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Locarno Fetes ‘2001’ and ‘Silent Running’s Douglas Trumbull

Locarno Fetes '2001' and 'Silent Running's Douglas Trumbull

We owe Douglas Trumbull the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Blade Runner, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and more recently, The Tree of Life. In addition to his work as consultant and special effects supervisor, Douglas Trumbull also directed two films — Silent Running (1972), starring Bruce Dern and Brainstorm (1983), starring Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood — as well as a number of shorts.  

Douglas Trumbull was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010, nominated for Academy Awards on three occasions, won the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Science and Engineering Award in 1993 and the Gordon E. Sawyer Award last year, as well as the American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award. He came to the Locarno Film Festival to accept another one, the Festival’s first Vision Award — Electronic Studio. This new prize both highlights and pays tribute to artists whose creative work behind the scenes has contributed to opening up new perspectives in film. 

According to the Festival’s artistic director Carlo Chatrian, Douglas Trumbull is “a unique figure, and not only in American cinema. Filmmaker, inventor, creator of visual effects that have haunted audience'” imaginations and left their mark on some of the milestones in film history; Trumbull is someone who has always been ahead of the pack. And he has maintained a resolutely independent position, just like the great master craftsmen in film. Directors such as Kubrick, Spielberg, Scott and Malick wanted him at their side to pursue their desire for innovation. Wanting to invite him to Locarno to share his long and productive experiences with the audience here led me to the idea of a new award, dedicated to artists who, like him, have succeeded in surprising us with undreamed of images and sounds.”

The Festival audience had the opportunity to participate in two exclusive masterclasses with Douglas Trumbull, who shared secrets about the work he did for masterpieces such as Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and his 1972 directorial debut Silent Running. Here are some of them:

When asked about the Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Trumbull replied that this is one sequence that troubled all the professionals who worked on the film. He remembered a technique that had been developed by John Whitney for an abstract sequence at the end of To the Moon and Beyond and which depicted a microcosm of energy. He thought of doing something similar for 2001 but in 3D space. When the first picture was made, he was so astonished that he took the Polaroid to Kubrick who looked at the black and white photo — still wet with fixer — and approved the project instantly.

He was also asked about the special effects in his film Silent Running. He explained that the film was initially a vehicle for the three robots known as Huey, Dewey and Louie, an idea that came to him after seeing Tod Browning’s Freaks. One of the performers was Johnny Eck, a man without a lower body or legs who walked on his hands and could execute astonishing movements. Trumbull thought that if he could build a robot suit for a person like him, he could have a great Science Fiction character. Trumbull is very proud of this film, which, to him, was an experiment in an independent filmmaking project as well as a great learning experience.

He answered the expected question on working with Steven Spielberg by saying that after Silent Running’s success, he was courted by many studios to direct science fiction films. Steven Spielberg approached him to do the visual effects for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He had been developing substantial 70mm camera equipment and was eager to learn from Spielberg, who had just enjoyed tremendous success with Jaws. It was a terrific experience as Spielberg respected Trumbull’s directorial skills which meant he had a real opportunity to direct the effects in the way he wished.

When he is ready with 120fps, his first witnesses would be Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, George Lucas and JJ Abrams. In addition, he shared that he undoubtedly enjoyed most working with Stanley Kubrick as well as the fact that the Stargate sequence is what he is most proud of. It is something he created from start to finish, something entirely his, something that still fills him with awe whenever he sees it on the big screen. If, looking back at his career, he would do things differently today, he said he wouldn’t change anything and would still be creating models and miniatures, this being the only way he knows how to work. Indeed, he finds working with pixels and polygons boring and has a profound dislike of computers and CGI.

Douglas Trumbull’s passion is to develop a new cinematic language that immerses audiences in what will seem to be real and not fictional. In order to do this, he has written, produced and directed a short film called UFOTOG. UFOTOG is about a man who is determined to photograph a UFO using high tech cameras but is deeply concerned about government agents who will thwart his project. This is his own true story. In fact, he has been building systems to photograph UFOs and has had unsettling encounters with the CIA. Trumbull’s goal is to create a new medium of immersive expression by doing the cinematic experimentation and exploration that he truly enjoys. By making UFOTOG available for viewing, he hopes to find interested partners and/or investors who will join him on an adventure that will most certainly be a fun experience and very satisfying creatively.

We can say, with utter conviction, that Locarno fell irreversibly, and unconditionally, under Douglas Trumbull’s spell (and we may venture as far as to say that the experience was mutual). Today, due to the ever-changing landscape of cinema and the diversity of forms of expression and multiplicity of opinions, the word “genius” may be overused and only a little percentage of Hollywood’s visionaries are worth the accolade. And, if there is one person who undeniably deserves this title, but is rarely endowed with, then it is Douglas Trumbull. We truly hope that he will succeed in his endeavor and thus still keep us in awe with his spectacular work and contagious passion and dedication! And, last but not least, let us follow his advice and not be afraid of science fiction. 

Click here for more on Tara Karajica and this year’s Critics Academy.

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