Special Effects Artist Doug Trumbull Made Humanity’s Adventure Luminous

On March 27th, the lights will dim in the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. A screen will roll down, and as somber music plays, a parade of film clips and still photos will commemorate those in the movie-making industry who have passed in the preceding twelve months. Somewhere in there, probably not at the beginning nor near the end, will be the name of special effects artist Douglas Trumbull.

Maybe the people who assemble the compilation will go the extra step of honoring Trumbull with the title “Special Effects Master,” though that’s doubtful. Hopefully they’ll append some footage of his work, most likely his most famous creation: the infinite corridor of lights from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) that came to be known as the stargate. Possibly, if the special effects technical category gets any airtime at all, it’ll be preceded by an extended tribute for the man.

Whatever homage Trumbull gets, it will not be enough. Not just for those who worked with and loved him, but for anyone who’s followed his career across five-plus decades. For Doug Trumbull was more than just a proficient technician, he was an artist in his own right, one whose unique vision altered the world of science fiction filmmaking forever.

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In Brainstorm (1983)—one of the two feature films Trumbull directed—a team of scientists headed up by Christopher Walken and Louise Fletcher develop a machine that can tap into and record the human mind. Over the course of the film, the machine’s functions—and the purposes to which it can be put— morph. It starts out as a mere recorder of sensations, leading a lab tech to grief when he foolishly loops some footage to give himself an orgasm every ten seconds. It then becomes a recorder of memories, allowing Walken to reconcile with his wife (Natalie Wood) by cutting together a mixtape of their happiest moments. When commandeered by an Evil Government Scientist, it’s weaponized into a machine to forcibly implant delusions. But most significantly, when Fletcher suffers a heart attack and uses the machine to record her final moments on Earth, it gives Walken a glimpse of existence beyond the mortal plane, a vision of humanity becoming one with the universe.

Those ideas—that technology can make you feel, can allow you to reflect on your life and its purpose, and can ultimately lead one to a greater understanding of humanity and its place in the cosmos—served not only as the plot of the movie. They could also be regarded as summing up the lifelong mission of Douglas Trumbull.

Trumbull stood out among his colleagues for his belief that special effects, and the technologies surrounding them, should not just be employed for transitory thrills, but to touch the audience, to invoke a sense of wonder, to create moments that one didn’t just watch, but fully experienced. That impulse was there practically from the start of his career. Having been brought onto 2001 to create an animation system that would fast-track graphics for the scores of computer screens seen throughout the film, he gained considerable influence as the production progressed. When it was decided that transporting astronaut David Bowman to the film’s final act by literally dropping him through a slot in one of Jupiter’s moons didn’t work visually, Trumbull came up with a more striking alternative: developing the slit-scan system, an electro-mechanical camera rig that could take flat artwork and stretch it out into a moving, seemingly infinite plane. Feeding the likes of moiré patterns and even photos of Persian carpets into the machine, he created David Bowman’s mind-bending trip into the stargate, and in the process bent more than a few minds in the audience as well (including that of one particularly appreciative 11 year-old. Me. I’m talking about me).

2001 catapulted Trumbull, still in his mid-twenties, to special effects prominence. But in the years following, he would express some reservations about Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece: That it was too cold, too precise; that it lacked the human touch. In 1972, he tried to remedy that shortfall with Silent Running, an environmental parable about an Earth so debauched by technology that it exiles its few remaining forests into orbit around Saturn, placed under the custodianship of lead Bruce Dern and a trio of endearing, pre-R2-D2 robots.

While the film allowed Trumbull to seek out the soul in a hard-science scenario (and allowed him to finally create the convincing Saturn that he’d had to abandon for 2001), conventional storytelling was less Trumbull’s strength than the stories he could weave through the power of his effects. After the behind-the-scenes debacle that was Brainstorm—including conflicts with Paramount over incorporating his Showscan projection system into the film and the tragic drowning death of Natalie Wood—Trumbull would not direct another feature film.

A loss, possibly, to the industry, but maybe a gain to the world of special effects. If anybody leaned hard on the “artist” in special effects artist, it was Douglas Trumbull. In his hands, the gears, levers, motion control systems, cameras and lenses of SFX were not just equipment, they were paintbrushes. Trumbull—and the effects teams he oversaw—created art in motion and light.

Especially light. More often than not, a Trumbull effect reached out to you from the dark, with a seductive, distinctly ethereal glow. Maybe that characteristic was born during his work on 2001, with all those back-projected computer readouts and the luminous corridors of the stargate. Whatever its birthplace, Trumbull took the necessity of illumination and turned it into an artistic tool. By the time Steven Spielberg brought him on for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), he used the opportunity to address a long-time incongruity in science fiction film: How can a spaceship, immersed in the total blackness of deep space, be visible to the camera? Trumbull’s answer: It couldn’t, unless it carried its own, external illumination. From logic came art: The forms of the Close Encounters UFOs would be defined by swaths of neon, LEDs, and incandescent lights. Bathed in an atmospheric glow, they attained a dreamlike otherworldliness, a fitting complement to Close Encounters’ “When You Wish Upon a Star” spirit.

When Trumbull took that philosophy over to Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)—a job he, and colleague John Dykstra, inherited after another effects house stumbled in its efforts—the result was a USS Enterprise cloaked in washes of directional light, giving the vehicle a palpable depth and mass. Within the sixty-plus year history of the franchise, never has the legendary starship looked so real, so much like something that could actually carry Captain Kirk and crew to their appointments with strange new worlds. And when Trumbull had to portray an environmentally ravaged Los Angeles for Blade Runner (1982), what resulted was a city trapped in perpetual night, the black forms of buildings peppered with dots of window-lighting, interrupted with giant, video billboards featuring geisha-like women pitching suspicious-looking drugs, and punctuated with bursts of infernal, industrial flame. It was at once ominous, yet oddly alluring—a hell you were half-tempted to experience for yourself.

There was magic in Doug Trumbull’s visions, born out of a more impressionistic approach to special effects. While the general, developmental arc of effects work has been to become nearly indistinguishable from actual photography—a quest that has only accelerated with the shift over to computer graphics—Trumbull didn’t mind leaning toward the abstract. His Enterprise may have moved with a convincing sense of mass, but it also had a distinctive grace, leveraging off the magnificent, three-dimensional possibilities of Matt Jefferies’ original design. Spock’s odyssey through V’ger’s memory core may have been the rush-job Trumbull confessed it to be, but it also was dazzlingly surreal, a compelling evocation of the world within a living machine-mind. It’s telling that when Trumbull talked to me about the effects he and his colleagues created for 2001, he used words like, “emotional,” “musical,” and “balletic.” At their most evocative, Trumbull’s visions left room for viewers to map out their own realities, taking them to places no one had dared imagine.

Even after Brainstorm had soured Trumbull on feature film production, he didn’t abandon his quest to elevate technology to its own art. In the ensuing years and across multiple companies, whether working for others or directing his own short films, he kept developing and patenting systems intended to turn the act of viewing into the act of experiencing. His high-speed, Showscan projection system, which was intended to create a more engaging experience by nearly tripling the frame rate to 60 frames per second, was the forebear of the high-frame-rate digital projection systems used in the Hobbit trilogy and Gemini Man. His exploration in hydraulic-powered, motion base simulators predated Disney’s introduction of the tech in Star Tours, and he himself would provide the film component for Universal’s motion simulator attraction, Back to the Future: The Ride (1991).

In all cases, the technologies he employed were at the service of the stories he wanted to tell, and the feelings he wished to inspire in the audience. “We think first about what the show is,” he told me, “what is the structure, the dramatic meaning, and what is the technology needed to deliver it. You should never have a situation where the projector is telling you what movie to make.”

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On February 7th, 2022, Douglas Trumbull passed from complications of mesothelioma. His daughter Amy posted the announcement on Facebook, noting that she and her sister, Andromeda, were there in his final moments, to let him know they loved him, and to urge him to “enjoy and embrace his journey into the Great Beyond.” Whether or not Trumbull’s travels continue beyond this plane, his influence can be felt throughout the world of genre film, in the sensual alienness of the android Ava in Ex Machina, in the contrast of light against dark within Arrival’s reception chamber, in Interstellar’s… um… pretty much everything, even in the surreal dimensional games of Godzilla vs. Kong’s Inner Earth.

What we have lost, though, is a unique vision of what special effects could be, and how they could be used to heighten our appreciation of the miracle of our existence. Unique among his colleagues, Douglas Trumbull recognized the beating heart of technology, and wished to awaken us all to its presence. His genius will be sorely missed.

Dan Persons has been knocking about the genre media beat for, oh, a good handful of years, now. He’s presently house critic for the radio show Hour of the Wolf on WBAI 99.5FM in New York, and previously was editor of Cinefantastique and Animefantastique, as well as producer of news updates for The Monster Channel. He is also founder of Anime Philadelphia, a program to encourage theatrical screenings of Japanese animation. And you should taste his One Alarm Chili! Wow!

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