The biggest Hollywood star you’ve never heard of

Visual effects guru Douglas Trumbull's cinematic CV includes Stanley Kubrick's 2001 - A Space Odyssey, Robert Wise's The Andromeda Strain, Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner
Visual effects guru Douglas Trumbull's cinematic CV includes Stanley Kubrick's 2001 - A Space Odyssey, Robert Wise's The Andromeda Strain, Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner
  • He’s the pioneer who changed the face of the movies. And now Douglas Trumbull is on the verge of unveiling his latest breakthrough – in Yorkshire. He spoke to Tony Earnshaw.
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Visual effects guru Douglas Trumbull prefers to refer to himself as a contributor to other people’s films. His cinematic CV includes Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – A Space Odyssey, Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which means most cinema-goers are familiar with his work even if his name doesn’t trip off the tongue.

But to aficionados of widescreen cinema Trumbull is a living legend. Spielberg is a personal friend. And it’s for his contribution to immersive big movie entertainment that he’s in Yorkshire this weekend as part of the Widescreen Weekend, hosted by the National Media Museum in Bradford. Trumbull will talk about his cult sci-fi drama Silent Running, which he directed and co-wrote, and give a masterclass on high-impact immersive cinema.

The former is the 70s movie that buffs including Mark Kermode count as one of the seminal titles in the genre, with Bruce Dern as the astronaut/botanist saving the last of Earth’s plant life with the help of a trio of robot buddies. The latter represents the motor that has driven Trumbull’s career as inventor, scientist and filmmaker. And now, after 50 years of research, experimentation and investigation, he is ready to unveil his invention: a form of filmmaking and projection that could take cinema as we know it to an entirely new level.

“My experience as a very young starter in the movie industry was working with Stanley Kubrick on 2001,” says 72-year-old Trumbull from his private studio in Massachusetts.

“I worked very closely with him on this quite unusual movie. And I was very fortunate to be witness to Kubrick’s transformation of his cinematic style, which was designed to maximise the impact of a giant screen and minimise using ordinary, conventional melodramatic cinematic conventions.

“I was inculcated in Stanley Kubrick’s world and so profoundly changed by it that it became a really big thread in my career.”

Kubrick intended to film 2001 in the big-screen Cinerama process. But the movie industry was changing. Studios and exhibitors baulked at the perceived prohibitive cost. At the same time big cinemas were transformed into multi-screen sites and the cineplex was invented. Suddenly big screen cinema was old hat.

But Trumbull ploughed on, developing a process called Showscan. A high-speed, large-format 70mm process that presented great visual clarity, it was destined to be introduced with the movie Brainstorm, starring Natalie Wood and Christopher Walken.

But studio chiefs again highlighted the cost and axed the process, forcing Trumbull to shoot the film traditionally. When Wood drowned in mysterious circumstances it was thought Brainstorm would be abandoned. The film was eventually released but by then Trumbull had quit Hollywood and retreated “in despair” to the East Coast.

He has since spent many years developing the Magi Process, which takes Showscan to new levels. What’s more Life of Pi director Ang Lee was sufficiently impressed to adopt it for his latest movie Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

“Ang Lee is the only director that has actually gone to the trouble to come to my studio and see this process. He went for it 100 per cent. He understood what he wanted to do and he’s doing it. If Jim Cameron says he wants to use something for Avatar 2, he’s gonna have it.

“I’m at this point where I’ve finally figured it out and I feel like I’m a lone wolf. No-one seems to be exploring this territory or trying to make a new version of what cinema can be. I truly believe in my heart that if we don’t do something truly spectacular in cinemas pretty soon, it’s gonna die.”

I remind Trumbull that contemporary directors such as Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino are campaigning for the future of celluloid. He suggests they should go back to basics and “get rid of all the historical artefacts and beliefs of what an image is”.

“I have a personal challenge that I’ve put out to Chris Nolan. Every time I see him I say: ‘Chris, I’m gonna show you something that is really gonna change your mind about digital. We’ve got something that’s better than any film format ever made. You should see it.’

“As soon as I have the demonstration set up here in my screening room – this new kind of theatre that I’ve devised – I’m gonna be inviting every major director and studio to come here and see what it looks like.”

Part of the appeal of travelling to Bradford is that Trumbull will see 2001 projected on the giant, curved Cinerama screen – one of just three in the world – just as Kubrick envisaged back in the mid 1960s.

“It’s really extremely rare,” he explained. “I get invited to go to film festivals all over the world, many of them because of 2001 but they show it on a regular-size, flat rectangular screen. They don’t understand how disappointing that is. We’ve reached the point now where movies are being streamed and downloaded onto tablets and smartphones and smaller and smaller screens rather than bigger and bigger screens.

“That’s why I accepted to come to the Widescreen Weekend. It’s one of the few places on the earth that is really there specifically to adore that experience.”

• Widescreen Weekend, National Media Museum, today and tomorrow;