The role of the “special effects man” has become a dominant and integral one in modern filmmaking. What used to be the hallmark of a B-movie has become the key for box-office success.
Last Friday afternoon, special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull gave the keynote address at the third annual Information & Communication Summit at the University of Massachusetts in the Student Union Ballroom. Trumbull addressed both his own work and his plans for the future of the film industry.
The casual filmgoer may not know Trumbull’s face, but they’ve almost certainly seen his work. Beginning with Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Trumbull has created some of cinema’s most memorable images and moments. Whether it’s the arrival of the Mothership in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or any scene from “Blade Runner,” Trumbull has certainly made his mark on movie history. His work from the 1970s and ‘80s still holds up, and in many cases surpasses the digital effects of today’s films.
His address focused on the role of technology in filmmaking. Trumbull spoke about his belief that technology should help filmmakers. Apart from his work on classic science fiction films, Trumbull has also developed and patented groundbreaking film technologies. These innovations, such as Showcam, are designed to make film a more immersive experience.
Trumbull was particularly proud about Showcam, an invention he has been working on and perfecting since the late 1980s. The Showcam’s intention is to act as a window into another world. Despite being unable to adequately demonstrate the effect on the Student Union Ballroom’s projector, Trumbull communicated how truly awe-inspiring a Showcam film could be. He entertained the audience with a story about how even Steven Spielberg was wowed by a Showcam demonstration.
For all the genius and talent behind Trumbull’s innovations, there is a surprising lack of recognition or appreciation for his work. In a short clip that Trumbull played during his presentation, the film critic Roger Ebert described Trumbull as “a guy with an idea that would cause trouble for everybody in Hollywood.” After a deadpanned “right,” Trumbull described his frustrating attempts to convince the film industry to embrace and adopt new technology.
Trumbull also addressed the current 3D phenomenon, which doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. Though it can “look cool,” Trumbull said 3D is projected in such a way that it is too dim. Presently, cinemas rely on outdated traditions to deal with 3D. Trumbull would rather have a good image shot in 2D than a poor one shot on 3D.
Another theme of Trumbull’s address was the theme of storytelling. Trumbull referred to movies as “magical” and moviemaking as an “adventure.” He criticized the reliance of Hollywood studios on big, mindless blockbusters like “Transformers,” and expressed his disappointment in the tendency to treat audiences as less intelligent than they actually are.
Though his frustration with studios forced him to quit the film industry, Trumbull is working on a new sci-fi epic. He intends it to be the first film shot entirely on a virtual stage, another innovation of his. Trumbull has directed two other films, including “Silent Running,” which has become a cult classic. His current film is still in pre-production, but if the brief glimpse Trumbull revealed are any indication, it looks like a truly groundbreaking feature.
Trumbull, who lives in the Berkshires, took questions after his presentation. He answered questions about everything and even gave one young filmmaker advice on how to shoot a particular scene. Trumbull’s advice for all aspiring filmmakers is to be “persistently resilient.” As good as that advice is, it probably helps to be as enthusiastic about moviemaking as Douglas Trumbull so clearly is.
Danny Marchant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org