An Appreciation of Visual Effects Master Douglas Trumbull (1942-2022)
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
I was still a year away from becoming a teenager when I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey with my dad, during one of its many theatrical revivals during the ‘70s. Admittedly, Stanley Kubrick’s monumental, speculative sci-fi adventure of 1968 was too challenging for me at the time. I had seen 1975’s Rollerball with my dad a few weeks earlier (now that was one this 12-year-old could follow!), but 2001’s’ staggering visual power wholly overwhelmed me. The “Dawn of Man” opening, the disabling of the Hal-9000 computer, the vastness of space as it envelopes a lone spaceship—it was all simply too spectacular.
But the first two of hours of 2001 were only a drumroll for the film’s final half hour, in which astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea), in his tiny one-man pod, is pulled into a whooshing vortex of colored lights while orbiting a moon of Jupiter. The vividness and fluidity of the colors, the textures of the phenomena that whooshes past Bowman’s transfixed eyes, the strangely luminous landscapes—it all signaled a kind of cosmic happening. It was as if the mysteries of the universe were unfolding in front of one lone man—not to mention one lone kid (me) and everyone else in the theater.
That ending, known as the “Stargate sequence,” and a number of other spectacular images from landmark science fiction films of the past half-century, were the work of visual effects master Douglas Trumbull, who died on Monday, February 7, in Albany, N.Y. Trumbull, frequently billed as a “special photographic effects” director or supervisor on the films that benefitted from his contributions, was 79. The cause was complications of mesothelioma.
Visual effects pioneer Trumbull, the Los Angeles-born son of Donald Trumbull, an artist and engineer who worked on the effects of The Wizard of Oz (!), broke into the Hollywood effects business via a short sci-fi flick he made in the early ‘60s, prophetically entitled To The Moon and Beyond. It caught the attention of Stanley Kubrick, who was beginning work on the project that would become 2001, and he soon hired Trumbull to develop the film’s mind-blowing, psychedelically inspired climax.
Trumbull used his always-growing skillset involving work with slit-scan photography, graphic arts, physical models, high-tech cameras and lens, varying film speeds—a host of techniques far too complex for me to grasp—to make his presence known with dazzling sequences in such key films in the sci-fi canon as Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982).
Trumbull directed two films of his own—the environmentally conscious space drama Silent Running (1972) and the espionage-tinged sci-fier Brainstorm (1982), neither of which were well-received. But they sure had some amazing effects.
After more or less retiring from big-budget Hollywood filmmaking following Brainstorm, Trumbull was lured back after nearly 30 years away to contribute to Terrence Malick’s 2011’s The Tree of Life. A fan of Trumbull’s work, Mallick apparently did not like the look of modern-day, computer-generated effects and wanted a different feel for his “Dawn of Creation” segment, which in 20 minutes depicts the Earth’s creation in the cosmos and the first stirrings of life on the planet after it cools. Trumbull reportedly asked Mallick, “Why not do it the way we did it on 2001?” So Trumbull was signed on as a consultant and worked with Tree’s effects supervisor in using technologies he had worked with more than 40 years earlier on a classic film of another era.
From 2001’s “Dawn of Man” to The Tree of Life’s “Dawn of Creation”—and all the flying cars, interplanetary excursions and warp-speed simulations between—Douglas Trumbull was always there to open our eyes and blow our minds.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.