News from the Locarno Festival

Douglas Trumbull

Douglas Trumbull



Carlo Hintermann: Shooting 2001 The big challenge was to portray something without references: at that time nobody knew how a stargate looks like or even the moon surface. How was your first meeting with Stanley Kubrick? Which are the most important indications that leaded your researches? Finally, how did you develop the Stargate Sequence? One of the most demanding and brave sequence of the movie in term of visuals. 

Douglas Trumbull: Prior to 2001 I did all the artwork for a film called TO THE MOON AND BEYOND for the New York World's Fair in 1962. Kubrick and Clarke saw the film, which was made and projected in CINERAMA 360, a dome screen 70mm 10 perf circular film format. Kubrick called the company I was working at, Graphic Films, and entered a contract for early conceptual designs for JOURNEY BEYOND THE STARS. I did not meet Kubrick, and when the design project ended due to Kubrick's decision to move the movie to England, I was laid off. I was eager to continue working on the film, so cold-called Kubrick and introduced myself as one of the artists who was sending him designs. He hired me on the phone, and sent plane tickets for me and my wife to fly to London. We met, and he was very cordial, pressing me with myriad questions about animation and space effects.
The Stargate sequence was troubling all the other professionals on the film, and I remembered a technique that had been developed by John Whitney for an abstract sequence at the end of TO THE MOON AND BEYOND, depicting a microcosm of energy. He was using slit and streak photography, moving flat backlit artwork in front of a 35mm camera with the shutter held open on each frame to create a controlled blur, and had devised various motors and timers to control the effect. I suggested doing something similar for 2001, but in 3D space, moving artwork toward the camera so that the accumulated exposure was from far to near, rather than flat, and much larger. I did a test using a thin backlit slit behind which I slid some colored artwork while moving the Oxberry animation camera from the ceiling to nearly touching the slit, using a Polaroid camera in front of the lens. The exposure was about 30 seconds, and produced a plane onto which the artwork appeared to be "stretched". I was so amazed that I took the polaroid directly to Stanley in his office, barging in enthusiastically, saying "I think we can do the Stargate!". He looked at the little black and white polaroid photo, which was still wet with fixer, and asked what I proposed to do. I told him that it would take a very large version of what I just tried, with a huge sheet of glass about four feet tall and ten feet wide, with the Panavision camera mounted on a horizontal track, with all motion controlled by motors, relays, and timers. He approved the project immediately, and I collaborated with the engineers, machine shop, glass shop, wood shop, lighting crew, and most of all with Wally Veevers to help engineer the overall rig. It took several weeks to build, and thus we began several months of shooting myriad variations, including dual exposures to achieve the "corridor" appearance, which was both vertical and horizontal. The result delivered the effect of transiting both through space as well as time and dimension, emerging out of the sky and engulfing the screen as pure light, rather than anything physical. The original depiction in the script was actually a slot in one of Jupiter's moons, and would thus be a physical aperture to another Universe beyond. We could not come up with a way to make anything convincing, although the slot shape and size was similar to what became the Monolith. The original design was a tetrahedron.

C.H.: Silent Running is a very compelling story exploring the relationship between humans and nature. How did you develop the concept of the story? Which was the contribution of co-writer Michael Cimino? Again you have been able to foresee a future far to come, How do you regard the movie nowadays?  

D.T.: Silent Running was initially a vehicle for the Drones, which was an idea that came to me after seeing Todd Brownings FREAKS. One of the performers was Johnny Ek, a handsome man without a lower body or legs. He walked on his hands, and could do amazing movements. I thought that if I could build a robot suit for a person like him, I could have a great Science Fiction character. I then wrote a treatment for Silent Running that was initially about a lone man overseer on a spacecraft operated by these robots, and due to their distant location and the fact that he was alone, led to an alien encounter with a race that was simply curious about the whole craft, feeling that it was safe to have an encounter without being detected. This led to various story developments working in collaboration with Derek Washburn (Deer Hunter writer), Mike Cimino (director/writer), and Steven Bochco (emerging talent at Universal, related to Lew Wasserman). Each contributed some elements to the story, which I then integrated into the shooting script (without credit). I am very proud of this film, and to me it was an experiment in an independent filmmaking project that was actually sponsored by Universal as a result of the success of Easy Rider. The studio admitted that they had no idea how independents could make low budget non-union movies, and SILENT RUNNING was one of five movies tried, along with THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, and some others. It was a great learning experience for me, and I learned directing on the job, working with a supportive crew and the amazing Bruce Dern. He taught me how actors work, and helped find the other characters from within Universal's contract players. Working with Bruce was priceless and brought the sensitivity and passion I wanted his character to play - the exact opposite of the type of roles he usually played of monsters and psychopaths. He is truly a wonderful man, and we had a great time working together.

C.H.: After 2001 you had worked on Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner. You had worked also on many project in between as a director that finally didn't work out. How did you decide to join the two projects working on the Visual Effects? Which are the elements that attracted you to those projects?

D.T.: After Silent Running's success, I was being courted by many studios to direct a number of science fiction films. I had several projects in development at Columbia, MGM, Warner Brothers, etc. To my dismay, each project was undone by studio-driven decisions that made no sense to me - MGM was closed and went to Las Vegas; Warner Brothers management suddenly changed to others who wanted to prove the previous ones wrong; at Twentieth Century Fox the producer of the original PLANET OF THE APES, Arthur Jacobs, suddenly died and all projects got tied up in his estate. I was going broke, so started a technology research and development unit of Paramount, called FUTURE GENERAL CORPORATION. There we developed the simulator ride, 3D video games, a virtual set technology called MAGICAM (used on Carl Sagan's COSMOS), and a high speed 70mm film process called SHOWSCAN. The studio wanted none of it, but wanted to keep me under contract so that none of my ideas would be successfully developed by others. Steven Spielberg approached me to do the visual effects for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, and I had been developing substantial 70mm camera equipment for SHOWSCAN, and Paramount agreed to loan me out to Columbia to recoup some of their investment. I was eager to learn from Steven, who had just succeeded with JAWS. It was a terrific experience, and kept me working when all my other directorial projects ended. Steven respected my directorial skills, and I therefore had a real opportunity to direct the effects in a way that he admired. I had previously turned George Down to do his effects for STAR WARS, because I had just finished SILENT RUNNING as a director, but when time passed and my directorial projects stalled, I agreed to work on CE3K to keep FUTURE GENERAL a viable company. 

C.H.: You have spent a lot of time researching for new kind of theatres and new kind of audience experience. One of your research leaded you to the Showscan, which you are recently improving with the digital Showscan and the high speed recording and screenings. Could you tell us something about the Showscan system and the boundaries that you are pushing in your latest research?

D.T.: SHOWSCAN was 70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second, and the result was hyper-real. This led to my experiments then (1976) on how to apply the process to feature motion pictures. Paramount was adamant about helping me develop a feature for the process, since the chairman of Gulf And Western (owners of Paramount) were suddenly very enthusiastic. That led to BRAINSTORM as the first film to explore hyper-real "first person" production. The story was written to set up the ability for the camera to become someone's point of view, justifying the hyper-real effect. I developed the film to be shot in two formats: normal 35mm, and only certain sections of the film in 70MM SHOWSCAN. Unfortunately, theaters were unwilling to convert their projection equipment and screen unless all of Hollywood agreed to make their movies in the process. And Paramount, nor any other studio, were willing to finance a film without thousands of theaters to show it in. It was a dead end, and I finally agreed to make BRAINSTORM at MGM more conventionally, simply cutting between 1:66 aspect ratio 35mm and 2.2:1 wide screen 70mm, as well as cutting from mono to stereo sound. During production Natalie Wood was killed under suspicious circumstances, and the film was terminated under a fraudulent "Force Majeur" insurance claim. Amidst a very acrimonious dispute between MGM management (David Begleman) and Lloyds of London as insurors, I was finally able to finish the film, but again, under new studio management who wanted to prove Begelman wrong. He later committed suicide.

After having had so many bad experiences with studio management at almost every major studio, the BRAINSTORM struggle soured me on the industry, and I decided to put my career on hold and move to Massachusetts to do something else. It turned out to be a good move, and I soon was able to do BACK TO THE FUTURE - THE RIDE, for Steven Spielberg and Universal Studios. This project was, to me, an epic cinematic experiment in total sensory overload of the audience, virtually thrusting them through the proscenium arch and INTO THE MOVIE, which was in the IMAX DOME process. The huge success of this attraction demonstrated to me the potential of what I call IMMERSIVE CINEMA, and led to additional attractions for the LUXOR HOTEL in Las Vegas and the development of RIDEFILM, using dome screen projection of dramatic movies at 48 frames per second on a simulator ride (1991). I subsequently merged RIDEFILM with IMAX, and found investment bankers (Wasserstein-Perella) and partners (Richard Gelfond and Bradley Wexler) to successfully take IMAX public, bringing it into the commercial film realm. The rest of that is history and IMAX stands as the gold standard of film presentation.

With the advent of digital cinematography and digital projection, it came to my attention that digital cinema projectors had the capability to run at 144 frames per second for 3D movies. I realized that this would enable a new medium far superior to SHOWSCAN. I am therefore developing a new process that is 120 fps 4K 3D for projection onto deeply curved screens at extremely high brightness - and the results are astounding. The image seems to be a live event, therefore finally making it possible for me to explore what I began with SHOWSCAN and BRAINSTORM, but without any serious impediments since the industry already has thousands of theaters capable of showing it.

C.H.: Coming to the practical implications of your latest research, could you tell us something about your new projects and your collaborations?

D.T.: My passion is to use this new process to develop a new cinematic language that immerses audiences in what will seem to be real - not fictional. To do this I have written, produced, and directed a short film called UFOTOG, about a man who is determined to photograph a UFO using high tech cameras, but he is deeply concerned about government agents who will thwart his project. This is a true story of my own, since I have been building systems to photograph UFOs and have had unsettling encounters with the CIA. So I am telling a story but via a fictional character. You will see what I mean when you see the film. Many major companies are helping with this project, including Christie Digital (projection), Canon USA (cameras), RealD (3D systems), Stewart Filmscreen (screens), Dolby Laboratories (Atmos sound and Dolby 3D), Avid (Editing systems), Eyeon (Compositing in high bandwidth 4K), General Lift (Motion Control), 3Ality (TS5 3D camera rig), Intel (High bandwidth flash storage), Codex (Digital recorders), nVidia (Graphics Acellerators), Composite Components (Green Screen), Virident (Flash storage) and many more.

C.H.: Huge curved screens, higher frames speed for both camera and projectors, brightness, color saturation, 3d sound are just some of the ingredient of your paraphernalia, but at the end I think you have a secret dream, the one that you admirably portrayed in Brainstorm: generate the images directly in the human brain, without any external device. 
Could you tell us how far you would like to push your research and which is your ultimate goal?

D.T.: The goal is to create a new medium of immersive expression by doing cinematic experimentation and exploration that I truly enjoy. I feel like an adventurer who has found a new continent to explore. By making UFOTOG available for viewing, I hope to find interested partner/investors who will join with me on an adventure that will be great fun, very satisfying creatively, and point the way for others to participate as well. I believe it will be very profitable.

BRAINSTORM technology will probably come true sometime in the future, but right now it is science fiction. UFOTOG will show that the future of cinema is here now, and the story is science fact.

Carlo Hintermann
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