VFX Pioneer Moves Into Digital World: An Interview with Doug Trumbull

Always ahead of the curve, Trumbull assesses the benefits of shooting electronically as it relates to vfx.

The legend Douglas Trumbull. Photo courtesy of Douglas Trumbull.

Legendary filmmaker and vfx pioneer Doug Trumbull (2001: A Space Oddysey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Andromeda Strain, Silent Running, Brainstorm and Blade Runner) is back trying to make features after a 20-year absence. As always, hes on the cutting edge of technology, developing a comprehensive virtual set system. Now based in Boston, he recently spoke with VFXWorld editor Bill Desowitz about his plans and progress.

Bill Desowitz: Tell me what youre working on right now?

Doug Trumbull: The primary focus of mine is in developing some screenplays for some films Id like to direct. Ive got about four different projects in different stages, and Im planning to shoot them all digitally with whatever is the best digital electronics cinematography camera available at the time, whether its the Sony 950F thats coming out, and the Thompson Viper looks good. So Im completely committed to the advantages of electronic cinematography as it relates to visual effects. Because philosophically Im committed to the development of a completely comprehensive virtual set system that Ive been working on for about five years that uses electronic cinematography and very accurate sensors of camera position, and sends that information through a processor, which gives you exact positional accuracy that can talk to my 3ds max or whatever computer graphics engine you want to use for a real-time virtual set environment.

Trumbulls virtual set technology was used on Book of Pooh. Photo courtesy of Douglas Trumbull.

We did 52 episodes with this technology for Disneys The Book of Pooh last year and we proved that its very robust and reliable. You can shoot a production with a small crew on a very small stage, and even though Pooh was kind of cartoony in style, a pop-up book with puppets, the exact same equipment would be used for full-scale live-action cinematography and computing horsepower goes up everyday, so making more photo-realistic environments is feasible. Theres usually a two-stage process to it where you shoot a reference set, which gives you the geometry of what youre looking at, colors, the basic environment; and you shoot your foreground out with greenscreen or bluescreen and then go back in and post render the environment to the detail that you want and composite it. The advantages are that I think theres going to be a transition over the next few years toward these kind of technologies because its a fraction of the cost of building physical sets and a fraction of the cost of going on location. And so there a lot of emerging scanning technologies

BD: What is the leap youre trying to do?

DT: There are bits and pieces out there that people have used over the last [several] years. Disneys Dinosaur used LIDAR technologyI think Lucas has done a bit, I think Spielberg did some with A.I. People are using it more and more on a shot-by-shot basis more than on a conceptual approach where you never leave the studio. Its feasible now, at least for certain films.

BD: Like Polar Express?

DT: Yeah, that would be a good one because he did a big virtual set type sequence for Contact and got his feet wet a lot dealing with computers and compositing and knows whats feasible. I havent talked to him [Robert Zemeckis] directly, so I dont know.

BD: When he opened up the digital center at USC, he told me that his dream is to shoot a movie entirely in the computer, so this may be very close to that.


Camera work on Book of Pooh. Photos courtesy of Douglas Trumbull.

DT: Well, you still have to deal with your people and you have to have foreground sets and you have all the lighting issues. One of the problems yet to be solved is the automation of lighting. So that you have a meta-data format so that the lighting parameters in the virtual space are identical to the lighting parameters in the full-scale space. One of the guys doing some of the most advanced work in that area is Paul Debevec at ICT [Institute for Creative Technologies]. You ought to talk to him. Hes down in Marina Del Rey and hes tied in with USC Film Schoolhes been doing some advanced work on replication conditions that are exactly a reconstruction of natural light. I think he calls it rendering with natural light. So Ive got the whole motion-tracking thing down. We used it extensively on The Book of Pooh, we used it for some live-action castsit works fine. Were going to next generation now and miniaturizing a lot of the equipment and lightening it up because the new digital cameras are really very tiny. Thats one of the aspects that make this whole thing even more feasible because you dont have to have a battery or a film magazine or a viewfinder or a motor or anything on there. You just got a prism block with some electronics thats not very heavy so it gives you tremendous reduction on the physical size and weight of the camera package, and so all of the supporting equipment, whether youre using a steady cam or a boom or a crane or a head or whatever, or just hand-holding, you know is a fraction of the mass for the entire system. So I think this is a big advantage for both live-action and motion control type of photography. Im just working on the problem from the standpoint of developing movies that can benefit from a dramatic move in this direction, which would make what looks like a hundred million dollar movie for a fraction of that cost, and I think thats one of the next big steps. There are some people that Ive been talking to: Volker Engel, who did the visual effects supervising on Independence Day and Godzilla, and his partner Marc Weigert have just finished a movie called Coronado.

BD:Tell me more

DT: Well, they just did what looks like Romancing the Stone shot down in Mexico with really amazing production values and about 600 effects shots, and they did the whole thing for an amazingly low amount of money, which I wont even quote. Theyre about to do it again on some other productions theyre developing [theyre] proving the concept that electronics and photography, if you couple it with virtual sets and electronic compositing, and you really story board out your film, you can save multi millions of dollars. The flip side of it is that a cinematographer whos going to shoot a regular feature film if hes choosing between electronic cinematography and film is probably going to choose film because he wouldnt immediately see any benefit to electronic cinematography. But when youre compositing its a whole other thing.

BD: Tell me what kinds of movies youd like to make?

DT: I want to get back to my own roots as a filmmaker and have experiences again like I had on Silent Running. I did that whole movie in 32 days for a little over a million dollars and you could do it again todayI think that one of the things that is going to continue to happen is that were seeing a very, very rapid almost exponential change in the capacity of digital imaging to increase resolution and bandwidth and depth so we have 10-bit this year we may have 12-bit next year. Who knows how many lines of resolution well have two or three years from now, which is not very far. When you jump from 2k to 4k, its a massive leap in screen resolution.

BD: Do you think theyll settle on the 4k standard or somewhere in between?

DT: I dont think anybodys going to settle on anything. I think its going to be kind of a mix and match whatevers appropriate for the content choice just like some people shoot wide screen, some people shoot 1:85, some people shoot high speed film, some people shoot slow. I think all the choices are going to continue to be there.


This is the kind of sci-fi that Trumbull is use to working on.

BD: Getting back to your own projects, what sort of subject matter, or genres or styles are you embracing?

DT: Im sick of what you generally call science fiction, I guess. Although one of my projects is a submarine film that Im just working on right now, which has nothing to do with that at all. Im just looking at a wide range of things. Ive always been fascinated by UFOs and aliens and space and the cosmos and life in the universe and intelligent thought about it.

BD: Are you working through independent means internationally?

DT: Yeah. Im working as an independent producer/director on a deal-by-deal basis. I dont have a deal with anybody specifically to get it produced yet; Im just in the development phase. You know, its very simple you just make a movie. For me, Ive spent my years as an entrepreneur starting companies and developing technologies and struggling and raising venture capital and all that kind of thing and Ive just kind of felt that Ive done enough of that now and I need to get back to just being a filmmaker and just put something on the screen that I feel strongly about with whatever technology seems to work for that particular show.

BD: How long has it been since youve directed?

DT: Well, lets see. The Back to the Future ride was one of the most recent jobs I did. I did several shows for the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas. I consider all these to be directing jobs.

BD: Brainstorm was your last feature, right?

DT: Yeah. One of the things that I felt for myself about my interest in making movie is that Ive always been more drawn to the difficult and challenging aspects in movies like the simulated rides in Back to the Future and things like that, but no one else can figure out how to do them. Universal and Spielberg and the whole crowd behind the Back to the Future trilogy could not figure out how to make this ride work. They were building the buildings, and simulators and screens and bought the projectors and it was a disaster. I really like coming in and helping solve really difficult problems like that. Which I consider a really central part of what the cinema is to me. Cinema is about images on screens and making you feel involved, and I thought that the Back to the Future ride for me was a big experiment in cinema. I think its generally dismissed by people as a theme park ride or a cute attraction, but, for me, it was an experiment in the extremes of cinema.

BD: Which now can be applied to other things, Im sure.

DT: Sure, I mean, I learned a lot making that show and its been very successful and very few directors can claim that theyve got a movie thats on the screen all day everywhere around the world for years. It just keeps running and running. Im very proud of it because it was extremely difficult and it was fun to figure it out and kind of write the material to fit the difficulties of the technology and make it all work. So thats one of things Ive been doing is pushing that envelope for a while. It gets to be where its too much technology and not enough art and story. Im just trying to get back to it. A feature film to me is a much simpler event.

Bill Desowitz is the editor of VFXWorld.