James Cameron's Story of Science Fiction Q&A -- Douglas Trumbull (Visual Effects Director)

Douglas Trumbull, the visual effects director behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and more sci-fi classics, discusses how 2001 has influenced contemporary technology, how AI is affecting film and new emerging technologies in cinema. 

Q: Our computer technology has become so much like the tech featured in 2001 -- do you think that has more to do with the production team predicting design trends in tech, or because people in tech were influenced by the film?

A: God that’s a tough one. I think it’s clear that the film influenced many people, not just in movies but in technology and science and astrophysics. I regularly talk to people who saw 2001 when they were very, very young, and it actually influenced their decision of what kind of work to go into. So that’s been very consistent for me. It has stood the test of time as being a valid scientifically and fundamentally informed vision of a lot of things about space travel and alien contact and artificial intelligence and visual effects, and movie-making and movie structure.

Q: How did the production team start to craft the visual language of what the future could look like?

A: Kubrick was working with many seasoned professionals in the science and technology and space industry. … There was a man he hired named Fred Ordway who was a science consultant and employee of NASA and many of the space industry companies. Fred was kind of the science consultant for [Kubrick] to make contacts with all kinds of companies, including IBM. I think that’s one of the biggest contacts in the movie, which was to help Kubrick understand where computers were going, what artificial intelligence would look like, what HAL’s brain would look like from the inside, how he would talk, how it would work. Then there was another man who was one of the principal creative production designers on the spacecraft, because the idea of what a spacecraft might look like in the future was very, very important. His name was Harry Lange, and Harry was an actual spacecraft designer who had worked for Wernher von Braun [director of the Marshall Space Flight Center at NASA]. … He brought to the movie a lot of fundamentally credible and realistic spacecraft design.

Q: Do you have a favorite affect for the movie that you created?

A: My favorite one is the Stargate itself, which was a big problem for the movie. It had to depict the transition from normal physical reality to another place in space and time. That was kind of an inter-dimensional idea that everyone was having a hard time with on the movie; no one knew quite what to do. I came up with this idea that if you want to break up the notion of space and time, we have to kind of do that photographically. Working previously on this movie To the Moon and Beyond... there was a guy on that movie named John Whitney, who was an abstract photographic artist making movies. He contributed a sequence to To the Moon and Beyond -- very abstract, but the idea was you could move things in front of the camera while the shutter was open to create streaks of light that would form shapes. That was a revolutionary kind of photography, where motion could exist on each frame individually -- so you were adding the dimension of time to an exposure. … So for the Stargate, I had the idea of building this gigantic machine, which I called the slit scan machine, where the shutter would be open for almost two minutes on each frame of film while the camera and artwork were moved relative to one another. So, Stargate became this image that doesn’t exist in the real world. That was one of my biggest contributions. You feel like you’re going somewhere, but it’s just pure light, there’s nothing physical at all. That solved the problem for the movie and it’s been a big, iconic sequence for some time, and it really added to the sense of the movie ultimately being called "the ultimate trip." To me, it’s something I’m really proud of because it helped the movie rise to a different level from just literal live action photography or animation.

Q: How did the team begin to design HAL, a machine meant to be both obsequious and ominous?

A: The ominous aspect of it developed during the production. It wasn’t originally intended. The production design involved IBM designing what the HAL interface would look like and what a lot of the keyboards and computer controls looked like, and it was called the IBM 9000 computer or something like that. It wasn’t until midway through the whole production that Kubrick decided the whole story twist of HAL actually feeling he had this very deep responsibility to the success of the mission that was more important than the human beings. And IBM took great exception to that, because they were like, ‘We can’t put our logo on a movie where the robot kills people, that’s just not gonna fly.’ So that’s when they decided to name it HAL. But if you look closely, the IBM logo is on the tablets in the movie.

Q: In what ways do you think AI is affecting and will continue to affect filmmaking?

A: Well I’ve heard people are working on algorithms or artificial intelligence as a means of actually creating stories and writing screenplays. I haven't seen any of it myself, but I’ve heard that’s going on and I’ve heard thoughts about it. I don’t even know how to characterize it. Human beings have very complicated ethics and morals and belief systems and everything, so I think humans are important to keep in the loop all the time, and not let AI take over on our behalf and make us obsolete.

Q: Are there any new emerging technologies in cinema that you're excited about?

A: I was profoundly affected by the nature of 2001 when it was made -- being on these giant screens and being so immersive. We faced a lot of challenges that had to do with the inadequacy of the 24 frames per second projection rate. I’ve spent many years of my life working on that ever since, because it was one of the limitations that we faced in 2001. We couldn’t move the cameras very fast, we couldn’t move the stars very fast. We couldn’t have a lot of fast action on the screen because 24 frames per second is inadequate. It just becomes very jumpy and blurry. I’ve been developing a new technology for motion picture production and exhibition that’s so realistic that it’s almost impossible to tell it’s not a live event. That brings with it its own issues: Is it a movie anymore or is it something else? Is it a holographic mind-blowing experiential thing that when people watch it, they believe that it’s real, or it affects them more profoundly than a normal dramatic movie? We’re getting into some new territory where the movie can be indistinguishable from reality, and that’s what I’m working on right now.

Q: What are some of your favorite science fiction books and films, and why?

A: That’s a tough one for me, because I think it’s still 2001 [Laughs]. It’s not because I worked on it or had anything to do with it. I’ve also seen thousands of science fiction movies, grew up on the B-movies of the '40s and '50s and all the alien invasion movies and all those kinds of things, and one of the best ones was Forbidden Planet. It was head and shoulders above the rest of what was being done. It was much more spiritual and spectacular and dealing with an alien subconscious that we didn’t understand. It went pretty far for its day and time.

Click here to read an interview with Alissa Wilkinson, author of How to Survive the Apocalpyse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith and Politics at the End of the World.

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