Sometime in the late 1980s my wife and I were invited to a warehouse-type building in Marina del Rey for a demonstration of Douglas Trumbull’s Showscan. A new film format from the man who was largely responsible for the incredible look of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the modern era of visual effects? The same guy who directed Silent Running? Who could turn down an invitation like that?

We were shown into a room that seated several dozen people; it was comfortable but industrial in nature. There was no masking for the screen, which stretched from floor to ceiling, surrounded by a clutter of boxes. At one point a man walked in between a stack of those boxes and explained what we were going to see. Only after several minutes and a carefully orchestrated “reveal” did we comprehend that the man was not standing in the room but being projected on film!

The rest of the “demo reel” was equally astonishing: the images of birds, insects, and fish underwater were especially potent, because I’d never seen colors so bright or footage so sharp and clear.

This was Showscan: a large-format film (not unlike IMAX) that also benefited from being shot at very high speed. Trumbull hoped that it would be adopted by Hollywood but its only real exposure came as a dramatic device in the ill-fated 1983 Natalie Wood feature Brainstorm, which Trumbull directed and which was released some time after her tragic death.

Trumbull gave his all to Showscan and when it failed he left the movie business and moved to Massachusetts, where he worked on a series of projects in his own laboratory. Terence Malick persuaded him to work as a consultant on The Tree of Life. He had harsh words for the declining quality of modern-day moviegoing and told one reporter, ““I don’t blame people for wanting to watch movies on their laptops, because in many ways it’s better than a movie theater.”

Trumbull’s Future General Corporation shooting an effects sequence for Star Trek: The Motion Picture

His pioneering work on 2001 will never be forgotten, nor will his contributions to other landmark films like The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Blade Runner. You can read about his credits in the obituaries that have been posted since his death on Monday at the age of 79.

But I, for one, will never ever forget the night I sat in a theater and thought an “actor on the screen” was standing right in front of me. Thanks, Doug Trumbull, for sharing your vision of a potential filmmaking future with the likes of me.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024