Douglas Trumbull, pioneer and director of special effects, dies at 79

The world has lost another legend in the world of genre film. Douglas Trumbull, director, visual effects artist and three-time Oscar nominee, has died aged 79. This news comes to us from his daughter, Amy, who wrote a tribute on her Facebook page.

My dad, Doug Trumbull, passed away last night after a major two-year battle with cancer, a brain tumor, and a stroke. He was an absolute genius and wizard and his contributions to the film and special effects industry would continue for decades and beyond.

If you’re a sci-fi movie fan, chances are you’ve come across Trumbull’s work. He was the son of Donald Trumbull, who developed the special effects for the 1939 classic, The Wizard of Oz. Douglas had a deft hand like his father and ended up landing his first job at Graphic Films, and his first visual effects credit is for a short documentary called To the moon and beyond. The film covered spaceflight for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The film caught the attention of Stanley Kubrick, who hired members of Graphic Films to work on his new project. But when the production moved to England, the contract had to be terminated. Trumbull, however, wanted to continue working on the film. He contacted Kubrick personally, convincing the director to keep him on the project. This movie ended up becoming 2001: A Space Odyssey. His responsibilities began with the animations for the data screens, which were created without the use of a computer. His most famous contributions to film, however, were for the Star Gate sequence. Trumbull got the idea for using slit-scan photography from his background in street photography.


From Kubrick to the Beyond

MGM's Stargate

Trumbull’s contributions to film would essentially jump-start his career in special effects, leading him to his next project, The Andromeda Strain. The film followed a team of scientists as they investigate a mysterious deadly organism that may or may not have come from this world. Trumbull’s work with film perfected the techniques he developed from 2001.

Trumbull’s next step would be to lead 1971 Quiet operation. The film was based on an original idea. A botanist piloting a ship carrying the last forests on planet Earth learns from high bureaucratic brass that the ships must be destroyed; instead of following orders, the botanist goes rogue and tricks them into hiding. The project was shot on a minimal budget of one million dollars, one tenth of the budget of 2001. Again, Trumbull used a number of special effects he had developed over the years. The film received praise but was a box office flop, but Trumbull looked back fondly on the experience. The film has since become cult.

After Silent Running, Trumbull’s career has involved multiple contributions. In 1977, he worked on Dating of the Third Kind, where he is credited as special photographic effects. His next project will be in 1979 for Star Trek: The Moviefor which he is credited as director of special photographic effects.

By this point, Trumbull was a bit fed up with the dull gray starships. It helped director Ridley Scott sway him to work on blade runner, which features an iconic futuristic Los Angeles. The film follows a tired cop who agrees to hunt down a group of renegade androids who have gone into hiding. Many of the effects that have been developed from Close Encounters were used for this film, which received high praise from audiences and critics alike.

Trumbull’s career would shift from special effects to producer over the next few years, contributing to projects such as 1983 genius idea. He would also make many short films throughout the 80s and 90s for theme park rides, his most famous project from that time would be the Back to the future walk at Universal Studios. He will not return to the cinema before 2011, where he contributed special effects work to The Tree of Life. Director Terrence Malick was a fan of Trumbull’s work and approached him hoping to use traditional non-computer generated effects for the project. While some corners were cut through the use of a computer, the majority of the special effects were achieved from techniques such as filming chemical reactions in petri dishes.

In his later years, Trumbull continued to experiment with new programs and techniques. His last special effects credit would be that of 2018 The man who killed Hitler and then Bigfoot. He will also participate in the documentary Trumbull Land that same year.

There’s little that hasn’t already been said about the impact Trumbull has had on science fiction in film. Some of the most renowned of the genre would not have been the same without his contributions. Whether it’s an android hiding in plain sight, an alien ship blending into the night sky, or soaring into the unknown, Douglas Trumbull has helped make generations of viewers believe that could be true.

2001: A Space Odyssey 70mm trailer celebrates its 50th anniversary
2001: A Space Odyssey 70mm trailer celebrates its 50th anniversary

Warner Bros. revealed a stunning trailer for the 50th anniversary re-release 2001: A Space Odyssey 70MM.

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