The Godfather of Modern Films Wants to Save The Industry - Part Three

(Photo courtesy of Douglas Trumbull)

(Photo courtesy of Douglas Trumbull)

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 three of a three part series.

Presented here is the remainder of the transcript of my conversation with Douglas Trumbull. In yesterday's post, we discussed the evolution of space and space travel in films over the decades. Now, conversation turns to the future.

In the more recent era of theatrical experiences, you’ve got the 70mm and IMAX experiences, what are those doing for space films and helping bring the audience and so they kind of forget they're sitting in that seat?

TRUMBULL:  That's what we are doing here [at my studio] right now, is trying to figure out how to go beyond the limitations of film. And I've been probably one of the strongest advocates of large-format IMAX, Showscan, 70mm, Super Panavision, you name it, I'm for it and have been all my life. And all the movies that I've done that have had the, you know, hung around for a long time have had the effects at least shot in 70mm, 65mm negative. And I'm very proud of that because it's high-quality.
One of the problems that's besieged the digital industry is that it started out that television was digital, right? And so people started adapting television cameras and trying to make movies with them. And the quality was just never good enough. And so it kept getting better and better and better and Sony and Panasonic and other companies came up with digital cameras that have more resolution… And then they tried to approach film.
But the truth of the matter was, over the last 20 or 30 years, digital had this reputation for never being as good as film. It could never quite get there. Film just had this texture and this clarity and this vividness that was just unsurpassed. And that's one of the aspects of people’s habit about what they expect. When I started looking into the issue of digital frame rates and resolution and screen size and brightness and all kinds of issues that I think need dramatic improvement to make movies better, I realized that digital enabled all that to happen and film did not.
So I started shooting tests at 4K instead of 2K, which is four times the image resolution. And at 120 frames a second instead of 24, which is five times the frame rate. So there's much less blurring, everything is sharper projecting on much bigger screens, much more brightly because 3-D movies you see in movie theaters these days, there are three, four, five stops lost and it’s pathetically dim and very hard to watch. It creates a tremendous amount of eyestrain.
I thought if we get brightness back up and try to do the stereo space more comfortably where the field of view of the camera matches the field of view of the projection, it's very important to reconstruct a normal sense of perspective, suddenly your eyes can relax. They say, "Oh, that looks natural to me." I'm focusing more on converging, all my muscles are not, you know, going into agony trying to converge on an actor who is three feet away, but the screen is really 60 feet away. That creates eyestrain.
So I started trying to solve all these problems. And I discovered this territory and we call it Magi, which is this process we are working with, which is a way to use digital technology to solve all the old problems of film and do something that is actually substantially superior in every way so that we are not limited by film frame rates, we’re not limited by film grain, we are not film, limited by shutter closing or any of those things. And it's opening up this whole new territory that I'm really excited about as a filmmaker. I've done it because it's my next widget. I want to make films with it, I'm not just an engineer in the lab trying to solve a technical problem, I want to make movies that are totally immersive and hopefully almost indistinguishable from reality.
When you're sitting in your seat and you're looking at this gigantic screen that's wider than Cinerama ever was or wider than IMAX ever was and brighter and clearer and sharper and more 3-D depth, it brings up a whole new sense of immersion like being there. And so we are at this moment in time where I just finished this little film called UFOTOG and we’re starting to show it to the industry and see if directors and studios say oh wow, we could actually get people back into theaters because this is, you can’t get this on your tablet, you can’t get this on your television set, you can’t get it on other media, you've got to go to a theater to have this experience. And we will see if it gets some traction.

That's what gets people back in the theater, because they want that experience they can't get at home.

TRUMBULL:  Yeah, and the movie, the movie business is in kind of a crisis right now. I mean theaters are closing. Exhibitors who run multiplexes don't have enough product to show. Studios are not making enough movies. And studios find themselves trapped in the syndrome of the blockbuster, tentpole franchise, repeatable syndrome of giant scale, special-effects driven movies that are exportable. They don't export American social values, they just export comic heroes or whatever, which plays in foreign. Because 75% of the money is coming from foreign markets. The DVD sell-through has plummeted. So it's a completely new business model for the movie industry and young people today are finding that whoa, they can stream, download, get Netflix, YouTube, you name it, they can get the story on tablet for a fraction of the cost of going to a movie theater and it is creating a crisis.
So my agenda is to solve that problem. So if you go to a movie theater, you're going to get something that is truly spectacular and truly immersive and transportative and emotive and all the other stuff the movies have to be. It's not like special-effects or high frame rates are going to replace the drama that a movie has to have. It's got to be everything. And if we can get there, I think we can, we can revive the movie industry. I think we really can, I think it's well within reach right now. It's very easy to do, it's elegantly simple, it's not very expensive, and it means we’ve got to just rethink the whole thing.

When a young mind that goes to the theaters and sees a movie like Gravity, what is the widget or innovation that they are going to come up with 15 or 20 years down the line inspired by what they've seen?

TRUMBULL:  I don't know. I subscribe to the GoPro movie of the week. I mean if you follow GoPro, it's a camera that you can bolt it to your head, you can bolt it to your wrist, you can put it on your feet, you can put it on your surfboard, you can put it on your skis, you can put it on your motorcycle and make these incredibly immersive experiential movies with a camera that costs 200 bucks that can go anywhere that is indestructible and will run for two hours uninterrupted, you don't need to edit or cut or turn it on or off or anything. It's enabled, it's a whole new kind of super immersive high-intensity sports kind of activity to be filmed, but it's only being shown on a tablet or your computer.
It's not quite good enough quality to put on a big screen. And I'm thinking, what if we could make tiny cameras that could do this Magi process like a GoPro camera but it's going to look like this, and kind of crowd source content. Take these cameras, go make whatever you want. You want to do special-effects, greenscreen, it's ubiquitous, easy, you can buy it at, you know, Best Buy and you're in business, you know, you got your laptop, you've got your camera, you got your little editing program, you're in business.
So I think it's a complete paradigm shift in what content can be. It's not that we won't want to make very complex expensive special effects epic extravaganzas, they're great and it's the only way to get there, you know, you can't GoPro your way into The Avengers or something. But there's plenty of room for everything. I think people seek alternative experiences, they seek out of body experiences. We feel limited by the physicality of our senses, what we can hear and what we can see and what we can feel.
And so when you go to a movie theater you want to be taken away, you want to go to space, you want to go underwater, you want to go to Mount Everest, you want to go to another dimension in time, or whatever. Get me out of here, because I have all, I have my everyday life every day, you know, so, movies have always provided that kind of alternate reality.

You can be immersed with characters or you can get immersed with this crazy guy who has put a GoPro on his head to skydive...

TRUMBULL:  And the thing that I try to get a grip on is that media, like movies or television tells stories, okay? So if you are going to aim a camera at an actor or actress and you are going to tell a love story or a crime story or a whatever story, it's a story. It has a beginning, middle and an end, it’s dialogue, it’s conflict, it's all kind of stuff that is literature. And the thing that I was profoundly affected by when I had the good luck to work with Stanley Kubrick on 2001, he said, I'm so tired of melodramatic cinema conventions and over the shoulder shots and two shots and master shots and close-ups.
He was completely bored with this. He wanted to make this immersive movie, and he knew he had this palette, these 90’ Cinerama screens around the world, it was called Cinerama at the time, 90 foot deeply curved screens. And he felt that this was an opportunity to change cinematic language and make the audience feel like they were going to be on this adventure in space. And so when it came to shooting a scene like the Stargate sequence, and Keir Dullea is in the pod, any director would cut to a reverse angle on Keir and they would cut to an over the shoulder shot of Keir, over the shoulder looking out the window of the pod, all the normal cinematic language stuff would be there.
Kubrick started doing that and he said, I hate this. And he started dropping all those shots. Then he stopped even shooting shots like that. We did tests to try it and he said no, I want the audience to be in the pod going through the thing and get rid of normal cinematic convention and let the audience be there. Don't interrupt it with melodrama. So that became his direction for the entire style of 2001, was for him to get out of the way and let the audience go on this adventure. And that's the thing that sets 2001 apart from almost all other movies.

So when you're seeing him enter the Stargate, it's not a dirty shot with his shoulder in the frame? It's his point of view?

TRUMBULL:  No, you don’t need it, you don’t need it. And you don't need to explain it. Did anybody in 2001 say on, "Hold on, we’re going to go through a Stargate,' or "we’re going to transcend time and space?" No one mentions anything, it just happens. And that is so cool. I mean, it completely distorted my career because I thought well, if this is what movies are like coming in, and then I found out it wasn't like that. After 2001 these giant Cinerama theaters were chopped up into multiplexes and the big pallet went away. The bit screens went away, everything went mobile, production went into trucks and went out on location and shot in the desert or in wherever, and the studios got rid of their backlots, they got rid of half their stages and the movie business went through this transition of trying to cut costs and make reality. Well, it's okay up to a point. But reality is not what I'm interested in.

It stopped being fun to you.

TRUMBULL:  Yeah. In a way, cinemas kind of lost their way. And I think there is a tremendous history of experience and knowledge and technology that has been the underpinning of the movie industry from its inception. It's always been dependent upon what's the next lens, what's the next camera, what's the next projector, you know, what's the next recording device, what's the next multichannel sound system? You can’t ignore that, you have to say well, yeah, what is the next thing, how do we use it creatively to make a movie that provides something that is not just a story. Because if you want just a story, watch television. It's fine. Stories pass through television effortlessly. But if you want to make an experience, it's kind of a story, but it's something else.

Other filmmakers that you feel are using the techniques to good effect. So who are some of the filmmakers that you feel take technology and don't use it as the spectacle and make it the actual experience that brings audiences into theaters?

TRUMBULL:  Well I think that there is a kind of a creative process that directors use. Christopher Nolan is a good example, Alfonso Cuarón is a good example, there's a few to them, JJ Abrams even. Many directors, they look at the available tools and they say oh, we could actually shoot this sequence, we could shoot a sequence with the set completely upside down and actors hanging on wires and we could make it look weightless or make it look like a dream or something like Inception and do this amazing thing, therefore what story am I going to tell because it would be cool to do that.
There's kind of an inverted creative process I think that goes on to say okay, now that Apollo 13 successfully actually shot real weightlessness in the vomit comet, wow that really looks real. And it was incredibly difficult to do and incredibly expensive to do, but the audience loved it. And so it was the availability of that plane to be able to do zero gravity that probably enabled the idea that oh yeah, we could do Apollo 13, you know what I'm saying?
It's the technology enabling a story. They are, they are woven together inextricably in creating an ability to do something that you couldn't do before. Because audiences are going to come to theaters because they want to see something that they didn't see the one. They don't want to see another Western, they don't want to see another crime thriller, leave that for television. They want an experience that goes beyond the limitations of television reality, you've gotta come up with a better mousetrap. And so it’s usually technological. And the thing that I'm trying to offer the industry right now is to say, well let’s break all the rules, use this digital technology and really push it to an extreme because we can do higher frame rates, we can do more resolution, projectors can project, screens can be bigger, it's not rocket science. There’s nothing we are doing here that isn't actually off-the-shelf.
And it's very cheap. It's all about data. And if you can get a terabyte of storage at Staples for $35, you have no data problems.
I'm just trying to nudge people out of the old world and get them to embrace something new and different.

Sounds like that's what gets you excited about it?

TRUMBULL:  It is. I don’t do it because I’m a geek, I do it because I'm a filmmaker that wants to create an experience that I never saw before, that you never saw before. And that will be fun. So I developed the technology first to say okay, now what do we do with it? And like this little film here, we did a little test, a close-up of a friend of ours. He's not an actor at all, but I said but I want you to be two feet from the camera. I want you to look at the audience and I want you to talk to everybody that’s in that camera, the audience.  Look directly at the camera, it's forbidden, it’s fourth wall, you don't do that in this process and I want you to pour your heart out, tell me your most intimate story.
And he did it and we were shocked and it enabled this whole development of something that I call first person experiential cinema to where it's like a hologram in the sense that it is completely, it seems completely real and the actor is talking to you. And the story is constructed, the story that we show here today is constructed so that it embraces the presence of the audience. It acknowledges your presence in the theater is important to that guy. He wants you to see what he is going to show, it's a secret, the CIA is after him, they're going to shut him down in an hour, he’s got, the clock is ticking. And by the time the movie is over, the fact that you saw the movie is his redemption. And that's a completely different dramatic construct than we've seen in movies.
But it's enabled by the technology, which is that that guy looks like he is right in your face talking to you directly, eye line contact. And when that is a big-name actor or actress or a really wonderful Shakespearean British, you know, Ian McClellan or something, he is looking at you as though you are the dwarf or whatever, I think it's going to be a paradigm shifter. And that's fascinating to me. It's like, it's like finding a new concept, it's like we don't have to adhere to these old rules, we can do something completely unknown and different.
Recently I worked with Terry Malik on Tree Of Life and that was a wonderful experience because Terry was looking for, he calls it the dao. He says, "I'm going to hope and pray that the camera is actually rolling when something unexpected happens." And so if you ever, if you know anything about how Terry Malick directs and constructs movies, he has a screenplay, or he has an idea and he gets his crew and his actors together. But while the camera is rolling and the performance is happening, he's talking constantly. They have to loop him out of the shot.
He is saying, “no, try this,” or, and he constantly gives them change-ups to try to get them to do something spontaneous that's unscripted and dynamically emotive in some way. And that transposed over to the visual effects for The Tree Of Life. We would go in on weekends to this really old building, it was just like a warehouse, and we would bring every conceivable kind of dye and road flare and burning stuff and tanks of liquid and shoot experimental stuff and see what happened.
That is so unusual in our industry - to do R&D with a crew on weekends and try to discover something that no one has ever seen before. And then combine that with computer graphics, we were using new compositors and stuff and the compositor was there with us. And he would say, well if you did this, I could take that and put it on that and then we could make an asteroid hitting the Earth and it’s going to look really great. So we would do that.
And it's that kind of fluid experiment, experimental openness that's unique, not unique to Terry, but unusual that I really admire. And it's the ability. Like Alfonso, I mean who would've thought you could use a big industrial robot to photograph an actress or actor and put their face into an animated character and make it look like that. I mean it's absolutely stunning and mind-boggling. I'm sure it didn't happen overnight. And it was probably a developmental process to figure out how to do it.
And then the whole thing that Jim Cameron did with Avatar of deconstructing the whole directorial process and motion capturing actors and actresses and then animating them to actually replicating their emotional persona as a blue Avatarian, it was mind-boggling. And then he could move the camera anywhere he wants in post-production and really stage incredible dynamic impossible-to-do camera moves and put that all together into a digital composite that just looks mind-boggling and it’s 3-D. So I say that's where I think the future of cinema is, if it's going to be this kind of experiential explore, exploratory. There is risk, you've got to have a new widget, you’ve got to go into a new territory. You almost have to invent a new thing on every movie.
Otherwise it gets old. I mean you can do Transformers over and over and over. You can do Spider-Man over and over and over until the audience will finally say, okay, enough already. Give me the next thing. But I just think we are in a really exciting time that's constrained by old habits. The old habits of 24 frames on a rectangular screen at the end of a box is boring. You've got that at home. And I think about it, the way like to express it, is I say okay, I’m sitting here and watching, I'm watching my tablet, okay? I hold my tablet, it's about that wide, so that's about 25° wide. If I look at my 80” flatscreen plasma TV that's 10 feet away from me, it's still about 25° and it's really almost no different, it's just a little farther away but bigger, it's no different.
You go to a theater and the screen is 40 feet wide, but it's 60 feet away, it's no different. If we want to really change the audience’s relationship and, and involvement in the movie, you've got to get that screen bigger. That's what they do in flight simulators. The rule in a flight simulator, if you want to convince a fighter jockey that he is in a cockpit, it better be over 100° wide. And if you talk to people like we work with people at Christie Digital in their flight simulation digital and say what frame rate you want this, they say we want 120 or 240 or 480. The more the better. It just gets more and more real.
If you want people to be immersed in their situation, that's what you do: Wider, bigger, brighter, faster. It just gets better. We could do that with movies now.
I feel like I'm a total lone wolf trying to do this. And I need some help and I need to be embraced by the industry and so we're going to start showing this and saying okay, let's come on. Let's join forces and do this because it's very easy to do.

And that, mixed with the collaborative process that people are challenged, it feels a good thing…

TRUMBULL:  I mean you have to, you know, there's, historically there's a lot of people who, because of their insecurity, try to make their little widget secret. Big mistake, don’t make your widget secret. Give your widget away, be completely transparent. You've got to just throw it out there and say hey, you want to use it, you use it, do whatever you want. I will help you. But I'm not trying to tell you what to do with it, I'm just saying here is the widget and that could be in any form. But the kind of transparency that has, I think been borne out of the Internet and kind of a new way of working and doing business.
And it's troublesome because so many people expect to get something for free. And you can’t invent these things for free. There's got to be some payoff, there's got to be some way to make money, but it's probably a new business model too that you’ve got to, you've got to discover. We are in a scary time and an exciting time.

The interview comes to a close and I turn to my DP, Michael. The two of us share a look as if to say without vocalizing, "Wow, that really just happened?" I thank Doug for his time and for the incredible conversation. Which was far more than we needed for the brief 42-minute documentary. He asks if we'd like to join him for lunch before hitting the road. Of course, without hesitation, we all say yes.

We quickly wrap all of our gear and follow him back to the main house where an impressive spread of sandwiches, salads, cookies and more have all been laid out not just for us, but for all of Trumbull's crew. Lunches are shared fireside among the crew working for Trumbull in the cozy home, and we are among the few that are lucky enough to join in the ritual. Camera crew, construction, farmhands, assistants, everyone eats together as a family of about a dozen by my count.

I sit next to a table next to Doug and his wife Julia, who continue to be the most gracious of hosts. Everyone shares a comfortable silence, eating a hearty and delicious meal after a long day's worth of work. Suddenly the thought occurs to me that I'm sitting with the man behind Back to the Future: The Ride and it just happens to be the calendar year 2015. I can't resist and I tell him what a fan of the ride I am. I tell him how disappointed that I was Universal Studios decided to replace it with a fully-CG Simpsons attraction. He shakes his head and I worry that I've pushed too far, bringing up a sensitive subject. Instead, he takes a drink of his coffee and simply tells me that the film for the theme park ride was one of his proudest achievements. The making of the Back to the Future Ride film was incredibly complex. Bookending our conversation about having to invent widgets in order to get the job done, Trumbull had to help invent the technology not just to film the ride, but also to project it for the ride cars. He excuses himself from the table and walks to a shelf where he pulls out an album and sets it in front me. It's filled with photos and designs from the making of the ride. As I flip through the book, he points out people, equipment, elaborate and intricate miniatures, giving me the key details just as a proud grandfather would show off photos of his grandkids.

The sun weighed heavy on the horizon and despite wanting to stay and continue the conversation and enjoy the hospitality, the time had come when we all felt like we had outstayed our welcome... and were concerned we'd get lost trying to find our way out of the Berkshires in the dark. We said our goodbyes and before I knew it, I was back in my rental car and on the Turnpike.

This time, I avoided the EZPass mistake but was completely lost in thought for the multi-hour drive. No radio, no music, just a couple hours with myself reflecting on the experience as I drove back to Boston. Immediately upon checking into my hotel room, I dropped an email to Doug and Julia thanking them for their gracious hospitality and for being so welcoming.

My last contact with Doug was later in the spring of 2015, informing him that the company that I was working with was dissolving our group. I reiterated to him just how much my experience at his farm meant to me and asked if he'd be okay with me posting the article that you've just almost finished reading. The experience would be really hard to top and I wanted to find some way to document it for my own memory and to share with others.

Shortly after we were all let go from our employer, I made the decision to step away from DVD/Blu-ray behind the scenes work. Much like Trumbull speculated in our interview, the work was slowly starting to dry up as streaming and on demand services slowly began to wither the physical media formats. The "Looking to the Stars" documentary and the experiences and conversations that it brought me really felt like John Elway going out on a Super Bowl win. I called the project our own little tribute to my most prized issues of Cinefex Magazine - but incredibly, it was also my opportunity to talk face-to-face with all of the innovators and inventors that I'd read about in the pages of those magazines. Because of the documentary, I became acquaintances with John Dykstra as well. One of my proudest moments (and the last that I've done in the capacity of a EPK/DVD field producer) was on the set of X-Men Apocalypse, picking Dykstra's brain on how to effectively shoot a promo I was directing with Bryan Singer in slow-motion Quicksilver Time on the Phantom camera. At the end of our conversation, he asked what happened with the space film documentary we were working on. Luckily I happened to have a copy on me to give to him. It was such a strange moment, handing a hero of mine something that I had produced for him to watch.

Douglas Trumbull is one of the most talented and knowledgeable visionaries that not just the film medium, but technology as a whole has ever had in its corner as an advocate. Since day one of his career, he's pushed the envelope. He's been two steps ahead of everyone else. Frankly, looking back on the experience, I'm disappointed that the innovations that he's created while living the dream on his private estate in Massachusetts, still haven't been adopted and repopulated en masse in 2017. Imagine any of the films that you've watched and enjoyed the past couple years being in crystal clear, larger than life three-dimensions and just how much more it would have immersed you in the story. Imagine the dramatic and explosive conclusion to an epic like Game of Thrones not just on your 35" flatscreen TV in your living room, but surrounding you. Putting you right there in the thick of the battle. It's thrilling and exciting, it could be like the opening of Star Wars seeing the Star Destroyer fly overhead all over again. That's what Trumbull passionately wants for himself and for all of us.

And I still can't believe I got to spend nearly an entire day to share that excitement and enthusiasm with him.