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Visual Effects Legend Douglas Trumbull Dies at 79

From ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ to ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and ‘Blade Runner,’ the VFX visionary created some of cinema’s most widely influential and iconic imagery, and the ground-breaking processes used to produce them.

Douglas Trumbull, the visual effects wizard whose massively influential work is featured in the science-fiction classics 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner, died on Monday at the age of 79.

Trumbull’s daughter Amy informed The Hollywood Reporter that he died in Albany, New York. According to a Facebook post from her this morning, Trumbull’s passing came after a “major two-year battle with cancer, a brain tumor and a stroke.”

“My sister Andromed and I got to see him on Saturday and tell him that we love him and we got to tell him to enjoy and embrace his journey into the Great Beyond,” she said.

The son of Donald Trumbull - also a VFX artist, who provided the visuals for The Wizard of Oz in 1939 - Trumbull began his ascent to below-the-line stardom as a background artist for a film about spaceflight called To the Moon and Beyond. The movie was shown at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, where it was seen by Stanley Kubrick, who was so impressed with it that he eventually recruited Trumbull to work as special effects supervisor on 2001.

Arguably Trumbull’s most indelible contribution to Kubrick’s 1968 epic is its “Star Gate sequence,” which was achieved entirely with physical and chemical techniques and without the use of CG. To create the scene’s kaleidoscopic effect, Trumbull and his team utilized an array of slit-scan photography of high-contrast images, along with shot colored paints and chemicals swirling inside of a cloud tank in slow motion.

Post-2001, Trumbull pioneered the use of advanced computerized photographic VFX on The Andromeda Strain, director Robert Wise’s 1971 sci-fi thriller based on Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name. His work on that film earned him the greenlight from Universal Pictures to make his directorial debut a year later; the film, Silent Running, was set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and employed a number of techniques Trumbull previously honed on 2001.

In 1976, Steven Spielberg sought out Trumbull to serve as visual effects supervisor on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Trumbull modeled the film’s jaw-dropping alien mothership after real-life metropolises to give it its mammoth sense of scale, and pushed for the use of motion control so that Spielberg could pan, tilt, and dolly while still locking the VFX in-frame.

Three years later, Wise hired Trumbull yet again to deliver VFX for Star Trek: The Motion Picture -- on an extraordinarily tight schedule, which demanded he complete more composites than Star Wars and Close Encounters combined in just six months. To meet the deadline, he oversaw three crews that worked 24-hour periods, seven days a week. Wise also entrusted Trumbull to re-direct both the docking sequence aboard the Enterprise and Spock’s spacewalk for the film.

Working as special photographic effects supervisor for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Trumbull was behind the consequential creative choice to project images onto blimps and buildings, and used smoke to create the illusion of depth and distance that defines the film’s look and feel.

In six years’ time, Trumbull received three visual effects Oscar nominations for Close Encounters, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Blade Runner. In 1993, the Academy awarded him a Scientific and Engineering Award for creating the Showscan Camera System, and the Gordon E. Sawyer statuette in 2012 for his career contributions.

The Visual Effects Society (VES) made Trumbull its inaugural Hall of Fame inductee in 2017, when its board of directors created the list of honorees to mark its 20th anniversary. In a statement sent to AWN, the organization shared, “The Visual Effects Society is deeply saddened by the passing of cinematic luminary, VFX legend, VES Fellow and inaugural VES Hall of Fame inductee Douglas Trumbull, VES. Our thoughts and prayers are with Doug's family, friends and colleagues across the globe who were inspired by his brilliance. Rest in peace”

Commenting on Trumbull’s passing, VES chair Lisa Cooke told AWN, “Doug was a true giant and artistic genius. He was incredibly inventive, and had such a deep love of visual storytelling and creating effects to advance our craft. A self-confessed ‘geeky creative,’ Doug changed the course of cinema with his exceptional talent and he leaves an enormous imprint on the industry, our Society and everyone he touched. His passion, generosity and pioneering spirit will be greatly missed.”

The VES shared with AWN their interview with Trumbull from last year, published as part of their VES Luminary Series.

In a statement sent to AWN, Joe Letteri, Oscar-winning senior VFX supervisor at Weta FX, said, “Doug stands out as an iconic figure in visual effects, one of the early pioneers who blended a deep knowledge of cinematography and mechanics to develop techniques that we still use today.  An early evangelist of high frame rate processes, Doug’s vision for where we can take cinema is just now coming to fruition. He will be missed.” 

ILM CCO and Oscar-winning VFX supervisor John Knoll shared with AWN, “I was very sad to hear of the passing of Douglas Trumbull. His work was a huge inspiration to me and was partly responsible for my deciding to pursue a career in film. His impact on the VFX industry was profound and can hardly be overstated.  You can divide VFX into the before 2001: A Space Odyssey and after 2001 eras.  His approach of mixing high technology, precision engineering, and world class design into his work created the modern era of VFX.

When George Lucas began thinking about VFX for Star Wars, he approached Trumbull, who declined but suggested John Dykstra, one of the guys working in his studio.  In that way, ILM was born out of the Trumbull talent incubator. George was inspired by Doug’s design and shooting methodology for the drone characters in Silent Running to create R2D2, one of the most beloved characters in film.

Doug’s pioneering work in repeatable motion systems, use of large film formats to retain quality when duped, streak and slitscan photography, cloud tanks, etc. left an indelible mark on our industry.  He’ll be missed.”

Paul Franklin, Oscar-winning VFX supervisor and co-founder of DNEG, told AWN of his last encounter with Trumbull, when he interviewed him for a documentary. “At a time in life when most of us would be putting our feet up and taking it easy Doug was still moving forward, innovating, looking to new horizons,” Franklin said. “Doug Trumbull set the standard that the rest of us aspire to.”

Sony Pictures Imageworks shared with AWN, "Doug was an innovator, an icon, a pioneer. His numerous contributions to our industry have inspired generations of artists and filmmakers to push the boundaries of filmmaking. He will be missed." 

Back in 2012, AWN co-founder and publisher Dan Sarto sat with Trumbull for a 3-part interview at the FMX Conference, talking at length about his work with high frame rate filmmaking, 360-degree immersive experiences, and of course, his seminal work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner. According to Sarto, “Never having met this legendary figure in our industry, I was a bit nervous, and tongue-tied. Doug could not have been more patient and accommodating as we futzed with the lighting, camera, and makeup. He took every one of my lame questions and turn it into something proper-sounding, then gave a great answer.”

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Max Weinstein is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is the Editor-at-Large of 'Dread Central' and former Editorial Director of 'MovieMaker.' His work has been featured in 'Cineaste,' 'Fangoria,' 'Playboy,' 'Vice,' and 'The Week.'