The word ‘luminary’ bears two meanings. The first is the estimation of one’s esteem, “a person of eminence whose achievements inspires others,” while the other is far more celestial, “an object, artificial or natural, which emits light in a concentrated fashion.” How poetic, then, that Douglas Trumbull would achieve the status of the former through the manipulation of the latter. From 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978), to Star Trek (1979), Blade Runner (1982), and The Tree of Life (2011); Trumbull is the architect behind some of the most iconic special effects sequences in the history of modern cinema.
It’s Trumbull’s pioneering work on the big screen—using light and animation to create “immersive cinema,” which some see as a precursor to the virtual reality of today—that informed his keynote address at the inaugural Versions conference at the New Museum in Manhattan earlier this March. On stage, he recalled 2001: A Space Odyssey director Stanley Kubrick asking for him to create an abstract, “visual trip” that would let the audience feel like they’re in space themselves.
After the address, Trumbull further talked with us about his fascination with immersive cinema and his disappointment with its decline due to the arrival of multiplex cinemas. Where Trumbull does see hope for the future of the absorbing screen is in virtual reality. He talks on the medium’s potential to revive both cinema and visually-rich science fiction, as well the enduring legacy of his 1983 film Brainstorm—a VHS-era exploration of virtual reality spinning out-of-control.
Versions: What is your opinion of contemporary digital special effects? Do you feel that they have succeeded or strayed from the the precedent you set with such films as Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey?
Douglas Trumbull: I don’t think they’ve strayed at all, I think that visual effects nowadays are stunning and amazing. We’re seeing a bunch of beautiful work from really talented artists working on all these movies. I just think that the fundamental movies themselves leave a lot to be desired. The movie industry has caught itself in this chase after tentpole franchises and repeatable sequels of the same thing over and over and so that’s what it tends to feel like. And that’s coupled with my feelings about the multiplex concept that kicked in many many years ago. Do you understand how multiplexes work, as a business?
V: No, please enlighten me.
It’s really interesting. It was invented by, I think, a guy named Garth Drabinsky in Canada from Cineplex Odeon. The idea was that instead of having one big theater, like the ones I grew up in with hundreds of seats, you could divide that up into several theaters of different sizes so you could offer audiences multiple choices, they weren’t stuck with just one film in one theater and crowds could go see several different movies simultaneously. [But] the theaters would [have] 300 seats, 400 seats, 200 seats or some variation, and the whole idea was to maximize the percentage of occupied seats by simply moving the movie to wherever the audience was going to fill in the most seats.
V: Sort of like that recent conflict between The Hateful Eight and Star Wars: The Force Awakens; one was occupying a specific theater that was contested by the other purely on the basis of audience-to-revenue percentages.
Yeah, so they would move the movies from one theater to another so that the total number of seats occupied was optimized. And that’s really what drove the whole multiplex industry. The sacrifice, though, was that 70mm format screens and epic movies sort of went away for the sake of this standardization. And then the industry standardized on a digital standard, which is 2K. Y’know, 2048 by 1080 pixels at 24 frames. Then they made a huge mistake because there was a premium that they could charge for a 3D movie to bump the price up several dollars. But to do a 3D movie in that same theater they would have to put a polarizing filter in front of the projector, which cuts the light in half. Put on the glasses and it cuts it in half again and you end up with a quarter of the light.
the movie in the theater is what sparks the engine.
No one thought to compensate for that. So, eventually, we’ve come to accept a standard in which we have 3D movies that are abysmally dim, which creates eye strain and other complications that have a cumulative negative effect. So the buzz for 3D is wearing off, the up-charge isn’t justified, and people are turned off because the experience is crummy. And so I think the movie industry is in decline. It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of thousands of dollars they spend because its effort wasted in the wrong direction. Audiences are drifting to streaming and television alternatives as substitutes for a lack of compelling cinema spaces. I just heard that AMC got sold to the Chinese. The industry is changing and I think there is an incredible opportunity to upgrade the whole experience through virtual reality.
I don’t think that there’s anything fundamentally wrong with movies. Movies are being made all digitally now, with digital effects and digital sets and what have you. They’re building up these huge digital assets, particularly for an animated movie which is all digital. So if you could take that database and port it into virtual reality and craft it into an interactive experience that’s appropriate for that medium, people could basically see the movie and take the movie home with them. But the movie in the theater is what sparks the engine.
V: What do you think about virtual reality as it relates to cinema vérité, this concept of cinema as real as life that contributed in part to Alejandro Inarritu’s Oscar nomination and win for The Revenant—how do you feel VR can bring this concept to fruition?
It’s funny that you bring up The Revenant because I really liked it, and I really like it for the same reason I like Gravity (2013): for its sense of these continuous uninterrupted shots. You feel like you’re there more, so it’s more immersive and participatory and you feel like you’re in the movie, in a way. And that was in Gravity as well, perhaps even more so because there were these completely uninterrupted sequences, and that is VR.
I think that the success of these movies means that this is what people want, they want these experiential things. People want multi-sensory experiences and VR has the ability to do that. Virtual and augmented reality have a responsibility to deliver high quality experiences, because it shouldn’t be that you’re taking an image on a cellphone and dividing a movie’s resolution by half before putting it to your face, it should be 100 percent. We’ve got to step it up.
V: Your last major film, Brainstorm, felt eerily prescient in the way it seemed like the proto-virtual reality film of its time. Could you ever see yourself helping to convert Brainstorm into a virtual reality film?
No, I would just make a whole new film. The past is the past, screw it! Let’s just move on and do something different. I’ve been thinking about movie ideas, stories that are about VR and AR more like what you would think in terms of The Matrix (1999), where it’s a much more informed story than what we did with Brainstorm and much more true to what the promise of these technologies are. I’m forming some of my own thoughts right now as to how I think the human response to VR is almost narcotic. Why do we like it so much?
reality is a projection of the mind
Here’s a little story about human perception. We see with our eyes, right? And the image of you in this room comes in through my lens and hits the retina of my eye and goes into my brain. You’re not really there. You’re on the retina of my eye. The image of you is on the retina of my eye; that’s the only place that you are in relation to me. My brain is making me believe that you’re across from me right now. So reality is a projection of the mind, based on light rays hitting my retina. So when you put on a VR or AR helmet or laser scanner or whatever the hell it is, you’re forming an image on the retina of the mind and the mind does the work of making you believe that it’s out there. So the closer we can get to reality with higher resolution, brightness, and frame-rate—all of the other attributes of artificial imagining—we’re going to get the mind to believe it’s real. That’s all it is, simple really.
V: That’s reminiscent of the “The television screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye” from Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983). In that film, as with Brainstorm, the effects and gratifications of emerging technology are dissected. What do you think are the uses and gratification that VR has to appeal to in order to bridge that gap into the mainstream?
I think that, philosophically, it should not try to replicate everyday reality. ‘Cause we got that, all day, every day. And we’ve got movies all day, every day. We have television all day, every day. We have got to do something different to justify this technology’s existence that’s transformational for the viewer and the participant. Something that’s much more like a dream state or a hallucination or something that is almost narcotic in some way. It’s like music or food; it sounds good, it feels good, it looks good—it’s gotta be something that adds to life and not just replacing or replicating it. And so when I see these stories about one of these VR companies putting headsets on people on a rollercoaster, I said, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard! Just go on a rollercoaster, rollercoasters are fine and thrilling already. But if you could use VR to be on a rollercoaster without physically being there then, yeah, I can buy the potential of that.
That’s still stupid though; there’s no story, no drama, no investment on part of the participant. We’ve got to get beyond the cheap thrills part of it. We need to really start studying what makes people feel really good. And it’s not just sex. It’s transformational, informational, it’s knowledge—it’s all the stuff that was in some of the things featured [at the Versions conference] today with filmmakers going to refugee camps and trying to create situations where you experience those stories firsthand. That’s really big. Where suddenly you have an experience that you might have never had in your life that’s going to change you. And you want it to change you for the better, you don’t want it to disable you from living your life to the fullest. Like when you watch news every night, right? But it’s superficial. It’s bullshit repackaged news contextualized from one viewpoint. But if you could tune-in, in real-time, to some live-feed in Afghanistan, or from any war zone, or refugee camp, or a big meeting of the government, you would grok the fullness of that moment.
V: There’s always this repeated mantra of movies being an empathy medium. Do you see VR being the natural evolution of that appeal? What do you think lies beyond the cusp of augmented reality?
I think that movies are mostly surrogate emotional release mechanisms. Because they’re all about fear, love, desire, gratitude. It’s all about how does that actor feel, in this moment, in relation to what else is happening on screen? Is he or she crying, are they sad, worried, threatened? Is he going to die, is she going to stand by and watch? When you see movies and you see the Academy Awards, it’s all about projecting emotions in a story situation. Very few films go beyond that into Inarritu-levels of evocation. [The Revenant] was one of the best westerns I’ve ever seen in my life because that Jack Fisk production design and that stockade and those woods. Holy moly, that’s so much better conceived and experiential than any other period movie I ever saw! And it’s that aesthetic of the whole thing that was really compelling to me as a viewer. So I think that people want those kinds of experiences that are beyond their everyday reality. So whether it’s past, present, or future, I don’t think it really matters so much. But if I were to choose; I like the future. That’s why I like 2001: A Space Odyssey. That’s why I like science fiction.