2001: A Space Odyssey. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Blade Runner. All of these effects-driven films were brought to the big screen by some of the cinema’s great directors – Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Robert Wise, and Ridley Scott. And all of them have the wizardry of Douglas Trumbull to thank for helping them realize their vision.
In 1979, Trumbull was enlisted by Paramount Pictures and director Robert Wise to come to the rescue of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was having serious problems with its visual effects and was in very real danger of missing its December 1979 release date. As part of TrekMovie’s celebration of the film’s 40th anniversary, we spoke to Mr. Trumbull about how he got involved, the race to get the film’s special effects done, working with Robert Wise, and more.
Trumbull will be heading to Star Trek Las Vegas next week, where he will appear on a panel celebrating the film’s anniversary. More details about that and the rest of the convention can be found at creationent.com.
Trumbull talks The Motion Picture
TrekMovie: Paramount initially approached you to produce the effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and you declined. Why was that?
Douglas Trumbull: Well, I was working for Paramount, and I was under an employment contract with them with an entity that I had started, which was the research and development operation that was a branch of Paramount called Future General Corporation. I had a specific contract to do the work that we were developing there, which was to try to explore the future of cinema. And we had developed all kinds of new technologies for simulation rides, video games, and motion picture technology – high frame rate, stuff that led to the Showscan process. I was already a director in my own right, and I was developing Brainstorm at Paramount, for the Showscan process.
So I got caught up in a kind of a business conflict with Paramount, because they didn’t have any appetite for making Brainstorm or for pursuing Showscan, they were just in big trouble about Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The production was going ahead, the live action was all shot, but none of the visual effects were working. The company they hired to do the visual effects (Robert Abel and Associates) was basically failing. The studio was extremely upset about it because they were being threatened by a class-action lawsuit from the exhibitors if they didn’t deliver the movie on schedule. So that was the dynamics that surrounded the movie, that the exhibitors were going to target Paramount in a class-action lawsuit to kill what they call Blind Bidding, because exhibitors have paid in advance for the right to show the movie. So Paramount was sitting on a bunch of money, I think it was around $30 million dollars in advance payments.
And they didn’t want to be sued and they didn’t want to go bankrupt, so they determined that they had to just pull out all the stops and try to get the movie done. So that’s when they re-approached me and basically said, “What do you need in order to agree to do this job?”, which was not something I wanted to do. But I said, “Okay, I will do the job, but only if I can have Showscan and Brainstorm back. And out of my contract.” So that was the trade-off that we made. You know, in exchange for a hefty fee.
TM: You had roughly a year to complete all of the effects work?
Trumbull: No, we had 7 months. It was a real crash program. We had to do all the visual effects work. There were as many shots in Star Trek: The Motion Picture as Star Wars and Close Encounters combined, and it was a big problem. It took a massive effort to try to pull it off. We had visual effects crews working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the entire period.
TM: You had to bring in John Dykstra to help you with the workload.
Trumbull: Yeah. He had worked for me on Silent Running, and he was an instrumental guy. I helped set up ILM for George Lucas, and John spearheaded the first ILM iteration [in Van Nuys]. After ILM [in southern California] was closed by George Lucas, John and his pals, including my father, Don Trumbull, formed a new company called Apogee, to do visual effects for films. And they had a really good track record and were doing really great work. So we collaborated with them, and we had to figure out how to do part of the visual effects in 65-millimeter negative, and part of the visual effects in 35-millimeter VistaVision, because we were both using different techniques.
TM: So your Dad worked on this film? He had a history in the picture business before you.
Trumbull: Yes. Before I was born, he was a young visual effects, kind of a rigger mechanical engineer and had worked on The Wizard of Oz and a number of other films in Hollywood. But he was not happy working in Hollywood and he was really much more engineering-oriented than he was celebrity-oriented, and he went into the aircraft business later.
TM: You were facing an extreme time crunch. What were the biggest challenges that you faced within that? Was there a particular sequence of shots that was more challenging than others?
Trumbull: Everything in the movie was challenging, and one of the first challenges we faced was that the previous company that was doing the effects had commissioned the construction of a miniature of the spacecraft. It wasn’t any good, in my opinion, and they had missed some fundamental questions about what kind of detail it would require to make it look beautiful. And how would you light it, given that a lot of the movie takes place in interstellar space and you have to ask yourself, “Well, where’s the key light, where’s the fill light? And why is it, why do you see it?”.
The first task we took on was to basically redesign the ship, and make it so that it could light up itself, with light sources on the body. So it looked really great even with no key light, and there was a tremendous amount of detail painted on the surface. And then part of that was the dry dock sequence, which was also misconstrued. They had really crazy ideas at this previous company, to shoot in separate passes, and then composite them optically, which in my opinion was just never going to work, and it was not necessary. There was no point in doing it. We had to redesign the lighting and everything of the dry dock to make it work with the craft. So that was the first thing. And then there were other miniatures that had been built for the orbiting space station and stuff like that, that had to be done better and illuminated better and rigged up for motion control photography.
And then there was the whole separate project. The way we split the project in half was to have John Dykstra and Apogee do all of the V’Ger sequence or most of the V’Ger sequence. They did the exteriors of it and we did the interiors.
TM: So you were responsible for all the detailing on the Enterprise, then?
TM: That is one of the most gorgeous miniatures I’ve ever seen. It is stunning.
Trumbull: I’m really proud of it. There was an airbrush illustrator named Ron Gress, who did all the painting on the surface, and it really came out quite beautifully. Took him weeks and weeks and weeks of round-the-clock work to get it right.
TM: Yes, and I think ILM didn’t really pay tribute to that when they did the subsequent films. I feel like the ship was never lit quite as well as you did it.
TM: You actually directed a sequence in this film, the spacewalk sequence with Spock that was completely re-conceived.
Trumbull: Yeah. What happened on that was that Robert Wise, who I had known previously because I had worked with him on The Andromeda Strain, had directed the spacewalk sequence of the whole crew hanging on wires on a stage in sets. And I thought the whole thing just looked completely unusable and just not serviceable at all. Badly lit, badly designed, and it just looked like guys hanging on wires. And this was before the more present-day of wire removal and a lot of stuff we could do digitally. They just didn’t pay any attention to weightlessness or any of the things associated with that. I urged Robert Wise to agree to delete that entire sequence and let me replace it, and he said that was fine. I mean, Bob just had tremendous trust in me to just go ahead and do whatever I felt was necessary to get the movie done. And he was not comfortable with visual effects, we didn’t have much of a dialogue about it. We redesigned and re-imagined the entire spacewalk sequence with Spock. He saw the storyboards and he knew what we were doing but it was quite a challenge to put that whole thing together in such a short period of time.
TM: It’s a stunning sequence, one of the highlights of the film.
Trumbull: Thank you. I thought it would be fun to just get kind of abstract and make it a fantasy dream sequence in a way, not literal.
TM: It’s based on a lot of Robert McCall paintings.
Trumbull: Yeah, Bob came on and did a lot of illustrations for that sequence, which we pretty much replicated with miniatures and visual effects and paintings.
TM: You’ve worked with a lot of great directors over the years – Kubrick, Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Terrence Malick, and this was your second picture with Robert Wise. What was it like working with him, particularly on this project, where there were so many problems during principal photography and all the craziness that happened during post?
Trumbull: Well, Bob was a really good story director and character director, but he was not comfortable with visual effects. He just didn’t know very much about what needed to be done to make this movie work. And so he had stayed out of that, and I think that might have been one of the reasons that the movie derailed initially is that no one knew what was going on, or why it was not going well. He was wise enough, so to speak, to realize he should just turn it over to somebody else.
He knew that I’m a director and the idea of me directing sequences – I directed the whole sequence approaching the Enterprise to the dry dock and all that stuff, and they cut it together. And then did the same for the spacewalk sequence. The rest of the movie was directed by Bob. And that required some clever interfaces with him and the studio, because there was one sequence, I can’t remember what we called the sequence, but where the emissary from V’Ger comes on board the bridge, this vivid source of light moving around, which was just a guy holding a really bright light in the shot, and that was a really complicated problem to fix in post-production. We worked out a way of projecting that onto a rear projection screen and reflecting it off a Mylar mirror and then having a motion control device behind the mirror that kind of puckered it by pushing on it from behind, which would make the whole image of the guy and the light collapse into nothing. That was a really tricky thing. You can do it today easily with computer graphics, but in the day of optics and film, it was really difficult.
TM: It works in the film.
Trumbull: Yeah it came together. And then Bob Swarthe, who did a lot of the moire techniques and the streak stuff through the transit in the wormhole, that came out really great. And then Scott Squires was heading up the wormhole laser scanning technology for us. It was all a laser scan effect that I dreamed up, a slit-scan with lasers.
TM: The movie’s well known for having one of the most harrowing post-productions in history, so it’s a miracle that you guys managed to pull the entire thing together the way you did.
Trumbull: Well it was really hard, and it was – it is a miracle we pulled it off. And I ended up in the hospital for two weeks when we delivered it. I was just a nervous wreck and not in good physical shape. I had gall stones, I had stomach ulcers. I was just really wrung out by the time that was completed.
TM: So you couldn’t even take a victory lap at the end?
Trumbull: No, no. It was just really survival time.
TM: There’s no business like show business, right?
Trumbull: That’s right. There’s nothing like it. Show must go on.
TM: Did you work with Gene Roddenberry at all?
Trumbull: No, I had no contact with him. That was kind of an interesting back story. I don’t know if anybody knows this story, but Gene was, I was told by the studio, a very, very difficult man to get along with. And in order to progress on the movie production, even before I came on board, Paramount just arranged to put Gene on a kind of a lush vacation cruise someplace. I don’t know anything more about it than that.
TM: During that era, a lot of the big effects pictures were struggling with their visual effects. Star Wars and Superman had problems. Close Encounters also came close to not being released on time. How would you place this movie in the context of those, or is this so much worse?
Trumbull: I wasn’t there so I can’t compare directly, but I would say in my experience, the Star Trek movie was the most troubled production I had ever encountered.
TM: It’s a shame because there’s a good movie in there that sometimes got lost.
Trumbull: Yeah. It was a very, very, big, big idea.
TM: It was.
Trumbull: At times it got a little corny, and a little sappy, and it needed a kick in the butt to make it look better than what anyone might have expected, because the problem that Paramount was having with the movie idea was that…they just didn’t feel comfortable that you could transport a television series to feature films. That was their really big worry, that’s why the poster says, “There is no comparison,” i.e. to television. And they were trying to differentiate from television and give it some kind of epic qualities, and I assumed that one of the reasons for hiring Wise was The Sound of Music and West Side Story. A feeling for kind of epic spectacle was what they wanted to see.
TM: I think that was the right way to go.
Trumbull: Right. Right.
TM: In recent days, it’s been revealed that Paramount is exploring the possibility of assembling a 4K version of Wise’s director’s cut.
Trumbull: Oh really? I didn’t know that.
TM: It was announced during San Diego Comic-Con. They have not completely confirmed it yet, but Paramount seems to feel comfortable making a soft announcement. Have you seen the director’s cut and if you have, what did you think of the changes they made?
Trumbull: Well, I think it’s all fine. I don’t have any objection to any of it. I just think one of the most important things that the studio may or may not do, and I don’t know because I haven’t been contacted about a 4K restoration, is that all the visual effects shots were shot in 65 millimeter. And that’s what we did on the restoration of Blade Runner, which makes it look so much better. We went back and scanned the original, the dupe negatives of the visual effects shots were cut into the original, so the movie in a Blu-ray version looks much, much better. So I don’t know what’s going to happen with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, no one’s even talked to me about it. I don’t know if they’ve retained the negatives of the 65 millimeter shots.
TM: You’re going to be at Star Trek Las Vegas in a couple of weeks to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the film. Is this your first Star Trek convention?
Trumbull: Yes it is, actually!
TM: Very cool. Trek conventions are their own unique thing.
Trumbull: Should be pretty interesting.
See Douglas Trumbull as part of special TMP 40th panel at Star Trek Las Vegas
Douglas Trumbull is attending the Star Trek Las Vegas convention for the first time next week. He will participate in a special “Star Trek: The Motion Picture 40th Anniversary Retrospective” panel along with Rick Sternbach (illustrator for Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and Star Trek art department veterans Doug Drexler, and Michael and Denise Okuda. The panel will be held at 12:30PM Saturday, August 3rd in the Nimoy Theater at STLV.
The annual Star Trek Las Vegas convention kicks off next Wednesday, July 31st and runs through to Sunday, August 4th at the Rio Hotel and Casino. It features over 100 guests. TrekMovie will be there and provide our usual coverage.
Tickets are still available. More information is available at creationent.com.