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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.

The Ghostbusters Revolution Has Already Been Televised

Great googa mooga... were we actually the first "Ghostbusters" reboot?

Great googa mooga... were we actually the first "Ghostbusters" reboot?

So many are up in arms about news that Paul Feig is going to "reimagine" Ghostbusters with a whole new cast and all-new characters. I, for the record, am excited about the prospect. If you're going to make another Ghostbusters movie, that's the only way to properly do it while remaining respectful to the comedic genius that the original film encapsulated.

But funny enough, many have forgotten that Ghostbusters already received a reboot of sorts in the form of one of DreamWorks' first films released when the studio was in its infant stages. And by the hands of one of Ghostbusters' main contributors, Ivan Reitman. 2001's Evolution was a bit of an enigma to audiences when it was released.

The film shared very similar characteristics to Ghostbusters in the form of wise-cracking professor protagonists who fight to save the world in the name of science, cracking jokes all the while. It's almost as if the two films share very similar DNA to each other. The film even ends up with the heroes riding in a fire truck (in place of the Ghostbusters' familiar Cadillac ambulance) going to save the day.

Evolution so desperately wanted to be Ghostbusters that even the logo and the print ads bared resemblance to the Ghostbusters marketing campaign.  But ultimately, the whole film was really trying to harness that lightning in a bottle but failed to register with a popular audience for one reason or another.

You might be able to chalk it up to the film's release coming in June of 2001: a summer that was jam-packed with mega-hits like Shrek, the first Fast and the Furious film, and a third Jurassic Park film. That same summer was also filled with a lot of similar comedy films aimed at the same audience. And then, given what happened that September, audiences' tastes immediately changed and seeing a firetruck presented in a light like this might not have been at the top of peoples' priorities. The film also received fairly mixed ratings at the time, with many of the critics seeing it as more of a rip-off than an homage.

"Two decades ago, this would have been a great movie. Now, it's just another round of leftovers."
- review c/o Rotten Tomatoes

Regardless of how it was received, I remember seeing Evolution multiple times at the small multiplex that was by the college where I spent my freshman year. And I still enjoy it to this day. It had that same swagger to its step, and a similar sense of chivalry as Ghostbusters, while doing its best to maintain a similar sense of humor.

With a little bit of luck, maybe the new Ghostbusters film can take note of where Evolution succeeded and ultimately failed, in hopes of assuring that it will be a great success both financially and critically.

What Do the Numbers on the Force Awakens Topps Cards Mean?

Yesterday, J.J. Abrams and Co. revealed the names of the major characters seen in the Star Wars: The Force Awakes teaser trailer in a cool way: through a series of mock Topps trading cards modeled on those from '77. 

In the big reveal, Abrams mentioned that there was a significance to the numbers on the cards. I did a little digging and I'm wondering if the numbers on the Force Awakens cards correlate to the original cards from 1977 in some way. While I'm sure the answer is probably a little more cryptic and clever, what if the answer is simple and there's a line to be drawn between the numbers?

It should be mentioned that all of my comments are purely speculation and not based in any knowledge, just me trying to draw the lines between 2014 and 1977. (And a special thanks to The Star Wars Trilogy for the quick reference on the Topps line).

Here are my findings:

2014: #11 - B.B. on the Move

1977: #11 - Artoo is imprisoned by the Jawas

This was the first thing that led me to believe there was a relationship between the old and the new numbers. It certainly can't be a coincidence that the BB-8 droid card has the same number as a card that featured R2 "on the move" from a certain point of view as well?

2014: #53 - Poe Dameron in His X-Wing

1977: #53 - Battle in outer space!

Poe in his X-Wing and the 1977 card showing the dramatic Battle of Yavin in an X-Wing can mean only one thing: we can expect some amazing dogfights most likely with Oscar Issac's "Poe" as a key component. 

2014: #67 - Kylo Ren Ignites His Lightsaber

1977: #67 - See-Threepio and Luke

Okay here's where the theory might be a stretch... 3PO and Luke in a shot compared to the new "big bad guy" is a tough one. Is Kylo Ren Luke? A droid Jedi? Not sure theory holds up for this one. Dagnabbit.

2014: #74 - Rey on her Speeder

1977: #74 - Luke Skywalker on Tatooine

Check out Daisy Ridley and a speeder... and Mark Hamill and a speeder. Are all the rumors about "Rey" being a Solo untrue and she's actually a Skywalker living on Tatooine?

2014: #76 - Finn on the Run

1977: #76 - Artoo-Detoo on the rebel starship!

In a sense, this is the moment when R2 is on the run with information that is vital. Could it be that Finn is on the run because he's stolen something that is essential to the Rebellion? 

2014: #81 - Stormtroopers Prepare for Battle

1977: #81 - Weapons of the Death Star

Here we see Stormtroopers in what appears to be a drop ship of some sort in the teaser trailer and then in the 1977 card, those loyal to the Empire manning a super-powered weapon. Is it possible that the scene from The Force Awakens trailer is from the climatic battle?

2014: #88 - X-Wings in Formation

1977: #88 - Stormtroopers guard Solo's ship

Not much here either. But while we're in speculation mode, what if we draw the line between the caption on the 1977 card and the action that we're seeing in 2014 and imagine that the X-Wings are guarding (or flanking) the Falcon in battle perhaps?

2014: #96 - The Millennium Falcon

1977: #96 - The droids on Tatooine

Argh. #97 of the Topps series is the first time we're introduced to the Millennium Falcon at the Mos Eisley Cantina. I don't suppose it was an error that the first time we're seeing the new Falcon was supposed to correlate to the first time it was mentioned on film (and they accidentally put a number one below)? Too much attention to detail for that to have happened. Do you think the droids are inside the Falcon and this battle is taking place about Tatooine, perhaps? #96 in the Empire Strikes Back set is a card relating to Solo being frozen in Carbonite - are we drawing lines to Han being in trouble?

Well, there are my findings. What do you think the numbers on the cards mean and do you think these lines were supposed to be drawn? Are you "seeing something in the cards" that I'm not? 

Sound off in the comments!

Jurassic Park vs. Jurassic World: Trailer Comparative Study

Come with us on a Jeff Goldblum-esque journey as we scientifically compare the Jurassic Park trailer to the Jurassic World trailer...

I've been a little surprised with the amount of negativity aimed at the Jurassic World trailer that launched on Tuesday. I actually really dug what I saw in the trailer and feel like if you're going to make another Jurassic Park film, this is probably the way to do it. In fact, a lot of it felt really familiar to the first film... As an experiment, I decided to compare this trailer to the original trailer for Jurassic Park from around 1992 in terms of structurally how they were presented as well as narratively what they were conveying.

Here's the results:

:15 (Both Films)

In 1992, Jurassic Park begins its trailer by introducing us to the world that we know: archeologists excavating a fossil while a narrator who sounds like Littlefinger from Game of Thrones sets the stage that mankind has always searched for its past. In 2014, Jurassic World opens on a young kid at an airport, his mother tells her how proud she is of him going on the trip but at the first sign of danger: run. Okay, so in 1992 we have to establish to audiences how and why dinosaurs have been brought back to life but in 2014, we automatically assume that it's possible and that people have knowledge of the dangers (even the past events) of a Jurassic Park. Not much comparison here quite yet.

:29 (Both Films)

In 1992, Sir Richard Attenborough tells us that he owns an island off the coast of Costa Rica and it immediately cuts to a beautiful shot of the InGen helicopter traveling to Isla Nublar. Incidentally, at the exact same time into the Jurassic World trailer in 2014, we see a similar shot of the plush boat traveling to the exact same island. Now we're talking.

:47 (Jurassic Park) / :42 (Jurassic World)

The 1992 trailer needs to drop in a little more exposition to establish how these dinosaurs have been genetically engineered, while the 2014 trailer hits us right with the familiar Jurassic World gates. However both trailers both literally and figuratively tell us that the "Park is Open" (the 2014 trailer by dropping it as a full-screen text card) followed by a shot of a Downtown Disney-looking environment... around the same time that the 1992 trailer opens the doors to the iconic atrium in a similar over the shoulder shot.

:58 (Jurassic Park) / :53 (Jurassic World)

John Hammond tells us in the 1992 trailer that his creatures are going to capture the imaginations of every living creature... and we immediately reveal character reactions to the Brachiosaurus. What happens in the 2014 trailer? We see hordes of audiences at the park with their imaginations being captured and, sure enough, at around the same time get a similar reaction to our friends, the brachiosaurus.

1:08 (Jurassic Park) / 1:04 (Jurassic World)

Jurassic Park: King Kong reference. Jurassic World: Jaws reference.

1:25 (Jurassic Park) / 1:29 (Jurassic World)

Dr. Alan Grant ominously begins explaining the science to us talking about the dangers of genetic modification while in the new trailer, Bryce Dallas Howard's Claire discusses genetic modification. Both lines of dialogue set up what will fundamentally be the harbinger for what's to come in the remainder of the trailer's events.

1:32 (Jurassic Park) / 1:30 (Jurassic World)

At the conclusion of Dr. Grant's speech, your subwoofer gets a workout with a big thump to the LFE channel as you see the iconic waterglass shot from the first film. Meanwhile, in 2014 as Claire's speech comes to a conclusion, your subwoofer also gets a workout from a big thump revealing this weird genetically modified spinal column-type thing.

2:00 (Jurassic Park) / 1:56 (Jurassic World)

In Jurassic Park, we learn that the fences are down all over the park and Samuel L. Jackson can't get anything back online without Dennis Nedry... then it cuts to this fantastic shot of Dr. Sadler surveying post-attack wreckage. In Jurassic World, Chris Pratt warns against the danger of something that escaped its fence and cuts to this image of his character: surveying post-attack wreckage.

2:04 (Jurassic Park) / 2:02 (Jurassic World)

Both trailers getting into their action montage sequences - both hit a similar palms sweating moment because our main characters are up in the air without a net at roughly the same time (Jurassic Park: the characters climbing over the high-reaching electric fence, Jurassic World: the characters jumping off a waterfall). A bit of a stretch, but identical moments eliciting the same type of response.

2:07 (Jurassic Park) / 2:05 (Jurassic World)

Jurassic Park: "Oh no." / Jurassic World: "Oh god."

2:14 (Both Films)

The young boy character sees something with a high eye-line that makes their jaws both drop.

2:21 (Both Films)

Raptors!

2:28 (Both Films)

Raptors... who learn how to open doors (Jurassic Park) / Raptors... who learn to ride with Chris Pratt (Jurassic World). And both trailers end on that note of the dinosaurs evolving in ways that we would never expect them to have.

Conclusion: Did you like the first movie? There's a good chance you might like the new one.