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 two of a three part series.
Presented here is the first half of a transcript of my conversation with Douglas Trumbull. You'll notice that the primary topic started as the evolution of space and space travel in films over the decades but quickly turns into two lovers of the technique of filmmaking just having a wonderful conversation about miniatures, optical effects, and so much more (especially on the second half, which will be posted tomorrow).
In your opinion, why do you think filmmakers have been so compelled by space or space travel as a setting in their films?
TRUMBULL: Well, you know, I'm not sure I could speak for other filmmakers, I can only speak from my own particular interest and proclivity, I guess about space films, is that most, if not 99.9% of all movies are what I call grounded movies, you know, they’re cop, chase, thrillers, love stories, musicals, they are all on the earth. And I’ve been fascinated with space ever since I was born and I’ve been looking at the sky and growing up on popular science covers of UFOs and technical stuff and astronomy.
And it's just been a personal fascination of mine, which is, what’s out there beyond all this ordinary stuff. And for me as a, kind of an artist, when I was starting out as an illustrator really, I was drawn to science fiction, so I was reading tons of science fiction, reading all the great science fiction writers, and so my artist portfolio was filled with alien plants and starts and spacecraft and other places. So that was, that's been my interest all my life.
What was the first space film you saw that truly amazed you that you remember?
TRUMBULL: You know, I was, to get ready for this I started looking at some of the old stuff last night. I have this huge library of old space movies. And I think one of the things I was looking at last night was, let me think of the name of it a second… Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers. Which, and I didn't time it out to figure out when it was made relative to like The Day The Earth Stood Still, they probably were very close to each other at the time, do you know?
They were all early 50s, so here's early 50s, I’m just a kid, I was born in 42, so in the early 50s I maybe 10, 11 years old or something. And I remember consciously now thinking back to when I saw Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers and I said this looks really hokey. And I didn't realize until I looked at it again last night that it was Ray Harryhausen doing the effects, who is like one of the great masters. But it was in the early days of stop motion animation and what you call dynamation. And I remember even then when I was 10, I didn't like the effects. Now why would that be? I have no idea. But it, it's been a big issue for me all my life: how do you do it so it really looks real, because I think the universe is a beautiful, beautiful stunning place. The moon is stunning, the sky is stunning. Galaxies are stunning. And so I've always wanted to make it look great. Just as an artist, whether, I didn't even start in movies until, you know, in the, in the early 60s.
Even at 10, something pulled you out of it?
TRUMBULL: Yeah, there was something about it that just didn't look right. It was a black-and-white movie, it was stop motion animation, there was a lack of depth of field and it was kind of jerky motions quite a lot, which I was always criticizing stop motion animated movies for that. It was a unique art form at the time, it’s still around actually. But being frustrated by it, and I remember when I saw Forbidden Planet, which blew me away totally in terms of that same criticism of being much higher quality.
And I looked into it and I said well how did they do this, what happened in the making of Forbidden Planet? And what about it looked good and what about it did not look good, because it did have exteriors on this planet with just a big painted backdrop on the stage. I mean it didn't have a lot of depth and it looked kind of corny. But it did have a whole team of animators from Disney came over to MGM to make Forbidden Planet with them and help them do these matte paintings and sky backgrounds and the saucer and some of the effects. And I just thought it was a big leap forward, also a leap forward in sound effects as well.
You remember the sound effects for Forbidden Planet. So I think that was a really stunning moment for me in realizing that a sci-fi movie could actually be pretty good, you know, it was based on Shakespeare. And then there was The Day The Earth Stood Still, which was great.
So when you went back to your library and looked at some of the space films and space traveler films, what were some of those that you find were the most influential?
TRUMBULL: One of the most influential films I saw, and it happened when I, in the very early 60s when I was working at Graphic Films. I was just starting my career as a space illustrator for these space films for NASA and the Air Force that predated 2001 and actually predated To The Moon And Beyond was a movie called Universe, made by the National Film Board of Canada. And we looked at that movie over and over and over. It was all animated, it was all kind of multi-plane, multi-pass photography of billions of stars and depth and planes of galaxies flying through. And it was black-and-white, it was shot in 35mm and it was really stunning, it stands out today as one of the best space films ever made.
And I didn't know until later that Kubrick had been watching that movie extensively over and over and over, studying that movie with a microscope to see how they did it. And then he hired Wally Gentleman, who worked for the National Film Board of Canada to come work on 2001 in the early phases of the movie. Wally got sick and so he didn't stay on to the production. But that's really one of the best space movies ever made, that was really one of the big moments for me when I felt there's really, there is hope for this whole thing. And we used that as a reference for To The Moon And Beyond, which just briefly predated 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Was Destination Moon one of those films?
TRUMBULL: Well I saw Destination Moon when I was very young, you know, and it was a - - my own response to it at the time was that it felt kind of hokey and corny. And it also had a big, I think it was a lunar surface that was a stage with a backdrop, painted backdrop. There were no real opticals to a great extent during the live-action stuff on the lunar surface. And the spacesuits looked kind of corny. And I remember as a kid just not being impressed. I was very scared nevertheless.
And I had a really hysterical moment when I was very, very young right about the time my mother died when I was about five years old. Having seen Destination Moon, and then I went on a hike and I was up in Oregon visiting my cousin and I went on a hike and there was this clay ground that had been broken and crushed like the surface in Destination Moon and it completely freaked me out. I went hysterical. I suddenly thought I'm on the moon and I'm going to die. So it had an effect on me, you know, so it's a mix of big effect and corny effect.
Alfonso Cuarón mentioned he founded it hokey, but he loved how they dealt with gravity. Especially how they would use wires.
TRUMBULL: Yeah, there are a lot of, you know, classic techniques of wires and rigs and shooting upside down or trying to create zero G and that was prescient, you know, trying to do that, figuring how to do it.
Prior to the 1960s before we started with Mercury and Apollo missions and Sputnik, filmmakers like Fritz Lang and Melies, how are they interpreting space with what little information they had?
TRUMBULL: Well I think that they were all making their effort that was appropriate to their moment in time with whatever reference materials they had, no one had ever been to the moon, no one had ever seen the moon up close. There were certainly good astronomical photographs of the moon taken by telescopes that were quite stunning so everybody knew they had craters and, you know, rills and all this kind of stuff that was what the moon was supposed to look like.
But I felt, and I still feel that the evolution of the processes that we had at our disposal, that any filmmaker ever had, whether Fritz Lang had or Melies had, at their period in time started with being theatrical. It was stagy, it was a painted backdrop, it was a set, it was props, it was lights on a stage with cameras. And that started to evolve over time into a much more sophisticated art form where you could project a background or superimpose a background or ultimately do a blue screen film background or any other number of stepping stones along the way that made it get better and better.
And all of us, anybody in the movie industry, whoever they were doing visual effects or producing or directing or production designing movies wanted it to be better and you were limited by the tools available to you at the time. So there was this incremental sweep that goes over time.
Wasn't Melies a stage illusionist?
TRUMBULL: Yes. Well, I think it's an interesting idea that movies came from stage illusion. You know, the time of Melies doing tricks on stage, trying to fool an audience, doing kind of a optical magic show, so to speak, of having props and sets and lights and illusions and stuff on stage to a live audience, then become, became projected images with slides and then silhouettes and silhouette performances. And then lighting effects and then projected images and then the projected images became motion picture images and then that became silent moving, movies. And so there's this thread that goes all the way through and starts back with stage illusion, pre-movies.
Trip to the Moon was a fantasy, and then you start to see films become more realistic as we start to see images of real life lunar landings on TV. How did the technique then have to change… using different types of visual effects and techniques to make it more realistic?
TRUMBULL: Well again, I look back on one of the big touchstones for me which was Universe. And they built beautiful, beautiful miniatures, what we call forced perspective miniatures so there would be a big boulder in the foreground and then it would gradually go back to smaller and smaller and smaller to the infinite edge of the limb of the moon or whatever, or a planet or whatever they did in this movie of increasing the perspective by graduating the texture and the lighting and everything. So it looked deep even though it was only 4 feet or something for depth of field.
And it was really an impressive scientifically based attempt to try to replicate what anyone would've thought it would be like to be on the surface of Mercury at super high temperatures or be on a comet where it’s venting gases, or to be on the moon were it's completely sharp-edged rocks and things. And… stars, you know, were a classic problem throughout movie history, which is how big are they, how real are they, how do you make stars?
We went through a huge star thing on 2001, I'll tell you. And ended up painting them, those are all just spattered white paint on black paper. About that big, all the stars in 2001 are about that big. And did it with an airbrush, so I made all the stars in 2001, but it's not that we didn't spend months drilling holes in sheets of aluminum and finding out that human beings, if they are given a drill, make it too regular. It just didn't look real, it didn't look random, it didn't look natural. It just was, Kubrick wanted the stars to be pin sharp and in focus and realistic.
And we had to face this real problem of shooting the film in 70mm but knowing that 35mm print down, so it would be actually more of those than the 70mm prints. And the stars would disappear, they would be there in 70mm, but in the 35 print they would be gone. But then in the Technicolor prints that we made for 2001 in those final days of Technicolor, they would be there because it was a different printing process.
So it's a compromise, because ultimately it's going to end up on television and you say well the stars are just gone. They are just not there at all. It's almost like you want to make different versions of your movie for all these different mediums. There's just no perfect way to do it.
And there were rear projected start fields on the windows and things on the craft you had to deal with as well?
TRUMBULL: Yeah, one of the big problems that I've seen, you are probably going to have others talking about stars. We found out, Richard Yuricich and I were partners for years in Blade Runner and we worked on 2001 and Close Encounters. Close Encounters was a really good example because we had night shots of stars in the sky on a set. And because of depth of field, which is just how much focus the camera has, the distant sky would be out of focus. And we found out that it just looks terrible, out of focus stars just looked terrible and you can’t do that. So we would have shots that had falling off depth of field, you know, Melinda Dillon or somebody would be in the foreground and the background would be out of focus. But we would put the stars in at the end of the shot as a final element and make them sharp.
No one ever complained and it looked completely natural, but it was a real thing to have sharp stars with a blurred background. But that's just the way it has to be. With this film we've been doing here, we've been going through another version of star issues because of 3-D and because of this extremely wide field of view and extreme brightness and frame rate, we've got a new start paradigm that we are working with. So the stars actually appear to be at infinity and are very sharp.
And we found out that in a stereoscopic 3-D live-action scene we actually could let them get slightly out of focus and it looked completely natural because it was, everything else in the shot was going slightly out of focus as well and it actually works okay. So it's a moving target, there is no, there's no one answer.
You have to figure out of depth of field with that Z axis being completely in focus?
TRUMBULL: Yeah, because a stereoscopic thing of being able to force the star’s apparent position to be way at infinity and it's out of focus but you're actually, your attention is focused on the actor in the foreground, as long as your attention it stays with that actor, it seems okay. If you let people start drifting around and get bored with what that actor is doing and start looking at the background, then you might have a little bit more of a problem. But I think it works out pretty well.
Space as a location, a lot of filmmakers have used it as a way to talk about different issues or Destination Moon was ultimately about the Cold War or deforestation and industry. Why do you think that is, why do we transpose these things onto space?
TRUMBULL: I mean we are human beings, you know, we have our own issues. We have our own emotions, we have our own attitudes about life and death and survival and all kinds of things. And so when you make a space movie, you are, you are automatically into an issue about survival because it's a hostile environment. And my idea with Silent Running for instance was to not even worry about that. And to make a very human, personal, emotional story because I was just coming off 2001 which I thought was beautiful. I mean I’m very, very proud of having worked on the movie, but it was cold and unemotional and undramatic in the sense that it was very edgy and cerebral. You know, 2001 is a very cosmic movie.
And so I wanted to just make a normal movie. So to me Silent Running was really like a man alone in the Arctic tundra with three sled dogs. That, emotionally that, that was the course of the movie is his relationship with his drones. It's not about whether it's going to blow up or all the air is going to be gone or he's going to run out of food or anything like that. None of the normal sci-fi things. So that was the, that was the core of the movie for me, which is just that human emotional thing, which is true for people, no matter where they are.
I've been reading a lot of stories recently about, there's a guy who's, I can't remember the astronaut’s name was spent six months on Mir. And many near-death experiences on Mir, Mir was really not a functional spacecraft and it was just constantly blowing up or catching on fire or losing air or venting gases or threatening these astronauts for months on end. And it was really a trial. And those kind of things are very real, but they are not sustainable for a lot of screen time, I don't think.
You still have to stay with the emotional core of the characters. And Gravity is a really good example of a balancing of that. I mean, she is into a really hectic survival situation, but you are able to focus on her and, you know, okay, the air is going out, or she has got to put out this fire or she is weightless or whatever. But ultimately you have to break the rules of reality and stick with the story, which I think Alfonso did really well.
There’s something about that one human being in a suit in this vacuum, void. Everything is a hostile environment.
TRUMBULL: And, and space suits and helmets are a real big problem in space movies. And, like Jim Cameron did his own take in Avatar where instead of having these big bubbly space helmets with the big ring around your neck, he just had this little plant on thing that you could snap on and off like a gas mask, much more simple and much less intrusive so that you can see the actor's face. You don't have to build a space helmet with lights inside of it so you can see the expression on the actor's face, which I just find really annoying.
And I'm sure the actors find it annoying. And I can’t imagine the world of being an actor or actress in a space helmet most of the time, because it's just got to be horrible to try to perform. So you want to find ways to get that helmet off as, as Alfonso did very well in that movie. So let's see what she is feeling and not have to look through glass too much.
Once we do plant our feet on the moon, filmmaking changes and a few people pointed out that the original Star Trek series was on the air at the point where we actually landed on the moon, and it didn't do that well because people were more interested in what they were seeing on TV. They were actually seeing Neil Armstrong and seeing these real people and being in that sort of environment with them. How did filmmaking shift from that point forward, especially leading into 2001?
TRUMBULL: 2001 was right at the cusp of that, you know, it came out of 1968 when we landed on the moon in 1969, I believe. And we didn't know exactly what it was going to look like, I had huge arguments with Stanley about what I thought the lunar terrain would look like. And I was correct but he got his way. He wanted it to look like craggy mountains and all that stuff. But it didn't hurt, it didn't hurt the film but I think the film would have been better if we had had these soft kind of rills and powdery looking rocky crater surface.
But I think the thing that happened as a result of the actual being on the moon is that it became like live television, it became almost like sports or something where you've got what looks like surveillance cameras, you know, because they were very careful to, you know, before Neil Armstrong puts his foot down, someone has got a camera photographing it. And I always think about well, who is the camera? How did the camera get there before he set foot, you know, that kind of logistics.
And so there was this kind of raw, edgy, almost impossible to even decipher kind of imagery that was low resolution, flickery, noisy, blipping in and out and everything that created a kind of hyper realism that's almost like a crude electronic documentary that then started pervading space films and science-fiction films of trying to get more gritty, trying to be more handheld.
And being handheld is really hard when you're doing a composite shot because you've got to match the movements and all this kind of stuff. So one of the big issues that we faced in the simultaneous production of Star Wars, which my father worked on with John Dykstra and Close Encounters which I was working on with Steven Spielberg was motion control and how to actually allow camera movement during a composite shot.
That was the big thing we had to solve. And so we had two teams building electronic, you know, computer controlled step remote controlled camera movers for Star Wars and Close Encounters simultaneously. And we had this kind of competition going on that was a lot of fun. And it was very good-natured, but it was trying to free up the camera to be more natural. So that, you know, we had shots, I think we were the first people to shoot motion controlled camera tracking on location in Mobile, Alabama where, you know, François Truffaut was here, and the camera’s looking at him and he is going to walk and do a 180° pan and reveal three UFOs out at the end of the landing pad.
And you had to track that and capture the motion that the camera operator did. And that was a real first. It's not like that wasn't tried before. There was a wonderful motion control system, I think it was designed by Claire Schleifer at MGM, much previous to that. Which was used on many films at MGM where they actually recorded camera motion on vinyl records and played them into a camera with motors by some means. And then there was this motion control system that Wally Veevers built for 2001, which we used which was very successful in allowing a certain amount of camera freedom, but you'll see in 2001 for instance all the movements are constant speed.
It never slows down, never goes back, never changes rate or anything. It was constant speed. And that technical limitation of just having a whole bunch of motors connected together electronically, they're all running at the same speed with different gearboxes, but that gave the movie this kind of balletic constant motion, almost like a dance, which in retrospect made the Blue Danube Waltz work. And Kubrick certainly didn't anticipate that and he wouldn’t find out until he cut the movie, and then started looking for a musical score and then suddenly you see oh, now these two things fit together, this kind of music and this kind of motion fit together.
Now we can do anything. Now you look at movies today, particularly Gravity and it's moving all over the place without cuts. And it's amazing, but it’s a completely new world that's been opened up by computer graphics.
Using those automotive robots as their motion controlled cameras and they are spinning around 360°...
TRUMBULL: Yeah, I think that was, you know, that was a component of it. I find automotive robots to be really scary because they're extremely, they could just whack your head off if something goes wrong, if there is a loose wire, that thing is just gonna go ballistic and runaway motion control systems are secret stories of the movie industry where a camera will just head down the track and, you know, go off a cliff. So those robotic things that Alfonso used in Gravity, to me were scary.
But extremely effective because it's really mostly an animated movie with those camera moves added to put the actors into the helmets. That's an oversimplification. But it's that kind of freedom that has now been allowed by this extremely sophisticated electronics and extremely sophisticated technologies we have, like Avatar. That's a completely deconstructed movie process. It's not even directed conventionally. You never, you know, he's not aiming his camera at actors. He's just motion capturing performances and then piecing it together and then putting together his, he’s post directing a movie. It's the weirdest thing.
It's complete deconstruction of classic cinematography or editorial style or cinematic language. And that's freeing. And I think that's one of the big touchstones that I see in movie history and space movies and Avatar is a good example, is that it's the geekiest movie of all time, it's completely technologically out there, it was extremely expensive and yet he's a great director and it's the biggest grossing movie of all time. That's got to tell you that the audience wants something new, they want to be there, they want to feel that they are in the movie, they want to be immersed by the movie, they want to be flying, they want to be jumping off cliffs, they want to be on whatever, like a theme park ride.
And so I really take that to heart now, and that's where I'm trying to head with the work that I'm doing now is to try to who allow the audience to feel like they are actually there. And that's an important set of components to put together.
I would imagine for you as a filmmaker, inventing things and constantly improving things has got to make it more fun and interesting, but it translates to the audience as well?
TRUMBULL: I could talk about this forever, but the movie business that we all know so well that we think we love and we know has been 24 frames a second ever since the Jazz Singer in, I think 1927 and we haven't really criticized or critiqued that. And that, that speed was limited by celluloid film, sprocket plastic and mechanical claws that were moving the film from one frame to the next and closing the shutter between. And we’ve stuck with that, but now that we've made this amazing transition from celluloid to digital, I think it's time to just reevaluate the whole thing because we don't need to carry forward all those old limitations because they are not limitations anymore.
You don't need a shutter anymore, you can go any frame rate you want. You can change the screen size, you can change the brightness, you can change all the qualities of the movie. And my personal interest as it relates to space movies is to make you feel like you are in space. That is what I think people want to experience safely. They want to be in their seat, they actually don't want to go into space. You know, and so Richard Branson is trying to say, okay you can really go to space, you have $200,000, you can go into space, you can do it.
So adventure spaceflight is right around the corner and it's going to be a real thing. But for every one person who may have a quarter million dollars to go into space, there's millions of us others who just as well be safe and stay on the ground, but have that experience. So I think we are getting very close to being able to do that.
When you were talking about the rig that Wally Veevers designed, was that the 'Sausage Factory?'
TRUMBULL: It was actually. It was called the Sausage Factory and the idea, the reason, that was named because, we had to make 10 shots a day, we're just going to crank out shots like crazy, it's a factory, we’re going to manufacture shots, it's going to be easy, fast and simple. That was why it was named. That was not true. It took forever. But it was this very clever device that Wally built, which was one big motor driving everything.
And so this big motor had a shaft coming out of it and it's running at constant speed. It would go into a gearbox and that gearbox would go through a shaft to like a dozen gearboxes through shafts to these celson motors that would be these repeater motors, so whatever one motor did another motor somewhere else would do exactly the same thing. So you could link this to the focus on the camera or the tilt on the camera or the pan on the camera or the movement on a track or any, or anything you wanted to move could all be mechanically linked together electrically.
And once you turn this thing on, everything would kind of move together and then it would all move back. And then it would move again. And so you could do multiple passes and exactly match the movements. So we could do shots where there's a spacecraft and there's the sky, there's background, there’s stars, there's the moon, there's whatever and all the movements would match. Even though it was constant speed, it matched the movements. And it was completely what I would call electromechanical.
That was the limitation of the time, we didn't have computers. So when I, when I came back off of 2001, knowing that was one of our biggest limitations, I started experimenting myself with well, how are we going to do this differently? I started studying computer technology and robotics and I discovered these things called stepper motors where you could record a series of square wave pulses, even on a home tape recorder and play them into one of these motors and it would repeat that just like playing a record.
So our first motion control system was a four track stereo quad tape recorder with four different signals in it running to four different motors and they could all change speeds. They could slow up, speed down, change direction, started doing television commercials and things using stepper motors for the first time. So this was the beginning of digital motion control.
At that point were you doing multiple exposures in camera or were you already optical printing?
TRUMBULL: It was a combination of both, there would be some multiple exposures in camera and some where you would shoot separate elements and then print them together in an optical printer with various mattes and masks. So, for instance if you were shooting Star Wars or Close Encounters or a UFO or whatever, you could shoot a move where the UFO could fly through the shot and change direction and slow down or whatever or hover, you know, whatever you wanted it to do. And then you could shoot it again exactly the same but just making the object a silhouette against a white background, like we would just light up the background white and it would be a black silhouette against white, that would create a matte, and we would shoot exactly the same move again, create the matte.
That gets processed as a separate piece of film so that when you get into the optical printer, you could take that image of the UFO and the image of the background and put them together with the exact same motion and it would all fit. Not perfectly, but as close as we could do at the time. We were always struggling against what we call matte lines and black edges, which you will see in Close Encounters and Star Wars. And when George Lucas redid Star Wars, he went through and got rid of all that old stuff.
Just electronically processed it out and rotoed it out and digital compositing today is seamless. It's really perfect. So the threat is that the digital technologies we have now, and particularly digital photography and digital projection have enabled us to really rethink the entire thing. So you're seeing movies that are amazing visual effects that would've been virtually impossible 15 years ago.
It might be sensory overload because now you can do anything and everything and maybe there's too much going on.
TRUMBULL: Well, as a film maker you've got to, you've got to have a brain, you’ve got to say what is the story I'm trying to tell and how is the audience going to relate to this because all the special effects in the world aren’t going to save a movie. You better have a good story and a good performance and, you know, there's got to be something going on that you can connect to as a human being.
So all of the techniques you learned on 2001, how did you then take that and apply it to your team with Silent Running the shots of the Valley Forge?
TRUMBULL: One of the biggest things that I adapted from 2001 was front projection technology. This was a weird thing to try to explain, but it's basically a surface in the background, it's a big screen that at the back of the stage that is what is called a retroreflective screen. It's a material made by 3M and it's like billions of little beads of glass. And any ray of light that enters a bead of glass bounces right back to where it came from. And that's why reflectors on cars or retro, reflective signs, you know, stop signs, they light up in your headlights because they are what's called retroreflective.
This had been invented before 2001, but not used as extensively as it was in 2001 and basically what you do is you say well I'm going to project an image on this wall behind the stage, which is going to have this material on it, this retro reflective stuff. And you put a, your camera’s looking at the scene and in front of the camera you put a 45° 50/50 mirror okay, so you're looking through the mirror. The camera doesn't see it, just it's invisible. But from the side you project the image from exactly the same angle so the image you are projecting and the view you are looking at hits this mirror and bounces out.
The image seems to be, as though it’s coming from the camera. So it goes out, hits the screen and bounces back. And because of the brightness of this retroreflective bead, it's 200 times brighter than where it hits a person or a set or a prop or whatever. So the image stays back there. You know, the camera doesn't register that is actually shining on the bodies of the actors because it's so dim. But they exactly fill their own shadows.
So what it gets you as a filmmaker is a composite shot in real time in the camera done and you're finished, you don't have to do any optical printing or anything. And you can pan and tilt and zoom the camera. So this is what Kubrick had, this front projection machine built that weighed about 2000 pounds. It was a monstrous big steel thing with a giant 8 x 10 still photography projector, so the 8 x 10 plates that were shot in Africa could be projected onto this giant screen on the stage.
And the camera is looking through the mirror, and the whole gizmo was so heavy and impossible to move around that they decided to move the set instead. So the entire set for the treadmill sequence was on a turntable on the stage so that you didn't change an angle by moving the camera, you changed an angle by moving the set. I mean mind bogglingly complicated thing to do.
But the front projection on 2001 really looked great and didn't require any optical compositing. And I thought well, that's really, if we can miniaturize this and make it cheap and simple, I found a really wonderful engineer in LA and we built a little front projection machine that was this big with a 35mm Aeroflex camera on it and a beam splitter mirror and instead of projecting 8 x 10s, I projected 4 x 5s, which were, you know, that big. And so I shot all my plates of the backgrounds in Silent Running of stars and Saturn and the interior of dome, the dome struts and everything as miniatures.
Had all these standing by in boxes of hundreds of different angles on these miniatures and I could project them onto the set on a 40 foot wide front projection screen. And instead of having to move the set around, we could move the screen around. We had the screen was on wheels so I could shoot anywhere in that set, which was an old airplane hangar in the Van Nuys airport, and if I moved over here I just moved the screen over there. And project some, whatever background was for that shot. And we could shoot 15 of these setups a day, in addition to our normal coverage. It was mind bogglingly fast and lightweight and efficient.
And so it allowed me to bring a really higher production value to Silent Running, which was a small, almost independent 35mm movie and bring it into a budgetable thing. I mean, Silent Running was $1,300,000 at the time, very low-budget movie and bring this kind of production quality that had been on 2001. So that was just the one example of what I could bring to. And then we also, that was the beginning of motion control and I was working with John Dykstra and was shooting all the miniatures for Silent Running. And we were shooting miniatures with front projection as well.
So whenever you see a shot of the Valley Forge spacecraft, it's actually front projection so the stars behind it are being projected with this projector as well. There's a whole documentary film about the making of it. And so we were able to make this movie for very little money by just being clever. But I think one of the main themes about that for me is that in order to enable the making of your movie at low-cost or whatever, you have to build a gizmo. You can't rent it down the street, it doesn't exist, no one's ever built one before. You've got to really be nervy and say okay, I'm going to hire a guy, I’m going to build this thing and we’re going to use it and it's going to work and you’ve got to be pretty sure it's going to work because you're putting a lot at risk.
And it's that kind of balancing of risk and reward that I've been doing all my life because I'm very comfortable with engineering. My father was an engineer, I grew up around band saws and drill presses and welders. And so I became kind of fearless about building gizmos. Most filmmakers are not that way. And so I've always felt that every movie presents a challenge, and to bring something to the screen that the audience has never seen before, you have to build a device or solve a problem or make a new lens or swap a camera or do some engineering thing to enable your vision. And then when you make your vision and you make your movie, all that becomes invisible to the audience. They don’t care that you built a widget, they saw a movie they never saw before.
In my interview with him for this same project, John Dykstra mentioned when they were first in the hangar at Kerner Optical, they said they mapped out some stuff on the ground with duct tape and they started building. And they built everything from scratch. It sounds like so much fun.
TRUMBULL: It is, it is. You know, some of the happiest guys I’ve ever met in the movie industry are the people that build the miniatures because they are like in Santa’s Workshop. They just love building miniatures and they're always happy and they work around the clock, whatever you need, they just love miniatures. So that's one of the nicest aspects of movies is miniatures and I still love them and I still use them.
What are some of the challenges that miniatures present, but what are some of the advantages they give you?
TRUMBULL: The advantages that miniatures give you, if you photograph them properly, if you light them properly, you can make a miniature look fake, if you don't light it properly or you don't have the right depth of field. And I've met seasoned cinematographers that are heads of the ACE who doesn't know what depth of field is. I mean it's actually happened. And I say well it’s all got to be in focus because if it's a miniature and if anything is out of focus, it will look like a miniature instantaneously, any audience member, trained or not will say it looks fake.
So you've got to get depth of field right, and you’ve got to get lighting right you've got to get perspective right, you've got to match the focal length of the lens so the focal length of the lens that you’re shooting with for the live-action has got to match the focal length that you are shooting for the miniature, otherwise they won't fit together in space. So there's a lot of things to the art of miniatures. But my, the result is that they age very gracefully. If you look at the miniatures in 2001, it’s a really good example, the space station or any of the miniatures in that movie, they still look pretty good. They still look convincingly amazingly powerful.
Whereas if you do it with computer graphics, it ages ungracefully because the computer graphics industry is improving on the lighting and the texture mapping and the geometry every year or every month and getting better and better and better. So if you look five years back, movies made with computer graphics can suddenly look very dated. They may not, they might not hold, hold up as well as a miniature would hold up. So I think there's also another thing about miniatures, which is, excuse me, about computer graphics is that, you know, you're talking about thousands of polygons in a computer with lighting and texture mapping and all these arts that are part of trying to make something synthetic look not synthetic.
And the last 2% is the most expensive part of the equation. And often the studio or the production company will just run out of money or they just won't be able to render it the last time to get to what we call photorealism. And it might look a little bit fake. It might look a little bit corny and they're just hoping that they can cut the movie so fast that you won't notice. And I see it all the time. If you actually, you know, play a DVD or a Blu-ray of a movie they you really admire and just keep stopping it, freeze frame on that shot that you like and then scrutinize what's going on, you say oh there's all kinds of mistakes in that shot.
But it was the fact that it was fast cut, got away with it. So young people today who are playing video games are very sensitive to computer graphics and they don't like anything that looks fake. And so if you are doing too much of it or you are not doing it well, the audience can just immediately turn off and say that's just, it doesn't cut the mustard for me, I don't believe this. So I like, I like a mixture that's really mostly miniatures and some computer graphics.
I certainly love digital compositing because it's way better than any optical printing. So it's just try to find a sweet spot, and I gravitate towards what I call organic effects, which is things in tanks, natural things, miniatures, stuff that surprises me all the time with natural phenomena. Like I use a lot of dyes in tanks and things where weird stuff happens that you would never expect that no one could ever write code for in a computer to create some cloud effect. I often see cloud effects in movies that just do not look convincing to me at all because it's particle effects are like one of the hardest things to get because it's a fluid dynamics issue and a lighting issue. And I think miniatures and organic effects can be much less expensive and a lot more fun and more convincing than computer graphics.
The launch sequence in Apollo 13 comes to mind. Here’s this miniature, but they are enhancing it and supplementing it with computer effects.
TRUMBULL: Yeah, high-speed photography is another thing that actually enables some amazing phenomena that you never would've seen before. Because in the days of film, sprocketed film, you just can't move the film fast enough to shoot really high-speed. The highest speed we ever shot on 2001 was about 72 frames a second. Now with Phantom cameras or other purveyors of digital high-speed cameras you can go 1000 frames a second easily, 1500 frames a second and you will suddenly see stuff that you never would have even, would've gone by in the blink of an eye and it's really fascinating. So I'm, I'm all for that. We do it quite often around here.
I recently just saw a VFX Supervisor shoot shoot an actress with a wind machine with the Phantom camera made her hair look almost super-human.
TRUMBULL: It's very satisfying, there's just something about it. You know it's real but it's beautiful.
Tomorrow: Part Three - The conclusion of the interview, and a quick lunch before our goodbyes.