Douglas Trumbull, the visual effect pioneer behind some of the most groundbreaking work in motion picture history, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, has died from complications with mesothelioma. His daughter, Amy, confirmed his death on Facebook earlier today, writing that he had a brain tumor and a stroke during a two-year struggle with cancer. He was 79.
Born in Los Angeles on April 8, 1942, Trumbull was part of a motion picture legacy. His father, Donald Trumbull, worked on special effects for The Wizard Of Oz and, later, Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope, a standard the younger Trumbull would meet and exceed during his career.
Trumbull first saw the “future of cinema,” as he called it, working with Stanley Kubrick on 2001. Kubrick plucked him out of obscurity several years prior after the director saw Trumbull’s visual effects exhibition, a 65mm film called To The Moon And Beyond, at the 1964/1965 World’s Fair. 2001 was a breakthrough not just for cinema but also for the young Trumbull. The film won Kubrick his only Oscar, a special award for visual effects, and set Trumbull, then 26, on a course to change cinema several more times.
Following 2001, Trumbull took a job doing the effects for Robert Wise’s Michael Crichton adaptation, The Andromeda Strain. The film was one of the biggest box office successes of the year and earned two Academy Award nominations. It also allowed Trumbull to finance ambitious 1972 sci-fi environmentalism film Silent Running, which he directed on a shoestring budget.
While Silent Running flopped, it did cement his reputation as an effects master who could turn in top-notch work on a tight budget. After turning down an offer to provide effects for a little movie called Star Wars, Trumbull did the next best thing: creating effects for Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, both of which earned him Oscar nominations.
In 1983, Trumbull would receive a third nomination for his work on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. While the film flopped with audiences and critics at the time, science fiction legend Philip K. Dick praised Trumbull’s work. “I saw a segment of Douglas Trumbull’s special effects for Blade Runner,” Dick said. “I recognized it immediately. It was my own interior world. They caught it perfectly.” Over the next 40 years, the rest of the world would catch up to what Dick saw.
In the early 1990s, Trumbull was at the forefront of audience immersion. Directing Back To The Future: The Ride at Universal Studios, he pushed cinematic immersion forward, testing new techniques that he believed would change the industry. “Exploring the language of storytelling as it relates to immersion is the key to the kingdom,” Trumbull said in regards to the future of cinema. However, disappointingly to Trumbull, the industry ignored the advancements he made on the ride.
Nevertheless, in 1993, he won his first Oscar, an honorary award honoring his development of the CP-65 Showscan Camera System for 65mm motion picture photography.
It wasn’t until 2011 that he returned to Hollywood, with Terence Mallick’s The Tree Of Life, which saw him, once again, developing ingenious practical effects that were unlike anything else at multiplexes. That year, he was awarded an Academy Award, the Gordon E. Sawyer Award. The honorary award recognizes “an individual in the motion picture industry whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry.” If there was ever someone worthy of that, it was Trumbull.
“I like the social experience of movies, where a lot of people can see something simultaneously and all laugh together, all cry together, all talk to each other and be in the room together,” Trumbull said in a 2018 conversation with Future Of Storytelling. “There’s some kind of energy in a room full of people. It’s now time to make the next step.”
“I personally believe that a lot of the excitement and enthusiasm about virtual reality is related to a personal, individual desire for an immersive experience. Something that goes beyond television and beyond movies. That’s why I call it ‘experience making’ as different from storytelling.”
Trumbull’s daughter eulogized him today, writing, “My sister Andromeda 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.”