Some thoughts regards Douglas Trumbull

Brainstorm2The news this late afternoon hit me pretty hard- Douglas Trumbull passed away yesterday. I don’t believe it had been widely known that he had been ill- for myself, it came like a bolt of the blue. For a little while, the sense of disbelief is diluted with a little hope- there have been a few times when the Internet rumour mill has gotten things wrong, and I’d first read the news of Trumbull’s passing on a forum of all places, somewhat out of leftfield, so wondered if it was just a mistake. Alas, before an hour was out, reputable news outlets confirmed it. Another one gone, of those names I used to read about as I grew up reading magazines and followed over the decades since.

Its 1978, I’m reading Starburst issue 5 (Christopher Reeve’s Superman on the cover!), and an interview by Tony Crawley with visual effects genius Douglas Trumbull. Its tied into the release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the then-cutting edge visual effects produced by Trumbull and his effects company. Starburst was a great magazine and its writers very good, so Crawley uses the interview to discuss Trumbull’s work on 2001: A Space Odyssey (“we thought at the time that 2001 would start a big trend. It didn’t!” Trumbull muses), and his own directorial debut, Silent Running. The interview would move on to CE3K in the next issue – ah, those cheeky old magazine days, waiting for a month for the rest of an interview (like Fantastic Film‘s multi-issue Alien interview with Ridley Scott). But it was enough to get me fascinated with Trumbull, who I wasn’t particularly familiar with. For one thing, at the time, I hadn’t seen 2001: A Space Odyssey. I actually saw Silent Running before 2001, thanks to it airing on BBC TV over the Christmas holiday of 1977 schedules (me basking in a sci-fi movie season, benefiting from a sudden Star Wars-fuelled interest in sci-fi movies, even if those of us in the UK provinces wouldn’t get chance to see Lucas’ film until early 1978). The interview was really interesting, particularly Trumbull’s observations of the film industry and his projects -like one titled Pyramid– that he couldn’t get made after his first film.

1978. Before Paramount struck a desperate deal with him to rescue Star Trek : The Motion Picture, before his company was hired to shoot the effects for Blade Runner, before he made the ill-fated Brainstorm, after which he vowed to leave the film industry all together, tired of all the studio politics.

Douglas Trumbull was something of a hero to sci-fi geeks of my generation. He didn’t direct many films, and neither he did he turn his hand to the effects work of many films: its just that the ones he was involved with were so seminal. Instead he turned his attention to amusement park rides/experiences, and technological advances (Showscan etc) as an independent entrepreneur. He was an advocate of Pure Cinema; the possibilities afforded by cinema as an audio visual experience, as opposed to a traditionally narrative one. Hence he was involved in the audience-confounding lengthy effects scenes of Kirk arriving at the Enterprise in Dry Dock, and the journey into the Cloud, in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was something he likely learned from Stanley Kubrick while being involved in the visual effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey (for which Kubrick cheekily took home the effects Oscar, much to Trumbull’s annoyance).

Heck, I bought and recently watched the 4K edition of Star Trek: TMP mostly just to re-watch Trumbull’s effects in the best way possible; those moments of Pure Cinema, once the easiest of critical targets for what was dubbed at the time Star Trek: The Slow-Motion Picture, are for me the best things in that film. Some of us buy the films he was involved with just out of our sheer love of the images he created.

Who didn’t gasp at the first glorious reveal of the mothership in CE3K?

In September 1982, I’m watching Blade Runner for the first time in the ABC cinema in town, and my jaw drops, literally, at the opening shot of the Hades landscape of LA2019. I mean, literally drops in awe. It is the cinematic equivalent of falling head over heels in love, an astonishing, arresting moment that will never leave me. Films don’t make our jaws drop anymore. Maybe CGI advances have made huge spectacle commonplace, pushed the boundaries of what’s possible so far over the horizon nobody is ever truly amazed anymore. But back then, wizards like Trumbull took our breath away.

While writing about wizards, and ‘magicians’…

Its 1984, and I’m watching a VHS rental of Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm. Its a film not without its faults, but it deserves some love, as I wrote here, but that evening I am swept up by it. So much so that for a few glorious moments I’m absolutely in thrall of it. I believe every moment of its glorious finale in which a character ascends towards Heaven, accompanied by a host of Angels and rising Souls, courtesy of Trumbull’s effects wizardry. Its almost a religious experience; I’m a Believer. James Horner’s fantastic score -it was the same night I fell in love with James Horner’s musical genius-is swelling in its end titles.

Then the tape stops, and the television cuts to what’s showing on BBC television, and its Paul Daniels Magic Show. I’m suddenly back to mundane, banal reality with a horrible bump. I’m almost dazed. It was only a movie after all, and the Paul Daniels show is the ‘reality’ I’ve returned to. I’ll never forget that abrupt shift. I was so into that film, so convinced and carried away by it, and the return to a reality so brutally banal. I’d laugh about that moment for years after with my mate Andy. Part of me loves Brainstorm and thinks its the “Greatest Film Ever (Other Than Blade Runner, Obviously)”.

That’s the magic of Douglas Trumbull.

Excuse me, I now have a date with my Blu-ray copy of Brainstorm

2 thoughts on “Some thoughts regards Douglas Trumbull

  1. Great post, mate. I used to read Starburst in the 1980s. It was a quality magazine. I think my big brother used to buy it in the late 1970s. I remember a “special” Star Wars issue with loads of fantastic photos and interviews. Also, I love reading your thoughts and experiences of watching Blade Runner on the Big screen. I still think the practical FX in that movie are better than most modern CGI stuff.

    1. Yeah I think Blade Runner is -barring maybe one or two mattes- absolutely perfect regards its visual effects, exuding a reality rarely matched. What films miss now is the artistry of the old days, the artistic skills regards composition and lighting that software can’t fathom, and somebody at a graphics workstation doesn’t spend a career working at.

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