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Douglas Trumbull is still seeing the future

Once upon a time, 42 years ago, Douglas Trumbull showed us what our future would be like.

Barely into his twenties, Trumbull was hired to design and execute the visual effects for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – imagining space shuttles, orbital stations, a manned mission to Jupiter and ultimately leaping into the wholly conceptual to take the audience through an alien star gate.

The result is one of the finest visual experiences you can have in a movie theatre. (If you don’t believe me, you can see for yourself at TIFF Bell Lightbox starting Thursday, when 2001 returns to the big screen in a new 70mm print.) More to the point, it started Trumbull on a lifelong quest to develop that experience beyond the limits of conventional cinema. In addition to directing the innovative features Silent Running and Brainstorm and supervising the visual effects for films such as Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, he’s spent a great portion of his career exploring the possibilities of high-speed film and video presentations.

A 70mm process he developed called Showscan turned up in theme-park rides – in Toronto, it was the cornerstone of the CN Tower’s Tour Of The Universe – and Trumbull was instrumental in the creation of Universal’s popular Back To The Future ride.

Over the phone from San Francisco, the filmmaker – who’ll be appearing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this Wednesday and Thursday to discuss his work on2001 and Blade Runner, respectively – tells me how working on 2001 was essentially his gateway drug to an even more ambitious arena.

“To me, the medium of the film is very coupled with the story you want to tell and the way you tell the story,” he says. “2001 was very coupled to Cinerama and 70mm and giant curved screens. My philosophy of making movies is that those things are very intertwined, and if you just try to make a homogenized movie that will work perfectly well in all mediums, on any size screen – on a giant screen or a regular screen or a home theatre or an iPad or whatever – you’re just compromising what you can do.”

Trumbull’s effects work in 2001 broke new ground for photo-realistic effects, but it also allowed Kubrick to expand the bounds of what audiences could expect from cinema. When David Bowman leaps into that star gate in the film’s final movement – titled “Jupiter And Beyond The Infinite” – the film opens up into a completely new type of narrative. The wordless, surrealistic climax pointed to a radically different form of storytelling … one that Trumbull can’t help be disappointed that no other filmmakers dared embrace.

“Even though there was a 2010, and there’s been a lot of sci-fi movies since 2001,” he says, “they’ve still all gone back to the traditional cinematic language of master shots, two-shots and over-the-shoulders and singles and close-ups and blah-blah-blah. You know, very common language. Whereas 2001 was a complete breakthrough – almost first-person cinema, more like being there than watching a normal conventional cinematic language. And no one seems to have picked up on that.”

Trumbull hasn’t given up on conventional cinema, mind you. He can still be excited by an appropriately immersive movie experience – like that one with the big blue cat people.

“I was really blown away when Jim Cameron made Avatar and made such a big leap into 3D,” he says. “He really exploited it, really used 3D to its best advantage – not the gimmicky part of 3D, but the immersive aspect of 3D. It’s the best example currently of totally geeky, high-technology, media-aware, smart filmmaking.”

It should be noted that Avatar was hailed for doing with 3D what 2001 did with visual effects back in 1968 – pushing the state of the art forward and encouraging audiences to demand a truly revolutionary experience at the movies.

“I’m so excited I can’t stand it,” Trumbull says. “Jim Cameron opened the can part-way by legitimizing 3D, which has driven the installation of 3D theatres all around the world – as has been done by Pixar and a lot of other companies that have been doing really terrific 3D animated films. So you’re having this explosive growth in digital cinema that now opens the door for people to start experimenting with different ways to present images – and that includes not just the technical aspect of how you present the images, but the cinematic language of how you tell your story, and the experience for the audience.

“That’s the territory that I’ve been questing for all my life, and being extremely frustrated with the shortcomings of the movie business – which is why I do a lot of world’s fairs and expos and simulator rides, trying to explore what I’ve always felt was the future potential of a really super-powerful immersive cinema experience.”


Kubrick info burst:

Stanley Kubrick was a master visual language inventor, a satirist who worked in dramas, his films employed dialogue that at least involved double-play, sometimes triple-play (ie: meanings). I’ll give you an example, the Intermission in 2001 occurs DURING the Jupiter Mission. Get it? Another one, THE INTERVIEW title card in The Shining doesn’t just refer to the q&a with the manager, it refers to the view between left-right and upper-lower that exemplifies that film’s entire visual strategy. In fact all of the hidden ‘ghosts’ of the film are hidden by an ‘interview,’ if you get my drift. Watch the carpet shift direction under Danny after the yellow ball arrives and you can become aware of one of literally hundreds of shifts in ‘interviews.’ Things audiences can sense but cannot see. Kubrick’s gift was that he essentially made the same film repeatedly while connecting their endings and beginnings (The Shining is 2001’s sequel, Eyes Wide Shut is Clockwork’s [both are set just after 1997]), layering technique, gesture, light quality and portalled them together to makes us consider their differences unconsciously. His most cryptic films are his last two, both Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut are monumental, mysterious achievements, both of which are barely understood even by academics pouring over their DVDs (yet both explain themselves if the optics are carefully observed). He achieved this with a minimum of edits, primarily through a 28mm lens, even invented an entire genre of special effects (his only Academy Award). He was perhaps the most revolutionary director since Griffith. To offer even the slightest label of Kubrickian to these successful but mediocre in comparison directors is a taunt of the lowest order, none of these craftsmen rate even a 2. Step back, son, stop abusing the name of the real master.


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