Douglas Trumbull, Visual Effects Pioneer of ‘2001’ and ‘Blade Runner,’ Dies at 79
One of the single most influential artists in the history of movies has died. You might not know his name, but Douglas Trumbull helped create the visual effects in many of the greatest films of all time, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner. His death was announced on Facebook by his daughter, who wrote on Tuesday that Trumbull died “last night after a major two year battle with cancer, a brain tumor and a stroke.” He was 79 years old.
Trumbull’s first film as a photographic effects supervisor was 2001: A Spacey Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s watershed 1968 science-fiction film. Trumbull had previously worked on a documentary short called “To the Moon and Beyond,” that Kubrick saw during the development of 2001 and greatly admired for its convincing images of outer space. Kubrick then brought in the team from “To the Moon and Beyond” to work on 2001’s effects. During production on 2001, Trumbull traveled to England, where he became instrumental in executing the movie’s iconic “Star Gate” sequence
2001 became Trumbull’s calling card in Hollywood, and he worked on numerous science-fiction films through the 1970s, including The Andromeda Strain, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Steve Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In 1981, Trumbull helped create effects for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, including the film’s unforgettable cityscape of Los Angeles in the dystopian future of 2019.
In 1972, Trumbull made his directorial debut with Silent Running, an outer space adventure about an astronaut on a mission to preserve the last of Earth’s plant life. In 1983, Trumbull directed Brainstorm, an inventive sci-fi thriller about a technology that records and then can replay human experiences, kind of like an early form of virtual reality. To suggest the different modes of perception in the film, Trumbull shot Brainstorm in multiple formats, with the virtual reality scenes filmed in widescreen 70mm. It’s tough to get the full effect at home — many home video releases don’t recreate the changing aspect ratios — but in the theater, the effect was really powerful.
Trumbull mostly moved on from contributing to big Hollywood productions by the late 1980s. For many years, Trumbull promoted a high frame rate film process called “Showscan” that he created. He also worked on all the special effects photography on the beloved Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios theme parks.
Simply put, Trumbull was a giant in the field of special effects, and the work he leaves behind — not to mention the work influenced by the next generation of special effects artists who grew up watching 2001 and Silent Running and others — will last as long as there are movies. Here are a few more videos of Trumbull talking about 2001 and the future of cinema.