Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Academy Award Winner / Special Effects Pioneer Douglas Trumbull talks with TV STORE ONLINE about creating the stargate sequence for Stanley Kubrick's Science Fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey

The recipient of the Vision Award at this year's 2013 Locarno Film Festival, Academy Award winning special effects pioneer and writer/director Douglas Trumbull talks with TV STORE ONLINE about creating the inventive special effects for Stanley Kubrick's landmark work of movie science fiction, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Mr. Trumbull how did you come to work with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)?

Trumbull inventing on
DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:   Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke had seen a film I worked on for a company called Graphic Films, TO THE MOON AND BEYOND (1964) at the 1964 New York's World Fair.  At the time Graphic Films was producing a lot of training and simulation films for NASA and the USAF about outer space.   These were very technical films, but they were also animated and semi-photo realistic.

TV STORE ONLINE:   It seems like the 1964 World's Fair had a big influence of Kubrick and Clarke and how they'd realize the film.   Do you think that the appearance of the video phone at the fair that year had an impact on how we see it used in 2001?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:   Yes. I think Kubrick and Clarke must have seen the video phone at the World's Fair that same year as well as my film.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Since TO THE MOON AND BEYOND hasn't been seen since then really, could you tell me what it consisted of?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:   TO THE MOON AND BEYOND was only fifteen minutes in length. It went on to explain the big bang theory and ended with the micro-cosmos.  It was also shot in Cinerama and projected on this planetarium type screen in big theaters.

TV STORE ONLINE:   What type of work did you do on TO THE MOON AND BEYOND?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:   I did all the artwork for the film.  I did all the illustrations, all the stars, and all the planets in the film.  So when it played at the World's Fair that year Stanley Kubrick saw it, and approached Graphic Films to see if he could hire them to help work on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968).

TV STORE ONLINE:  Then there was another film that Kubrick saw that had a big influence on him as well, no?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  The other film that Stanley Kubrick saw around this time was called UNIVERSE (1960).   It was a thirty-minute film made by the National Film Board Of Canada.  It was shot on 35mm and was in black-n-white.   It was, frankly, a better film than TO THE MOON AND BEYOND. But I think that after seeing both of those films, Kubrick had the validation in his mind and he must have felt comfortable enough that he could actually make 2001 with the content and the quality that he wanted for the Cinerama screen.

TV STORE ONLINE:  When you were asked to work on the film did you see any challenges in the beginning in regards to creating what Stanley Kubrick was envisioning?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  Sure.  For example the effects required by Stanley Kubrick for the Jupiter And Beyond Infinite sequence in the film were something that represented a transition from reality through time and space to some other dimension and I thought that was going to be a very tall order.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Did you have an idea at the beginning of the production of how you were going to achieve it?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  None of us knew how to go about it really.  There were various ideas on how to achieve it.  For example there was this idea about a slot in one of Jupiter's moons.  Where Dave Bowman would look down into this rectangular monolith shaped opening in the moon and this whole other universe would be revealed on the other side for some unknown reason.

TV STORE ONLINE:  I've read about that idea in some of the books about 2001 that have come out over the years...How did that concept develop into the stargate sequence?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:   Well, the Jupiter moon idea really got us thinking about a corridor concept.  From there, some of the art directors and production designers started messing around with various systems of mirror tricks in an attempt to make this sort of infinite light show but it just didn't work very well.  I started to think about the effects from the end sequence of TO THE MOON AND BEYOND that this gentleman named John Witney had done.  It was this sort of streaked photography process where he was moving various kinds of animated artwork around while the shutter on the camera would remain open.  So he was creating these controlled blurred effects using these different geometric designs.

I thought that this idea would be something that we could apply to this corridor idea but in a three dimensional space.   The idea of a blur is very much like if you took your camera and went out and stood by the road and tried to take a picture of a car going past you on the road at night.  The headlights and taillights would become long streaks of light if you left your shutter open for a long period of time.

TV STORE ONLINE:  So how did you create that incredible sequence in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  We created the slit-scan. It was a device that could create specific patterns of light under very controlled conditions.  For example, if we took a light and turned it on and off, that would create a blinking streak of lines on film.  Then if you had a point of light.... That would create a solid line of light over a long term exposure.  If you blinked that same light off and then on again, the result you would get on film would be a line with dots and dashes in it.   If you consider taking a line of light from a florescent bulb and moving that in a three dimensional space relative to where a camera is mounted you'd create a plain of light.   So the idea here was to modulate that plain of light by not using a florescent bulb but by using a thin slit that would let light through to the camera lens.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Then how exactly did the slit-scan process work?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL: So behind some thick paper and glass you had this sort of horizontal animation stand where we had transparencies set in place.  On these were various artworks, op art designs, geometric shapes and patterns of different colors. Behind those we had in place very bright lights.   The camera was mounted on a track system.  The camera would start about fifteen feet away and it would move down the track toward the artwork and getting as close as an inch and a half away from glass and in doing such it would create these streaks of light that contained all these different patterns, shapes and textures. And it was done in a completely blackened out room.

TV STORE ONLINE:  So how long did the whole process take?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  It took months and months to do.  The f stop was fixed at f/1.8.  It was pretty much wide open.  And to resolve any possible issues that we'd have with the focus as the camera moved along I made a motor controlled cam that would auto focus the lenses on the slit at any distance.  So there was an accumulated infinite number of focal distances on each frame of film.  It would take the camera approximately one minute to run down the track and expose one frame of film, and it would be focusing the entire time.  We'd have to do this process twice for each frame of film cause we could only shoot one side of the light corridor at a time.  For example, once we exposed the left side of the film, we'd have to rewind the film, and start the camera back at the top of the track then go again capturing the right side of the light corridor.  Each frame of film you see in that final sequence took four minutes of time to create.  Because it would take one minute of exposure time to do the left side of the corridor, then another minute to do the right side, then two minutes of reset time for the camera as it completed the movement.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Was there any trial and error in the whole process?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  There wasn't really any trial and error with the slit-scan process. I had done some early tests on an animation stand.  We had a vertical animation stand that had a 65mm camera on it facing straight down onto a platten. It was called an Oxbury.   We also had a Poloroid camera that fit right in front of the lenses.  We'd shoot Poloroids of every single set up in the movie first.  Stanley Kubrick amassed a huge collection of Poloroids because he wouldn't even look at anything unless it was a Poloroid first.  So every set up in the movie was tested first on Poloroid and checked for composition and brightness, color and possible exposure issues.

I had the Poloroid set up on the Oxbury stand, so we could make Kubrick these Poloroid tests.  I ran the camera with the shutter all the way open from the top to the bottom with the slit back-lit on the platten to see if I could create this same streaking effect.  And sure enough, it produced this kind of corridor of light on the Poloroid.  So I took the Poloroid down to Kubrick's office immediately and showed it to him, and said that I thought that this was the way that we should create this corridor of light idea.  Kubrick asked me how I had done it, and I told him.  He said, "OK, what do you need to do this this?"   So I told him that we needed to build this big machine.  I told him that it would require some gears, and some motors,  some giant sheets of glass, and a camera with a focus cam.  I had it pretty much designed already in my head before I had went down to talk to Kubrick about it.   So Kubrick said, "Go ahead and build it."

From there I was able to move about the studio and get all these different departments working on what I needed to build the slit-scan.  I had the engineering department, the machine shop, glass shop, and the metal shop assemble all of the components that I needed right away.   The track in which the camera would be mounted on we needed to have specially machined.   There was a company in Saginaw, Michigan who machined the track called, the Saginaw Ball Screw Company.  And because of the length of it and the speed in which we needed it completed, we had it air-freighted to England cause it was the only thing in the world that we could get for the camera that would allow it to move smoothly on.

Check out Douglas Trumbull's Master Class Lecture at TIFF

TV STORE ONLINE:  I've read in some places that you had a very unique way of unwinding or de-stressing after a long day of working on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY?

Trumbull directing 
Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood in
DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  I had a trampoline on the back lot of MGM Borehamwood Studios.  I had it placed in an old barn.  The entire back lot of MGM was a sheep farm at the time. But there were all kinds of sets and props rotting away on the back lot as well. So I had the studio rent me a trampoline and put it out back there so we could use it to take off and go get some exercise during the day if we needed it.

TV STORE ONLINE:  As with TO THE MOON AND BEYOND a couple years earlier...Did you do any of the artwork for 2001?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  I painted all the stars that you see in the film.  I made all the planets. I made Jupiter, and I made Jupiter's moons.  I designed most of the lunar landscapes and built many of them as well. I also made the security badges that you see the actors wearing  in the space station briefing scene.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Were there any ideas that perhaps fell between the cracks due to time or budget that you or Kubrick wanted to attempt in regards to the special effects or stargate sequence but couldn't?

Still from the Stargate Sequence of
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:   There was an idea to create a "City Of Light" for the Jupiter And Beyond Infinite section of the film.  Toward the end of filming, Stanley Kubrick felt that he had all of the stargate material that he needed.  But I suggested that he could in fact use this slit-scan technique to create a city of light or even create aliens of light.  So Kubrick approved for me to start working on it. I had to modify the slit-scan machine that we had built. I had to modify it so I could put up thousands of little miniature light bulbs that were in various patterns. I had them set up so they could be sequenced on and off with these micro switches as the camera went along it's track.  Doing this, gave this photographic effect that looked like you were moving past these high rise buildings made of nothing but pure light.

TV STORE ONLINE:   What about the creation of an alien?  I've read about that in books about the film but they never fully explain it really.   Could you talk about that?

Keir Dullea and Stanley Kubrick shooting
DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  We started shooting these tests to create aliens made of pure light.  These aliens were figures that looked like envelopes of pure light. But they had a humanoid shape.  They had a head, torso, arms and then legs, but they were just comprised of light.  By the time all of this happened we were running out of time.  Kubrick was getting pressure from MGM to deliver the film.  So he decided that he wasn't going to use the footage.  So Kubrick just said, "Forget about it."   So all of this stuff, the "City Of Light" and the aliens were never used and it's never been seen to this day.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Was the process of creating this alien different than how you'd worked on the stargate sequence itself?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:   Yes. We made an attempt at creating the aliens by doing some photographic tests on some alien statues that were sculpted by Kubrick's wife, Christiane.  Then we did some other experiments as well with Dan Richter.  Richter was the actor who played "Moon-Watcher" in The Dawn Of Man sequence in the film.  They designed this leotard outfit for him. It was all white and it was covered with black polka dots.  So they put him in that suit and shot some footage of him at very unusual angles. He looked like just a pattern in a suit.  We called him "Polka-Dot Man".  The idea behind that was to take the footage of Richter and composite it into what we called "Purple Hearts."  Purple Hearts was just a terms that we used to describe that solarisation technique that you see in the finished film.  

They were going to solarize this footage of Dan Richter as he was doing this sort of subtle strange movement.  The idea was to hopefully get this sort of organic alien entity out of this.  But again, Kubrick just ran out of time.  So he couldn't explore it farther. He didn't have the time to take these ideas and go further with them and see how they would turn out with the proper coloring done on the test footage. I even tried a video television feedback system.  I discovered that you could aim a close circuit camera back at it's own television monitor and if you adjusted it right you would get it started into this weird video feedback that looked like an organic pulsating form.  We did end up photographing it and Kubrick did like it.  He thought it did have promise.  But again, at the end of the day there just wasn't enough time to explore the concept any further.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Then what about the "Star-Child" that closes out the film?  Did you have any involvement in creating that for the film?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:   The Star-Child was a sculpture.  It was done by a local English sculptor named Liz Moore.  She had sculpted the fetus shaped child based off of the photographs of photographer Lennart Nilsson.  Nilsson was the first person to photograph an embryo In utero.  It was a big deal back then and his pictures made the cover of Time Magazine during the early '60s.   Stanley Kubrick really liked his photos.  So Liz Moore sculpted Keir Dullea as a baby and the sculpture had these moving eyes put into it.  It was the only part of the sculpture that actually moved.  The whole thing had to be lit under very harsh and extreme lighting conditions.  There was a heavy amount of gauze filters on the lights which sort of defused it some and made it look very mysterious.  So what I did was paint that envelope of light, that glow around it that appeared to be a placenta.  And we just put them together on the animation stand.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Did you do any work on the centrifuge set for the film?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:    I designed all the animation on all of the computer screens you see in the film.  We called them "house readouts."  In particular the read-outs you see in the centrifuge portion of the film; those were done on a animation stand and then rear projected via a 16mm projector.   In fact we had 16 projectors bolted down and attached to the outside of the centrifuge.   They didn't anticipate what the problems would be with this idea and they didn't anticipate how the reels of film would react to being turned upside down as the centrifuge turned.  The reels of film fell off the projectors, the bulbs would blow out. Everything that could've gone wrong with those projectors did.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Didn't Kubrick originally want Bowman and Poole to go to a different planet than Jupiter?  

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:   Originally Kubrick was considering the idea of having Bowman and Poole arrive at Saturn and not Jupiter.  The original idea was that the destination would be Saturn and while we had some really talented illustrators working on 2001 they couldn't paint Saturn at all.   They just couldn't make it believable in any way so Kubrick kind of backed off on it.   At the time, there were no good photographs of Saturn or Jupiter for that matter.  The only thing available at that time were these blurry photographs that were taken through a telescope.   The illustrators kind of knew about the red spot and the bands of color and everything but nobody knew anything about the turbulence of detail with Saturn. 

So after a while, it was decided to go back and figure out a way to produce a convincing Jupiter, and that's when I came up with the idea of building what I called "The Jupiter Machine".   And that was just taking the slit-scan technique and turning it into a different kind of device that would rotate to create a spherical painting.   

TV STORE ONLINE:   Can you recall seeing any of the cut scenes that either didn't make the first edit of the film or were removed following the first few screenings on the East Coast?  If so, could you tell me about them?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:   There was a scene that was cut from the film that I remember where Dr. Floyd has this extensive conversation with his daughter about a Bushbaby and then goes to another site where he's talking to a woman who is selling  Bushbabies at a Macy's department store.  And as I recall you see Dr. Floyd talking to a salesperson about purchasing the Bushbaby.   It was really a redundant scene I thought and I saw no reason for it to remain in the film.  

I remember other scenes that played in The Dawn Of Man sequence.  But I recall some portions of that  were just extended out too.  Then there were some other scenes that Kubrick cut out involving some Hal 9000 read-outs that depicted some testing of the AE35 unit that went on and on that were cut out.  There were many many little things throughout the film that Kubrick cut out. I believe around seventeen minutes in total were cut by Kubrick and Ray Lovejoy before the film was released wide.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Do you think that the footage of 2001 that was discovered a couple years ago in that salt mine in Kansas is some of the stuff that you just mentioned that was cut?  I've heard rumors that it might be a reel of footage that Kubrick used to show MGM executives when they came to check on the production once it had gone over schedule in shooting.   Do you think it could be that?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  When the MGM executives came to Borehamwood they were shown a reel of footage out of continuity to just relax the uneasiness back in Los Angeles is all. They weren't allowed to take anything back with them.  Kubrick showed it to them under his strict supervision.  It included some stuff from the centrifuge, the pod bay, and a bit of the water surface footage that was used in the stargate later on. It was just a sampling because Kubrick did not want to unveil any tricks in regards to how the story was to unfold, so I doubt that was what was discovered in that salt mine in Kansas.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Looking back today, there seems to have just a wonderful and optimistic outlook on the discovery of Extraterrestrials in the early/mid 1960's whereas people today think it's a joke, it's not taken seriously and no one seems to care anymore about what could be out there beyond the stars.  Why has the sociological outlook changed so much in regards to such a possible discovery?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:   You're right. There's a closeted opinion about it these days isn't there?  Back when 2001 was made there really was a very optimistic attitude about it  And I think it's because of all the UFO sightings and alien abductions phenomena that's been reported over the years.  Nobody in the scientific or academic community will touch the subject matter today for risk of humiliation publicly.  If you ask anyone today if there's life in the universe, they'll say "Yes."  But if you ask them if UFO's or aliens have ever been to Earth they'll say, "I don't wanna talk about it."

Douglas Trumbull will be the recipient of the first ever Vision Award at the this year's 2013 world renowned Locarno Film Festival in Italy.   For more with the legendary writer/director, special effects pioneer and inventor please visit Douglas Trumbull's official website HERE:

Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung