The man who created the Star Gate, the Mothership, the movie USS Enterprise, flying cars in Blade Runner, and the origin of life in The Tree of Life turns 78 today.
Trumbull’s work on a short 360-degree Cinerama film, “To the Moon and Beyond” created for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, brought him to Stanley Kubrick’s attention for 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Working on ‘2001’ was my film school,” Trumbull says. “Stanley Kubrick was my mentor.”
A few years after 2001, he made his directorial debut with Silent Running (1972), a well-received space-faring film that had an ecologic message that was ahead of its time. He also developed computerized motion control photography on the film. This led George Lucas to try and hire him for Star Wars. But Trumbull was already committed to Close Encounters, so his young assistant, John Dykstra, went to ILM visual effects.
His father, Donald Trumbull, worked in special effects in Hollywood — “He was on a fishing rod with a monofilament line moving the tiger’s tail in The Wizard of Oz“. His mother was a graphic artist.
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“In the 70s I was at a branch of Paramount called Future General Corporation. I had a specific contract to do the work that we were developing there, which was to try to explore the future of cinema. And we had developed all kinds of new technologies for simulation rides, video games, and motion picture technology – high frame rate, stuff that led to the Showscan process.”
He and his team won the Oscar for 60fps Showscan.
Trumbull was also enlisted by Paramount Pictures and director Robert Wise to come to the rescue of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was having serious problems with its visual effects and was in very real danger of missing its December 1979 release date. Trumbull and his team completed 650 state-of-the-art VFX shots in 6 months, an unheard of pace.
He left Hollywood for the world of live events and theme parks after Brainstorm in 1983.
In 1990, he was approached about making a Back to the Future ride for Universal Studios venues in Florida, Hollywood and Japan. Others had been unable to conquer it, but Trumbull made it happen. They used Showscan in conjunction with powered motion simulator seats. In 2011 he was convinced to do another film by Terrence Malick, Tree of Life, that won the prestigious Palme d’Or.
He currently works at Trumbull Studios in the idyllic Berkshires, a farm and movie studio similar to LucasFilm in concept and begun at about the same time. He financed it through his IMAX stock, where he was Vice Chairman. Trumbull already had real-time virtual sets working back in 2012, years before anyone else (though Avatar had previs on set)
I had the opportunity to meet Doug after a special screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. He gave a long talk about all of the visual effects and showed behind the scenes footage of amazing devices, like an analog computer that controlled the motion of the Moon Shuttle. In person he was friendly and willing to answer questions with a no-nonsense attitude about using technology to make art. He felt that visual effects artists were treated poorly and that studios depend on them for every scene in a blockbuster, and that live experiences were the future.