Sunday, 31 January 2016

Douglas Trumbull and the Art of Special Effects

Among his many accomplishments, French critic and filmmaker Francois Truffaut was known for pioneering what would become known as the auteur theory; one that still stands today. He and his contemporaries, such as Andrew Sarris, were noticing that when a director's work is examined, patterns begin to emerge that characterize their films. To bring in the types of filmmakers they would have been looking at, there are characteristics that make it easy to distinguish a film directed by Howard Hawks from one directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The conclusion reached by Truffaut was that a director was the "author" of their film.
This is of course not a perfect theory, especially in its original context. Truffaut's original concept of auteur theory was very different from its modern incarnation. Among other things, he attempts to claim that only some directors (i.e. Alfred Hitchcock) are "auteurs" while others (John Huston) are not. Andrew Sarris later attempted to set up a series of criteria for what qualifies a given person to be considered an auteur, which claimed that a true auteur could not make a bad film and ignored the worst directors have a distinct style that characterizes their films. It is not an invalid theory; there is much that can be learned about a director by studying their films, but it is not the only way of looking at film.
Film production is a team effort. The director is an important part, but the basic principles of auteur theory can still be applied to other roles. For instance, one can find patterns looking at the work of screenwriters, producers, and special effects artists. That last category in particular is often a crucial part to the success of a feature film. Special effects have been an important part of filmmaking since the works of Georges Méliès, though they have changed a lot from what he used. They can also occur in a variety of forms. Visual effects can be created through the use of editing, models, computer animation, or in many cases a combination thereof.

One of the most effective special effects artists in the business was a man who worked primarily in the realms of science fiction. This was a man who would work with several big-name directors including Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Robert Wise, and Terrence Malick, and he would do so on some of their most famous projects. This man was Douglas Trumbull, an artist who provided effects for a number of science fiction classics including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner. He has even taken over the director's chair in some cases, most famously in his 1971 environmentalist film Silent Running for which he also provided the effects.

Trumbull's work is based primarily on models. Much of his work was made before the advent of computer technology, though his effects still look impressive today. 2001: A Space Odyssey is in many ways Kubrick's film, but it was Trumbull who was responsible for the ground breaking visuals. He was the man who designed the models used throughout the film, from the orbiting nuclear satellites to Discovery 1 to the Star Gate that carries Dave Bowman "Beyond the Infinite" to the "Star Child" that symbolizes the next stage of evolution.

This was of course not without its challenges. Kubrick had a reputation as a reputation for being a perfectionist with high standards. This was after all a man who was known to do hundreds of takes for a single shot before finally getting what he wanted. The same can be said for the visuals, for which Trumbull displayed an extraordinary attention to detail. He had a very specific vision, and would do anything to bring it to the screen, even doing some of the paint and camerawork himself. Trumbull would have had to work very hard to create effects that satisfied Kubrick, which ranged from small models to the elaborate rotating set pieces designed to simulate weightlessness.
One particularly interesting story, however, comes from one of Trumbull's own shortcomings. In the original script, as well as Arthur C. Clarke's novelization, the story was supposed to take place near Saturn. Trumbull tried his hardest to meet this end, but even for Kubrick there were limitations to what could be done. In the end, a combination of technical problems and limited knowledge made it impossible for him to accurately represent the planet's distinct rings. As a result, the script had to be changed, and he instead produced a (very effective) model of Jupiter. However, Trumbull was hardly one to accept defeat.
Only three years after the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey Trumbull would again return to the science fiction genre with Silent Running, this time directing it as well. Like 2001, the final product ended up being in many ways different from its original script. The environmental themes were not originally as prominent, with the protagonist depicted instead as an old man who went rogue out of a desire to avoid forced retirement, rather than anything directly connected to the forests. There was also a sub-plot involving him making contact with an alien species, and had this remained in the final cut the movie would have ended with "first contact" between them and one of the drones.
Silent Running proved to be a much simpler and less ambitious project than Kubrick's science fiction epic. Trumbull worked with a much lower budget, and focused on a much more linear story set entirely on one spaceship, using only a few sets, and focusing the majority of its runtime on a single actor. Still, this does not stop Trumbull from drawing on his experiences in making 2001: A Space Odyssey, as is still evidenced by the model work that is incorporated throughout. Outside of the attention to detail in the various rooms of the ship (though he was unable to depict weightlessness this time), he also constructed the robot "drones" that serve as the protagonist's only companions. Trumbull used an unusual tactic to create these robots: constructing them around amputee actors, who would walk on their hands to simulate the Drones' walking. This same tactic would be copied only a decade later for portions of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.
Most notable of these skills was that Trumbull managed to succeed on his own where he had failed under Kubrick. Trumbull's smaller-budget film allowed him to try once again to depict Saturn. Where he had previously the complicated rings had forced the production crew to replace it with Jupiter, here Trumbull managed to capture the planet. The planet itself is only seen in a few isolated shots, but it is incorporated into the narrative, particularly in one early sequence where the spaceship enters its rings. Trumbull also uses shadows to add a level of realism, keeping portions of Saturn darker when it is facing away from the sun.

After doing such an effective job of capturing outer space, it is fitting that Trumbull's later work would be more grounded. Six years after Silent Running, Trumbull would be recruited by yet another high-profile director: Steven Spielberg (who was also close friends with Kubrick), who had just started to establish himself as a prominent figure. Now he was making what would be the first of his several iconic science fiction films: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This time, the focus was more on the disruptions of everyday life by an alien encounter. Much of the film was simply about the question of whether it is possible to understand an alien civilization, as well as themes of communication (which in this case, is accomplished through music).

Instead of visualizing the future of humanity, Trumbull was given a new challenge: his job was to design the aliens' spacecraft. Once again, he put his experience in model design to impressive use, but did so very differently. He had to design an advanced spacecraft of unknown origin. This time, the models also interacted more directly with the actors, most notably at the very end when everyone gathers around the spaceship. Ultimately, Trumbull's final design was reminiscent of the flying saucers that dominated 50's science fiction films, but this was merely the last of numerous special effects he designed for the film, which also included Roy and Jillian's "close encounters."

Blade Runner ultimately proved to be the last feature film to use Trumbull's effects, at least until he worked on The Tree of Life in 2011. Fittingly, Blade Runner's noir atmosphere would make it one of the most intense and complicated projects Trumbull would work on during his career. In addition to building a number of models for the numerous vehicles seen throughout the film, Trumbull also had to design the city itself. Scott may have proven effective on the ground and working with the cast, but Trumbull built the world they inhabited. He designed the city and each of its individual buildings, as well as all the action within it. By this point, Trumbull has gone from designing spaceships to designing entire worlds.

Scott had a vision of Blade Runner and ultimately oversaw its production, but it was Trumbull who brought it to life. Indeed, this is the case for many of the films he has worked on. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner can both be seen as products of their directors. If one is to adopt Truffaut's ideas of auteur theory, they all contain patterns that are consistent with other films by Kubrick, Spielberg, and Scott, respectively. This is not to say that auteur theory is invalid, merely that it is not the director alone who is responsible for their film. While each of them had their own creative ideas, none would have worked without the assistance of a person like Trumbull.

Douglas Trumbull's work has proven crucial to these four science fiction classics and allowing them to achieve their critical acclaim. His various models have provided some of the greatest special effects ever put on screen, and even while working through a series of drastically different productions, his style is unmistakable. There is something to the way he constructs the visuals of these different films, and his style becomes increasingly sophisticated. Trumbull has proven to be one of the great masters of visual effects, and might just be someone every bit as worthy of academic analysis as Kubrick or Spielberg.

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