Doug Trumbull's Space Odysseys
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Doug Trumbull’s Space Odysseys

Still from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey courtesy TIFF.

When it was released in 1968, a promotional brochure released by MGM promised that “Everything in 2001: A Space Odyssey can happen within the next three decades, and…most of the picture will happen by the beginning of the next millennium.” It was an overeager prediction. Granted, nowadays we do have voice-print recognition software, chess-playing computers, and, thanks to the iPhone 4, personal videophones. But we’ve yet to colonize the moon, or build hotels inside space stations. And, thankfully, the artificial intelligence we’ve managed to create hasn’t acquired sentience, gone haywire, and started singing “Daisy Bell”…yet.
Forty-plus years ago, however, the future projections of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 were remarkable, not least of all because the actual infrastructure of space exploration was still developing. (Apollo 11 didn’t land men on the moon until a year after 2001’s theatrical release.) Tasked with envisioning this future, Kubrick turned to Doug Trumbull, a scrappy, upstart visual effects artist who had previously worked on educational films outlining NASA’s space program. Along with Con Pederson, Tom Howard, and Wally Veevers, Trumbull set about fashioning the hyper-realistic, yet no less fantastic, future of 2001.

After the runaway success of the film, Trumbull secured steady work producing visual effects for science-fiction pictures like The Andromeda Strain, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (he’d also direct Silent Running and Brainstorm, both sci-fi cult classics). Then, in 1981, Trumbull was given the chance to reimagine the near-future, leading the visual effects team on Ridley Scott’s cyberpunk neo-noir Blade Runner, a film that tends to rank right at the tippy-top of lists of the best science-fiction films ever made (usually followed by 2001).
This week, Doug Trumbull will be hosting two-hour seminars on the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner at TIFF Bell Lightbox, to correspond with the screenings of the two films as part of the (still ongoing) Essential Cinema program. (Of note: 2001 will be screening in ultra-definition 70mm, a format Trumbull helped popularize.)
We spoke with Trumbull last week from his office in Massachusetts about his work on these seminal science fiction films, as well as the current state of special effects and world-making in Hollywood cinema.
Torontoist: When you got into filmmaking in the 1960s, special effects weren’t the cornerstone of cinema that they are now. What led you to the field?
Doug Trumbull: Well, the short version of that is that as a young art student, I was reading a lot of science fiction. And you can’t grow up in the United States without watching a lot of alien attack movies. I grew up on all those sci-fi movies, which I agreed were mostly all B-movie crud—although Forbidden Planet was quite extraordinary for its time. Anyhow, there I was with my portfolio filled with alien planets and space ships, whereas other portfolios from other artists would have still lives, life drawings, watercolours, or oil paintings. Mine was all science-fiction. I decided I would like to try and get into the movie industry via animation.
I was directed to a specialist studio called Graphic Films that was making space films for the government, for NASA and the Air Force. They were informational training films that were mostly shown to congress and government officials to keep funding going for the Apollo program and the old Mercury program. So I was painting Mercury capsules and Apollo capsules and lunar landers and stuff. Kubrick saw a film I had worked on for the New York World’s Fair, which was in 1964 and ’65. It was a 70mm film called To the Moon and Beyond, that I’d done all the illustrations and artwork for. So he hired Graphic Films to start doing preliminary designs for 2001. It was a contract that predated the production.
So you were contracted? Because there’s an old story that you called Kubrick out of the blue and asked for the job.
I did! See, the contract ended. Kubrick had done some early work with us, and then he decided to move to England and shoot the film there. He thought the communication delay would be too cumbersome. So he terminated the contract with Graphic and made plans to hire designers out of London. So then I got laid off, because Graphic didn’t have any more work at the time. And I thought, “What do I do? I really loved working on this movie.” So I found Kubrick’s phone number on a bulletin board and cold-called him. And he said yeah. He sent plane tickets for me and my wife, and we went over there and ended up living there for two years.

A marquee for 2001 at the long-defunct Glendale Theatre, circa 1968. Image courtesy City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 77, Item 3.

One of the things that’s really interesting about 2001 is that you were being tasked to think of designs for these elaborate, manned space missions when actual space travel was in its infancy. Where did you take your cues from? Was it from all these sci-fi films and books that you’d grown up on?
It was that. But I wasn’t just into science-fiction. I’d always read Scientific American and magazines from the aerospace and aircraft industries. I’d been very steeped in real science all my life. Whenever it came time to work on spacecraft I knew I’d have to learn about the mechanics and everything you could learn scientifically to really know what space travel was about. That really came into play on 2001.
2001 was so demanding in terms of its realism and verisimilitude that some of the things we tried to do didn’t work very well. Kubrick had the wisdom to not do them at all. Rather than do a poor job, he’d do no job. So, for example, you never see rocket flames in 2001, even though these were supposedly chemically rocket propelled spacecraft. Zero gravity was one of the things Kubrick really wanted to do well, and he brought on scientists who had worked with Werner VonBraun. He wanted 2001 to look good. Kubrick and [2001 author Arthur C.] Clarke wanted it to not be another B-movie. So there was huge attention to detail.
It’s kind of hard to conceive of now, when the bulk of special effects are done with computer software, but when you were working on 2001, you were working with huge models, right? Like fifty-foot models?
Yeah, the Discovery spacecraft was fifty-four feet long! I’m still a big believer in models. I think the movie business took a turn a few years ago when it became possible to do a lot of computer graphics. George Lucas and others pioneered the use of computer graphics. But my personal feeling is that miniatures are still better for many of the components of special effects. It’s almost a lost art.
It’s kind of romantic when you think about special effects artists grappling with these huge scale models, and then you open this month’s issue of Wired and read the cover story on Tron: Legacy, which talks about how Disney has a room of people hunched over computers slaving over the lighting effects on a digital Jeff Bridges’ eyebrow. It doesn’t spark the imagination as much as this idea of people like you working with incredibly detailed props. Well, it does, but in a totally different way.
For me, personally, I certainly understand and have used a lot of computer graphics. There’s a lot about it that’s far superior to anything we were able to do before. But there’s still, I think, the sweet spot that’s somewhere between the two worlds, that’s actually more appropriate and looks better. Like there’s a company up in San Francisco that get contracts for all the big explosion and fire scenes in films, because it’s the kind of thing you can’t get right with computer graphics—exploding building or exploding planes or whatever.
How do you feel about a guy like James Cameron, who got his start like you, building models and that? It seems that even though he’s so invested in digital technology, at least he’s designing and building the camera equipment and computers to make the films he wants to make. It still seems very hands-on.
Avatar is a really good example of an extremely high-technology, sophisticated, challenging, well-executed work of cinema. I have no argument with Avatar. The only argument I have is that most people can’t afford to spend three or four hundred million dollars on a movie. My take on it is that there are parts of this technology we can use, but there are other parts of making films like these that we can do as well, if not better, with miniatures.
I think the Lord of the Rings are a great example of a blended computer graphics and miniature world. Visually and physically, in terms of photorealism, I think miniatures often win out over CGI, and are often less expensive.

Still from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner courtesy TIFF.

Story goes that after you were done working on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, you became quite fed up with working with other directors. So how come when Blade Runner came down the pike, you tossed your hat back into the ring?
Well, I had recently finished Close Encounters of the Third Kind and wanted to direct Brainstorm. But Ridley [Scott] approached me about doing Blade Runner. And I really like working with Ridley. He’s a very, very intelligent, thoughtful, and creative character. When I saw what he wanted to do, I thought it would be easy, because I could basically use a lot of the stuff I used in Close Encounters. So when you see the blimp in Blade Runner, it’s basically a different Mother Ship from Close Encounters. The technology, the lighting effects, and everything were transposed perfectly.
Now Ridley knew I wanted to direct Brainstorm so we had arranged for a guy named David Dryer to take over the completion of Blade Runner in my absence. And Dave really deserves a great deal of credit for taking over and making the film look as good as it did. So that’s the story behind that. It just kind of fit into a larger plan.
On the Blade Runner DVD special features, Ridley Scott talks about how he originally conceived of the film as a pretty small film, more on the scale of Alien, with only like fifty or sixty [special effects] shots. Obviously that scope was massively expanded. Were you part of that process, where it went from being a smaller film to a huge, cyberpunk epic?
I don’t think anyone saw it that way at the time. Certainly, Ridley was pushing for every effects shot he could milk out of us. But I think there’s still only something like eighty-five or ninety shots, whereas Close Encounters or Star Wars had 350 shots. But there’s a seamlessness to Blade Runner, which has to do with the lighting effects, the smoke, the grit, the neon. It seems like there’s more effects shots than there really are…all in all, the combination of Ridley’s visual skills and storytelling skills, mixed with the right amount of visual effects, made Blade Runner be recognized as a unique science fiction event, a sci-fi film noir.

Aesthetically, Blade Runner seems closer to the junkyard feel of Star Wars than the squeaky clean design we saw in 2001 or the first Star Trek film.
In terms of production design, since there was a limited budget available, a lot of the stuff had to be made out of junk! The style of it is this cyberpunk junk thing, but it was all made from thousands of existing props we found cluttering up sets. We didn’t really have to build the future, except for in a few shots. So we learned how to make something seem futuristic without having a lot of money.
Doug Trumbull will be at TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West), presenting a seminar on 2001: A Space Odyssey at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, December 8. At 8 p.m. on Thursday, December 9, Trumbull will host a similar presentation on the special effects of Blade Runner. For more info and tickets, check out the Lightbox’s website.