Douglas Trumbull, Who Pioneered VFX on ‘2001,’ ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Close Encounters,’ Dies at 79

Douglas Trumbull Obit Dead
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Visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull, one of the masterminds behind the visual effects on some of the most visually audacious science fiction films of all time, including “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Blade Runner,” died Monday from complications from mesothelioma. He was 79.

His daughter Amy wrote on Facebook. that he had cancer, a brain tumor and a stroke.

“My sister Andromeda and I got to see him on Saturday and tell him that he love him and we got to tell him to enjoy and embrace his journey into the Great Beyond,” she wrote.

He shared Oscar nominations for best visual effects for “Close Encounters,” “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and “Blade Runner.”

Trumbull also oversaw the visual effects on “Silent Running,” “The Andromeda Strain” and “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” and he directed eco-sci-fi film “Silent Running” and Natalie Wood-starring “Brainstorm.”

Trumbull also created Universal Studios’ “Back to the Future: The Ride” simulator and helped bring Imax into the entertainment marketplace.

In addition to doing effects work on the classic sci-fi films for which he’s known, Trumbull also invented and patenting dozens of film tools and techniques, from motion-control photography to miniature compositing.

In 1993 he shared an Academy Scientific and Engineering Award “for concept (Trumbull), the movement design (Williamson), the electronic design (Auguste) and the camera system (DiGuilio) of the CP-65 Showscan Camera System for 65mm motion picture photography, the first modern 65mm camera developed in 25 years.” In 2012 he won the Academy’s Gordon E. Sawyer Award, which is a special Oscar presented to “an individual in the motion picture industry whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry.”

In announcing that the festival would pay tribute to him in 2013, Locarno Film Festival artistic topper Carlo Chatrian said: “Trumbull has always known how to look a bit further afar than others. And he’s always done this from a doggedly independent standpoint that brought him close to cinema’s great artisan-masters. Directors such as Kubrick, Spielberg, Scott and Malick have always wanted him by their side to help carry out their desires to innovate.”

Trumbull was proud of the immersive effect achieved by Kubrick and the effects team on “2001,” with the audience made to feel that it was on the ship with the characters, and he long sought to wield technology to create a more immersive form of cinema than that proffered by Hollywood. He had hoped to release “Brainstorm” using technology he’d created called Showscan, but the studio was uninterested in such complications, and that disappointment, coupled with the death of Natalie Wood under suspicious circumstances during the making of “Brainstorm” in 1981, led Trumbull to decide to quit the movie business.

Reviewing “Brainstorm,” Roger Ebert observed, “The technical effects are intriguing. Douglas Trumbull, the director, is Hollywood’s legendary special effects ace, and he does a wonderful job of making the telepathic experiences visually exciting. He cuts back and forth between wide screen and regular format, between ordinary sound and stereo, between standard lenses and astonishing visual effects. Great, except the people get overlooked.”

In later years Trumbull worked on cinematic innovations such as the immersive boutique cinema called the “Magi Pod” at his own lab in Massachusetts, though he returned to film to work on effects for Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” He also participated in a 2018 documentary about his work, “Trumbull Land.” Recently, he was developing a documentary about “2001: A Space Odyssey” with Mike Medavoy as well as developing a sci-fi feature script “Moons Over Enigma” with John Sayles.

Douglas Huntley Trumbull was born in Los Angeles, the son of mechanical engineer and visual effects man Don Trumbull, who worked on films ranging from “The Wizard of Oz” to “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope” and on some of the films on which his son worked. His mother, Marcia Hunt, was an artist.

Trumbull worked as an illustrator and airbrush artist at Graphic Films in Los Angeles, which created a documentary for the 1964 New York World’s Fair called “To the Moon and Beyond,” shot with Cinerama’s 360 Process and projected onto the overhead Moon Dome; Kubrick saw it and hired Graphic Films director Con Pederson; Trumbull got Kubrick’s number from Pederson, cold-called him and got hired to work on “2001.”  Trumbull was initially given a relatively minor task — creating the animated displays seen on the computer screens throughout the ship in the film — but his responsibilities grew and grew as production continued. In the end he was one of four visual effects supervisors on the movie, and his most significant achievement was development of the process to create the film’s Star Gate.

Trumbull was executive producer of the Harlan Ellison-created sci-fi series “The Starlost,” starring Keir Dullea, in 1973-74, as well as of the 1980 TV movie based on it.

In later years, Trumbull publicly voiced his belief that the film production and exhibition industries were failing to offer an attractive product, with theater screens small and projection dim. “I don’t blame people for wanting to watch movies on their laptops, because in many ways it’s better than a movie theater,” he told the Boston Globe in 2015.

Trumbull got a lot of press for his efforts to upgrade cinema images, but few seemed to grasp just how revolutionary his efforts could be. Trumbull was not just talking about a better way to present movies. He wanted to fundamentally change movies themselves — some movies, anyway.

Working on a stage on his property in Massachusetts, Trumbull combined high frame rates and 3D on the production side with advanced projection tech and curved screens that get brightness up to 30 foot Lamberts. Trumbull called this suite of technologies Hypercinema.

In 1994, his company Ridefilm Corporation merged with IMAX, helping develop the plan to take IMAX public. He served as vice chairman of IMAX for three years.

In 1996, Trumbull won the President’s Award from the American Society of Cinematographers.

At the Visual Effects Society Awards, he received honorary membership in 2002; lifetime membership in 2009; won the Georges Méliès Award, honoring those who have made significant, pioneering contributions to the effects business, in 2012; and was named a VES Fellow in 2014.

He is survived by his wife Julia Hobart Trumbull, daughters Amy Trumbull and Andromeda Stevens; stepchildren; Emily Irwin, John Hobart Culleton, Ethan Culleton and John Vidor; nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild; a sister Betsy Hardie, half sisters Kyle Trumbull-Clark, Mimi Erland and a stepsister Katharine Trumbull Blank.