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April 16, 2018

50 Years Later, Douglas Trumbull Reflects on Stanley Kubrick’s Vision and the Technological Breakthroughs of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey

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With its cosmic ambitions that still somehow achieved a universal appeal, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film that has immersed audiences in its unique and singular vision for fifty years, and few were more immersed in the pioneering film than lifelong visual effects wizard Douglas Trumbull.

Working as a contractor on preliminary design work at production house, Graphic Films back when the film was still called Journey Beyond The Stars, Trumbull stayed with the film even as Graphics Film was let go by necessity, and the production moved to England. “I cold-called Kubrick from a telephone number I found in the (Graphic Films) office and I think he was impressed with what I had to say,” Trumbull said. “He contacted my boss (Con Pederson) and he helped arrange my flight tickets to England. I was never actually contracted for the film. I was originally told I would only be needed for about nine months, but obviously it turned out to be a lot longer than that.”

Despite being in his early twenties with no feature film experience at the time of the production, Trumbull’s ingenuity and perseverance made him a valuable member of the crew. “I was part of the team that had to design all these computer readouts, sometimes there would have to be sixteen projectors running at once so it was thousands and thousands of feet of film that was required,” Trumbull said. “I came up with a solution that could automate large parts of the process.”

douglas-trumbull-1Trumbull found a way to take graphics – often sourced from scientific journals – and animate them on a grand scale, eliminating an otherwise impossible hand-drawn process. “I think after that [success] I had gone up in Kubrick’s estimation. Before I knew it, I was shooting the Moonbus scene on the soundstage,” he tells us.

Trumbull was not the only inexperienced crew member on the film. Andrew Birkin (who ended up shooting the African location footage for the Dawn Of Man sequence) and Ivor Powell were also promoted to roles of greater responsibility despite limited knowledge. But it was also Kubrick’s own experience as a young filmmaker that dissolved the usual filmmaking hierarchy that exists on sets. “There were plenty more seasoned professionals on the film, but they all came from a particular way of working and Kubrick didn’t want to work like that. He encouraged a much more experimental process,” explained Trumbull.

With more responsibility in the effects department, Trumbull was working on the film’s iconic models, but Kubrick’s editing requirements often meant that arduous effect shots would get left on the cutting room floor. “It wasn’t an efficient way of working, but as we were watching the images on the giant, deeply curved Cinerama screens – it became clear that any fast motion or cutting would be objectionable. And you would [see the] blurring and strobing of stars, so Kubrick wanted to slow everything down and have a more editorial pace. He wanted to be able to pick and choose footage like live action.”

With all the film’s imagery being created ‘in-camera’ it would often be a nerve-wracking process waiting to see if a shot had been completed successfully. “It could be anything from a week to a month. The longest shot was the [Tycho crater shot] where they walk down into the excavation site; the rest of that shot wasn’t completed for over a year. The film would be put in a freezer and wait to be loaded back into another camera to be completed,” Trumbull said. “We tried to create a process that we dubbed ‘the sausage factory’ that would be able to churn out shots a lot quicker, but needless to say it didn’t actually end up saving a lot of time. I would say for every successful effects shot, there would be five or six failed attempts.”

Many involved have discussed being in the dark about what they were doing at the time, but Trumbull doesn’t believe it was because Kubrick was trying to be secretive, but it was rather a reflection of his directorial spirit. “I don’t think it was a deliberate move by Kubrick. You often got the sense that he was making it up as he went along. He was rewriting the script every day. He wanted to stop talking and have it be a visual experience. There was originally a narrator and he cut that out completely. Performers like Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea would come onto the set and [were] given new pages all the time, and there was HAL, who was originally supposed to be female and called Athena, which was based on a study that male pilots would respond quicker to a female voice. Douglas Rain was only really a last-minute choice.”

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While filming, and Arthur C. Clarke optimistically stated in ‘65 that they were aiming for a Christmas ’66 release, but production ended up stretching on for three years. Still, primarily shooting at MGM’s Borehamwood studios, Trumbull never noticed much of a studio presence, saying, “We were the only production shooting there at the time so we took over the whole studio, we were on every stage. Kubrick knew he would have to come here to get his way, he had already shot Dr. Strangelove (at Shepperton Studios) so he was comfortable working there. It really was a great place to work. It was a beautiful studio in the middle of nowhere surrounded by farmland; it wasn’t until I saw and worked in more film studios that I realized what a great place it was.”

While the model-based effects work required a painstaking amount of work, they at least drew from pre-production sketches and technical writing. But what eventually became known as the ‘Stargate’ sequence had to be completely imagined. The original script ended with the line, ‘In a moment of time, too short to be measured, space turned and twisted upon itself,’ and another variant mentioned a ‘slot tunnel’, but beyond that, it was up to the production to decide how to visually articulate the sequence.

“It had been alluded to as a tunnel in one of Jupiter’s moons that when you looked through it you could see through to another part of the universe, but no one really knew what to do about it. Initially, it wasn’t my job to create a solution but I was watching what others were doing and you could see it just wasn’t working. I had seen John Whitney’s work (part of the avant-garde animation crowd of the 60’s) where he had moved the camera around while the shutter was open to create a streaking effect and I thought it was promising. So I did a Polaroid test putting the camera on an animation stand and moving it with the shutter open as I moved around some artwork underneath. I showed it to Kubrick and he said, ‘What do you need to build the real thing?’”

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The resulting creation was the ‘slit-scan’ machine, which in layman’s terms, moved colorful artwork behind a slit while the camera was focused on the same point with the shutter open and moved away from the slit. This combination of techniques created the streaking effect. “Kubrick was very enthusiastic about the results; he just said ‘keep shooting, keep shooting.’ It took four minutes a frame, so it was running twenty-four hours a day, and the stuff that is in the film was probably only about a quarter of what we produced. It was always aimed to be subjective. We tried some shots with the pod, what would be described as an over the shoulder shot, but it was clear it wasn’t going to work. All Kubrick did was cut back to Keir’s face.”

The most complex aspect was a shot dubbed the ‘mindbender,’ which combined seven octahedrons arranged in the top half of the frame and the slit-scan process. Trumbull said, “We had exhausted the slit-scan, shooting vertically and horizontally, so I came up with the idea of shining the light onto Plexiglas to create this kind of pulsating effect. Each [octahedron] had four visible sides, each needing 3 passes, so as you can imagine it was incredibly complex. In total, [there were] eighty-five passes, all on the same piece of film.”

A complex process at the time, the slit-scan was still relatively inexpensive compared to modern CGI methods, which have become one of the most expensive elements of modern filmmaking. “Once it got going, it was a fully automated process. It would run twenty-four hours a day, all it needed was someone to watch for pieces breaking and flying of the machine, as they often would. I don’t dislike digital imagery, there has been plenty that I have been very impressed by, but if you look at the credits of any [effects heavy] movie now, the amount of manpower required is incredible.”

The Stargate wasn’t the only aspect of production that was difficult to visualize. The figure of the alien Monolith is one of the most iconic images, but creating convincing aliens was an altogether different challenge requiring extensive testing and trial and error. “For about the first year and a half of production we tried to avoid it, but Kubrick’s wife (Christiane) was doing concepts and sculpting alien designs, I think that was kind of a back-up project on Kubrick’s part. He adds, “Dan Richter also experimented with something that was dubbed the polka-dot man, where he was covered in dots and shot against black from above, and he would twist and contort his body.”

Then there were Trumbull’s own efforts to create the otherworldly beings.

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“After we had finished the Stargate, I adapted the slit-scan into what I called the ‘Jupiter machine’ which was able to create a believable vision of Jupiter. No one had been able to do [that] until then, so after that I began to experiment. I tried using video feedback by shooting its own feedback image to create this kind of undulating effect. Then I experimented creating aliens using just light. I put a light on the floor and moved a camera with the shutter open to create a figure composed entirely of light that only existed when the camera was running. And I also tried something I called ‘cities of light’ where I used dots of light and streaked the camera to create the illusion that they could be structures created out of light. The results were promising, but we just ran out of time. Kubrick made a decision at some point that ambiguity was better, that less was more and any kind of alien was never going to be convincing.”

Even though 2001 took years longer than expected to complete, it was still rushed to be finished. But in a perfect world, it would have been an even longer production. “I think Kubrick could have gone on another year; certainly, the film would have ended up three and a half hours long!,” exclaimed Trumbull. But even after the production consumed the lives of everyone involved for years, Trumbull had no interest in an extended vacation. He went right back to work.

“I went back to Los Angeles and set up my own studio, making animations for the NBC network and other places, which led to creating effects for The Andromeda Strain and eventually directing Silent Running.” And with Kubrick, the legendary perfectionist editing the film up until its release date, Trumbull didn’t even see the finished product until its premiere, albeit in an extended form before Kubrick cut nineteen minutes for its theatrical run.

“There were a few surprises, musical cues and editing choices, but otherwise it matched up to what I thought we were making. It was great to see it all completed up there on the giant screen. The scenes that were cut, I don’t think they added anything to the film, I think Kubrick was wise to cut them,” he said.

Though the film lived up to Trumbull expectations, early reviews were not so enthusiastic. “I was surprised, they (Pauline Kael and other New York critics) didn’t like it. It took about a month until the film was rebranded as ‘the ultimate trip’ until people started to get it.”

Even inside the production, they were those who didn’t ‘get it.’ Scientific consultant Frederick Ordway even wrote a detailed letter to Kubrick outlining his problems with the film. “The thing about people like Ordway and Harry Lange (production designer) was that they were scientists, and I’ve come to the opinion over the years that when scientists get involved in a film, they’re going to end up disappointed. They want science, but a movie is a movie.”

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Trumbull was one of four credited as a ‘special photographic effects supervisor’ on the film, but he was unfortunately not given credit by the academy when 2001 won Best Visual Effects. In an unpopular decision, Kubrick accepted the Oscar alone.

“We didn’t feel that was a good move on Kubrick’s part. I don’t think it would have taken much effort on his part to lobby for the rules to be changed to accommodate us all. I didn’t get to see the Oscar until after Kubrick’s death, when I went to his memorial service, so it was a very long time before I got to see it.”

The fate of 2001’s incredible models have long been debated, with rumors of Kubrick wanting to destroy them to stop others using them. And with the film’s completion coinciding with MGM’s closure, they may have been accidentally destroyed, but Trumbull sees little truth in these speculations.

“I believe Kubrick had planned along with Ordway and others to take the models and props on a Roadshow and take it around Europe, but at some point he decided against it,” Trumbull says. “Then there was a fire where all the models were being stored so lot of the stuff got destroyed, though Kubrick may have kept the Moonbus model in his office and he had given the Aires-B (lunar-lander) model to his daughter’s tutor in exchange for payment. And it was only recently bought by the Academy.”

Arthur C. Clarke went on to write three sequels to 2001, the first – 2010 – was adapted in 1984 with returning stars Keir Dullea and Douglas Rain, but also with the conspicuous absence of anyone behind the camera from the original film, including Trumbull. “I cannot remember if I was asked to do the film, but my studio that I had started along with Richard Yuricich (Blade Runner) was used to shoot all the effects for the film. I didn’t care for the film, I thought it was more standard action fare and it didn’t understand what 2001 was.”

2010 achieved little in comparison to its predecessor, and in an age of franchises and sequels, where many old favorites are looked to be revived, it remains a testament to 2001’s singular vision that its two remaining sequels – 2061 & 3001 – have remained untouched.

Even despite owning a pilot’s license and demonstrating an evident passion for space travel, Trumbull doubts that Kubrick would have pursued real space travel. “I don’t think so,” he answers. “There was part of Stanley that was very risk-averse, physically. If someone had a cold he wouldn’t shake their hand and he would put a mask on. It has become a lot safer now, and its becoming more commercially viable. Perhaps if were a younger man I would be interested, but I am always interested in the beauty of the universe. I am doing an anniversary event at MIT where they are going to show the recent images taken of Jupiter accompanied by Ligeti’s (whose compositions signal the appearance of the Monolith) music, and Keir and Gary are going to do a reading of Kubrick’s (September ’68) Playboy interview.”

For its 50th anniversary, 2001: A Space Odyssey will get a 70mm unrestored theatrical re-release, overseen by Christopher Nolan, starting May 18. See a trailer above.

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