Culture Films, Article, Culture, Features, Film, Phelim O'Neill, Terrence Malick, The Guardian, The Guide — July 11, 2011 10:04 — 2 Comments
The genius of Douglas Trumbull
He blew minds with SFX work in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and he’s doing it again in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. In a rare interview, Douglas Trumbull adds another definition to ’smart moviemaking’
Even for a director as accomplished as Terrence Malick, creating the universe can present a few problems. Hardly known for his special effects extravaganzas, Malick’s approach to film-making – capturing spontaneous events – doesn’t jibe with the pre-planned discipline of CGI processes; they’re just too synthetic for his more organic methodology. Instead, Malick had to go with methods and skill sets that have virtually vanished. For the spectacular, epic, 22-minute birth of creation sequence in his new film The Tree of Life, Malick contacted one of the few people with the necessary experience, ability and creative drive to get the results he needed. In short, he needed Douglas Trumbull, a man who hadn’t worked in feature films for almost 30 years, a man who may just be the saviour of cinema.
An artistic, self confessed "geeky creative", Trumbull had no real plan to become a special effects technician. The Los Angeleno arrived in Hollywood in the early-60s with a portfolio "all full of science fiction, alien planets, spaceships, things like that". He found work in advertising, doing layouts and paste-up work, while looking for a way in to the world of cinema. He was soon pointed in the direction of the small Graphic Films company, who made space films for Nasa. It was here that he did all the artwork for a short called To The Moon And Beyond – the only film shot in the Cinerama 360 process, whereby circular images were projected on to a domed planetarium screen. Shown at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, the film caught the attention of director Stanley Kubrick and science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke, there researching a possible collaboration called Journey To The Stars.
Impressed with what he saw, Kubrick struck a deal with Graphic to take their best people over to England to work on the movie. The 23-year-old Trumbull quickly found himself transplanted to London, given all the resources of a major studio as a nine month gig turned into almost three years and the film was renamed 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It’s hard to imagine a better introduction into the world of film-making than 2001. Trumbull not only learned how to make the most of his creative impulses, he also learned the technical side of film-making to the highest possible standard. "There was every conceivable level of quality control that Stanley Kubrick himself supervised." Trumbull recalls. "Extreme testing, constant rigorous monitoring, on every camera and projector." Trumbull also approached Kubrick with an idea he had been working on, an effect that involved moving artwork while the shutter remained open, to solve the problem of the film’s legendary Stargate sequence. "It required the building of a special camera," says Trumbull. "Once we got the thing going, it worked perfectly for months, running almost 24 hours a day."
Seeing the finished film, Trumbull was impressed at the immersive qualities of the climactic sequences and saw that this was an area worth exploring. But Hollywood had other ideas for him and so began years of trade-offs:
he would provide special effects for such films as The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters, Blade Runner and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but only so he could finance his plans to raise the state of the art and, also, further his ambitions to direct.
Trumbull’s debut as director, Silent Running (1972), was an innovative piece of sci-fi that remains influential today. His second feature, however, ended in tragedy. Brainstorm (1983) was planned as spectacular trip into the inner mind utilising Trumbull’s revolutionary Showscan process, a large-format, high-speed film technique offering images that would be indistinguishable from reality. But when star Natalie Wood drowned during production, the studio turned its back on Trumbull.
This meant a return to what he knew best, and Trumbull concentrated fully on developing his techniques. Decades of research and development followed, resulting in impressive, immersive theme park displays such as the Back To The Future ride at Universal and regular, unwanted offers of FX work. Unwanted, that is, until Terrence Malick came calling. "I just did [The Tree Of Life] as a friend," he says. "There’s nowhere you can go to order up special effects like this, so I suggested we open up a little laboratory and do some experiments."
Dan Glass, the film’s visual effects supervisor, takes up the story. "Terry approached me about five years ago with the project. It was something of a surprise – I never expected to be working with a film-maker like Malick. But it was clear a different approach was needed here. So we set up a little lab called Skunkworks and met up and brought in the cameras every few weeks."
‘I’m exploring a new territory that goes way beyond what cinema has always been’
To show the swirling cosmic soup that the universe formed from, and other phenomena, experimentation was the order of the day. The creation sequence goes from sub-atomic occurrences that stretch nanoseconds to cosmic events that condense millennia. The approach was something like alchemy: using materials more likely to be found in a hardware store than a hi-tech CGI workshop (fluorescent dyes, flares, CO2, paints, chemicals, even milk), they came across images that were unique, striking and often accidental. It was up to Malick to keep them inspired and on the right track.
For Trumbull it was a return to happier times. "It was a working environment that’s almost impossible to come by these days," he says. "Terry wanted to create the opportunity for the unexpected to occur before the camera, then make something of that. He didn’t want to use a very stringent design process, he wanted the unexpected phenomenon to occur – and use that."
While computers were used to manipulate the images, Glass believes the key to the success of the sequence – virtually a film within a film – was variety. "We had a lot of vendors for the bits used. What you’re seeing is practically a different technique used for every shot, which keeps it looking interesting and harder to figure out for the viewer. We all wanted to impress Terry. There’s loads of this stuff that didn’t even make it into the finished film."
For Trumbull it’s just another in a long line of triumphs, the only difference being that this one is in the public eye. Over the years he has developed Showscan, brought IMAX to the public, worked on the Magicam realtime video compositing system (as seen in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos TV series), and even toiled away on an early interactive videogame. An impressive enough list of accomplishments these days – but when you consider these projects were all started in the late-70s, it’s even more astounding.
MGM and Paramount, who financed a lot of these developments, ultimately lost interest and passed on them. It’s only now that directors like Peter Jackson and James Cameron have the clout to effect the changes Trumbull predicted and developed. Both Jackson’s The Hobbit and Cameron’s Avatar 2 will be shot at over double the usual speed of 24 frames per second – the idea being that faster you go, the clearer and more realistic the images. "I was doing this, what, 35 years ago," notes Trumbull.
The Tree of Life, though, has put Trumbull back in the game and he has big plans in mind. "I’m developing some high frame-rate 3-D processes that are going to be, I hope, indistiguishable from reality. This will be quite an unusual cinematic event – you don’t just tell an ordinary story, it’s more of a first-person experience where the melodrama doesn’t get in the way. Being inside the movie rather than looking at the movie. I’m exploring a new territory that goes way beyond the experience of what cinema has always been." He laughs. "It’s always been a struggle and probably always will be a struggle."
Hollywood, you really should listen to this man.
The Tree Of Life is out now
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