Douglas Trumbull: A Writer-Producer-Director-Engineer-Inventor Looks Forward
COW Library : Cinematography : Douglas Trumbull : Douglas Trumbull: A Writer-Producer-Director-Engineer-Inventor Looks Forward
Douglas Trumbull is far more than a visual effects artist. Certainly, he played significant roles in three of the most powerful and influential visual effects movies of all time: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), along with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Blade Runner (1982), Douglas also received an Academy Award nomination for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). But he started his career as an illustrator, and his love of art and sci-fi led to a career that includes countless inventions, 22 patents, simulator rides, as well as writing, producing and directing. His visionary developments include Showscan, a filmmaking and exhibition format -- 65mm negative filmed at 60 frames per second, with 70mm prints projected at 60 frames per second -- that presciently predated today's renewed attention to high-frame rates shooting.
In Part 1 of our interview with Douglas in the September/ October issue of Creative COW Magazine, he described the development of his 1983 feature film project Brainstorm, which was intended to be for Showscan what Avatar became for 3D, until the project was stymied by studio politics and the death of its leading actress Natalie Wood. This precipitated Trumbull's move from Hollywood to the Berkshires in Massachusetts and the beginning of his career in simulation rides, first with Back to the Future: The Ride for Steven Spielberg. He went on to discuss the lamentable state of motion picture exhibition, and point the way to a future that not only includes higher framerates, but also brighter screens.
Here in Part 2, he delves more deeply into his career. Douglas was just in Hollywood to receive the 2011 SMPTE Presidential Proclamation, which recognizes "individuals of established and outstanding status and reputation in the motion-picture, television, and motion-imaging industries worldwide," for his more than 45 years of pioneering work in visual effects photography and groundbreaking innovation in motion-picture technologies.
He will be back in Hollywood in February to receive the Visual Effects Society's George Melies Award which honors individuals who have "pioneered a significant and lasting contribution to the art and/or science of the visual effects industry by a way of artistry, invention and groundbreaking work."
However, his career is by no means relegated to the past. Douglas most recently served as the Special Photographic Effects Supervisor for Terence Malick's Tree of Life (2011), and has five movies under contract based on new technology he is developing.
Creative COW recently spoke to Douglas about his past work, his current work, and the industry's future. All of us at Creative COW are honored to have Douglas join us in the pages of our magazine. Many on the Creative COW Team have our own individual stories of the impact that he has had on our careers and directions.
I can't actually describe my career, so I don't even try. I'm so diverse, it's kind of a problem for me. I get pigeonholed as a geek or special effects guru, but I say I'm a writer-producer-director-engineer-inventor.
I was also deeply interested in animation, so I thought I'd try to get a job doing that. I went around to different studios, including UPA, the animation studio producing the Mr. Magoo cartoons. They looked at my portfolio and said I was in the wrong place and sent me to Graphic Films, a company that had a specialty contract making films for NASA and the Air Force. I immediately got a job there and started doing animation background illustration for these films. We had a job previsualizing the Apollo program and here I was, really a kid, painting lunar landers and vertical assembly buildings.
Graphic Films got a contract to do a film for the 1964/65 New York World's Fair for the Travel and Transportation pavilion, To the Moon and Beyond, which was projected onto a Cinerama 360 dome. I produced a lot of the artwork for the multi-plane and fisheye photography. The movie was a trip to the moon and it became very abstract at the end.
Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark both saw this film at the World's Fair and hired me. I got a job working with them to make what was then called Journey Beyond the Stars, moving to London when I was 23. This was the ultimate training experience, working under my mentor Stanley Kubrick and other great professional cinematographers, set builders and artists.
Kubrick was a one of a kind, thinking-outside-the-box kind of person. He was extremely brilliant and wanted to make the first scientifically valid sci-fi movie, based on Clark's short story "The Sentinel," which became 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was an incredible opportunity for me, and it turns out I had the right skill set. My mother was a commercial artist and my father was an engineer, and I'm very good at engineering and art.
The control panels inside the EVA Pod from 2001: A Space Odyssey are seen reflected on the helmet of Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) in the scene that comes just prior to the Star Gate sequence.
The Star gate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey
In 2001: Space Odyssey, there were some intractable problems that had never been addressed in feature films, such as the Star gate sequence. How do you transit thorough space and time visually? I created what I called the slit cam machine, by which I could make an exposure with the camera lens for a minute or two to create these long time exposures of very controlled light effects, which created patterns that didn't exist in the real world. I also figured out a way to paint miniatures to get a tremendous amount of detail and realism.
I had another technique to make a realistic Jupiter, a kind of painting with light. I took a painting I made of Jupiter and scanned it onto a spherical object. It took me 8 hours to make one exposure of Jupiter at times. But it also made a realistic and effective image of Jupiter, which the illustrators couldn't do.
I went back to Los Angeles after that and directed, wrote and produced my own feature film, Silent Running. (Michael Cimino, Steven Bochco and Derek Washburn collaborated on the screenplay). Based on an idea from Todd Browning's Freaks, Silent Running was about preserving the world's ecosystem against an environmental catastrophe. We pioneered the use of portable 4x5 plate front projection, and were able to do 15 set-ups a day of process photography in addition to the regular schedule. We shot it all in 32 days for $1.3 million.
Directing Bruce Dern on the set of Silent Running, which Douglas also produced and wrote, as well as provided Visual Effects
What I didn't know was that the movie was part of a Universal Studios experiment to see if a movie could succeed on word of mouth alone, without any marketing or advertising. Now you can build an audience with social networking and viral media -- but at the time, word of mouth alone was not enough.
A VISUAL EFFECTS COMMUNITY
In those early days, all of us working in visual effects knew each other. We were working on Close Encounters of the Third Kind at the same time that George Lucas was doing Star Wars. John Dykstra worked on Silent Running, and I knew Bob Abel pretty well. [Ed. note: Among the accomplishments of Robert Abel & Associates was the digital animation for the original Tron, using software that they developed themselves.]
For Close Encounters, we dabbled with the idea of using digital effects, but it would have taken 15 years of key pounding, so we abandoned it. I partnered with my old friend Richard Yuricich and started Entertainment Effects Group in Marina Del Rey to produce the photographic effects.
Close Encounters of The Third Kind, for which he was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects
We pioneered the first real-time, on-location digital recording of camera motion. My father Donald engineered physical motion control rigs [Ed. note: Donald Trumbull also worked in effects on The Wizard of Oz], and Jerry Jeffress built the electronics. EEG was also the first company to composite motion control shots in 65mm.
The Enterprise from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, for which Douglas received an Academy Award® nomination for Best Visual Effects
MINIATURES & VIRTUAL SETS
I'm back at writing, producing and directing. I absolutely intend to do it my way: to control budgets and to use this technology effectively. The creative approach I'm using is completely out of the box to making live action movies. The idea I'm developing is a way to produce films that look like blockbusters but don't cost the same as big blockbusters.
Image above and title thumbnail, Douglas Trumbull directs calibration testing for real time compositing of live action and miniatures on the set of his feature UFOTOG, with Joshua Crane shooting.
I've come up with my own maverick philosophy about digital effects. Even when it comes to the most expensive digital effects produced by the best companies on the planet, the computer graphics often quickly look out-dated, superseded by even better CG.
A lot of movies made a few years ago don't look good today. They would never pass muster. But movies I've worked on using miniatures look good and don't age. If I did Blade Runner 2 today, I would use miniatures, even though I would use digital compositing and other digital effects far superior to optical printing.
Above, Douglas and one of the miniatures he designed for Blade Runner. Courtesy Warner Bros. and Douglas Trumbull.
But I think miniatures have been prematurely abandoned, and I don't know why. The fact is that if anyone went into a meeting and proposed miniatures, they'd be thrown out. People think it's antiquated, old school and not as good as digital effects. In fact, I took the virtual set concept to Hollywood 15 years ago and went to the heads of all the studios with demos I'd shot at my studio to show the feasibility. And I didn't get one callback. No one was interested. Now I think everyone will be interested. Audiences have been fractured and we need to make a better product for a lower price.
Right now, I'm developing films that are going way forward in what's possible with digital technologies. I'm working on a radical new concept that takes advantage of the fact that we can create CG in real-time and put actors into sets and locations in real time.
Douglas shoots a still of actor Randall Nickerson, in anticipation of live action "virtual set" compositing.
Douglas' assistant Joshua Crane lines up the shot of actor Randall Nickerson on the green cyclorama.
Actor Randall Nickerson composited into early miniature test set.
It allows us to produce a real-time live action animatic of the film in the same way that the animation industry can previsualize their films. They film their storyboards, use temp dialogue and music and go through six or eight iterations before they commit to the final render. They de-bug their movies as they make them. Pixar is the leader in the world in doing this, but all the animation companies do the same thing. It allows them to figure out way in advance what's wrong, what's missing.
I'm trying to bring that creative, iterative process to live action so that we can shoot live action rehearsals -- the whole cast on an empty stage -- very quickly, and then in the final iteration, replace the CG virtual environment with miniatures to get the realism I want to have.
The idea is to make a virtual set of any set or location and get it put into the computer as a virtual model that can be performed in real time. The actors on a set can appear to be in this virtual set, and you can shoot in real-time, do rehearsals and mock-ups. Then, by the time you get to the point where you want to shoot the real thing, the virtual set has been modified, texture-mapped, made much more realistic and you shoot that main unit production with your principal cast.
Meanwhile, you've taken the database and used 3D stereo-lithography to create miniatures that are exactly the same as the virtual set. A miniature looks as good as the real thing, but it's a fraction of the cost. After you've done that, you shoot the miniatures to replace the virtual sets.
The RED Epic camera on the Trumbull-designed zeroG jib.
The zeroG jib's "elbow" is unique to the system, allowing an additional axis of motion, making it possible to move the camera in any direction without friction or mass impeding the move. Also shown on the elbow: some of the encoders used to record motion data and transform it to coordinates for real-time matchmoving with the shooting of miniatures for compositing.
Douglas' assistant Joshua Crane lines up the RED Epic aboard an encoding Talon head from Sorensen Design, who built the zeroG jib arm.
I'm working on the virtual set technology with Unreel Pictures, which provides real-time 3D graphics solutions for broadcast and feature film production, and is a leading purveyor of virtual sets for the major networks, cable networks and the Pentagon.
I'm also working with General Lift, the final frontier of motion control technologies. They have motion control digital camera systems like what I designed 30 years ago, coalesced into one locale. Joe Lewis, who runs General Lift, has been buying up surplus equipment, such as gear from Kerner Digital when they closed. He's the keeper of what some people think of as antiquated mechanical systems, but I think it's the next great step toward integrating miniatures into movies.
I have five films lined up, and recently built a stage with an 80- foot wide greenscreen at my home in Massachusetts where I can not only experiment and de-bug and perfect virtual live action, but I can do it in a way that doesn't cost an arm and a leg. I can do a proof of concept and demo. We can show an investor that we can shoot 100 set-ups a day. It's a different approach, and I don't see anyone else doing this.
Douglas on the 60' by 92' stage at his complex in the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts. Originally conceived as an R&D facility to develop and perfect a better way to make sci-fi movies at lower cost, it has now turned into a ready-to-shoot feature film studio that includes production offices, screening rooms, editorial facilities, a machine shop, wood shop, and a metal shop.
A MAVERICK'S WAY FORWARD
It's a period of tumultuous change and extremely high costs in the movie industry. Hollywood still has one foot in the old world of sets, big stages, and expensive locations. And they add to that a gazillion dollars of special effects to make these visual effects-driven summer popcorn movies.
The only way the major studios justify themselves is to make these blockbusters. They don't make midlevel movies at all anymore. That's led to an exhibition crisis where the theatres don't have enough different kinds of movies to fill their seats. Regal Cinemas and Open Road Pictures have even formed their own company to address this. It's a reversal of when the studios owned the theatres.
As it is now, it's a very dysfunctional business. Even if you have a blockbuster success, the producers may not see a penny for years. Perhaps in the future, the studios will no longer have an exclusive stranglehold on distribution. We'll see tremendously different forms of distribution including possible direct linkages to theatres, so a producer will be able to make a direct deal with a theater chain without making a deal with a studio.
I think the visual effects industry is being taken advantage of, when they're the epicenter of Hollywood's strength. Right now, the major studios pit the visual effects companies against each other in these vicious bidding wars. The CG companies are providing infrastructure to the movie, making characters, set extensions, wardrobes, props, but they're not participating in the profits. Instead, with these bidding wars, they're bidding against each other and constantly at risk of closing their doors.
I don't think collective bargaining is the answer, but maybe writers, producers, directors can arise from the ranks of the visual effects industry, and take control of the process and have a piece of the back end. Not everyone is built to be a producer, writer or director, but more and more visual effects artists will emerge who can make the transformation from artist to filmmaker.