The Godfather of Modern Films Wants to Save the Industry - Part One

Note: The following is a first-hand account of my experience meeting film pioneer Douglas Trumbull in early 2015. This story and interview has been posted with his permission. This is part one of a three part series.

It's a chilly day in January, about three hours outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Forget Siri or a GPS - meticulous directions have been given to me as my destination is not easily accessed, nor is it within range of cell phone service. One wrong turn could lead to being lost in a mountain range. I'm no stranger to mountains, but this is my first time in the Boston area and the Turnpike is a strange and foreign land. Truth be told, I'm sure that a traffic ticket will be waiting for me on my return to Los Angeles as I drove through the "EZ Pass" gate without having an EZ Pass, so the necessity to pay attention to the provided directions is key.

The excursion is all in the name of an adventure, a once in a lifetime opportunity. A golden ticket visit to the secret compound of one of the most influential filmmakers of all-time: Douglas Trumbull. His name might not be familiar to some, but Trumbull is one of the pioneers of modern special effects, having worked with Stanley Kubrick on his ground-breaking 2001: A Space Odyssey of which their influence can still be felt to this day. He is the man responsible for adapting the USS Enterprise to the big-screen for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He created a future unlike that ever seen in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and his directorial debut Silent Running heavily influenced works including George Lucas' Star Wars.

I'm on a mission on behalf of Warner Home Video as we work on a documentary for the Gravity: Diamond Luxe Edition. The project was and is one of my favorite pieces of work to date, mainly because it granted me the opportunity to talk to several of my heroes including Ron Howard, John Dykstra, and Dennis Muren about a topic that we all love. But little do I know that Trumbull is going to be kind enough to spend the better part of the day with me, to show me everything he's been so hard at work on out on his farm. Quite literally to open the doors to his playground and give me a personal tour of his most recent work.

Arriving at the destination, I attempt to pull into the long drive way leading to an expansive farm. My snowtire-less rental car has a bit of difficulty on the long and steep driveway, completely covered in shade and thus also completely covered in a coat of black ice but upon a successful third attempt to ascend I pull into Trumbull's farm house. It's an idyllic atmosphere for a kid born in rural Colorado: a farm house, a barn and stable, and open area as far as the eye can see. While George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch is a meticulously recreated vineyard style compound, you would never guess that some of the most revolutionary technology is being developed within the very much functional and working farm. Chickens cross over the dirt driveway in front of you, the soft crunch of a thin layer of snow under your tires is the only other sound heard in a peaceful and serene atmosphere. As I exit the rental car, the farm house door opens. Emerging are Douglas himself and his wife Julia to greet me. Their warmth and welcoming demeanor is akin to visiting family back home as we meet in person for the first time. Trumbull's enthusiasm is infectious as we wait for my camera crew to arrive in a second car and he takes us on a quick tour of his farm. First up, he takes us into his office where he has a breakfast spread waiting. A film and book library on the top floor impresses us and my Director of Photography and I start talking about camera angles to set up for our interview in that room. But Trumbull informs us that we're not to film there. There's a far better location suited to filming that we'll get to: first, coffee and breakfast. The all-business Hollywood approach is gone, replaced with the personal touch of a film fan. We chat films, visual effects, and our shared love of how everything works as we eat. With breakfast finished, the tour continues.

Trumbull takes us into a small barn where miniature models and soundstage sets are fabricated. First up is a large barn that deceptively hides his combination sound stage and prototype 3D theater. The state of the art stage is completely camera-ready, a green screen cyc surrounding a lighting grid. Sitting next to it is a stadium seating theater with a curved screen at the front. Adjustable and movable panels surround this prototype theater as Trumbull explains that he can change any and all of the viewing conditions of this theater instantly: the height of the seats, the curve of the screen, it's all in the name of creating the perfect 3D viewing experience.

(On left: a very awe-stricken Troy Benjamin, at center: Douglas Trumbull, the purveyor of a brand new life for the theatrical experience showing off his masterpiece.)

(On left: a very awe-stricken Troy Benjamin, at center: Douglas Trumbull, the purveyor of a brand new life for the theatrical experience showing off his masterpiece.)

The tech-head in me is completely in awe of the theater setup. I can only describe it as if being a car aficionado in one of the legendary garages of a well-funded collector with several rare and exhilarating pieces all on display. Much as a gear-head would have their breath taken away with the prospect of taking one of the cars for a spin, Trumbull says the interview can wait and to take a seat. He wants to personally do a demonstration of his Magi 3D system for myself and my crew.

He begins by giving us a bit of a precursor to what we're about to see: the modern cinema experience is dying. The communal experience of attending a movie in a cinema has given way to watching films on streaming services like Netflix or even on mobile devices. The surround sound and in-home viewing technology has advanced that many people prefer watching films in the comfort of their own home theater rather than shelling out $15+/ticket to watch the latest release among an audience that can't stop looking at their Snapchat feed for 90 minutes in a darkened theater. The good news is that technology allows filmmakers to tell any story that their imagination can deem worthy. The bad news is that the current climate usually relegates those stories to a smaller screen.

And it is here that Trumbull's grand vision enters the story. He wants to get audiences back into movie theaters by giving them something that absolutely cannot be replicated at home. Something so compelling that you wouldn't want to watch it on your 3.5" iPhone screen.

Trumbull hands us all active 3D glasses of his own design, makes sure that all the batteries are charged and the glasses are in sync, then takes a seat in a tech booth behind the theater seats. With the touch of a button a blackout curtain surrounds us, closing us into the theater space. The lights dim and a film that Trumbull shot and directed plays. It's a high-frame rate, 3D feast for the eyes. Some of the best 3D that I've ever seen without ghosting, without strange motion blur, without losing brightness or exposure after putting on the glasses, and without the nauseating side-effects that plague some of the worst 3D experiences. Simply put, Magi eliminates all of the major and common complaints of 3D movie-going audiences. For myself and my crew, it takes some adjustment at first. We're trained and used to the 24 frames per second projection in theaters to replicate the film projection look. Unlike when you visit a friend's house and they have the fluid motion on their LCD television turned on, it doesn't have the "soap opera" effect. The motion is smooth and fluid, without feeling fake or jarring. The demonstration film ends with a sign hanging in front of you that's so realistic, I would swear that Trumbull pushed another of his automated buttons on the console to drop a real sign from the rafters. Alas, he did not. The effect of his 3D is just that impressive. In fact, it has completely ruined 3D elsewhere for me. I've seen a few films, even with laser projected IMAX technology behind them. But none have come close to the viewing experience I had that day.

Sufficiently blown away by what we'd seen, we start setting up for the interview in the soundstage space. Chatting all the while about how Trumbull can do everything here at his farm, including planning, shooting, post and of course, projecting the film that we just watched. It's my dream, to live in the country but to have a completely self-sufficient film studio where I could spend my days fine-tuning everything. Trumbull's enthusiasm never fades as he watches us set up for the interview, quizzing my excellent local Director of Photography Michael Mulvey on his camera of choice and why he chooses to shoot on that particular model.

Finally, with all of our lighting in place, and a little help in setting the shot from Trumbull himself, we're ready for our interview. Little did I know, what should have been a twenty minute conversation on the evolution of how space and space travel has been depicted in films would turn into one of the most engaging discussions I've ever had in the film industry.

Tomorrow: The Interview.