Visual-Effects Pioneer Douglas Trumbull on ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ Digital Innovations

Visual-Effects Pioneer douglas trumbull
illustration: michael Hoeweler; photo reference: nick zonna/splash news/newscom

Visual-effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull first appeared in Variety on Dec. 17, 1968, in a review of the sex satire “Candy,” for which he created two outer-space sequences. His other movie credit that year was more memorable: “2001: A Space Odyssey,” on which he was one of the masterminds behind the groundbreaking special effects.

Trumbull — also known for his effects work on such films as  “Blade Runner” and “The Tree of Life,” and for directing 1972’s influential “Silent Running” — continues to push the boundaries of filmmaking, working on digital innovations and theater design as part of his ongoing quest to create a new and immersive experience for moviegoers. He spoke recently with Variety about how he got his career off the ground by working on the Stanley Kubrick classic.

Your father worked on the effects on “The Wizard of Oz.” Was he an influence on your VFX work?

No, by the time I was born, he had left movies and gone into the aerospace and aircraft industry. My dad was an engineer, so I was around lathes, drill presses, welding machines and saws all my life. I was comfortable in the workshop and he taught me skills. My mother was a commercial artist, so I got this weird genetic code that was a mixture of engineering and art. I thought maybe I would be an architect, but I needed to make a living. I became a “background artist” in the Screen Cartoonists Guild. I applied for work at the studios and they said “You’re not right for us, but there’s a place doing scientific-technical stuff you would like.” So I took my little portfolio full of spacecraft to Graphic Films, which was a great move for me. While I was there, I worked with Ben Jackson, a budding movie director. He was extremely helpful about understanding photography, animation and lenses. He was an early mentor and led me to understand that my skills could be applied to movies and that movies kept presenting opportunities and challenges that could be solved through a combination of art and science.

How did you start on “2001”?

I was working at Graphic Films, which created a 15-minute movie, “To the Moon and Beyond,” for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. It was projected on a dome screen in a process called Cinerama 360. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke saw it and were in the process of developing “Journey Beyond the Stars” — as “2001” was called then. They contracted Graphic Films to develop ideas. I was one of the illustrators. But Stanley decided instead to make the movie in London and terminated the contract with Graphic. I asked Con Pederson at Graphic if I could contact Kubrick directly. He said, “No — I’m under an NDA.” But he added that Stanley Kubrick’s phone number was penciled in a corner of the bulletin board. So I cold-called Kubrick.

How long were you in London?

I ended up working on the film 2½ years. Kubrick had thought it would be nine months. He had no idea he was embarking on this giant research-and-development project.

What was your job on “2001”?

I started out as a kind of mascot/animator kid, doing HAL’s readouts. And I kept bringing solutions to problems that longtime professionals couldn’t solve. So Stanley would present me with a bigger problem, then a bigger one. I started moving up. At the end, I was one of the four top people on the movie.

What was his goal?

Stanley felt a responsibility to the 90-to-100-foot screens. He wanted to create an epic experience, a participatory movie experience. He wanted the audience to feel they were on this adventure in space. He started stripping away the normal conventions, the over-the-shoulder shots and counter-cuts of conventional movie melodrama, and focused on making a movie that was a trip. I became convinced this was the future of cinema and that he was the pathfinder for a new giant-screen movie experience.

Was there a moment when you knew “2001” would be special?

All day, every day, I knew I was in the realm of a genius filmmaker.