Douglas Trumbull, visual effects pioneer behind 2001, Blade Runner, and Close Encounters, RIP

Originally published at: Douglas Trumbull, visual effects pioneer behind 2001, Blade Runner, and Close Encounters, RIP | Boing Boing


Bless the Maker, he will be missed.


Those scenes of the night skies from CEIII were so incredibly evocative. I grew up on the prairie and he absolutely NAILED it with how the sky looked.


A real giant of 20th century cinematic innovation. The light show sequence from 2001 alone would have earned him that distinction.


Cloud tank effects look so much more evocative than the CG storm skies used today. There are some other stunning cloud tank sequences in Poltergeist and in Raiders of the Lost Ark.


“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”


I was fortunate to meet Mr. Trumbull decades ago while helping my parents run a B & B in Maine shortly after graduating from film school. My father who chatted up most of the guests came to me one morning and asked "Do you know the name “Trumbull?” I being the film nerd and having actually taken a class in optical printing said, “Sure, Douglas Trumbull”. His reply was “Well, he’s sitting in the living room.” He and his wife were very gracious, and even took the time to watch my wife’s student film (another out of work recent film school graduate). She was doubly lucky when a year or so later the film won a student academy award and as part of the prize she and the other winners were flown to LA where they got a demo of Trumbulls new showscan technology circa 1986-87.


Much of CE3K was shot in my hometown. It’s crazy seeing Trumbull’s dazzling FX juxtaposed over rural Baldwin County only a mile from my old house. Always felt a connection to his work because of that.


Nothing really to add other than another RIP


The maker of my childhood dreams has met his maker. Fare thee well. You are missed.


around 1987 I stopped in Los Angeles to visit a friend while on my way to Northern CA for a wedding in a forest. Since I was a Production Assistant and SFX enthusiast I made the most of my time in LA by going around to all the places I had only read about.

I went to Eric Allard’s ALL FX studio (Short Circuit, Energizer Bunnies) while everyone was apparently at lunch and introduced myself as an Assistant Director from Chicago who was in town just popping into places. I got a guided tour by their Production Manager!

I also looked up Douglas Trumbull’s SHOWSCAN company and just thought I would drive by to see what it was like. If nothing else I could see the building. I noticed the front door was open and some people were walking in. Not knowing any better, I parked, walked in the front door, walked to the Front Desk and asked if there was a Showing today?

To my astonishment the reply was YES! I was directed to the screening room. Of course I said thank you and proceeded to my destination. The Screening Room. The SHOWSCAN SCREENING ROOM!

Once there I found a MASSIVE curved screen and what looked like Bleacher Seating for maybe 20 people. There were only 4 other people in the room at the time, so I took a seat in a good spot.

After waiting about 5 minutes a gentleman came out and introduced himself. I knew who it was. How exciting that Douglas Trumbull himself was introducing this viewing that was showcasing his SHOWSCAN technology!

He looked at the group of 4 people and asked where they were from. They replied something something something, I don’t remember, but apparently this was a scheduled PRIVATE SHOWING for them (investors?)

Then he turned to me and asked who I was. I told him my name and said I was an Assistant Director from Chicago. That’s it. He paused, nodded his head, then went on with introducing the program which briefly described the process (60fps vs 24) and also that we were sitting on a Motion Simulator which would move along with the film.

The whole thing lasted maybe 10 minutes, but I quickly figured out that I was NOT supposed to be there and left as soon as it was over.

But that was one of the best rewards I ever had for simply being in the right place at the right time.


Of all his work, the light show would have been the easiest to pull off, since it didn’t have to look like anything real

The flying car scenes in Blade Runner are so effective because they look uncannily similar to the real L.A. sky at night


he did actually make things some happen some don’t

but don’t forget brainstorm closest thing to reality or not…

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That Is So Awesome Zero Gravity GIF by Kids' Choice Awards

I’m not envious [totally envious].

I’ve never seen any Showscan footage, but I’m told it is extraordinary with much more ‘snap’ and clarity than conventional cinema. Do you remember what it was like?


The opening shots from ‘Bladerunner’ are still utterly spine-tingling - they weren’t even equalled in ‘2049’ after three and a bit decades of technological advances.

And so much of it was done ‘in-camera’ using repeated passes of motion control cameras and lots and lots of diesel fumes for ‘atmosphere’. You probably couldn’t do it today - if only for health and safety reasons.


The presentation was only about 10 minutes long. Having “some” expectations after reading about it for years, I was not as impressed as I thought I should have been but perhaps expecting to see something so clear that it looked like real life was too much on my part. The image WAS a great deal clearer but it was still Film.

There were 2 parts to the presentation, the first began slowly and I cannot recall exactly what went on, but the basic premise (I think) was Trumbull handed off the intro to someone else on the screen who appeared to be in the room but in fact was not.

The idea was that you were not supposed to know when the “film” actually started until you were suddenly in whatever the environment was. The motion simulator seats came into play very gently at first and became a bit more obvious when we ended up on a roller coaster.

The experience was quite effective but not quite the immersive VR I was expecting. But that’s on me.

After reading SpongeBorg’s story, I’d like to imagine that the other people viewing were Spongeborg’s wife and the other Student Filmmakers.


Trumbull was only 24 when he started working on the 2001 film. It’s understandable to be a bit blase about his work on that film now but when it came out, it was very, very special. Seeing it, sitting up close on a big screen, where it enveloped your field of view, was riveting and very importantly, it was brilliantly synched with the music, which was mind altering on it’s own. And yes, all of that, even without chemical assistance.

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His father, Donald Trumbull, was another well-known effects wizard and had done special effects in The Wizard Of Oz. I wonder if he was involved with the “Surrender Dorothy” skywriting smoke effect. That was done using a tank of blue liquid filmed from below while someone did the writing with a hypodermic needle filled with black ink, which I always thought was a clever way to do it.


Thanks for sharing this - you lucky devil you!