Locarno Film Festival: The Legendary Douglas Trumbull on the Past and Future of Visual Effects


The word “genius”, today, is overused to the point of nausea. Even by a conservative estimate, only 2% of the people in Hollywood described as “visionaries” are worthy of the accolade. However, if there is one person who inarguably deserves these lofty titles (and more), but is rarely accorded them, it’s Douglas Trumbull.

The American artist has been a special effects supervisor on “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Blade Runner” and “The Tree of Life”. He has directed films like “Silent Running” and “Brainstorm”, and worked with directors like Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg and Terrence Malick. When he stands up to say something, it’s worth listening to.

Trumbull is at the Locarno Film Festival right now, and is being honored with the Vision Award. He is also conducting two Masterclasses that are open to the public, along with presenting screenings of “Silent Running”.

I attended the first Masterclass, wherein he talked about his career, his working equations with different directors, his acrimonious relationship with Hollywood and the various technologies he’s researching.

The talk itself was underwhelming, because it was filled with Trumbull going on tangents to rant against modern Hollywood machinery. If I took a shot every time he said, “The Hollywood suits entirely rejected my idea because they didn’t get it”, I wouldn’t be in a state to write this article. Even though it was an audience of cinephiles, Trumbull’s descriptions of his ideas were lost on many because of how packed with jargon they were.

* Pro tip: if you want to talk about how current technology is inadequate and this new idea you have is a revolution, don’t follow that up by saying, “But I can’t project it to you right now. You’ll see later.” That does not help your case.

However, after the talk there was a public Q & A session, which I commandeered. That may have been impolite, but some questions asked by other people were so horrendous it suddenly made sense why international journalists are looked upon with such disdain in the States. One Italian journalist actually asked Douglas Trumbull if he thought Stanley Kubrick had shot the moon landings. Trumbull’s expression on hearing this was priceless; I wish I had captured it.

The two-hour long session revealed several priceless nuggets of information, and it was nice to see Trumbull explaining with passion the driving forces of his life. I’m including excerpts from what he stated at the talk, along with the questions he said them in response to —

On 120 frames per second:


Earlier in the Masterclass, Trumbull had talked about the “failure” of “The Hobbit” in 48fps (“it looked like television”) and that he had thought of the idea 30 years before Peter Jackson. He claimed his upcoming technology of 120fps would eliminate the problems faced by Jackson. Rather than shooting and projecting in 120fps, Trumbull pointed out the option, and advantages, of shooting in 120 fps, deleting every alternate frame, splicing the remaining frames and then using the resultant 60fps footage.

“This 60fps footage contains substantially less blur than 24fps. What’s more, you can integrate elements shot in 60fps into a scene shot in 24fps and still have something miles better than current works.”

To prove his point, Trumbull screened a short martial fight sequence he had shot in his studio, wherein one fighter was shot and projected in 24fps while the other fighter’s presence in the scene was from a 60fps shoot. During the split-screen comparisons between 24fps and 60fps footage, it was apparent how much of an improvement the latter was. However, to be honest, I couldn’t make out the difference between the two when the scene was screened in entirety. That may have to do with the fact that the whole thing was not projected the way it was meant to be.

On Peter Jackson and James Cameron:


In the Masterclass, Trumbull had mentioned the shortcomings of efforts taken by other visionaries like the aforementioned giants on more than one occasion. I asked him where he thought they were going wrong. His reply was, “I don’t think they are doing anything wrong. I know these guys and they are geniuses. I have talked to all of them. We are all in the same boat, so to speak.”

Trumbull also said that when he’s ready with 120fps, the first people he would call to witness it would be Jackson, Cameron, Christopher Nolan, George Lucas, JJ Abrams and the ilk (guess he isn’t fond of Michael Bay). I asked him if he wanted that because these were the people the studios followed. He said, “Not really. I think “The Hobbit” proved that. Peter wanted 48fps to be the dominant way to see the film, and Warner Bros overrode him. They went from 10000 screens to 400 screens because of negative reactions from CinemaCon attendees, bloggers and so on. This problem can’t be solved by one person.”

On his favorite director:


If someone has had the luxury of working with Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Terrence Malick (I was going to use “pleasure of working” but, then: Stanley Kubrick), they have tasted the crème de la crème of the world. To reinforce my point, this is someone who called “The Tree of Life” a “small project.”

I couldn’t resist asking Trumbull who he enjoyed working with the most and tried to be as polite as possible, but I need not have bothered because Trumbull’s answer came even before I finished the question:

“Kubrick. I loved working with him. He was open to any idea I came up with and would hear me out.”

On the shot he’s proudest of:


The best special effects artists in the world, combined, wouldn’t be able to produce a résumé as filled with iconic creations as Douglas Trumbull. If your career spans the planets of “The Tree of Life”, the cityscapes of “Blade Runner” and the first USS Enterprise ever seen on the big screen (in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”), you would be justified in being equally proud of all of them, and picking a favorite might be akin to a Sophie’s Choice multiplied by 100.

When I put the question to Trumbull, he answered: “I think the Stargate is the thing I’m proudest of. When I look at that, it’s something I created, from start to finish. It’s entirely mine. And it’ll be there forever. I see it on the big screen and am still filled with awe.”

On whether he would do things differently today:


Over the years, there have been vague but unceasing rumblings of a sequel to “Blade Runner”. Morals (and common sense) dictate that if such a thing were to happen Ridley Scott (or whoever makes it) would turn to Douglas Trumbull to do the effects again.

Trumbull has been vocal about his distaste for CGI, and someone latched on this topic to ask him if, looking back at his career, he would do things differently today given the added technology. He said, “I don’t like CGI. Yes, I love Gollum and think he’s wonderful but I don’t want to be the guy responsible for $300 million. I think working with pixels and polygons is boring. I don’t like computers, and computers don’t like me. I prefer getting my hands dirty and creating things by myself. I mean, if today someone asked me to do “Blade Runner” again I’d still create models and miniatures. That’s the only way I know how to work.”

On “Star Trek” and…lens flares? :

star trek into darkness enterprise

This phase is not a huge part of Douglas Trumbull’s career, but it’s worth mentioning nevertheless, given its importance to the industry and as an example of when Hollywood turned to Trumbull (rather than the other way around). Earlier in the day, Trumbull had reminisced about his experience on working for “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” He said, “Paramount got in touch with me, and they begged me to do it. I did the best I could and got it to as good a level as possible, but I still don’t think it’s a good movie.”

An audience member asked Trumbull later what he thought of the new Star Trek movies, and he said, “Oh, I love them. I think they are extremely well done and highly entertaining. JJ Abrams did a fabulous job. I don’t get his fascination with his lens flares, but…”

The rest of the answer was, no joke, inaudible because the people present roared with laughter. Even Trumbull broke into a smile at the response.

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