Movies

Sci-fi pioneer Douglas Trumbull ready for new frontiers

Douglas Trumbull, who calls himself a “mad engineer,” at Trumbull Studios in the Berkshires.
Steven G. Smith for The Boston Globe)
Douglas Trumbull, who calls himself a “mad engineer,” at Trumbull Studios in the Berkshires.

NEW MARLBOROUGH

Douglas Trumbull has a bone to pick with Hollywood.

Cinema screens are minuscule. Projection is dim. Resolution and frame rate are low. The film industry’s “penny wise, pound foolish” attitude is akin to “making a $300 million movie and then showing it in 16mm,” says the visual effects master behind the mind-bending imagery of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “Blade Runner,” among other films. “I don’t blame people for wanting to watch movies on their laptops, because in many ways it’s better than a movie theater.”

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Trumbull, 72, is still chasing his dreams, which hearken back to the days of 70mm film stock, Super Panavision and Cinerama’s massive 90-foot-by-30-foot screens. Now Trumbull says he still wants to bring a new sense of spectacle to the moviegoing public. “I’ve been on this track all my life, to try to see if it’s possible to make a truly immersive cinematic experience.”

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On Feb. 14, Trumbull will appear at the Somerville Theatre for the 40th Boston Science Fiction Film Festival, where he will screen his recent work, talk about the future of cinema and answer questions. On Feb. 15, he will introduce a 70mm archival print of “2001,” the sci-fi classic that was Trumbull’s entry point into the industry.

When Garen Daly, the festival’s producer and curator, first saw “2001,” in 1968, “it blew me away. For the first time the art of filmmaking was applied to a science fiction film,” he says. “Since that time, science fiction has gone from a B movie in drive-ins to the genre of Hollywood.” Trumbull, Daly says, has been at the forefront of that evolution. “When the opportunity arose to ask him to our 40th iteration, it was a no-brainer.”

Trumbull has always pushed the boundaries of that otherwise mundane experience of sitting in a chair watching something projected on a screen.

“I don’t really define [my career] in the traditional way as being a director or a writer or a cinematographer,” says the self-described “geeky artist” and “mad engineer,” in his library at Trumbull Studios, surrounded by posters and production stills from his films and his many awards, including an Oscar for his technological contributions to the motion picture industry. “I just think, ‘Filmmaking is what I like to do.’”

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Alongside effects work on the films of Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, and Ridley Scott, filmmaking for Trumbull has also meant inventing and patenting dozens of film tools and techniques, from motion-control photography to miniature compositing. He also created the “Back to the Future: The Ride” simulator at Universal Studios and helped push IMAX into the commercial entertainment marketplace. His high-speed 70 mm Showscan process was given the Academy’s Scientific and Engineering Award.

Trumbull’s path to the Oscar began with Kubrick, who admired Trumbull’s work on a short 360-degree Cinerama film, “To the Moon and Beyond” created for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Kubrick lured the then 23-year-old to the London set of “2001.” “Working on ‘2001’ was my film school,” Trumbull says. “Stanley Kubrick was my mentor.” Trumbull remembers he advanced from “nobody” to one of the visual effects supervisors. “I said, ‘Well, after this, I’m going to direct my own movie.’”

He did. As well as providing visual effects for “The Andromeda Strain” (1971) “Close Encounters” (1977), and “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979) — and passing on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Dune” project and George Lucas’s “Star Wars.” In 1972, he directed Bruce Dern in the eco-themed sci-fi feature “Silent Running.” Then came “Brainstorm,” in 1983, about a device that records human experiences.

“He seemed to be able to do anything,” says Falmouth-based special effects artist Richard Yuricich, who was the cinematographer on “Brainstorm” and whose collaborations with Trumbull go back to “2001.” “He’s not only a technician. He’s an artist. There are very few people who work that way.”

But the ill-fated “Brainstorm” production was nearly abandoned by the studio after the death of its star, Natalie Wood.

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“I just became increasingly frustrated with the movie business. And when Natalie Wood died under very suspicious circumstances, I said, ‘Enough already.’” Trumbull stopped directing. He moved to the Berkshires, he says, to “restart myself.”

Trumbull Studios is a 50-acre compound that includes a shooting stage, production offices, and sound-mixing facilities.
Steven G. Smith for The Boston Globe
Trumbull Studios is a 50-acre compound that includes a shooting stage, production offices, and sound-mixing facilities.

‘He’s not only a technician. He’s an artist. There are very few people who work that way.’ -RICHARD YURICICH, Falmouth-based special effects artist describing Douglas Trumbull

On his wooded 50-acre compound off a quiet road, he created Trumbull Studios. Its barns and outbuildings house a shooting stage, production offices, workshops, screening rooms, editorial suites, a render farm for computer-generated imagery, and sound-mixing facilities. Reminiscent of George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch, albeit on a more modest sale, the mini-campus is overrun with chickens and miniature donkeys. But from this remote location, Trumbull is emerging from a decades-long self-imposed exile, to again propose new experiments in filmmaking.

“This whole facility here is kind of a laboratory for the future of cinema, or future of entertainment. It’s not just cinema, it can be anything,” Trumbull says. “We decided to build this stage, and build this studio, and get to where we could actually make a future film right here at home using all these technologies.”

The chickens at Trumbull Studios.
Steven G. Smith for The Boston Globe
The chickens at Trumbull Studios.

His first baby step back to Hollywood came in 2011, when he created the swirling birth-of-the-universe effects for Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life.” Trumbull has since taken further giant leaps into the biz. His lab’s newest experiment is a high-resolution, 120 frames per second (fps) 3-D filmmaking technology called Magi which he hopes might help Hollywood regain its snap, crackle, and pop.

Standard film is shot and projected at 24 fps, a rate the movie industry never revisited, despite upgrading most of its film production to digital. Using this format, in his studio’s green screen “virtual set technology” (where location footage can later be inserted digitally behind the actors), films can be created with a big visual bang for the buck. Peter Jackson shot his “Hobbit” trilogy at 48 fps; Magi’s 120 fps is “a hyper-real experience,” says Trumbull. “To me, it opens up this other new palette that isn’t virtual reality, and it isn’t a movie, either. It’s something else.”

A reporter visiting Trumbull Studios recently screened “UFOTOG,” Trumbull’s “little home movie” in the Magi format, about a man who makes contact with alien life. The 3-D was both eye- and brain-popping, and a little unnerving, but undeniably unique.

With this test in hand, Trumbull hopes to persuade financiers and filmmakers to back his new venture. He’s also proposing modular, 40-seat Magi Pod cinemas, outfitted with hemispherical screens and projectors many times the brightness of murky Cineplex 3-D screenings. He hopes developers might install these “Pods” in theme parks, malls, and museums and screen a variety of educational and thrill-ride films.

“Doing a movie in this process doesn’t add hardly anything to the budget,” Trumbull says. Shooting at a higher frame rate is simply “a switch on the camera.” With Magi, you can exponentially increase the impact of Hollywood fare like “Transformers” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Or, filmmakers can create their own high-quality content, quickly and relatively cheaply.

Magi might be Trumbull’s next shot at wowing audiences again. “I feel like my career is restarting now,” he says.

In the final reel of his career, in an era when the film-going experience is in peril, Trumbull is still trying to help the industry gets its mojo back. If only Hollywood would listen.

Technician Joshua Crane at Trumbull Studios.
Steven G. Smith for The Boston Globe
Technician Joshua Crane at Trumbull Studios.

Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at ethan@ethangilsdorf.com.