Douglas Trumbull, the magician

2001, Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind…

Film. A documentary tells us the story of Douglas Trumbull, the man behind the special effects of the 2001 Space Odyssey or Blade Runner. Meeting with a visionary who, at 76, still wants to revolutionize the cinema.

By Julien Solal

2001 A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek, BladeRunner, Tree of life… Douglas Trumbull’s 76-year-old CV, a legendary figure in visual and special effects, focuses on a handful of titles. But what titles ! Also director, in the 70s and 80s, visionaries Silent Running (space opera post-apocalyptic ecologist) and Brainstorm (ancestor of Strange Days by Kathryn Bigelow), Trumbull signed among the most unforgettable plans of the masterpieces mentioned upper.

“Passionate about science fiction, this tireless explorer has been testing for over ten years an unprecedented format of high-definition shooting and projection in 120 frames/second”

With, each time, an organic and luminescent design that does not belong to this lover of photographic and practical effects, little adept of synthetic images. The door of the stars in the 2001 finale, the spaceships of Close Encounters, the opening of Blade Runner, the end of our universe in Tree of the life… it’s him.

Victim sometimes of his uncompromising temperament, Trumbull is also a special case in Hollywood. Cross Méliès and Terry Gilliam, it’s a willful person that never listen to anyone else, a revolutionary face the system and its conventions. Businessman (he merged his production company with Imax in 1994), passionate about science fiction, this tireless explorer has been testing for over ten years an unprecedented format of high-definition shooting and projection in 120 fram/seconds : the MAGI system. Retired in Massachusetts, far from the Hollywood that has so mistreated him, he keeps a cruel memory of his fight against the MGM studio to finish and leave Brainstorm in 1983. Trumbull carefully pursues his research on the next stage of evolution of images.

Like a mad scientist entrenched in his corner of the forest, he tries to develop technologically and commercially his “recipe” for a return of great immersive cinema to a new type of rooms. A documentary signed by the French Grégory Wallet, for the channel TCM Cinéma*, gives us the opportunity to discover the lair of the magician Trumbull, his dreams and his projects : a rare privilege granted by this legendary Merlin generally very discreet. The son of the visual effects executive of The Wizard of Oz, Douglas Trumbull hates to dissect his past, preferring to focus on a future where he is eager to count again. The proof with this interview realized during the last Lumière Film Festival of Lyon, where the craftsman of the future was invited on the occasion of a new projection of  2001 : A Space Odyssey which upset him.


Why did you accept the French Grégory Wallet to make a documentary about you ?

I was often asked for this exercise and I always refused because I felt that people were only interested in my special effects specialist hat. Each time, we want to make me talk again and again of 2001, Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Blade Runner. I don’t think that’s the essence of my work. For me the visual effects are not a department apart in all the process of illusion that a film represents, they play their role of illusion in the same way as the costumes, sets, props, light etc… I consider them in as a director, not a technical specialist. Gregory Wallet saw me as a filmmaker and not a special effects specialist. He wanted to know who I was and why I do this job. I felt that his approach would be honest, and so that I could open my archives, my studio, my house and let him turn what he wants. It was a first for me.

You are certainly a director, but of special/visual effectsl films, it’s difficult to approach you from another angle…

It is true that I have always been interested in science fiction, the future, space, my films tend towards that. I would not be the ideal director to make a western, stealing a camera on an actor in real scenery bored me deeply. This is not snobbery on my part, I’m not elitist, it’s just that I love the challenge of offering the viewer images he has never seen before. It’s a new frontier that I want to explore all the time… and that’s what I learned with Stanley Kubrick. On 2001, his constant desire to push back the known limits of special effects, film, camera lenses, rotating plates… That marked me forever. I unfortunately later discovered that no one wants to take those risks in this industry. Most films are organized, budgeted… the idea of ​​trying experiments that could fail is inconceivable to the studios.

There have been other technological revolutions in the cinema since 2001

Yes, of course, James Cameron in particular explores new technologies with each new movie. He took a lot of risks with Titanic and Avatar. I’m also thinking about Gravity in 2013. This is a totally new and unique way to make a movie, the one of a master. Alfonso Cuaron knew exactly what he was doing. Everything works in Gravity !

This year, on the occasion of 50 years of 2001, Warner and Christopher Nolan proposed to the Cannes Film Festival a 70mm analogue version, taken from the original negative, to plunge the spectator into the same projection conditions as those of 1968. Have you seen this version ?

Yes, and contrary to what they say, I don’t think that the colorimetry of the version proposed by Nolan is correct. I don’t want to get into a controversy with Warner and Christopher Nolan, there are still a few years, I tried to make a documentary on the set of 2001, in collaboration with Warner, which was entitled “The Making of a masterpiece”. It’s not done, I’m going to find the scenes of the film cut in the editing, in the prologue in particular. After some research in digital archives, someone at Warner found the original master on film of all the movie, kept in a salt mine in Kansas. It was the best possible source and the most faithful to the image of the film but its use would have involved an extremely expensive digital restoration process and the studio did not want to incur this expense. The “photochemical recreation” of Nolan was made from interpositives and negatives that they already had on hand and they did best with. Warner will never admit that they have the original 2001: A Space Odyssey masters, because they would cost too much to restore. It’s not for me anymore to lead this fight and anyway, this film is 50 years old, it’s time to cut ties with the past. Let’s create even more ambitious new films, let’s explore a new era!

What is your look on the use of synthetic images in Marvel productions for example?

They do very well what they do, they have created a very specific visual style, a “matrix” that manages the artistic direction of their computer-generated imagery. They have the means to multiply the virtual sets on a green background, explosions and bizarre platters of all kinds, it’s fun to watch. But their films don’t interest me, they are fantastic comic books, with humorous dialogues, jokes, talking animals, monsters… It’s not my thing. But again, they do it very well and they respond to an aspiration of the public who wants to be transported to other worlds.

You and Hollywood, it’s definitely over ?

Not at all. But I am trying to accomplish the most difficult task of my life : to change the very nature of the cinematic experience for the public. I have been experimenting for years with a new type of cinema image, involving more frames per second and higher resolution, for a radically immersive experience, as was the case in 2001. When the film was released, there were Cinerama screens curved around the world, which measured up to 30 meters in width. Most multiplexes have now narrower and rectangular screens. At the same time, people are getting used to seeing images on increasingly smaller screens with Netflix, smartphones, tablets… Nowadays, John Ford or David Lean would be horrified. I want to go in the direction totally opposed to this current trend. So to answer your question, if a studio or filmmaker that I respect speaks to me to help me bring the cinema to a next stage of evolution, change the very nature of the cinema experience, and not just realize special effects, yes I will be happy to work with them.

You even say you want to propose a new concept movie theater, what is it ?

You should see what I prepare. Movie theaters with a screen so wide and so vast, with curved squares and a steep drop, that everyone would have a magnificent view on the screen. The number of seats would be completely adaptable, from ten to 300 seats. I have recently made some fundamental discoveries about the human perception of movies. You can have a deep immersive experience even in a very small room of 10 people.

And always with your system of capturing images and projection in high definition MAGI ?

Yes, shots projected at 120 frames/second and 4K, but that will not betray the desire of the viewer to see a “cinema” image, which corresponds to a projection at 24 frames/second and to which we are accustomed since the talking cinema. Peter Jackson’s mistake in turning his Hobbit at 48 frames/second is to have neglected the public’s attachment to this movie image. This aspect must be maintained, while solving blur problems and other stroboscopic effects during camera movements. I invested approximately $ 10 million from my pocket and 10 years of my life, to make this MAGI project a reality. And I’m going to demonstrate my new technology to all the directors who want it.


Before the end of the year, I will set up a test room in Hollywood to show my new process to studios, directors and exhibitors. It’s an ongoing struggle because people in this industry are so afraid of risk and change… While fearing the collapse of their current business model. I just met distribution managers at Warner and Disney, at the last festival in Sitges. They are terrified ! Their world is falling apart, more and more people are watching movies on smartphones, tablets, TVs, even watches… The number of theatrical films continues to decline and studios are feeling the threat of Netflix, Hulu and other platforms that now allow lowcost storytelling for small screens. Without worrying about an exit room, finally except when it comes to being eligible for the Oscars. The only way to save this industry is to find a new form of cinema experience, in a movie theater, I’m sure. Going to the movie theater must become a special experience again. If cinema wants to become an important art again, its cinema experience must change radically and have nothing to do with TV.

It is to prove the viability of your technology that you have returned to the staging, with your Lightship project?

Yes, a 110-page scenario is almost ready. I envision it as a great epic space, on the place of man in the universe, the situation of our planet. I shot a 10 minute demo and I would love to make a movie with the help of a big studio.

By the way, do you still believe in UFOs ?

Life in the universe other than on Earth is absolutely unavoidable. Thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope, an incredible number of exo-planets have been discovered. Since my participation in Rencontres du 3e type, I have become very close friends with Jacques Vallée (the ufologist who served as a model to Steven Spielberg for the character played by François Truffaut in the film – editor’s note). Even if it seems paradoxical, I believe in the existence of aliens who observe us while deciding not to interfere in the course of our history, but who allow themselves appearances during nuclear episodes. Valley became an investor in Silicon Valley but they still manage to hunt UFOs together, there are spots known for that in the United States, where several strange phenomena took place. I’ve never seen one but I believe it, I even spent a lot of time trying to photograph them.


*Douglas Trumbull, l’illusionniste du cinéma of Gregory Wallet (52’). On december 6 on TCM Cinéma.