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Douglas Trumbull Recalls Kubrick and “2001: A Space Odyssey”

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He is a legend in the rarefied world of visual and special effects as well as being a noted film director and inventor. Douglas Trumbull was there at the beginning. He was part of forging the future of special effects and when he arrived on the scene in the 1960’s, Hollywood would never quite be the same.

Douglas was born in Los Angeles in 1942 and he just seemed destined to travel the road he would be traveling for over a half a century. While his father had become an engineer in the aerospace industry by the time he was born, the apple, as they have always said, didn’t seem to fall far from the proverbial tree. Prior to his engineering career, Trumbull’s father had been in the special effects game. In fact, his father had produced the special visual effects for 1939’s legendary The Wizard of Oz.

While Trumbull’s work would become widely recognized as groundbreaking, the man who would create the startling special effects for such  blockbusters as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner, things began rather humbly for him. However, it was an extreme twist of fate in 1964 that was to bring his true genius out into the world.

Trumbull at work on a set of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Trumbull at work on a set of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As the 1960’s, and his early 20’s loomed, Trumbull knew filmmaking was where he wanted to spend his life. He soon found work with a small graphic arts and animation studio called Graphic Films. He helped produce a documentary about manned space flight called To the Moon and Beyond which ended up being shown at the 1964 World’s Fair held in New York City.

It was there that science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke and film director Stanley Kubrick saw the documentary. Kubrick was so impressed by the film that he called the head of Graphic Films and hired him for a project. Trumbull obtained Kubrick’s telephone number from his Graphic Films boss and just called the director up wanting to chat. Apparently, the chat went quite well because Trumbull got hired to work on Kubrick’s then upcoming project called 2001: A Space Odyssey, that had been written by Clarke. Trumbull was 23.

Trumbull trying to get the Moon Bus to look just right.
Trumbull trying to get the Moon Bus to look just right.

And so the journey began and the legend and pioneer began his ascent toward doing what had never been done before. In 1968, 2001 was released to critical acclaim and Stanley Kubrick ended up being given an Academy Award that year for visual and special effects. While Kubrick didn’t create the special effects, he did direct them. Trumbull, over his long and illustrious career, was nominated for an Academy Award three times but never won. Kubrick’s Oscar, it seems, was as close as he was ever going to get. Even though Kubrick got the Oscar (his only one), Trumbull got the accolades and soon became the hottest prospect in Hollywood. Everyone wanted him to work his visual and special effects magic for their films.

Trumbull remembers that 2001 was going to be an important film because he firmly believed that the world was ready for a scientific type of film that was shot in 70mm. He had shot To the Moon and Beyond in 70mm and thought it could be used successfully in Kubrick’s film.

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In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Trumbull recalls those early days with Kubrick when he said: “I was a young and impressionable movie maker and my first movie was with Stanley Kubrick. I said ‘If this is what movies are like, then I want to do this all my life’. Then I found out that his attention to detail and manner of working wasn’t the norm.”

Trumbull truly respected Kubrick because he found that Kubrick understood everything, especially the technology. Trumbull remarked that, “He was more astute and wanted to understand everything; every lens, every camera.”

One of the major challenges of working on the film, Trumbull remembers, is trying to get the moon to actually look like the moon. He and Kubrick had different approaches and, in the end, they agreed that they were in hearty disagreement. However, also in the end, Trumbull realized that Kubrick was a true genius.

This past October, Douglass Trumbull was awarded the Progress Medal; the highest award given out by the Society of Motion Pictures and Television Engineers (SMPTE). Here is an interview in which Trumbull and Broadcast Beat Magazine founder Ryan Salazar sit and talk some shop at the SMPTE Awards:

“Stanley felt a responsibility to the 90 to 100 foot screens we were using,” Trumbull recalled. “He wanted to create an epic experience, a participatory movie experience. He wanted the audience to feel that they were on this adventure in space. He was stripping away normal conventions, the over-the-shoulder shots and counter-cuts of conventional movie melodrama and focused on making a movie that was a trip. I became convinced that this was the future of cinema and that he was the pathfinder for a new giant screen movie experience.”

While trying to film Saturn, they just couldn’t get the feel of it. For Trumbull, it was just a flat painting and didn’t look real at all. He remembers Kubrick telling everyone to forget about creating Saturn and work on producing Jupiter. That way, Kubrick said, they wouldn’t have to get so bogged down on the rings.

“So,” Trumbull recalls, “we started working on Jupiter and had the same problem. It was after I did the scanning for the Stargate sequences that I said, ‘I think there is a way of taking the Stargate scanning idea for the flat images and convert the process by making a spherical scanner’ which I called the Jupiter Machine. He (Kubrick) supported me in the Jupiter Machine idea. So there was this kind of symbiosis that we had, because he was questing after his mind’s eye view of things and, when I could get there, that got into the movie.”

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Inventor of the slit-scan photography process, which was used to film the Stargate scene in the movie, as well as the Showscan process, Trumbull has recently become heavily involved in the IMAX process and improving it so it may, eventually, become the standard. The Showscan process, basically, used multiple cameras to project 70mm film out at 60 frames per second. He likes the IMAX process and would like to see it come into greater use.

Currently, he says that he is working on an advanced film project that is going to end up creating a new kind of filming process, a new manner of film and an all new type of movie theater. For Kubrick, though, Trumbull just sensed that he would have loved IMAX, 3D, faster frame rates and what might lay beyond.

“I think he would have loved it” said Trumbull. “I talked to him a few years before he died and he was completely unaware of what I had done with Showscan and was also unaware of what I had done with IMAX because IMAX hadn’t really set up yet in England. I think of he had lived, he would have loved this stuff, he would love what I am doing right now. He was all about extreme quality, image quality, depth, and color saturation. Everything to make it look as good as it possibly could.”

Mr. Sawyer is a freelance writer, editor and journalist from Tampa. He has written thousands of articles for hundreds of magazines and news sites on countless topics including science, the media and technology. He is also the author of many white papers, special reports and ebooks covering a wide range of subjects.
Kevin Sawyer
Broadcast Beat - Production Industry Resource