Visionary visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull, who died Monday, contributed his groundbreaking inventions and techniques to classics including “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and “Blade Runner.”
Among his many honors were three visual effects Oscar nominations (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and “Blade Runner”); the Academy’s Scientific and Engineering Award for creating the Showscan Camera System; and the Visual Effects Society’s Georges Méliès Award, honoring those who have made significant, pioneering contributions to the effects business, in 2012.
A generation of visual effects artists and filmmakers were influenced by his work, including Weta FX senior VFX supervisor Joe Letteri, who said, “Doug stands out as an iconic figure in visual effects, one of the early pioneers who blended a deep knowledge of cinematography and mechanics to develop techniques that we still use today. An early evangelist of high frame rate processes, Doug’s vision for where we can take cinema is just now coming to fruition.”
Here’s a look at a five iconic moments Trumbull helped create.
‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ Mother Ship
Trumbull was Oscar nominated for visual effects for Spielberg’s “Close Encounters,” and one of his significant contributions was the motion control photography used in the scenes featuring the alien’s massive mother ship. He had a budget of over $3 million to create the groundbreaking alien effects.
Building the Visual Effects of ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’
One of Trumbull’s notable achievements was building the Enterprise for the first “Star Trek” feature film. Trumbull has spoken about the challenges that came with the mammoth task, with his team working around the clock for up to seven months on the film’s visual effects, which required as many shots as “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters” combined.
He came on late to the film and when he did so, none of the effects or what had been shot were usable, so he went back to the drawing board and rebuilt the ship from the inside out.
Additionally, he had to look at the way the lighting worked to make both the lighting and shadow shots work of William Shatner (Captain Kirk) in the pod. Fortunately, he explained, he had a “virtually unlimited” budget.
‘The Tree of Life’
Trumbull served as visual effects consultant to Terrence Malick on his 2011 Palme d’Or winner “The Tree of Life.” He played a hand in the spectacular 20-minute sequence that reimagines the creation of the universe. The sequence opens with the creation of the stars and ends with the sun shrinking into a tiny dot. It was Trumbull who worked with a group of VFX artists, experimenting with lights and pinhole flares to create the stunning imagery of scientific images to make up the dense sequence.
Trumbull served as a Special Photographic Effects Supervisor for Ridley Scott’s 1982 “Blade Runner.” His vision of a futuristic Los Angeles was based on an oil refinery, and he worked with concept artist Syd Mead to help bring the city to life. He designed the Tyrell Pyramid and came up with the idea of projecting images onto the side of blimps and buildings using a 35 mm projector.
‘Back to the Future’ Ride at Universal Studios
One of Trumbull’s many inventions was a process known as Showscan. It was designed to be used in “Brainstorm,” starring Natalie Wood before her drowning, and was shelved for a while before Trumbull made use of it. The Academy website defines it as a process that “consists of photographing and projecting 70mm film at 60 frames per second, producing a heightened sense of reality when compared to standard 35mm projection at 24 frames per second.”
Trumbull used the technology for a simulator ride in Canada before Steven Spielberg, the film’s executive producer, called on Trumbull to update the “Back to the Future” ride at Universal Studios. Trumbull took the Showscan technology and worked it into the thrill ride at the theme park.