Disappearance of Douglas Trumbull, legendary craftsman of the special effects of 2001, Encounters of the 3rd kind, Blade Runner…

The trajectory of this immense experimenter met those of other visionaries, such as Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Terrence Malick.

Los Angeles, November 2019. City lights are drowned out by the smog of the future, flames shoot from the tops of buildings, lightning rips through the dark sky, and a flying car streaks through space. The city is reflected in an eye, and the camera, slowly, slowly, brings us closer to a titanic pyramid that appears in the clouds… The opening of blade runner is rightly legendary. The EEG team, Douglas Trumbull’s studio which designed the sequence of Ridley Scott’s film, had nicknamed this setting “Ridley’s Inferno”, in reference to that of Dante, or more often “the Hades landscape”. Hades, or the master of the underground Hells: the master of another world.

A special effects genius, Douglas Trumbull was indeed the boatman taking the gaze – and the mind – to another world. He died on February 7, at age 79. “Few people have created as many unforgettable images as he did”writes about him Pascal Pinteau in his monumental encyclopedia Special effects, 2 centuries of history (Bragelonne) where there is a long interview with Douglas. His father, Donald, had worked on some special effects for the Wizard of Oz of 1939. Douglas began his film career with 2001, A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick and his screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke had noticed at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 the film produced by NASA To the Moon and Beyond. “It was a journey from the infinitely large to the infinitely small in a long sequence shot”, told Douglas Trumbull to Pascal Pinteau. Douglas had painted celestial objects on moving glass plates for the film to create the illusion of traversing space. “We started from distant galaxies to get closer to the planets of the solar system, the moon and the Earth, and finally penetrate the microcosm of atoms”. Shot and projected in 70mm on a dome, To the Moon and Beyond was a taste of “ultimate trip” what was going to be 2001 of Kubrick four years later.

Trumbull almost didn’t work at first on 2001 : the Hollywood studio which employed him and which did research on the surface of the Moon was initially fired by Kubrick when the latter relocated the filming to England. Trumbull hung on and the filmmaker brought him in. He works on the movements of ships in space, the visuals of the planets, the screens of the HAL computer, and he manages to imagine the hallucinating scene of the “stargate”, the tunnel of lights in which Bowman plunges at the end of the film. The favorite sequence of Trumbull, who was 23 years old at the time. Back in Hollywood, he founded his special effects studio and worked on The Andromeda Mystery (1971) by Robert Wise, an experience that ruined him since the filmmaker refused to cover the SFX budget overrun. To bail himself out, he worked in advertising and then made his first film as a director, SilentRunning (1972) where Bruce Dern plays the space gardener behind closed doors of ecological and paranoid SF. After many setbacks and unrealized projects, Steven Spielberg hired him for the effects of Dating of the 3rd kind (1976). He then imagined filming the lights of nocturnal UFOs in miniature sets by immersing them in cigarette smoke to make them more blurred, more mysterious and therefore more real.

Douglas Trumbull celebrates Stanley Kubrick and announces the cinema revolution

Then, Trumbull thinks only of the creation of its Showscan process (70mm in very high definition, at 60 images per second) and of its Brainstorm, a film in which we literally enter the minds of its characters thanks to a “recording headset” allowing in particular to explore life after death. Trumbull wanted the “normal” sequences to be shot in 35mm and 24 frames per second, before taking us inside their minds and moving to Showscan format… But the Paramount studio, which supported the project, changed direction and refused support Brainstorm. To protect his project, Trumbull still agrees to work for the studio on Star Trek the movieagain with Robert Wise, but the experience is going better than before. Brainstorm still drags on, as theater operators balk at the idea of ​​a two-format film that they couldn’t screen… Trumbull arrives on blade runner in 1981, and production is already in the red. The SFX budget is “tiny”according to him, but the result belongs, like those of 2001 Where Metto the legend of the imaginary on film.

He finally turns Brainstorm the same year, with Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood. Trumbull wants to represent the world of the afterlife and the psyche of the characters as galaxies, entire universes… But the tragic death of the actress in November 1981 transforms the shooting into a nightmare. The MGM studio is on the verge of bankruptcy and completely drops the film, which will be shot in 35mm and 70mm “normal” and will be released in September 1983 in a certain indifference. Disgusted, Trumbull left the cinema to turn to amusement parks (he co-directed that of Back to the future in 1991 at Universal Studios), and will only return at the request of Terrence Malick, using “hard” techniques (mixtures of milk, water and inks…) to represent the magnificent planetary sequences of tree of life (2011). He had also imagined a real attraction for the film, a prologue around the image of a flame which was to be projected in a room before the real cinema of tree of life. Constantly confronted with the realities of the industry, Douglas worked on 3D projections, augmented reality, very high definition (the MAGI process in 4K and 120 images/second)… “We need bigger, brighter screens, and above all break this old tradition of rows of armchairs, which forces you to look at the screen from abominable angles. A lot of things are wrong”, he said to Première in 2018. We think, basically, that Douglas Trumbull’s lifelong obsession was to transform the cinema into another world, into something larger than a screen, however immense. To the Moon, and beyond.

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