Douglas Trumbull Interview
There’s a lot to Silent Running in the technology, the story and the ecological message. What first got you excited about making the film?
When I was initially thinking about doing any film I inadvertently came across Tod Browning’s movie The Freaks and there was an amazing character played by Johnny Eck, who could walk on his hands. That was the beginning of an idea for creating an amazing robotic character that people wouldn’t be able to figure out very easily. I’d always been bored by men in robot outfits.
So I was beginning to think about how a movie might incorporate that so I wrote various treatments and ended up writing a treatment for Silent Running which was seen by a friend of mine who was an agent. And some other people at Universal Studios who were very open to experimenting with some new film forms, because of the advent of Easy Rider which had made a huge amount of money as an independent film. I don’t know how much you know about that story…
They gave you one million dollars, right…
We had only one million dollars to make a movie and they would not intervene in any way, they would not look at dailies, it was a complete sociological experiment on behalf of the management of Universal Studios. There were five films made, each for about a million dollars, and Silent Running was part of the package.
The main thing was just to be able to make a film at all. A science fiction film that would have some kind of heart and soul to it rather than being a repellent science movie with a lot of characters that are de-humanized. To try and combine those two factors and do it at a very low price. And do some amazing visual effects. I’d come off 2001, which took a very long time and cost a huge amount of money and was very complicated and I was trying to figure out if it was possible to make a very low budget movie that had some of those qualities.
For instance, the front projection system that Kubrick used on 2001 for the dawn of man sequence, and a couple of other shots, was very cumbersome and difficult and challenging and heavy but I knew the principle of it so I worked with an engineer in LA and we designed a very portable front projection machine that allowed us to do some pretty amazing shots in Silent Running at very low cost, very quickly and with a very small crew. And that was one of the enabling technologies that I developed forSilent Running. Just to make it comfortable and easy to make a sci-fi movie for a low budget with a small crew.
You’ve built a studio too or are you still building it?
I’ve actually built a studio here at my home.
And the aim is to do a similar thing, to make the process of making a film leaner?
Yes, exactly. There are several components to it. You have to start with my current belief that the motion picture production industry is in serious jeopardy because I don’t think it’s a sustainable business model for films to cost $200 million a piece or more. Secondly I thought Avatar was fantastic and a major breakthrough movie. And it was an extremely technologically driven movie that completely disassembled the entire process of what it is to make a movie, shooting on a virtual stage, shooting virtual characters and avatars. It was hugely expensive because that was the first time out but at the same time doing the movie in 3D made that big 3D breakthrough and that movie became the highest grossing movie of all time.
So I figured that’s what the audience wants to see, you can see that 75% of world box office gross comes from these kinds of spectacle movies. So I felt that if I can do the same thing that I did post 2001, which was to figure out how to do a movie like that for a lot less money, it would be a kind of no-brainer business opportunity. So that was one aspect of it.
I’ve been developing what I call virtual set, virtual location technology. The way Hollywood does things is to build big sets on big stages and they have large crews and they go location with twenty trucks and large crews. I think that since we can superimpose anybody into anything, blue screen or green screen, instantaneously and at extremely low cost then it would be reasonable to experiment with movies that had no sets and no locations. Doing it all virtually.
I’ve developed a camera technology where the camera is encoded with motion capture data so that a real time computer knows exactly where the camera is so you pan, tilt, dolly around with what I call my zero-gravity crane on a stage. And we have 180-degree panoramic green screen and our automated lighting rig so we can photograph actors superimposed into a virtual environment instantaneously and in real-time. So it allows us to actually do rehearsals very in-expensively, we can rehearse the entire feature film in three or four days, cut it together and do what I call a live action animatic.
So you see an issue not just with the technology and the automation but also in the process of pre-production, production and so on?
Yeah, I think the closer you can get to allowing and enabling the actors and the director to work very closely together towards perfecting a performance, the drama, the dialogue and the blocking, the better off you are. And it’s been shown that in the animation business, particularly at Pixar and a lot of the public presentations that Ed Catmull [current president of Walt Disney & Pixar Animation studios] has made for instance, that the process of animatics and pre-visualisation is vitally important to de-bugging a movie before it actually goes into production. They do that regularly at all animation studios so they can see the whole film at a very early stage before they actually render anything. They cut together their storyboards, they cut together animatics, they cut together illustrations and kind of de-bug the movie at a very early stage and they go through that three, four times during pre-production.
So a lot of time you end up actually shooting your principal actors in the principal sets and locations, which in my case are virtual. You know exactly what you need, you can shoot it very quickly, you can shoot a hundred or more set-ups a day and it looks fantastic. And I go one step more which is just to replace the computer graphic backgrounds with miniatures which in my opinion look much much better than any computer graphics environment, and are actually much less expensive.
You’ve also been at the forefront of pushing higher frame rates…
Yeah, that’s the other thing I was mentioning. I think one of the problems with the movie industry right now is that the way films are presented in cinemas is very substandard. First of all the theatres themselves are just boxes with a screen at the end and seats. There’s no showmanship, no curtains, no anything going on that’s dramatic or theatrical like you would experience if you went to a live performance in a dramatic theatre or went to Circ du Soleil or the circus or a live rock ‘n’ roll show. There’s no showmanship in movie theatres. Secondly they project the movies at never brighter than 15 foot-lamberts of brightness, which is much less than you see on your home television sets which is usually 50 or more foot-lamberts of brightness.
So the colour saturation is low, the frame-rate is low, the screen is relatively small, it’s rectangular and usually flat. So there’s nothing close to the days when I grew up with movies where we had Cinerama and deeply curved 90-foot wide screens and you could create a kind of spectacle, event movie which is where I started with 2001. That’s all pretty much gone. It’s alive to a certain extent in IMAX theatres but even IMAX has converted now to 2K digital projectors on smaller screens. So not anywhere in the industry is there a kind of spectacular exhibition format. Then you have the additional problem of 3D projection which reduces the brightness to an average of 2.5 foot-lamberts, which is way way too dim to create any sense of spectacle. It creates a lot of eye-strain and a lot of problems with brightness, so you see very little colour saturation, very little contrast, you’re seeing a really sub-standard image.
Then you have 24 frames-per-second, which has been the standard in the industry for ever, since talking movies came in, which has been revealed to the professionals in the industry to be inadequate for 3D because the blurring and strobing that happens at 24fps really disturbs a clear perception of 3D. So they have to slow down the action and try and keep it from blurring and strobing to hold the 3D image together. The result is that Peter Jackson is now shooting The Hobbit in 3D at 48fps, Jim Cameron is planning to shoot Avatar 2 and 3 at 60fps, if not 48. That’ll be an improvement but the next thing we need is even wider, bigger screens and more powerful projectors.
If we got to a point where it was 100fps or even 72, with good 3D projection, 9.1 sound, 8K presentations, then what do you think is next, is there a next leap?
I’m not really worried about a next leap beyond that. Because getting to that is all we can do in the next few years. I’m shooting films right now at 120fps in 3D and I know that the result is absolutely stunning but very few people on this planet have actually seen that, yet. I have a very challenging process ahead of me to start demonstrating this and doing at least one film that I want to make. I have several films lined up but I’ve got one in particular that would lend itself to this. It’s a big space adventure movie. And I’ve got to make the movie and show it in this process and convince people that there’s a very big audience that wants to see this kind of tremendous technological, creative, visual leap forward to much higher quality. I don’t see right now any visible advantage to go even higher than 120 frames, I think that’s about as much as the human eye can absorb, but combining 120 frames and high brightness and gain screens that are very wide and large with a different seating configuration is a huge epic change that will take some time to effect. But I’m working on it.
You mentioned a space adventure film. I’ve read that you have two scripts in particular that you’re working on and that they have an ecological bent, is that right?
Well, not so much an ecological bent as much as a survival bent. Having to do with reaching for the stars and why we would have to go to the stars. Are we using up this planet at such an exponential rate with population growth and depletion of the resources that we’re going to have to leave the earth. I was just at a symposium in Florida last month called ‘The One-Hundred Year Starship Symposium’ that was sponsored by DARPA and there were a lot of very interesting speakers there and a lot of talk about a very big issue that faces humanity. Which is, how are we going to survive and where are we going to go when we use this place up. Those issues are part of the underpinnings of some of the movies I’m working on.
You worked on Tree of Life obviously but what in modern sci-films have you seen that you’ve liked, have you seen Duncan Jones’ Moon for instance?
I’ve seen Moon. I was frankly disappointed with it. I didn’t think there was enough going on and I didn’t think the effects were as good as they could have been. I thought it was a really good first effort and an admirable movie but it just wasn’t enough to make it, enough action and dynamism as I would like to see in a movie. But a move in the right direction.
I mean I wouldn’t call Tree of Life a science-fiction movie at all, it’s a completely different animal. I think it was a very brave and courageous movie to make that really gets people thinking and its very beautiful but it would be better to see a movie like that in IMAX or some more powerful medium because I think that the imagery of space is incredibly beautiful and I think creating a kind of public consciousness about the universe and space is a very important thing right now.
In the UK there’s a bit of a movement pushing science a bit more with people like Brian Cox on television talking about space, science and the Large Hadron Collider. I think people still don’t appreciate science enough though at the moment. Do you think there’s a lack of that too?
Well I think it requires a very high bandwith medium to get people immersed in the experience of it. Presently with our medium, which is basically movies or high definition television, if you see a documentary or something about a scientific effort or the Collider or whatever it’s not powerful enough to really move you internally and that’s why I want to try and get back and get to even better than my experience forty years ago with 2001 on a giant Cinerama screen, where a transition takes place where you don’t to anymore need to resort to traditional cinematic form, you get to something that becomes a direct first person experience for the audience. That goes beyond story, drama and conflict, it goes into something that the audience can directly absorb. That’s a territory that very few people are even thinking about right now.
I never got a chance to go on the Back to the Future ride that you worked on but looking at Brainstorm I can see that first person approach and it’s not an area that people seem to be exploring now.
I think Jim Cameron is probably moving more in that area than anyone because I think he’s recognised that a lot of the appeal of Avatar is that people feel that they’ve been transported to another dimension or another world in some way. That seems to be one of the things that a lot of people write about, the 3D brings a kind of immersiveness to it. Even though there is all these limitations that he is trying to overcome with the next versions. Yeah, I’m going there. I’m definitely working on it but I know that the medium has to get a lot better in order to do it. It kind of puts me outside of the mainstream and I work more with people in the flight simulation industry than I do with people in the movie industry. Trying to recreate reality, it’s a whole other artform.
Do you see a future where you’ll be moving in the cinema as well then?
Possibly, I’m not so concerned with physically moving because that’s such a costly high maintenance thing to build simulation rides with hydraulic actuators. I’ve done that before and I’ve had a lot of success with it. People seem to really enjoy it but that’s only appropriate for something that’s four or six minutes long. You can’t just do that to people for an hour and a half. On the other hand I think the immersiveness of the medium itself can be very much improved and there’s plenty of room for improvement and fortunately right now it’s all doable with almost off the shelf equipment. I mean there’s high speed cameras, there’s high speed projectors, there’s high bandwidth data storage. All the stuff I’m doing now I can purchase so it’s not that hard to get there. I didn’t have to invent anything new to do what I’m doing.
There have obviously been filmmakers such as Gareth Edwards with Monsters and Neill Blomkamp with District 9 where people with an effects background moved into directing. It does seem almost easier now than it did some time ago.
Oh yeah, tremendously easier.
How did you find that transition and how do you see that difference now?
I found the transition quite easy. My experience became one of discovering that the directing part of it is the easiest part of it. That it didn’t take me long to learn about screen direction or working with actors and that it became a very straightforward process. The real challenge has been to make the breakthroughs to bring a more powerful medium to the screen and that’s why it was such a profound life-changing disappointment to me when I couldn’t get anyone to make Brainstorm in Showscan, which was my plan. And if Brainstorm had been made in Showscan and Natalie Wood had not died I think it would have been quite a disruptive, revolutionary step forward for movies.
It just didn’t happen at that time and I’m hoping that there’s a confluence of energies right now that have made it possible because digital technology is so inexpensive. We don’t have to pay for gigantic film prints in 70mm and huge projectors and big cans of film and lab cost. It’s all very easy and inexpensive to do. There’s no reason why we can’t make some big leaps forward right now.
The technology is of course so important to filmmaking and there does seem to be more attention being paid to it recently but do you think that people need to be more informed?
I think they need to much more technologically informed and from my experiences they are still not very well informed. Actors are not informed, few directors are informed, even the cinematographers are still as informed as they could be and it’s a big uphill battle to make any change. I think there’s a huge amount of inertia in the motion picture industry to keep things the same as they always have been because people find it very threatening to embrace change or to do things differently than they’ve done all their life. It’s always a hard struggle.