Douglas Trumbull's Master Class

It’s not everyday you get to meet one of your heroes.  But thanks to a unique film event proposed by Phoenix Theaters at the Mall on Monroe, Michigan, on December 7th of 2019, that’s precisely what happened when the opportunity arose to meet arguably the greatest living visual effects artist and cutting-edge technical pioneer: Mr. Douglas Trumbull.  About five years ago I had written a piece covering Mr. Trumbull’s career in film largely focusing on his two brief stints at feature film directing seen here. 

Presented as an all-day exhibition of some of the effects wizard/filmmaker’s greatest achievements including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Brainstorm and lastly Blade Runner, what became known as the Trumbull Film Forum prominently featured the filmmaker in person hosting not one but two Master Class lectures discussing his life’s work, his hopes for the future of cinema and a demonstration of his long-gestating Magi high-frame rate film process.

With the hallways adorned with framed posters of his films and all of them running simultaneously on various screens including the Phoenix Theater’s very own Encore 65-foot widescreen, the theater also presented Trumbull’s first Magi film, a short science fiction fantasy film entitled UFOTOG.  Following the adventures of a young ufologist spending his time attempting to capture the highest quality photography of a UFO spacecraft possible, the 3D film shot and presented at 120 frames-per-second is truly an out of body experience and a peer into what the future holds for cinema and Mr. Trumbull.

In the Master Class lecture which lasted about two hours, Mr. Trumbull stood on the front stage by the movie screen armed with his laptop and went through everything from the history of film as an immersive out-of-body experience to Cinerama, Todd AO and Super Panavision 70mm.  In addition to going over his life’s work from beginning to end in immensely thorough detail, Mr. Trumbull also dropped hints of upcoming projects he’s working on including a proposed film about Nikola Tesla, the Wright Brothers, a new Magi film under the working title Lightship.  Further still, Mr. Trumbull hinted at an upcoming 2001: A Space Odyssey retrospective event to be held at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image sometime in 2020.

One area touched on was the project which landed Mr. Trumbull the job of working for Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey, a Cinerama film entitled To the Moon and Beyond.  Shown in 1964 at the World’s Fair, the audience was shown the fifteen-minute film on an 80-foot giant dome screen which the audience would look up at much like a planetarium.  Unfortunately due to the circular pictorial composition required for the unique theme-park theater event, Mr. Trumbull confirmed upon being asked by myself that it will never see a commercial home video release.

Following the Master Class which was as educational of an experience as it was an enthralling peer into the mind of a visual effects genius was a discussion panel moderated by two Michigan University film professors as well as a Michigan documentary filmmaker.  Here, Trumbull discussed his feelings on Ang Lee’s experimentation with high-frame-rate photography on Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Gemini Man and hopes by correcting the shutter speed with his Magi process to be able to solve the problems presented by Lee’s films. 

Further still, Mr. Trumbull mentioned his experiences working for Terrence Malick on The Tree of Life as well as acting as a sort of mentor to the team behind The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot.  Though many of the actors over the years would complain about working for Malick, Kubrick and Ridley Scott on Blade Runner, Trumbull himself had nothing but good things to say about working for the three visionary filmmakers who pushed the creative envelope which Trumbull was only too happy to assist with. 

With ticket prices as low as $1 each per show and the Master Class lectures themselves only costing around $5, the event attracted cinephiles from all over Michigan as well as outside of the state.  A testament to the strength of Mr. Trumbull’s talents and lasting appeal of his visual effects, at times during the Master Class lecture he would pause and make sure the audience was still on the same page as him, which drew widespread applause from the crowd.  There wasn’t one person in attendance who wasn’t a dedicated fan eager to shake hands with one of the most brilliant visual effects visionaries the cinematic medium has ever seen.

An important chapter in this cinephile’s own life and an important moment in time for Michigan filmgoers, the Trumbull Film Forum was an overwhelming celebration of science-fiction fantasy film as well as a hopeful yearning for continuing to innovate and expand the horizons and possibilities of the medium itself.  Still an important figure in film to learn from and respect, Douglas Trumbull’s imprint on film remains indelible and something to be cherished for generations to come.  As for myself, I feel extremely lucky to have been able to shake hands with one of cinema’s most gifted contributors in a film festival event serving as a testament to Mr. Trumbull’s life and work in the movies.

-Andrew Kotwicki