went over there and met Con Patterson, who worked on 2001, and Ben Jackson, and they were both mentors to me. They said “Yeah, we might could use somebody like you. We’ll give you a task. Paint this satellite and come back tomorrow morning,” which I did, and I got a job immediately and worked at Graphic Films for a couple years. I did some obscure films for the Air Force about the space program and then there was this one film about the Apollo program that was kind of interesting. I was painting lunar modules and lunar surfaces and the vertical assembly building on Saturn 5 rockets and animated this space stuff. And then Graphic Films got a couple of contracts to do films for the New York World’s Fair in ’64, it was a two year fair in 1964 and 65, and one of them was this dome thing called To The Moon And Beyond, which was kind of a Powers of Ten movie. It went from the big bang to inside an atom in ten minutes.

Is this like a 360 presentation?

It was a theater that was basically like a planetarium, a dome screen with a projector in the middle with a fish eye lens and projectors facing straight up, with maybe 400 people at this planetarium, and I did all the illustrations for it. Stanley Kubrick, who was living in New York at the time, came to the World’s Fair when he was planning 2001, which was at that time called “Journey Beyond The Stars.” So he’s looking at all these shows and he really liked this movie and he tracked down Graphic Films, calls them up and talks to my boss Wes Novros, and Graphic got this contract to start doing preliminary designs for 2001, doing lunar landscapes, space stations, space craft, landers, moon buses, all that kind of stuff, based on this very early draft screenplay. I was working on these things, mostly pencil illustrations, and some of them are in this book called “Special Effects” by Christopher Finch.

Then Kubrick decided to make the movie in London and I got laid off. The contract was over and he was going to make it somewhere else. I said, “This sounds like a good deal, I want to get in on this movie.” I called my boss Con Pederson and I said, “I want to work on this movie, how do I contact this Kubrick guy?” He said “I have this contract, I can’t talk about it, I have a nondisclosure agreement,” but I didn’t so I said, “I’m not under contract and I’m unemployed, please help me out Con.” So he said, “Well, Kubrick’s phone number is penciled in the corner of the bulletin board downstairs in the office.” Literally, that was the connection. I didn’t even work there, but I went in the back door, because there wasn’t any security at the time, I find this little phone and I cold call Stanley Kubrick and say, “I’ve been working on these drawings and I want a job,” and he said “Okay.” He bought me a plane ticket and I went over there. His expectation initially was animation techniques like I had been doing before, because we’d been doing space craft and rocket flames and all kinds of animation techniques, so one of the first tasks that came up was all the animation related to HAL read outs, the fake computer graphics. So we started filming that. Tell me if I’m making the story much too long because I can go on forever about it.

The Space Station: '2001: A Space Odyssey'

Oh no, please, provide all the detail you want.

Okay, so I’m there, and I’m kind of getting the drift about this movie, which was already well underway. A lot of the production design was underway and sets were being constructed and I was the new man on the block. It was a movie produced under this thing called the ED Program, which meant only 1% of the crew could be American and 99% percent had to be British and in exchange for that you go this tax break. I was part of that 1% and when Con’s contract expired he was able to come over and join the crew. So I’m there, I’m just this young guy. I was never even involved with the camera department at Graphic Films, I was just doing these illustrations, and we started taking off were you would have with normal animation. It didn’t take but a few days to realize we are never, ever going to get done. If you do one frame at a time, then you need sixteen movies running simultaneously endlessly on a set while actors move around or the centrifuge rotates and we were simply never going to get done. We’re going to be six years making these read outs. So at that time Wally Gentleman, who had come from the Canadian Film Board to help with the special effects, he helped me rig up this animation stand which was not your normal animation stand. It was a 35mm camera facing down onto a sheet of glass with lights underneath and an Ingenue zoom lens or something and a motor and we had to figure out how to shoot animation on the fly. Put the artwork under it, snap frames, put more artwork, snap some more frames, and keep rolling. And that was my beginning of my transformation of having to learn about photography and having to learn new and different ways to solve these problems and having the support Stanley Kubrick who said, “Yeah, get the animation camera, you need a piece of glass? Get it. You need a light? Get it. You need to go downtown to buy a bunch of lithograph materials? Go.” This led to this process of creative things, technical solutions, photography and art, all going on simultaneously. I was 23. It was an incredible break, but I was the right guy for the job.

It was some genetic code that I was fortunate to have. My mother was an artist, my father was an engineer. I think you gotta have this code to be in the special effects industry. And all the people I know I life who have been successful in special effects have this kind of weird blend of engineering and art and there aren’t many people who come with those two things. I just turned out to be the right guy for Stanley because other things started to develop that needed weird solutions.

So you just started brainstorming on these?

There was another attribute to it which was unique at the time, which was the British film industry and the studio was highly unionized with British film crafts people. If you worked in the camera department you didn’t work in the plaster department and if you worked in the grip department you didn’t work in carpentry. There were iron clad walls between these crafts. But I was this 23 year old guy with a cowboy hat and boots and they all thought I was this mascot. That I was no threat to anybody, I wasn’t going to take anybody’s job, and I started to be able to go around the studio. I could go into the engineering shop to this guy George Merritt and say “I need this shaft with bearings on it to do this thing on my animation camera,” and they thought, “That’s cute, we’ll help you out.” And I was able to range around the studio like this weird little mascot, work in any department, on any stage, build anything, doing anything, photograph anything and just break all union boundaries without threatening anybody’s career. It was that cross pollination that was really pivotal to what became a really sophisticated blending of art and technology. Never would had happened if it had been highly segmented.

'2001: A Space Odyssey': "Kubrick just went for this all white thing"

What was your input on the actual design of the future? Specifically things like the space station, but in general, that stripped down austere look that you see there, and you also see in The Andromeda Strain?

I think a lot of it had started at Graphic Films because we were dealing with space things and we had made films for NASA about space stations and space craft and like the Apollo program I had been working on. I was all extremely serviceable, functional art, there was nothing fru-fru about it . You had metal struts with Mylar coating or whatever it is that had some functional purpose and everybody knew at the time, if you read Heinlein or Arthur Clarke or anybody else, you realized you needed centrifugal gravity, so space stations were always spinning, they were ring shaped things, they were part of the science fiction art form that was already well entrenched. So there were certain space-science based realities that we were trying to head toward and Arthur Clarke was certainly that way and Kubrick supported that. There was as ascetic aesthetic that Kubrick was after. Everything had to be stripped and simplified and made elegant, no fru-fru decorative stuff. Everything functional.

And then there was Harry Lange who was this ex-Werner von Braun rocket design engineer who really was central in coming up with the design forms of the pods and the centrifuge and the space craft, which really was based on this form and function thing. And then there was the art director, John Hoesli. We explored a million different designs for the discovery space craft and the pods and all that kind of stuff. And I think for simplicity sake, Kubrick just went for this all white thing: White interior, white exterior, white everything. It was very effective and it worked very well and it helped with the lighting, because one of the themes of the photography and set design of “2001” is everything is internally lit. There’s almost never an external light that’s dramatically giving you the highlight and the hair kicker and the fill light. It’s all built into the natural light of the set because the centrifuge had to work upside down. All these sets had to be self illuminated. And so the white allowed that bounce light to bang around and become photographically pleasing.

It was then, and still is now, really unusual for a director to be so involved with the creation of special effects for a movie. What was it like working with Kubrick, there in the trenches, on the special effects?

Kubrick, as you probably know, was a photographer as a younger man and knew a lot about cameras and optics and focal lengths of lenses and fields of view and depth of field. He came already with an arsenal of understanding of photography that most directors don’t have. And so Stanley was intimately involved in all photographic issues of lighting and lenses. There was a commitment to Super Panavision, they called it Cinerama, but he was feeling kind of frustrated with the lenses available from Panavision for that medium. So we started experimenting with Nikon lenses and he found out that the Nikon lenses, which were designed for the 35mm slide format, actually had a field of image at the back of the lenses that was enough to cover the 65mm film format, which was just a little larger. And so, even though we were forbidden from publicly announcing that Nikon lenses were being used, we were using them all the time. But he was involved with that. And he would shoot shots. We had these Panavision cameras with various different lenses, some Nikon, some not, shooting the Discovery spacecraft for instance, and he would test everything until you were ready to just tear your hair out, because he was so meticulous. The shooting ratio on 2001 was 200-1. That is like way out there. And the difference between a 60mm and 55mm lens was big for Stanley. None of us mere mortals would care, you know, but we had to shoot it both ways and look at it in the screening room and he would make the call. It was his vision. He set every camera angle, he was like a director of photography in a way, he was collaborating with Jeffery Unsworth on the live action, he collaborating with me, he was collaborating with others in the animation, but there was a photographic process going on throughout the whole movie that was based on Polaroid photographs. Did you hear any of these stories?

I heard that he used to take Polaroid shots of the set, but I don’t know the details.

I think it’s really meaningful. At that time there was black and white Polaroid film and Polaroid cameras and he would not allow a scene to be photographed in Panavision or anything until it had been pre-photographed with a Polaroid. It’s like having a directors finder. You can look at a scene and say, “Well, that’s what your supposed to do,” but a directors finder is a way of looking at the world monocularly, at having a frame around something that defines the scene. So a director’s finder was one way to do that, but he wanted to actually see a photograph and so everything was photographed with Polaroids and then the Panavision aspect ratio would be cut out so he could actually see it in the proportion and aspect ratio before would actually shoot the scene on motion picture film. And that applied to the animation department, the miniature department, the live action department. There were like hundreds of thousands of Polaroid photographs shot. There’s a guy named David Larson whose writing a book about 2001 who’s been getting access to a lot of stuff including the Polaroid photographs that are in various people’s closets. Including mine.

So there was just a profoundly photographic component of the whole aesthetic process. A lot of directors could care less. They really want to know what the actors are doing and they let the cinematographer figure it out, but Stanley was intimately involved in every aspect. He had to test everything, had to see it on the screen, he really couldn’t make any final decision about anything unless it was in a screen. So there was a huge amount of testing. Trying everything, every different way, he was just an incredible taskmaster, he was very hard on everybody, no one had ever seen anything like it. For me it was the first time so I didn’t know, was it supposed to be like this? It was fine with me, it was challenging. It was a massive quality control kind of thing cause there isn’t a frame of film in that movie that has a flaw in it. Everything was perfect.

You remained friends with Kubrick. What did he think of your films?

Stanley never spoke to me about any of the movies I ever made. Stanley talked about Stanley’s movies. I had funny encounters with Stanley. I’ve always, my whole life, considered him a mentor and a friend, and I had this funny problem with him. On the one hand, he would call me in the middle of the night and say “Doug, I want to shoot these scenes in this movie and I want to shoot it all in candlelight and I need lenses that are like F-5 or F-.9,” and he would have all these technical questions. He was a photographer himself and he was always asking questions and picking my brain. But then I had this problem because I was getting a certain amount of press from Silent Running and I would walk to some guy from a newspaper and I would say “I’m Doug Trumbull and I’m one of the four guys who worked on the special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey,” that was my calling card. And they would write: “Doug Trumbull, who did the special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey…” The next day I would get a telegram from Stanley: “You didn’t do all the special effects. There were four guys and it was me and you can’t say that.” It happened over and over and over until we had this big fight and kind of a falling out, and he actually put a full page ad in Variety that said “Doug Trumbull did not do all the special effects in 2001.” It was really kind of awkward and then I let a couple of years go by and we had this rapprochement. It ended nicely.

Silent Running

From this experience from illustrator to animator to practically rewriting the way special effects are done in movies, when did you decide you wanted to become a filmmaker, a director in your own right?

That’s a question that I actually can’t answer because there was this very strange amorphous process that went on. I came back to L.A., I’m finished with 2001, I don’t ever want to work for a Stanley Kubrick or anybody again because I had really been pushed to my edge. I set up my own little company, which was just in a little tiny room, and I replicated the animation stand from 2001 because I knew I could do graphics for television commercials and network identifications, and I came with this newfound understanding of photography and blurs and controlled blurs and the whole slit scan thing that I developed for 2001. I immediately started applying that to logos for television stations and commercials, so I was able to make a living at it pretty quickly. And anybody who showed up in L.A. who had been connected with 2001 had an automatic calling card. You are legitimate right away, and so that was really good to be able to say that I was one of those guys.

And you know, you start meeting people. You’d meet people at advertising agencies, you meet people at studios, you meet people who are trying to do various different things and need special effects for one reason and wanted to pick my brains or whatever, so there was a whole bunch of people I was meeting. I couldn’t actually tell you when I decided to sit down and write my little treatment for Silent Running. And I can’t say that even when I wrote that treatment, which was about four pages long, just a general outline of a movie, that I intended to direct it. It was just an idea. Ideas are cheap, a dime a dozen, throw something out there and see if it sticks. I’m sure someone thought “Who could direct this movie? Who could write the screenplay?,” and it just kind of came back my way, saying “Well, maybe he knows how to do,” it because it was filled with special effects. So, I became a director by default, out of the movie’s requirement to be visionary and have all these visual effects that no one in Hollywood knew how to do. It was the weirdest thing because I never went to film school, I never studied cinema, I didn’t know cinematic history or anything, and suddenly, in a very short period of time, I’m on this aircraft carrier with these robots and Bruce Dern trying to figure it out and having all these guys around me to help.

You said that Bruce Dern was a big help coming in. You had never directed actors before and Bruce Dern was a big help. Can you talk about some of the things he brought to the character and how he helped you direct him as an actor?

We would shoot almost everything in that movie in one take, maybe two, rarely three, because we had no time. We had to move fast.

So this is the opposite of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001?

Exactly. I mean Stanley would regularly shoot 30 takes of something in The Shining and it drove everybody crazy. Anyway, we didn’t have the luxury and I think Bruce intuitively knew what I was trying to do because he was able to get there right away. But he was helping me. There’s a really important scene in the movie. I think it was a risky scene, it’s a very long close up of him where he’s talking to those three monitors, he’s talking to the drones, and he’s progressively breaking down and expressing this remorse at what he had to do and he never really wanted to kill anybody but he had to do it because the two drones are sitting there ready to bury this guy he’s killed and all this stuff is washing over him and it all plays out in one close up, one take of one close up. And Bruce knows that I don’t know anything about any of this and I’ve written this scene, I have my idea that this scene should play out very simply. He took me aside and we go off to the corner of the set, and he says to me “Doug, I’m gonna tell you what I’m going to do. I’m from the actors studio. We draw on things in our lives to get to a certain emotional state. I know you’ll support me in this and I know you’ll respect what I’m about to do. I’m not gonna tell you how to hang the camera or what lighting it should be or how close it should be or anything, but I don’t want to do this very often because I’m going to go into territory that is not easy for me.” He says, “I just want you to know when we’re doing this scene and I’m giving you this dialogue, I’m adhering to the script but in my mind I’m thinking about when my daughter died in a tragic accident. And that’s what’s going to get me into tears.” The tears are not related to the dialogue he’s saying, the tears are related to a second layer of memory that he’s evoking on camera. And it was terrible because we blew the focus on that shot and I didn’t want to do it again. You go through that scene and like everybody, there’s only three or four people there because there’s no space, you’re actually in a tiny room, and he does this scene and you say “Holy shit, lets stop. And have lunch.” And come out of it and come up to the deck and take a breath of fresh air ‘cause he’s gone to this space.

It was that kind of supportive thing where I put in place a script or a concept, he brings to it what he thinks is his character. I don’t have much comment on that. I don’t say to him “Well, can you do it again, but slower, or could you do it again with feeling or could you just do it again?,” like a lot of directors do. I just had to say, “Wow, that’s amazing. We’re finished. Let’s take a break and go on to the next scene.” A very similar thing happened to me with Louis Fletcher in Brainstorm, where she does this death scene which I thought was really profound scene. Death scenes are hard to do and she did this whole thing in one take and it just blew everybody on the set away. So these kind of moments happen, you know, they just happen. It’s kind of a collaboration. Collaborations between directors, writers, producers, actors, or photographers can go badly or they can go well. In this case it went really well.

Every day was amazing with Bruce because he and I were just like that. He’s training me and the cinematographer’s training me and the production manager’s training me and I’m learning about screen direction. But there’s certain things about film that I found in the making of Silent Running that are really very intuitive and natural and obvious. It didn’t take very long to get the drift of how the cinema works—screen direction and stage lines and close-ups and two shots and master shots and coverage—and that’s really one of the reasons why I haven’t made very many films. Because I found out that that part of it is the easy part. Adhering to the rules of the cinema is for me relatively straightforward. The hard is how to go into territory that’s out of that realm or breaks the ground. For me, breaking new ground has always been in the medium itself and trying to understand how to get to film new territory and so I’ve always felt I needed to invest a huge amount of energy into cameras and lenses and projectors and technology in support of… It’s like you can’t paint until you have your pallet first. The movie industry doesn’t give a damn about the pallet. They don’t own cameras, they don’t own stages, they don’t want to deal with any of it. The studios are really just packaging the director, writer, producer, actor and hoping to God that something good comes out of it because they haven’t a clue how it all happens.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Weren’t you also asked by George Lucas to work on Star Wars after Silent Running?

Oh yes, he did. George came to me and asked me to do Star Wars and he also said that he was planning on doing some robots. I said “Oh, great! I’ll introduce you to my guys.” He had a primitive idea for R2D2 in his mind when he was writing it and I said “I’ll be happy to help you but, with all due respect, I don’t want to do the special effects for Star Wars. I was spaced out. Very soon after that, Steven Spielberg came and asked me to Close Encounters, which was much more interesting to me, and I’m really glad I made that decision. Not financially, but…

You mentioned in your presentation that you made Blade Runner on the smallest budget you’ve had for a special effects project, and it’s had more impact than any film of its kind in its time, not just for the effects but for the entire gestalt of this world that you help create. How did the job come to you and why did you take it since it didn’t afford you the kind of budget you were usually given?

Richard Yuricich and I had set in motion this special effects facility that started out some time before. We had this company called Future General Corporation and we were trying to make a breakthrough in what cinema could be and we finally discovered that if you shot at 60 frames a second, an incredibly powerful thing happens: the surface of the screen disappears, it becomes completely fluid, it’s like a window on reality. You have to see it, I can’t explain it, it’s just something that happens, and we discovered this thing and were completely hot on it, we shot some demo films, and under the banner of this little Future General Corporation we quietly started acquiring a lot of 65 and 70mm camera equipment and optical printers, infrastructure that was all but abandoned by the movie industry, stuff you could pick up really cheaply, and we were putting together to support this process, which was 70mm. Then the management of Paramount changed and there was no longer any support for what I was trying to do. They just were focusing on Star Trek, they were in debt, really desperate, they had made this deal with another company that had not gone well, they had spent millions of dollars and not got one frame of film, and they were seven months away from the release date of the movie. It’s a very long story, a very convoluted story, but I ended up agreeing to fix Star Trek and save it from itself in exchange from my freedom, because I was under contract.

I said, “Listen, you guys obviously don’t want to do Showscan, you don’t want to do rides, you don’t want to do games, you don’t want to explore any of these new territories we’ve opened up, so I’m frustrated and I’ve got to get out of here.” And they didn’t want to let me out of there, because they didn’t want me to go develop it for somebody else because it would embarrass them tremendously, so I said “If you want me to come in and save this beleaguered movie, I’ll do it, but I’ve got to get out of here. The payment is money and freedom.” So I got free and by this time, this kind of movie studio emerged out of this whole thing. We rented a building, we had all this special equipment put together, and once you put together a crew of people, an infrastructure and overhead, you have to feed it. It’s one of those lessons that I’ve learned that I never want to do again. You’re desperate for another gig. And Blade Runner came along.

Douglas Trumbull poses on the special effects set of 'Blade Runner'

I thought, “Oh, Ridley Scott! I really admire this guy, he’s really good.” Richard and I met with him and working with this man, he’s a genius, he’s a wonderful artist who does these storyboard drawings on your napkin. He can really express himself visually and he came from a very sophisticated television/commercial based understanding of photography and editorial and effects and stimulation and all these kinds of things. I thought “This is going to be a really interesting movie.” By that time we had done Close Encounters. Close Encounters had something like 350 shots. Blade Runner didn’t have any money, it was a low budget movie, and they said “We think we can do it in 85 shots. We can’t afford your normal rates, you guys have to drop your price.” So Richard and I just honed this thing down, “Well, maybe we can do it in 82 shots,” it was right down to this second-by-second thing. But we had all this Close Encounters equipment. We had the tracks, the cameras, the lenses, the smoke room, we had built all these weird widgets for creating beams of lights out of UFOs and the Mother Ship and how to create light effects with smoke, so we said “If you just adhere to what we know how to do, we can do it quick. If you need this blimp over L.A., it’ll be really basic.” We didn’t actually say this, but to us it was basically a repeat. If you intercut the blimp in Blade Runner with the Mother Ship [from Close Encounters], you’ll immediately grasp that it’s all the same: the same material, the same lights, the same lenses, the same gels, everything.

We didn’t have a lot of time, we didn’t have a lot of money, and we had to do what we knew how to do. We couldn’t experiment, we just did what we knew how to do. You’ll see all these similarities between the films: the spinners in Blade Runner are basically the UFOs in Close Encounters. You’ll see it if you think about it from that standpoint. So it was fast and cheap, but stylistically the lighting on the sets, big beams of light, and the fact that the live action sets were all smoked up so there are shafts of light coming through Venetian blinds and glaring lens flares and this kind of stuff, was so akin to what we were doing with the visual effects that it seems like there are many more visual effects shots than there really are because they are so beautifully matched together. It’s not like you’re cutting away from an effects shot to some ordinary live action photography, you’re cutting from one live action shot to an effects shot that are so similar in style that it looks better than it really is.

I think that one of the most successful things in the film is this gritty texture that Ridley wanted. Dirty, grimy, glossy, oily, slicky, horrible, polluted kind of thing, with this constant drizzly rain, but it all comes out of Ridley. Ridley and Tony [Scott] both do the same thing in terms of an understanding of visual stimulation. That the more lights and flickering, moving things in a shot, the better. It’s just visual texture. You go into Tyrell’s office in Blade Runner and there’s this weird kind of flickering reflected lights on everybody’s face and all over the walls and everybody on the set is saying “What the fuck is that? It’s not wet in this office. Why is Ridley…?” He just wanted to make it more than it was visually. So you get this gritty look. It’s a really interesting Philip K. Dick story, it’s really beautifully art directed and production designed, and it made those few special effects more pervasive than they really were.

'Blade Runner' - The visual texture

It is seamless. As good as the story is, what I think you walk away from the movie with is this incredible textural visualization of the future. The strongest part of the movie is the place they live and the way they live. There’s this incredibly rich and detailed creation of the future, and the mundane, workaday way they treat it.

We could not have done that movie without the design by Syd Mead. I don’t know anyone else on the planet that you could hire who would show up and do that kind of visionary architectural megaworld. Syd’s been out there for years and he’s done it for a lot of people, including Disney theme park rides and Circle Vision movies. He was a kind of art center.

Your second film as a director, Brainstorm, faced some serious disasters and was almost shelved before completion. Can you talk about it?

You probably know that Natalie Wood died during the making of Brainstorm. There’s a very long story about that that I don’t talk about publicly because it would open up a can of worms. It is so deep and so horrendous that I don’t go into it. But she was killed in an accident, let’s leave it at that. Within hours, the studio declared “force majeure,” which is an act of nature. It’s the one clause in everybody’s contract that allows you to get out of all deals. So within hours, me and everyone else on the film was fired and the movie was terminated and the sets were locked up and we weren’t quite finished shooting. And I was taken into this meeting with an unnamable executive who later committed suicide, and he said “Doug, don’t try to finish this movie.” I said, “I’m a movie director. Movie directors are supposed to go through hell. We’re in the trenches, we’re going to damn the torpedoes and get our movies made no matter what goes wrong. That’s our job. I can get this movie done.” I said, “By the way, there was only three scenes left for Natalie to shoot.” It was all shot out of continuity and the end had already been shot. I said, “I can finish this movie with Natalie. There’s an easy way. I can just restage it a little differently. I’ve got all the coverage, I don’t need any fake shots of hands, I don’t need to fake any voices, I don’t need any over the shoulder floppy hat cover shots. I can do this. All you need to do is let me in the editing room and I’ll show you.” They said, “No, you can’t come back, we don’t want you in the cutting room, you can’t finish this movie.” And that began this big battle with MGM management to try to get my movie made.

It was the most horrendous experience of my life, there was a lot of subterfuge going on and they didn’t really have the money to finish the movie. I think there was motive. And we just fought it out. They said, “Absolutely we are not going to finish this movie,” so Lloyd’s of London, the insurance company, went head to head with MGM and said “Okay, we’ll finish the movie.” So I got the movie finished, not with the budget I wanted, not with all the special effects and fantastic stuff I had in my mind, but we were able to get it finished. But by then MGM was under new management and they were set on showing that the previous management didn’t know what they were doing. And so that movie did not get support from the studio and publicly, because I’d had this big battle to try to get the movie done, it became, quote, “Natalie Wood’s last film,” when she was really a minor player in the movie. It was really just an opportunity for her to make a comeback. So the movie just kind of became derailed. I’m glad I got it done, I’m much more happy that I got it done than to know that I had a film in a vault forever that no one was ever going to see. It’s kind of an unfinished symphony of mine, but I got it done.

Douglas Trumbull directing 'Brainstorm'

But you haven’t directed a feature since.

I feel like I’m kind of an oddball in the movie industry. I don’t want to just keep going back onto sets, you know? A lot about making movies is a big ego thing. You’re king for a day or king for a month of king for six months and get to order everybody around and be the big guy. And I think a lot of directors are very seduced by that kind of narcotic function that doesn’t have anything to do with the validity of the movie or any dedication to the cinema in the big picture or breaking out of the mold or breaking new ground or doing anything like a Kubrick would have been doing. They’re just cranking out another movie.

Some people just accept the industry as it is. They say “Oh, it’s 35mm film, it’s a Panavision camera, it’s these lights, it’s this crew, get your soundman, your electrician, your grip, and go.” So they bore into the nuances of performance or editorial techniques. They’re looking for some ethereal, emotional, story-driven, character-driven thing to emerge. It’s very subtle and that’s fine, it’s great. It just doesn’t interest me very much. I think that’s still the easy part of making movies. Because if you have a good script and a good actor, that will be there automatically. A lot of people are making a lot more out of it than it really is.

My whole career as been about immersive media. Not movies per se but immersive media. That’s why I’ve gotten into simulator rides and Showscan, high frame rates, IMAX, 3-D. I’ve been experimenting with these media experiences that I feel have the potential to be a profound personal experience for the viewer. If you could combine 3-D like IMAX with the frame rate of Showscan, you would have a medium that is indistinguishable from reality. That’s doable today, but unfortunately it requires brute force, millions of feet of film, a lot of light and a $500,000 projector, so it’s not ever going to be a huge medium. There’s only a limited number of IMAX theaters in the world. But I really believe that people are profoundly affected by things that really happen to them. Not so much by stories they hear or connect to the stories or characters through an empathetic third person, observation, but by direct personal experience. So the closer you can take the medium to delivering the direct personal experience through 3-D , through high brightness, through high clarity, through wide view, through binaural sound and even physical sensations like we’ve done with simulator rides, you completely take over someone’s nervous system and throw them into the movie, he ain’t never gonna forget it.