DOUGLAS TRUMBULL’S GREATEST VISUAL EFFECT
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.”
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.