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Douglas Trumbull

Review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), December 14, 1977]

It’s getting harder and harder for a movie to just happen anymore. I’m not talking about the ways movies get made (although, to be sure, that’s become an extremely messy business), but the ways movies and audiences get together. In the absence of a vast public that simply “goes to the movies,” film-selling has become a matter of creating Events—Events that may or may not live up to the induced expectations but which in any, er, event have an uphill fight to stay alive and spontaneous. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is having a harder time than most. It’s a $20 million film that a lot of people are anxious to recover their money on. It’s a film in a genre, sci-fi, variously blessed and burdened with an enthusiastic/rabid following whose specialized requirements for satisfaction do not necessarily have much to do with a film’s being good as a film. It’s a film in a genre, moreover, that has recently given the cinema its Number One Box-Office Champ, Star Wars, and hence become newly embattled among critics and commentators who deplore the preeminence of “mindless,” two-dimensional, feel-good flicks on the top-grossing charts.

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“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.

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