Brainstorming with Doug Trumbull

By Magid, Ron | American Cinematographer, August 1992 | Go to article overview

Brainstorming with Doug Trumbull

Magid, Ron, American Cinematographer

In the not-too-distant past, Doug Trumbull headed the teams that created the breathtaking visual effects for what arguably became the most influential effects films of their respective decades: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. After directing the cult film Silent Running and the ill-fated Brainstorm, Trumbull turned his back on Hollywood and struck out on his own to explore new means of filmic expression.

His quest led him into what seemed at the time a very esoteric field: amusement park rides. Trumbull, now considered a visionary in his own right, recently shared his insights on the future of the field he defined and which he now seems poised to pilot to undreamed-of heights.

Remarkably, Trumbull's first job in the movie business was helming the effects on 2001, a film he credits with influencing his decision to make what he calls "experiential films."

"It was great to see an experiential movie presented in Cinerama on giant curved screens in stereo sound," he sighs. "Unfortunately, over the years, I saw the movie business go in the opposite direction, toward small-screen multiplex cinemas."

Trumbull's response was to create the widescreen Showscan system, in which a 70mm film is projected at 60 frames per second. Those numbers weren't guesswork; Trumbull scientifically measured the amount of visual and audio information the brain could absorb before it reached saturation. The goal was a sensory experience that touched people in ways that conventional movies never could.

Trumbull intended the hyper-realistic virtual reality sequences of his sci-fi film Brainstorm to be the first practical commercial application for his Showscan technology, but no studio would touch the film under those conditions.

"I realized that the really adventurous future - what I thought cinema could become - was going to happen in theme parks and world fairs and what some people call special venues," Trumbull relates. The real breakthrough came in 1976, when Trumbull coupled Showscan with a motion base to create the first simulator theater at his Future General company. This was a year before Star Wars, and a full decade before the famous Star Tours ride film that the movie inspired. Ironically, Paramount Pictures, Trumbull's partner in Future General, couldn't see the value of being in the theme park business. "Right now, every feature film company wants to be in the theme park business, but at the time, diversification was too new an idea for a feature film company," Trumbull says. "So I was redirected into doing the special effects for Close Encounters."

Nearly five years later, Trumbull made the choice to free himself as a filmmaker; no longer would he be aligned with a specific film format - not even the one he created. When offered the chance to direct a Back to the Future ride film in Omnimax, Trumbull accepted. "I felt this was an opportunity to definitively prove that there is a tremendous audience for experiential entertainment," he says. The ride he created, which some in the theme park business have dubbed "the best ride on the planet," puts its audience inside a time-travelling DeLorean within an immense Omnimax projection system. Passengers are completely surrounded by a very dense high-impact special effects extravaganza which takes them from the primeval world of the dinosaur to the far-flung future. And in another daring stroke, the four-minute ride actually tells a story. 'It's one of the first times that a ride has been transposed into a dramatic context," Trumbull observes proudly.

Directing and conceptualizing ride films appears to be the ultimate synthesis of Trumbull's talents, combining his design and effects background with an interactive canvas. His new outfit, The Trumbull Company, is currently providing special-venue entertainment for the Luxor Pyramid in Las Vegas, a vast Egyptian-style hotel/amusement park which will house three highimpact experiential ride films. …

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