by Nick Sergi
Before learning that legendary special effects master Douglas Trumbull had passed away on Tuesday, February 7, at the age of 79, I had been thinking about him. Maybe not directly, but a few weeks ago, I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, enjoying it on a rather large television and in glorious surround sound. I marveled at the fantastic visuals and how they are used instead of other traditional story-telling devices (things like narrative, dialogue, and even character) to move the story forward, albeit quite slowly. I’ve always known that the film itself was about the evolution of humankind, from the dawn of man to a possible future where we’d reach another level of existence altogether. Still, I realized during this last viewing that the film had a villain, something that humanity had been fighting against during this journey: space. Watching the movie, you are confronted with technological marvels, from space stations to exploratory vessels, large doors that take almost a minute to open, to zero-gravity toilets, all meant to remind us that, against the adversary of space itself, we have no chance, not without trying hard to create technology to keep us alive.
2001 is director Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus, but Trumball deserves a great deal of the credit for why the film works and holds up after almost 55 years. This movie was made in 1968, back around when, on TV, you could practically see the strings from which the Enterprise hung, but 2001 looks like it was made just last year. Kubrick's vision of humanity toying with technology, and later, artificial intelligence, to allow it to traverse the depths of space, would not have worked as well as it does without the meticulous special effects magic that only a master like Tumball could bring to the screen on such a vast scale. One need only look at the Discovery spacecraft moving slowly across the screen to see the results of pre-motion control model photography (keep in mind, the model of this spacecraft was over 50 feet long!), or maybe you might study the end of the film and see how Trumball used his own creative take of the “slit-scan” technique to create the wild Star-Gate sequence. To describe the techniques of how these shots were achieved would be an entire book in and of itself, and 2001: A Space Odyssey cannot be the only film where you’ve seen Trumball’s extraordinary work. He created the massive mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or coming in late in post-production to save Star Trek: The Motion Picture when the original effects house had produced no usable shots. He then helped to create the iconic (and rather polluted) cityscapes in Blade Runner, as he embraced the chance to work on something perhaps more challenging than shooting model ships against black starfields.
All of these films, and the others Trumball has worked on, have something in common: tangible, practical special effects, built and shot for real, without the aid of CGI, in order to create a visual experience that was at least as necessary (if not more so) as the stories, plots, or the characters of those films. They lacked the whiz-bang quality of today’s more energetic comic book movie fare, but the incredible images of ships and cities that Trumball created somehow feel real, yet more mesmerizing than reality itself.
Yes, I think about Trumball quite a lot, just by watching and studying his work and the work of others of that era. I am a fan of practical special effects, particularly those that have a tangible quality to them that can only be achieved by constructing models with actual human hands. It’s one thing to design these things on paper, yet another task to build them, and, more challenging still, figuring out how to put it all on film so that these practical effects become an essential part of the story being created. It’s as if you can almost touch that fantastic work