The force was always with you | Daily News
To Douglas Trumbull:

The force was always with you

Douglas Trumbull, the special effects wizard who died earlier this week, directed just two films. Neither of them is particularly great, and neither can be considered a classic. Yet they are fascinating works, made at a time when the American public were getting ready for the blockbuster sci-fi hits that would define Hollywood in the years to come.

Trumbull’s real achievements lay elsewhere. As a special effects supervisor, he became the Edith Head of his field, overseeing work for some of cinema’s greatest landmarks. The two films he directed, not surprisingly, recapitulated the themes of the movies he took part in as a supervisor. It’s a sign of the times, perhaps, that while Peter Bogdanovich’s and Sidney Poitier’s deaths were greeted with utter dismay, Trumbull’s was barely noticed: by the time of writing this, even the New York Times had failed to pen his obituary.

Films tend to be associated with directors, scriptwriters, and actors so much that the work of cinematographers, editors, and effects supervisors is barely mentioned at all. There are several exceptions to this, but Trumbull was not really one of them. Not surprisingly, then, none of the obits that Hollywood journals have written on him measure his real contribution to the field, which was to help an increasingly dissatisfied movie-going public make a shift to films that were not afraid of questioning the boundaries of the sci-fi genre.

Trumbull played a not insignificant part in transforming that genre from the dreary staticity it had succumbed to in the 1950s into something more. In the 1940s and 1950s sci-fi films had come to embrace a set of themes which made them all virtually indistinguishable from one another. While B-movies like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers went beyond these limits, they were the exception to the general rule. To complicate things further, the genre had begun to embrace Cold War fears, depicting themes like the threat of nuclear fallout in such works as The Incredible Shrinking Man. As Susan Sontag put it,

“The typical science fiction film has a form as predictable as a Western, and is made up of elements which, to a practiced eye, are as classic as the saloon brawl, the blonde school teacher from the East, and the gun duel on the deserted main street.”

Sontag’s essay appeared in 1965, a good three years before Stanley Kubrick would make 2001: A Space Odyssey. Until then sci-fi films wavered between the arrival of a “thing” – hence the depressing predictability of titles like The Thing From Another World, Them!, Invaders from Mars, and The Man from Planet X – and the end of the world – as in The Day the Earth Caught Fire. These films were heavily influenced by the comic book strips of the 1930s and 1940s, in particular Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.

Yet as with every genre that overworks itself, towards the end of the decade these films became less serious and more conscious of themselves, which is another way of saying that they overreached and parodied themselves. The height, or nadir, of this trend was the films of Ed Wood, in particular the unforgettable Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Filled with bloopers and the most primitive effects you can ever imagine, even for a low budget production, Ed Wood’s films have attained cult status today, not because they are good but because they are so bad they are good. Yet Wood was not alone. Other directors too began making a descent, marking an end to a definitive era.

The Andromeda Strain
Working onboard Brainstorm

Douglas Trumbull’s entry into the industry must be seen in light of these trends, and in light of another historical development: the fading away of the studio system and the rise of the so-called New Hollywood. Many of the directors he would work with – including Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas – were setting their sights on the field in the early 1960s, though Lucas would take time to emerge. Some, like Robert Wise, had made their name at the peak of Hollywood’s Golden Age as assistants, supervisors, and technicians.

Yet all these directors were dissatisfied with how Hollywood had progressed, or had not progressed, and wanted something more. Kubrick, in particular, felt so incensed at how he had been treated by the producers of Spartacus that he eventually moved to London. Wise had made one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time, The Day the Earth Stood Still, but in the 1960s shifted to a different genre, the musical, giving us two of the decade’s best and most loved classics, West Side Story and The Sound of Music; it was only later, a decade later to be specific, that he returned to sci-fi in a rapidly evolving film culture.

By now Trumbull had found work as an illustrator and airbrush artist at a company called Graphic Films in Los Angeles. His father, Donald Trumbull, had also been a special effects supervisor, having created the visual effects for 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. As a child Douglas had been enthralled by mechanical devices and electronic devices, earning something of a reputation much later in life as an amateur inventor. Wikipedia tells us that he grew up on a diet of alien invasion movies, ironically the antithesis of the work he would eventually get involved in. These encounters helped him develop certain skills and talents, in particular a gift for photorealistic art. It was that which got him the job at Graphic Films.

Everything changed when Stanley Kubrick decided to make a film of a short story by a fairly well known science fiction writer called Arthur C. Clarke. He had been caught up by a film that Trumbull had done while at Graphic Films – an animated short titled To the Moon and Beyond he had made for the 1964 New York World’s Fair – so much that he hired Graphic Films for visual effects work. Later, he relocated to England and cancelled the contract he had signed with them. Trumbull, however, wanted to work with him, no doubt because he recognised his potential, if not his genius. One phone call later, Kubrick agreed to have him in. Trumbull immediately flew to London to resume work.

The making of 2001: A Space Odyssey has become as legendary as the film itself. Kubrick was a notorious auteur who sought control over every aspect of the production. When he felt dissatisfied with Alex North’s heroic score, eerily reminiscent of the music he had done for Kubrick’s earlier Spartacus, for instance, he ditched it in favour of classical compositions, famously Strauss’s The Blue Danube. Roger Ebert suggests that by toning down the music and making it less heroic, he brought in a seriousness and transcendence to the visuals. If this is indeed so, Kubrick felt no similar need to tone down his visuals: he gave Trumbull all the freedom he wanted to design the film’s sets and visual effects.

Gore Vidal once suggested that outside the action and outside its “awful integrity”, Ben-Hur contains no real meaning. Rock Hudson may have felt the same thing about 2001: A Space Odyssey; halfway through he stormed out of the hall, asking someone to tell him what the story was about. Not many reviewers disagreed with him: Pauline Kael didn’t take much to it, though Roger Ebert liked it and later added it to his Great Movies list.

What stands out in the film, of course, are its visuals effects, though it would be wrong to think that is all there is to it. Trumbull created some of the most endearing, and enduring, feats of the imagination I have ever come across in any film. Some of the effects, like the famous Stargate sequence, have been copied so much that it’s hard to think of a sci-fi flick that hasn’t borrowed from Kubrick’s film. Be it the competently made, like Contact, or the downright clichéd and terrible, like Stargate, Trumbull’s work has become a sine qua no and a Rosetta Stone for directors and visual effects supervisors.

2001: A Space Odyssey sealed Trumbull’s reputation. A cursory glance at his credits shows how much in demand he was, right until the end: The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, and more recently, The Tree of Life. Reportedly, he let go of Star Wars, citing other commitments.

After the success of The Andromeda Strain, which almost bankrupted him (“I seriously underbid the job,” he would later recount), Trumbull embarked on a sadly brief career as a director. Silent Running, released in 1971, is as competently made a sci-fi flick as I have ever seen, though it lacks the epic cadences of Star Wars. It contains a message which resonates well, even today: far away in the distant future, global warming has swamped Earth so much that greenhouses have to be housed in giant space pods.

His second venture, Brainstorm, is not as good as his first, but it contains something of the excitement and genuine enthusiasm of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The death of a major star, however, derailed the film’s prospects, and it kept Trumbull from not just directing but also visual effects work for the next three decades.

Towards the end of his life he admitted that, highly respected as his work might have been, it had not made him much money. He was of course quick to add that recognition of his work had kept him going. And for the better part of half a century, it did. With Trumbull’s death, then, comes an end to a definitive period in movie history. Perhaps it’s a sign of how quietly this period has since passed on in the minds of movie-goers that news of his passing did not made the waves that news of Bogdanovich’s and Poitier’s did.

Silent Running
2001 - A Space Odyssey


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