Filmmaker and special effects guru Douglas Trumbull died earlier this month. His body of work is not large, but its influence is gigantic. For filmgoers of a certain age and a certain disposition to genre–say, 50ish and inclined to fantasy and science fiction–Trumbull’s work is likely as big an influence on how such stories are visualized as George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic.
Trumbull was instrumental in the look and feel of such films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, and, probably the granddaddy of them all in terms of lasting influence, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Trumbull also dabbled in directing, with a number of short films and two features, Silent Running (a rather dour environmental allegory that actually makes you care about some robots) and Brainstorm, the infamous sci-fi thriller about a scientist who invents a way to plug memories and images directly into the brain. Brainstorm isn’t a bad film, nor is it a great one, but it certainly deserves better than to be chiefly remembered as the film Natalie Wood was almost done making when she drowned.
Trumbull’s experience on Brainstorm led to him never directing a feature film again, and it’s not hard to see why, given the tragic death of Wood and the subsequent attempts by MGM to kill the production entirely. I can’t assess Trumbull’s directorial skill on the basis of just two movies, but I do know that he was a huge part of the visualization of science fiction at the time I was being shaped most strongly by it. Trumbull’s work tended to be on the less action-oriented side of the genre; he wasn’t much for the “Explodey Spaceshippy Goodness” side of things, but rather he was an excellent visionary at creating futures that were plausible and beautiful. Even in the case of Blade Runner, a noir thriller that takes place in a rain-soaked Los Angeles of seemingly unending darkness, Trumbull infused the bleak cityscape with a type of beauty.
Trumbull’s work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind is particularly legendary, in the way he uses bright bursts of colored light throughout to suggest the UFOs until the film’s climax, when he gives us the Mothership in all its glory:
You can watch this scene here. Remember that none of the actors had any idea what they were reacting to, so it was up to Trumbull to make their reactions worth it. Obviously, he nailed it.
And then there is his now-legendary work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a film whose reception was mixed at the time (and remains so to this day), a film whose transition from planned teevee series to feature film was no doubt pushed along by the wild success of Star Wars two years before. But ST:TMP was a different kind of movie than Star Wars, a film in which there’s no “pew pew” action, and in which the main developments are all conceptual. Trumbull’s effects work had to carry a disproportionate amount of the film’s emotional heft, and for me, they rose to the occasion. One sequence that occasionally gets cited as an example of the film’s visual excess is the long fly-by of the Enterprise, but I have never been one of that sequence’s detractors. Here’s a video where Trumbull discusses his approach to that scene, as well as the lighting of the Enterprise itself:
That is fascinating stuff: Trumbull discusses the technical aspects of the shot, but also the thinking that went into it, the nature of the sequence in terms of the film’s storytelling, and he even singles out Jerry Goldsmith’s amazing contribution.
Douglas Trumbull’s innovations and achievements may seem a bit quaint in this day of computers being able to shape just about any scene a human can imagine, but they were innovations. Before 2001: A Space Odyssey, the idea of a film showing a starfield that actually looks like what you see when you go outside on a cloudless night and look up, and then being able to pan across that starfield, was unheard of. Every Star Wars movie’s opening pan across the stars, after the opening crawl, is owed to Douglas Trumbull.
When I started looking up Trumbull’s career information for this post, I remembered his body of work being larger than it was. That shows just how big the man’s influence was. You really can’t tell the story of science fiction and fantasy filmmaking of the last sixty years without giving Douglas Trumbull a big credit for how things look and feel. His reach will endure. I know this because it already does.
Finally, I note that films to which Trumbull was attached, either as director or visual effects supervisor, always seemed to boast great filmscores. I leave with two examples.