Legendary special effects artist Douglas Trumbull is dead

It is difficult not to think, when evoking Douglas Trumbull, of an artist who thought of his medium at the same time as his subject. He who always had one foot in the future by taking care of some of the greatest science fiction films of the last century has revolutionized the way of approaching material and concrete techniques.

Of 2001, a space odyssey (1968) at blade runner (1982), Trumbull secretly reigned over the seventh art, leaving an indelible mark despite the many obstacles faced by the majors in the face of his innovations. He, who was 79 years old when he left us on February 7 following a brain tumor, was certainly adored by all aficionados of the genre, but too little known to the rest of moviegoers. Yet he deserves much more global recognition for the immense impact of his work on the film industry.

An engineer too far ahead of his time

Son of Donald Trumbull, to whom we owe, among other things, the visual effects of the cult film The Wizard of Oz (1939), the young Douglas is spotted by Kubrick with the film To the Moon and Beyond, broadcast on a dome in Cinerama 360. He worked on the latter for the 1964 New York International Fair, and also made animations for NASA, just that.

Stanley Kubrick, accompanied by the writer Arthur C. Clark, decides to contact Douglas Trumbull to work in particular on the hallucinatory scenes at the end of 2001, a space odyssey by experimenting and trying new methods of capturing light.

He managed to convince Universal to finance his first feature, while he was working on The Andromeda Mystery (1971) by Robert Wise. On paper, SilentRunning has it all: Trumbull behind the camera, a post-apocalyptic script co-signed by a certain Michael Cimino, and Bruce Dern in the cast. Unfortunately, the studio does not believe in the film, devotes a ridiculous budget to it and releases it quietly, without success despite very good reviews.

Trumbull tries to launch other projects, but all fall through and he is forced to return to special effects. He nevertheless transforms this obligation into strength, since he will see it, he whose father was an engineer at the start, a real playground.

After an uncredited passage on the blue backgrounds of The Infernal Tower (1974), he refuses to work on Star Wars to be on Spielberg’s film, Dating of the Third Kind (1977). While he prefers to work on a new technology – Showscan, which captures 60 images per second – which he finances thanks to Paramount, as well as on a new production, he refuses to participate in star trek, which falls during the post-production of the Spielberg.

Paramount, visibly upset by Trumbull’s decision, cut Showscan’s funding and hired someone else – the Robert Abel & Associates studio. The man, left behind, will take over the reins of the project a few months later after RA&A is finally put aside. He has little time, a huge workload since he has to review all the spatial imagery of the film, and works with the team relentlessly. He will even have an ulcer from lack of sleep and too much stress.

After this traumatic experience, he no longer wants to work. Until a certain Ridley Scott approached him to Blade Runner. He agrees, explaining that at least it’s not a space movie anymore. From sets to flying cars, he designed everything with Richard Yuricich, before having to leave the ship. It’s hard to blame him: he has just been offered the opportunity, finally, to finance his second feature.

Brainstorm is an opportunity for him to exploit the Showscan, since it will be a SF film in which scientists have created a technology allowing to see and feel the emotions of other people. To illustrate the sequences where a person sees the life of another, Douglas Trumbull precisely wanted to use these sequences filmed in 70 mm at 60 frames per second.

Unfortunately, the MGM is backtracking and the film will be broadcast normally. In question: the death by drowning of the main actress, Natalie Wood, while the film is not finished, and the fact that the rooms do not want to change the material of diffusion. After a long battle, the film was released in theaters in 1983, once again shunned by the public despite very good reviews. This will be Trumbull’s last film.

He was a true pioneer whose talent was wasted throughout his career. In addition to having innovated on the Showcan, he had, with the same foundation financed by Paramount, tried to develop LaserDisc technology – which more or less allows the design of a video game – which fell through because Paramount refused the prototype. The idea is picked up by Cinematronics for the game Dragon’s Lair ten years later.

Similarly, after the failure of Brainstorm, Douglas Trumbull and his team designed the first motion picture platform that can physically move based on the image. The project will be refused, before being used years later for attractions, Back to the future at Universal Studios and Star Tour in Disneyland.

This misunderstood genius, who worked to make the image more immersive and the theater experience more impressive, is gradually disappearing from the radar. We will see him briefly at the direction of IMAX Corporation in 1994. It is Terrence Malick who will give him his last letters of nobility. A big fan of Trumbull, he asked him to be a consultant on the special effects of The Tree of Life, Palme d’or at Cannes in 2011. For his part, he was working on a whole bunch of projects, from a 120 frames per second film to a photo-realistic miniature film project.

He will die before he can go back behind the camera one last time, leaving a monstrous and frustrating legacy, that of a revolutionary artist who has been restricted in his advances and his ideas. The least we could do now would be to respect his immense talent, as generations of filmmakers have been able to do in recent years.

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Legendary special effects artist Douglas Trumbull is dead