Douglas Trumbull: In Retrospect

Compiled and Edited by C.A. Chicoine


This article is based on a retrospective film series I attended given by Douglas Trumbull in October of 2006. Although my focus is on the movie Blade Runner, I have included highlights of Mr. Trumbull's career as a means to enlighten the reader unfamiliar with him and his work. As a result, I have integrated previous interviews, articles, and materials on Mr. Trumbull into this article.

In editing this article, I attempted to be faithful to the flow of the presentation whilst offering insight on the talent of this special effects guru, and events that led up to the creative input of this influential work of art.


Blade Runner’s origins began in the mind of Philip K. Dick. His compelling story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is filled with his philosophy--metaphysics, theology, epistemology, and ethics. One particular theme that ran through his book was empathy. When Hampton Fancher wrote the initial screenplay of this work, new elements were added to the story, and some dropped. With the collaborative imaginations and creativity of David Peoples and Ridley Scott, the final result was the Blade Runner we‘ve come to know and marvel. But without further creative assistance from a few more creative geniuses, we would have had a much different film. Without the futurist extraordinaire Syd Mead, the city background and vehicle designs would not be as sublime. Without Lawrence G. Paull, Los Angeles circa 2019 would not have the same ambiance. Without Vangelis, the music would not deliver us to this futuristic world as successfully. And without Douglas Trumbull, the Hades Landscape, Tyrell Building, Advertising Blimp and the many special effects not obvious to the average moviegoer would not have their illuminating splendor.

My fascination with this film started through the music of Vangelis. Being a big fan of his, I got the soundtrack when it was released. The acquisition of the Director’s Cut version of the Blade Runner movie was soon to follow. Upon viewing this masterpiece - as soon as the Hades Landscape filled the screen - I was immediately transported to a world of the not too distant future. I was immersed in this visually and musically hypnotic journey wanting more. Upon further investigations of this world, I found there were other dimensions to Blade Runner. I discovered the universe of Philip K. Dick; the worlds of literature written about Blade Runner and DADoES; the worlds of art and movies influenced by them; and the worlds that have influenced them.

But never in this world would I ever imagine meeting anyone from the Great Hall. Mr. Douglas Trumbull took part in a three-week film studies residency at Simon’s Rock College, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts last October (2006). The residency included Trumbull’s participation with the students taking the Electronic Arts Studio Video Production course. Together, with a scene performed by the Theatre Arts Department, they created a short film using electronic cinematography, “Virtual Set” technology and computers to record, store and edit scenes.

In addition to his residency were four evening events. The events featured the screenings of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), directed by Stanley Kubrick; Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott; Silent Running (1972), which was directed by Mr. Trumbull; and Douglas Trumbull: Past, Present and Future, an evening which Mr. Trumbull spoke about the current and future direction of his cinematic explorations. Mr. Trumbull was introduced by Larry Burke, who teaches film studies and digital video production at Simon’s Rock and also organized the residency and events.

Mr. Trumbull introduced each film and delivered a short presentation with a Q & A afterward. I introduced myself to him and told him about BladeZone, and KippleZone, and my intentions of writing this article based on his retrospectives given that week. It was an honour meeting Mr. Douglas Trumbull and attending these events. It will be an event I will treasure.

Special thanks to Larry Burke, Lee Gaskins, and Sean Kennedy.

C.A. Chicoine

March 2007

Trumbull Tribute By Lee Gaskins.

Copyright © 1987 Lee Gaskins. Used with permission.

This was done when Lee was a student. Since then, he has greatly improved! Please visit his website:

From the Beginning...

Douglas Trumbull was born in Los Angeles, California. His father, Mr. Donald Trumbull (1909 - 2004), was the winner of two Scientific and Technical Achievement Oscars and honored with the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers Fujifilm Gold Medal Award for outstanding achievement in image origination. One of his first jobs was as special effects rigger on The Wizard of Oz.

"One of the first movie experiences I remember really vividly was The Wizard of Oz. I was very fortunate that I even knew at that time that my father had worked on the Wizard of Oz. He was a very young man when he began to work in the movie industry as well. He worked in the grip department of the special effects, holding a fishing rod with a line holding up the Lion's tail. He was also one of the guys inside the rubber trees grabbing apples. And helping rig the flying monkeys, and things like that." [1]

Professionally, Douglas Trumbull started out as a technical illustrator at Graphic Films, working on documentary films about NASA and the Air Force.

“I did some obscure films for the Air Force about the space program and then there was this one film about the Apollo program that was kind of interesting. I was painting lunar modules and lunar surfaces and the vertical assembly building on Saturn 5 rockets and animated this space stuff. And then Graphic Films got a couple of contracts to do films for the New York World's Fair in '64. It was a two year fair in 1964 and 65, and one of them was this dome thing called To The Moon And Beyond, which was kind of a Powers of Ten movie. It went from the "Big Bang" to inside an atom in ten minutes.” [2]

It was at the World’s Fair where the Graphic Films feature, Journey Beyond The Stars, was seen by director Stanley Kubrick, that got Mr. Trumbull hired as a special effects supervisor on the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. 2001, released in 1968, is based on Arthur C. Clarke’s book, and written by Kubrick and Clarke. 2001 deals with themes of human evolution, technology, artificial intelligence and extraterrestrial life. The film is notable for its scientific realism, pioneering use of special effects, and reliance upon ambiguous yet provocative imagery, and sound in place of traditional techniques of narrative cinema. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning one (for visual effects), and won the Kansas City Film Critics Circle awards for Best Director and Best Film of 1968.

What was the greatest technical challenge of working on 2001?

"The biggest challenge, and the most satisfying for me, was the Star Gate sequence [in which astronaut Dave Bowman is transported, via the monolith, into an alternate universe]. It was the point where things became much more abstract and less literal than in the bulk of the film, which was hardcore rockets and space and planets - all a fairly straightforward evolution from what I had been doing before. "

If you could do it over again with the technology you have now, would your approach to that sequence be different?

"Clearly, if we'd had the kind of computer graphics capability then that we have now, the Star Gate sequence would be much more complex than flat planes of light and color. It probably would have gotten into a lot of weird geometries, and turns, and shifts of angle. I just had a straight track and some straight pieces of glass. The technology of the time dictated the way things looked." [3]

Mr. Trumbull had done some work for television as well.

[After 2001,] “...I set up my own little company, which was just in a little tiny room, and I replicated the animation stand from 2001 because I knew I could do graphics for television commercials and network identifications, and I came with this newfound understanding of photography and blurs and controlled blurs and the whole slit scan thing that I developed for 2001. I immediately started applying that to logos for television stations and commercials, so I was able to make a living at it pretty quickly.” [4]

An example of this work was with ABC’s “Movie of the Week” opening.

“Barry Diller had this idea for made-for-television movies,“ says Harry Marks, then head of On-Air Advertising (promo).

“He named it "Movie of the Week" and created a new television format. He asked me to come up with a special title treatment for this new concept, and I enlisted someone I'd recently met, Doug Trumbull, whose last job was ‘2001: A Space Odyssey'.

"Doug had come to the office looking for work after working on 2001 for several years in England. I hadn't seen the movie, but he had the out-takes of the "Stargate" sequence with him. When I saw them I knew there had to be a way to transform Doug's brilliant abstractions into something that used typography. It worked and set the path for television graphics that followed.” [5]

Soon after 2001, Mr. Trumbull contributed to the opening and closing sequences of the movie Candy, 1968 Cinerama Releasing Corporation. Those scenes give the appearance of having been hastily inserted to capitalize on the success of the 2001. Candy is based on Terry Southern's satirical novel, a send up of Voltaire's “Candide“. Young Candy is a high school girl who seeks truth and meaning in life, encountering a variety of kookie characters and humorous sexual situations in the process.

In 1971 he did special photographic effects for the movie The Andromeda Strain, about a group of scientists investigate a deadly new alien virus before it can spread.

Silent Running

In 1972, Mr. Trumbull directed his first feature film, Silent Running. Its central theme is that man, even at the risk of madness, must be his own saviour. Bruce Dern stars as Freeman Lowell, adrift in the spaceship "Valley Forge", part of a fleet of ships which are in essence a Garden of Eden. Each ship has attached a number of huge domes, like sophisticated greenhouses, each one housing a different flora and fauna. These were intended to refurbish an Earth devastated by nuclear war.

The commentary tracks on the Silent Running DVD explain that George Lucas approached Mr. Trumbull to do the effects for Star Wars, because of Silent Running. Mr. Trumbull turned the job down (Lucas hired his father, Don Trumbull, though). Lucas then told Trumbull that he really liked aspects of the film—particularly the "drones"—and asked if it was okay if he "did something similar" in his new movie. So, ultimately, R2-D2 is owed, in part, to Silent Running.

In 1973, Silent Running was nominated for the Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation.

Silent Running Trailer

Following Silent Running, Mr. Trumbull was a developing partner in the Canadian sci-fi series The Starlost devised by writer Harlan Ellison, but eventually bowed out before the project went into production.[6]

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Douglas Trumbull elevated the art of special effects once again with Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in 1977. Close Encounters is a science-fiction movie about UFOs, written and directed by Steven Spielberg. It’s about a line worker, after an encounter with UFO's, feels undeniably drawn to an isolated area in the wilderness where something spectacular is about to happen.

In 1978, the movie won an Oscar at the Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Director, Best Effects, Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Original Score, and Best Sound.

There will be more about Close Encounters later in this article, as it relates to Blade Runner.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Trailer

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

In 1979, the movie Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released. It is the first feature film based on the original TV series (1966-1969).

The film was directed by Robert Wise. The special effects for the movie became one of the biggest production problems. Halfway through production, it was decided that original effects company working on the project, Robert Abel and Associates, were not up to the task of producing the large number of scenes. In March of 1979, Paramount offered Douglas Trumbull's effect company, Future General, a virtual blank check if they could get all the effects work done by the Christmas release date. Most of the work done by Robert Abel up to that point was scrapped (the wormhole sequence seems to be the only "Able" effects scene that made it into the final film). Trumbull went ahead with the job to re-visualize and rework most of the effects scenes, using the same crew and equipment from the just finished Close Encounters and even subcontracted work out to John Dykstra (Star Wars).

The entire segment of Spock entering V'Ger alone was filmed at the last minute (in June 1979) by Douglas Trumbull, who wrote and directed the sequence. The original sequence, showing Spock and Kirk entering V'Ger's memory core, had been in production but abandoned when it was determined that the sequence brought the movie to a halt and that the costs of the wire-removal and other effects would consume much of the entire effects budget for the film. [7]

Star Trek: The Motion Picture was nominated in 1980 for 3 Oscars, including Best Effects/Visual Effects; another 2 wins, including the Saturn Award for Best Special Effects; and 15 other nominations.

Blade Runner

In 1981, filming began for Blade Runner. Douglas Trumbull’s Entertainment Effects Group was chosen to handle the special effects.

In Douglas Trumbull’s presentation of Blade Runner, he was introduced by Professor Larry Burke, Simon’s Rock College’s professor of film studies and digital video production. Mr. Trumbull’s lecture included slides of a behind-the-scenes look of Blade Runner, and selections from On the Edge of Blade Runner, the Channel 4 documentary, in which Mr. Trumbull was interviewed. The following are excerpts from his lecture.

“Ridley was trying to make this evasive movie. When I first met him I was completely amazed by him. He is quite an artist and production designer, a writer, and a director. We would go to dinner once in a while and talk about this movie. He would start sketching things on napkins. He is a really fine artist. He can express himself very, very clearly to those who work with him. So, it was possible to get a very clear idea of what he wanted. But, one of the problems he had was a very limited budget. The way the movie was put together was completely unknown to me, but, we were told that the money available to do the visual effects on this movie would be a fraction of what we've been able to spend on Close Encounters. We said we'll do our best. The shop list that we first developed which was probably like a hundred and fifty shots. Close Encounters had three hundred and fifty shots. And we thought, we'll try to fill in the missing gaps in the movie. And that later got pared down to about eighty-five shots. And then later grew back up to a larger number of shots.

“One of the stories is that it was a very unhappy production for the live action crew, and for Ridley. He was new to the United States, and it was his first film directing with an American crew. He was not getting along at all with the crew. They were trying to second guess him a lot. He was trying to do this extraordinary visual thing. But, no one understood why he needed weird lights, heavy smoke, always shooting at night, and shooting in the rain all the time. It made everybody really cranky. Fortunately, for the visual effects crew, we didn't happen to experience much of that. We had a great time. I really enjoyed working for Ridley. My partner, Richard Yuricich, enjoyed it.

“This movie benefits from the fact that, in the making of Close Encounters, we have already developed a lot of [the] technology, cameras, lenses, lights, and smoke rooms that created these tremendous atmospheric effects. So, it's helpful to explain a little bit about Close Encounters because that is where we developed this whole idea of a smoke room. If you can imagine that the density of smog in Los Angeles in 2019 is going to be pretty heavy, and you're only going to be able to see a few blocks. If you make a miniature of that 1/10th of the scale of reality, you have to make the smog ten times denser than reality. So we live, in our special effects world, in dense smoke all the time. And we have this black velvet room, with this big air circulation system. And an automated smoke generating machine with a little laser beam that ran the length of the room and metered, automatically, the amount of smoke in the room so the level of smoke remained constant for hours on end because we're shooting only one frame every few seconds. We were using techniques that we call motion control. Anything that's moving in this movie has to go through some motions many times over. Because, if a vehicle fly’s by overhead, whether it's a blimp or a spinner, that's usually five to seven separate exposures into one piece of film. So that has to fly by the camera exactly the same way five to seven different times in perfect synchronism. And so, we have a lot to do with developing this motion control, being able to do complicated movements that we were unable to do before, or up to, 2001. And so, the fact that we had all this weird gimmickry, the smoke room, and special lighting rigs, make these look huge. Like my favorite scene in the movie, when this advertising blimp flies over the Bradbury building, that's really Close Encounters equipment."

"Mother Ship" from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

"Advertising Blimp" from Blade Runner

“The opening scene, what we call Hades Landscape, this kind of Hellish Los Angeles, was made up of quite a few different components. A photographer and I went down to El Segundo, California to this maze of endless petroleum cracking plants. We went down there with still cameras and photographed several thousand photographs of these silhouettes of these weird towers and strange tubes, and started building up an idea for this landscape which was going to be made up of layers and layers and layers of little silhouetted microscopically small buildings."

“This is the camera looking down toward the horizon. And off in the distance would be two weird pyramid buildings, with truncated tops. And that was going to be the Tyrell building, the major office building of the android manufacturing company.”

“This was a force-prospected miniature where the foreground pieces were quite large then they tapered off smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller. So you got these tiny like one inch small photographs of those cracking plants, which we had etched in brass. We built these tables with thousands of little layers of brass. The table was about ten feet deep, and about 15 feet wide. And all the brass were painted black. And then there were these hundreds of bundles of fiber optics coming up from under the table to light this whole thing up. We knew, from Close Encounters, that once you enter this light into smoke you start getting all this weird refractive layers that anything in front of anything in front of anything creates different layers of atmospheric distance. And it would tend to make these little tiny things look really huge. Immense.”

“Here is Dave Dryer on the right. Dave Dryer is really the hero of this project. My partner, Richard Yuricich, and I developed this whole thing with Ripley. We got it all knowing that I was going to be starting the production of Brainstorm about midway through the production of Blade Runner. And we got Dave to come in and stand in for us and take over the photography and all the projects we got started.”

“Right there is a projector, on the other side of this camera is a projector. And this projector is going to project 35mm movies of those big bursts of flame and smoke and explosions. This camera is on a track right there, it’s going to slowly creep forward, but with many different exposures. Some of the exposures will be in the smoke of the whole environmental feel of it the lighting of the fiber optics. But then there will be additional exposures added to it of these explosions and flames projected from this projector onto little white movie screens that we would put out here in the miniature these little pieces of white cardboard with the edges painted black. And we projected the explosions and then we would time the light so that when the explosion went off a pool of light would shine on the buildings below.

“This was actually amazingly easy to make. Fairly straightforward. And it didn’t take too long. And it worked really well. We’re really happy with it. One funny story about the explosions... we never really thought about having explosions initially, and neither had Ridley. But, I remembered that I had a box of film that I’d been lugging around for years. Because I was working for Michelangelo Antonioni, a famous Italian director, on a movie called Zabriskie Point. And he was going to film an Armageddon scene. I was hired to do this job. We brought a bunch of pyrotechnic maniacs out to the California desert one night. We said we want the biggest subatomic explosions that you guys can make. We had these hi-speed 35 mm ballistic cameras set-up. And they would fill these gigantic 10-foot wide caldrons with raw gasoline, and then - in plastic bags - drop 15 pounds of dynamite, phosphorus, all kinds of mixtures. We’d roll the cameras and blow these things off. It was amazing. Everybody thought planes had crashed in the desert. The cops would call...even though we had permission. Anyways... Antonioni changed his mind. He didn’t like what we were doing. He didn’t understand the process we were going through. He was kind of a live action director. He said why can’t you just blow up a refrigerator or something. Make it “symbolically” the end of the world? I didn’t finish Zabriskie Point. I had all these explosions. So, we found a home for them here in Blade Runner.”

“Here’s another pan-over, looking from the cameras’ point of view. You can see these foreground pieces, which are in fact dimensional, they are all just little vacuum formed models. Then, all these little towers are built up with lights on them. If you think of the Mother Ship in Close Encounters, with these prongs sticking out of it and small lights on the end, it’s almost the exactly the same thing. We do procure the work without a lot of thought or experimentation. Then, in the distant background, you see those two little pyramids, those are just flat-styled pyramids. Plexiglas boxes with photographs on them lit from inside with neon.”

“This is the only pyramid building. There never were two. We use the same acid-etched technique on the surface of the pyramid. This is really like a lightbox with a bunch of fluorescent tubes of neon inside of it. But, then there are these layers of acid-etched bronze-looking copper. And it made a really great effect. You had to make one piece of artwork, replicate it many times, stick it on these light boxes, and it looked pretty good, pretty quickly. This pyramid only has two sides to it, and these weird leaning buildings that I came up with. I’m going to show you where these leaning buildings show up again later in the movie, posing as other buildings.”

“This is one pyramid shot this way. And then we flipped it 90 degrees and shot it this way. It is actually, both, the same building. Two different exposures of the same building joined right here, with an optical matte line. [The Spinner there, is] basically, a UFO on Close Encounters. The same lens flare. This bright light, the source of the light...we used all the same techniques. Only this is one of the Spinners.”

“This is the face of the pyramid. It’s built on a scale of about four times larger than the long shot pyramid. This is the 65mm camera, it’s on a vertical track, so I could move up and silt down, under motion control, so we can do several exposures of that as well."

“I saw a segment of Douglas Trumbull's special effects for Blade Runner on the KNBC-TV news. I recognized it immediately. It was my own interior world. They caught it perfectly.” ~ Philip K. Dick [8]

"This is one of Sid Mead’s drawings of a Spinner. Sid is really, I think, one of the best, if not the best, futurist artist alive today. He’s done a lot of really great work. He’s worked on many, many movies. He’s one of the major talents in the industry. So, this is the Spinner."

"So, that’s the miniature spinner construction right there. You can see the scale a little bit. I have very few photographs of this miniature. I have no idea where it is now. But, it was really quite a beautiful work of art. It had a zillion fiber optics, quartz lights, and stuff inside, including a little miniature Harrison Ford. This is what a model shop looks like. The model guys are always the happiest guys in the crew. These guys are really hard workers and very talented. And always having a good time, and loving this kind of work."

"This is a typical storyboard. Part of the sequence you just saw. (Deckard and Gaff on their way to the Tyrell Building.) And you can see that we diverged from the storyboard sometimes. It’s just a guideline to make sure the shots are there and tell a story. Exactly how the shots are framed or how fast they move changes from time to time, based on our professional judgment. In my opinion, you shouldn’t make a movie unless you have a good storyboard for every shot, and know exactly what you’re going to try to do, and how it’s all going to come together."

"Now I’m going to take you inside Tyrell’s office. This is a front-projected shot. This is an image being projected on a giant screen outside the set. That was the only way we could the composites so that the actors could walk in front of the image we wouldn't have to build a new set outside the window. The same technique was used on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and 2001."

"For the billboards in Blade Runner, you sometimes use unconventional materials for props. For example,]”...this wall on this model. I would say this was probably eighteen inches wide and about twenty-four inches tall. We found these kind of Lego block things at a toy store, that had this embossed surface on them, like [the top of a Lego]. We painted it silver, and then just projected these 35mm movies shot from way off to the left, onto the surface. When you project the movie, it had to be a non-smoke exposure. Dave Dryer shot and prepped all these movies. He’s a really good commercial producer.

"Here’s the side of the pyramid being used as another building. This was a mock-up of the Millennium Falcon, out of Star Wars. There’s a lot of inside jokes that the model builders get into, because they don’t know if we’ll ever see them."

"This is one of the shots in the movie where live action charted with this vehicle in the front of these buildings. [The Bradbury] was dressed by the studio with some weird columns, and things added to fronts of real buildings. And then, Syd Mead would design this whole skyline. All this is painted, and added as another exposure. When you see this, with the combination of smoke, and weird atmospheric stuff, and rain falling all at the same time, it starts looking pretty believable. We had one night where we shot all the rain for our visual effects by making a big truss out in our parking lot with rain sprayers over the top of it and lights behind it. It was weird shooting up into the dark sky. But, we were lighting up rain, and shooting that. We could slow it down, and it would increase the scale. So, there’s a lot of superimposed rain in a lot of these shots. Any kind of rain, any kind of atmosphere, any kind of beams of light, tend to make things look more incredibly real."

“Blade Runner is likely to disappoint moviegoers hoping for sleek thrills and derring-do. But as a display terminal for the wizardry of Designers Lawrence G. Paull, Douglas Trumbull, and Syd Mead, the movie delivers.”

~ From TIME Magazine, July 12, 1982

“The Bradbury Building has some really beautiful photography in it. It’s a very famous landmark in Los Angeles. As always...the Bradbury Building was shot at night. The Bradbury Building was occupied by lawyers and doctors during the day. It had to be spiffy clean during the day. The crew would come in the evening after everybody left and completely trash the place. It became a swamp. It was just unbelievable what they would try to do to make it look like this scuzzy, horrible, dimly lit, smoke-filled, rain-drenched, leaky building. We had to shoot a shot up into the ceiling of the Bradbury Building. It’s a huge open grid glass skylight. No one could give us the time...they were all busy shooting their live action and racing around. We couldn’t intrude. We are we going to get our shots? Richard Yuricich and I figured out a way to ignore them altogether. We took a 4 X 5 still camera and put it on its’ back on the floor, in the middle of the atrium, shooting straight up through this building. Since we didn’t have a lighting crew, they wouldn’t give us a lighting crew, nobody had the money for a lighting crew, Richard would be on the floor. He would open the shutter on queue. I would race around on all floors, with a big strobe light, and flash all the floors while the shutter was open. So the light became accumulated long-time exposure to try to get the lighting we wanted for our job. And nobody knew we were there. And then this photograph was brought in, we blew it up to about a six-foot-wide color photograph, and pasted it onto a giant sheet of glass. And then cut out all the openings where the windows would be in the ceiling so that we could shoot this very strange shot of this advertising blimp which passes over the roof of the building. So, what’s happening in this shot is; the blimp is a miniature, it had lights all over it, just like the Mother Ship, almost the exact same lighting sources; and there’s smoke both on the other side of the glass and on the camera side of the glass. So a bright beam of light that passes through the glass, toward the camera, is actually looking completely natural. It was actually quite simple to do.”

“One of the things we found out while working on Close Encounters is, if you want a light to be this bright, you can’t shine it in the smoke. You can only have a partial exposure in the smoke. If you want this to have a lens flare, you shine this light directly into the camera with no smoke. So there’s one exposure with smoke. And one exposure without smoke. And they have to be exact timing, that‘s superimposed on each other. That’s part of the whole compositing thing. So, this blimp, which is under motion control, is moving on a track that’s supported from the ground. That’s a 35mm movie being projected on the side, on the fake screen on the blimp. There’s a projector up in the ceiling here. There’s another projector on the other side of the blimp. There‘s a projector from down there. Each of those exposures is a separate time that the film has to run through the camera and get those all perfect and synchronized. And if somebody flubs up and doesn’t get back to the right start mark, or one motor doesn’t work, you have to start all over again. But that’s just an example of the kind of compositing that goes on to try to create a sense of natural realism.”

“This is a little sequence I shot for the [Esper] Deckard uses. It was interesting because the idea was that it was a kind of a hologram...machine [where] Deckard is going to scrutinize this photograph... in great detail. I actually moved through the room. Moved past Batty, who’s in the foreground. Go into the next room, look into the mirror on the wall. See the reflection of the woman on the bed, [that’s] not visible from this point of view. I did it by [placing] markers on the floor and moving a tripod with a Nikon camera. Just shooting exposure after exposure after exposure of single still photographs that Deckard steps through. One of the aspects to Rutger Hauer‘ head was, Ridley wanted it to blur like [Batty] was just turning his head at the moment the exposure was taken. So, poor Rutger had to do that about a hundred and fifty times, on cues from me, and try to do it the same time on every exposure.”

“This is one of the many scenes that had, what we call, mattes in them. This is the matte stand. We can put these big Masonite boards on here. Off to the left is a camera that can photograph these paintings. But, what we can do is take the original film, from some location shoot, in this case, it’s the negative from a shot from a rooftop, and project it right onto this white sheet of Masonite. She (Michele Moen) is tracing on the edges of where the live action, which will take place here, and a big painting added up here. It’s going to replace this real building with one of Syd Mead’s conceptual ideas. It’s an endlessly, laborious thing. This is all done digitally now. There are very few facilities that can do real matte paintings like we use to do.”

"This is the Warner Brothers back lot. This is what they call the New York Street. Some studios still have back lots. In the old days, they used to have New York street, or a city street, and a western town, and a European street. There’s very few of these left. But there’s some in Warner Brother’s lot. And there’s this street that’s been used in I don’t know how many countless movies and television shows. At the time Blade Runner was being made, not having very much money, Francis Coppola had just wound up production on a movie called One From the Heart. It was not a successful film, and he had gone way over budget. He started financing the movie himself, and went near bankrupt in the process. [The movie] was about a story that took place in Las Vegas. And they had a tremendous amount Las Vegas neon. So, the art director here got a hold of that neon, which they bought for a penny on the dollar. And turned it all inside out, and upside down. And you could probably spend a lot of time and figure out how certain things might have made sense in some other time and place. You can see it’s even on some of our miniatures. They got some miniature neon that we used in some of our miniature sets."

"This is one scene that Richard Yuricich talked of, [On the Edge of Blade Runner] where they started shooting where they hadn’t planned to shoot. It was one of those late, rainy nights. Everyone’s tired and grouchy. But, Richard had to shoot the down-shot, which shows the jeopardy he’s in. So, he shot this extra shot; which has one of Matt Yuricich’s matte paintings. There are flying vehicles going by.

"They plan on having a re-release of this film on DVD with the “true” Director’s Cut, which had never been made. And then there will be a theatrical release of the film in theatres in about a year from now.

"One of the things that I was always disappointed about,’s kind of a long story to go into, but...Ridley Scott and the producer Michael Deeley both got fired on this movie before it was finished. The people who financed the movie were really angry that it was going over budget, it was taking too long, and they didn’t understand it at all. There were a lot of angry feelings at the time. And that is when the studio basically took over the movie., added this horrible, fake, happy ending to it, which was footage left over from The Shinning, by Stanley Kubrick. With voice-over narration that was so bad that Harrison Ford was embarrassed to do it, so he did it badly. And it sounds bad. Finally, the Director’s Cut came out. The film was restored somewhat to a better state. But, a few scenes that Ridley shot that were never put in the film. And those are now buried in the vaults in the middle of a very long arduous legal battle that’s been going on since 1983 probably. They finally got this footage released, and that’s what drove this new re-release of Blade Runner. It will have all the new footage in it. One of the sad things that happened when they ran out of money and pulled the plug on the production, was that we had produced all the visual effects for this movie in 70 mm. Whereas, the rest of the movie was shot in 35. And we had plans to optically reduce all the 70 mm to the finest looking 35 mm film anybody has ever seen. We had built a very expensive lens to do just this one thing. When the studio pulled the film, they took the film to the lab they did a really lousy optical reduction of the 65mm to 35mm, which went out of focus. And that’s been with the movie ever since. That’s what you see here. I have the original 65mm shots. They have been in vaults, been in my garage, downstairs in our office. They're sitting next to my desk at this moment. I’m hopefully going to be taking them out to Los Angeles in a couple weeks. And they will be re-integrated into the new Final Cut of the movie. So, you will see something of the movie that you have never seen before. It’ll be gratifying for those of us that are still alive who worked on this movie."

Were digital effects used in the film?

"No. There are no digital effects."

Do you maintain contact with David Dryer, Richard Yuricich, or

Matthew Yuricich?

"Richard Yuricich was my partner for years. He’s out in LA working on a picture right now. I see him periodically when I go out there. His brother, who was the matte painter...he’s retired. He lives in Los Vegas. Dave Dryer... I haven’t seen for several years. We had a kind of Blade Runner reuniting thing at the Visual Effects Society, three or four years ago. We all got together. Ridley didn’t show up." (Audience Laughs.)

The effects of the beads of water on the windshield of the flying car, that’s not something you just take the camera and shoot it with naturally, is it?

"You’re doing a couple of things. Like with the car interior, when you’re looking forward, you’re looking through a piece of Plexiglas. A lot of stuff on it that looked like water...but not actually moving or dripping. Because the camera is shooting very, very slowly. I don’t remember what frame it was. It wasn’t dripping water. It was little bits of plastic, that looked like water. So it would refract and catch the light."

What is your position on downloading movies on the computer?

"I don’t have, really, a profound view on it. I just know that we are entering a period of film distribution where independent filmmakers can get directly to an audience without having to go through a major studio. They create this huge economic politic that is very difficult to get through. So, even though people are downloading film to cell phones and PDA's, laptops, all that will just continue to transform and evolve. It’s really quite an opportunity for us."

What’s your next movie?

"I’m not saying yet. (Audience Laughs.) I’ve got a couple of projects. One project is in some Twilight Zone between fictional drama and non-fiction reality. They are merging in a kind of backward way. I can’t write the screenplay. Certain things actually happen in reality and we react to that. I’m very interested in documentaries. I like the way things converge and come natural. "

In 1983, Blade Runner was nominated for 2 Oscars, and another 7 wins & 14 nominations. Among them, an Oscar nomination for Best Effects/Visual Effects for Douglas Trumbull, Richard Yuricich, and David Dryer; Saturn Award nomination for Best Special Effects; nominated a BAFTA Film Award for Best Special Visual Effects; and Douglas Trumbull with Lawrence G. Paull, and Syd Mead won London Critics Circle Film Award’s Special Achievement Award, for their visual concept (technical prize).


Brainstorm, Douglas Trumbull’s next film, began shooting October 27, 1981. It starred Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood, Louise Fletcher, and Cliff Robertson. It’s about two scientists, Michael and Karen Brace, developing a virtual reality system that sends sensory inputs into the brain and can record sights, sounds, feelings, and even dreams. The military attempts to take over the project when a senior worker begins to die of a heart attack and uses the system to tape the experience. They will do anything to get it.

The Brainstorm virtual reality sequences were photographed in Super Panavision 70 with a wide aspect ratio of 2.2:1, while the rest of the film was shot in standard 35 mm with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. In the original 70 mm theatrical release, the brain-scan playback scenes appeared dramatically wider and much sharper than the 35 mm scenes, giving them a sense of heightened reality and excitement. The sound also changed dramatically between brain-scan playback and other scenes with playback scenes having enhanced surround effects and other scenes being predominantly centre-channel only.

Near the end of principal photography, the death of one of its lead players, Natalie Wood, died, leaving production in limbo for almost two years. MGM considered offering the rights to Paramount Pictures so the movie could be finished. However, Mr. Trumbull was determined to finish the movie, and created an ending using body doubles and Natalie Wood sound-a-likes, along with already-shot footage, to complete the production.

Brainstorm was released theatrically in the USA September 30, 1983, to 175 theaters. This initial release was only to theaters equipped with 70mm projectors. The film received a wider release to non-70mm theaters in November. While critically acclaimed, the film did not do well at the box-office.

How long do you think it will before we get the experience that Christopher Walken had in Brainstorm?

“In Brainstorm, it was about being able to experience something that is in someone else’s mind. I really don’t have any idea about whether we are going to be able to do that. But I had a really weird experience while I was making Brainstorm. I went to Bell Labs and was asking them about it, about whether they heard anything about brain-sucking technologies. And we were gladly told that the room was bugged and we should stop talking about it. I subsequently met a guy up in Canada who’s doing brain research who can, with a very small device, put you through profound different emotional states. We all live in a huge electromagnetic field. There are some really interesting studies about how we are profoundly affected by it.” [9]

In 1984, the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films awarded the Saturn Awards for Best Actress, and Best Music to Brainstorm. And was nominated Best Director, Best Science Fiction Film, Best Special Effects, and Best Supporting Actress.

The Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival nominated Douglas Trumbull, and Hugo Awards nominated Brainstorm Best Dramatic Presentation.

Eyes to the Future

In 1987, Douglas Trumbull had concentrated on developing technology for the exhibition industry and theme-park rides as a special projects consultant, and formed the Berkshire Motion Picture Corporation and its’ subsidiary Berkshire Ridefilm. Among his clients were Universal Studios’ Back to the Future Ride at Universal Studios Theme Park (LATEST RUMOUR: Back to the Future: The Ride is closing in Florida (this much is a fact). It's rumoured the Hollywood version will close in 2007.), and a trio of presentations at Las Vegas' Luxor Hotel.

In 1989, Mr. Trumbull closed the Berkshire Motion Picture Corp. and went as Trumbull Company, Inc., before merging with IMAX, acting as Vice Chairman, helping to take the company public in 1995.

In 1995, Mr. Trumbull’s most recent company, Entertainment Design Workshop, developed the virtual set technology, and supported the production of fifty-two episodes of Disney’s The Book of Pooh. He also created a new high-tech digital interactive simulator ride for Hitachi.

The Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame (SFM) in partnership with the Seattle International Film Festival Group (SIFF), present an annual Science Fiction Short Film Festival, which features a Douglas Trumbull Award to be presented each year for Best Special Effects.

Today, Mr. Trumbull holds twenty U.S. Patents on various entertainment techologies, and is held in reverence as a pioneer of the optical and digital effects industry. He has been nominated for Academy Awards on five occasions, and has received a lifetime achievement Oscar. The majority of the completed cinema projects that Trumbull has been associated with have come to be recognized as classics, like Blade Runner, gaining audiences over time. His most conspicuous cinematic box-office flop, Brainstorm, predicts the fascination of virtual reality, while Silent Running reflected the emerging ecology movement of the early 1970s, and is today regarded as a science fiction classic.

Mr. Trumbull continues to experiment and explore the boundaries of the “immersive experience”, from his work on Imax films such as Theatre of Time, and Leonardo’s Dream, to researching the possibility of creating imagery to be projected directly onto the retina of our eyes.

“The future of movies is changing dramatically as we speak.” ~ Douglas Trumbull

“One of my problems was, I couldn’t do what I wanted to do in the normal Hollywood venue. I needed someplace to experiment in cinema. And I found that, in the world’s fairs, expos, and theme parks, I could play in film, and I could explore and experiment...and so, I continue to do quite a bit of work in that world, which is completely invisible to most people unless you go to Japan or Germany to some expo. But, it’s been a lot of fun over the years to continue my work that I enjoy.

"Believe me, we’re not going to be “shooting” film much longer. We’re not going to be “projecting” film much longer. We’re in a whole new world.

"I realized that there is something else going on here about imagery and about how human beings perceive imagery. And they are, in fact, images that come through the pupils of our eyes. And these images are formed upside, backward, on the retinas of our left and right eyes. And our brains project what we see out into what we think is reality. The interface between the world and our brain is inside our heads. That’s a very profound idea if you think about it. That’s one of the projects I’m currently working on. It’s a revelation... a revolution maybe...a three-dimensional receptacle “tele-presence“, or something, where we’re going to be making images that are indistinguishable from reality. And the screen is, in fact, in your head. It’s not in the movie theatre. It’s not on your TV. It’s not on your laptop. The screen is going to be inside here. And we’re going to get the images there with some new scanning technology. The human eye is an amazing thing. We are going to make images that are indistinguishable from reality. It’s going to happen within three to five years. The future of movies is changing dramatically as we speak.” [10]

Mr. Trumbull continues to ride the film festival circuit with the showings of Blade Runner, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, (Both celebrating anniversaries). There he introduces the film then has a Q & A afterward. I caught up with him with another Blade Runner showing with the Berkshire International Film Festival this last May (2008). He gave a brief lecture/slideshow presentation. I saw images that weren't presented in the previous presentation. (Security was, I could not sneak any shots.)

Mr. Trumbull is honoured at the Berkshire Museum located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts as one of the innovators featured in the new exhibition, Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation. It opened March 29th, 2008 and is on-going. Mr. Trumbull is represented with a didactic panel, and is also featured in an interview in the introductory video shown continuously, and on one of the short films on the interactive, "Overcoming Obstacles."

Innovation with Douglas Trumbull

Douglas Trumbull: Ground breaking cinematic special effects

by Maureen Hart Hennessy.

For the Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA.


From 2010 - 2012

(from Wikipedia)

Trumbull has spent nearly two decades in the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts, starting and running a series of companies involved in effects production and innovation.

In 2010, Trumbull leveraged social media, after a fashion, when he posted a video on Vimeo and YouTube showcasing an original invention aimed at capping the BP oil spill. Although the video "went viral" almost immediately, Trumbull never heard from BP or any of the government agencies struggling to contain the spill, which left him bemused and mildly annoyed. "I didn't do it with the hope of compensation," he later said, "I did it because I thought it was the moral thing to do."

After nearly thirty years away from Hollywood, Trumbull contributed to special effects work on Terrence Malick's 2011 film The Tree of Life. Reportedly Malick, a Trumbull fan, approached him about the effects work and mentioned that he did not like the look of computer-generated effects. Reportedly Trumbull asked, "Why not do it the way we did it on 2001?" Recent compositing programs such as Nuke allow practical scenes shot on film to be combined with fewer of the headaches of "traditional" effects work, such as shooting multiple camera passes on a single piece of film, matte passes, and the like. Trumbull eventually signed on as special effects consultant, working with the film's effects supervisor, Dan Glass. Many of the "organic" effects processes used in "2001" and "Close Encounters" were resurrected, such as photographing chemical interactions in Petri dishes and releasing paints into water tanks. "It was a working environment that's almost impossible to come by these days," Trumbull told The Guardian newspaper in July 2011. "Terry wanted to create the opportunity for the unexpected to occur before the camera, then make something of that. He didn't want to use a very stringent design process, he wanted the unexpected phenomenon to occur – and use that."

In March 2011, director James Cameron announced plans to film his next "Avatar"-type 3D feature in a digital version of Showscan. Cameron has been pushing for movie theaters to adopt higher frame-rates to maintain the 3D effect during scenes involving high-speed motion (like explosions.) At 24 frames per second, the 3D effect breaks down, while at 48 or 60 frames per second it is maintained. 60 frames per second is difficult to achieve with conventional film because of the stress on the medium itself; recording 60 frames per second using a digital camera is commonplace. Cameron and Trumbull have been friends for years, and it appears that Trumbull's contribution to a heightened theater experience may finally see its day, thanks to the influence of powerful directors like Cameron and Peter Jackson -- nearly 30 years after its invention.

Now approaching his 70th birthday, Trumbull maintains a workshop and studio on his property in the Berkshire hills of Massachusetts (an area hampered, ironically, by the lack of high-speed internet access). He continues the development of new tools for filmmakers, and is also spearheading a project to photograph UFOs. He often travels to film screenings and seminars and is enjoying a resurgence of his celebrity among film and visual effects enthusiasts. Trumbull seems grateful for the recognition and reverence accorded by his followers. "They really keep me going," he told The Australian newspaper in February 2011. "They reinforce some enthusiasm about my work. It's very hard to keep me going because the setbacks [were] really tragic and difficult." As of February 2012, Trumbull is working on a new science-fiction project that he claims is "way beyond anything that Peter Jackson and Jim Cameron have been doing," which will probably be shot with a camera capable of recording 120 frames per second, twice the speed of its ancestor, Showscan.


Trumbull has been nominated for Academy Awards on five occasions, has received the American Society of Cinematographer’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and was a 2010 inductee into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

Trumbull received the International Press Academy's Tesla award in December 2011, named in honor of Nikola Tesla, an inventor, scientist and engineer, whom, Trumbull noted dryly in a runway interview, "Died penniless, after lots of people took credit for his work." Trumbull also received the Gordon E. Sawyer Award in February 2012, an honorary Academy Award given to an "individual in the motion picture industry whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry.", as well as the Georges Méliès Award from the Visual Effects Society in the same month.

Douglas Trumbull On Fast Frames Per Second

At 24 frames-per-second, he says, action movies get blurry just as they get exciting.

Douglas Trumbull On Tree Of Life

Douglas Trumbull speaking to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York, about his role as special photographic effects expert for Tree of Life, a movie by Terrence Malick.

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL | Master Class | Higher Learning

Douglas Trumbull, the industry pioneer behind the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner joins post-secondary students and faculty to discuss his remarkable career in visual effects and his own directorial projects.This Higher Learning event was held on December 9, 2010, at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Visit the Higher Learning Digital Resource Hub to learn more about our upcoming events at TIFF Bell Lightbox and to access bibliographies, filmographies and additional resources associated with this event.

Trumbull with C.A. Chicoine

October 2006



1. Douglas Trumbull: Past, Present, and Future. Oct. 28, 2006

2. From the Drawing Board to Immersive Media with Douglas Trumbull

By Sean Axmaker


4. January 9, 2006




8. Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 3, June 1982, pp. 47-52]




9. Douglas Trumbull - Blade Runner Retrospect- October 25, 2006

10. Douglas Trumbull: Past, Present, and Future. Oct. 28, 2006

Additional Sources:

Blade Runner Souvenir Magazine - Official Collector's Edition

Further Douglas Trumbull related web links:

Berkshire Ridefilm Company Brochure


Monsters We Make Online Gallery - Spring 2002

Luxor Theater Attraction


Douglas Trumbull Patents

Silent Running (fan website)


Studio Tour of Back to the Future: The Ride

Virtual Retinal Display (VRD) Technology

Back to the Future Ride

Interview on Blade Runner set with Douglas Trumbull

C.A. Chicoine resides in Massachusetts where he writes stories, poetry, lyrics, and music. Other online articles edited and compiled by this writer include the following: