‘2001’ VFX Guru Douglas Trumbull on Why CGI Hasn’t Outpaced the Visual Effects of Kubrick’s Film

Douglas Trumbull has been in the “2001: A Space Odyssey” business for over 50 years. The special effects guru was a young animation artist when he worked on the spaceflight short film “To the Moon and Beyond” for the 1964 World’s Fair, which caught the attention of Stanley Kubrick while in the early stages of planning his operatic space epic. Trumbull wound up learning the ropes of visual effects on the project and played a critical role in everything from the miniatures to HAL 9000’s robotic view and the climactic Stargate sequence, which remains as mesmerizing today as it was over half a century ago.

Much of Trumbull’s work is on display in “Envisioning 2001: Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey,” an exhibition at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image that reopens this week and remains on display through September. The exhibit, a variation of an earlier show that opened in Frankfurt in 2018, features a wide array of original artifacts from the movie alongside clips of films that inspired Kubrick, correspondences, and details behind its groundbreaking vision of the future. For Trumbull, it has been another opportunity to revisit the movie’s legacy as he continued to talk through its lasting impact.

Trumbull’s career has followed a unique trajectory. After “2001,” he dipped into filmmaking with the seminal sci-fi effort “Silent Running” and “Brainstorm,” while other projects that benefited from his effects work included “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” “Blade Runner,” and “The Tree of Life.” These days, however, Trumbull has doubled down his efforts to develop a high frame-rate technology called MAGI, which shoots and projects images at 120 frames per second. From his studio in the Berkshires, the 79-year-old Trumbull spoke via Zoom with IndieWire about the legacy of “2001” and why its effects still outpace a lot of CGI used today, his frustrations with Christopher Nolan’s recent restoration of the movie, and the problems other filmmakers have faced with high frame-rate technology.

You helped advise on the exhibit at MOMI. How much does “2001” inform your professional life these days?

I’m actually right now in the process of reconsidering a documentary project I was developing about “2001.” I put it aside for many years because it got kiboshed by somebody at the Kubrick trust or maybe Warner Bros., even though they were very excited about it. I may get that back on track. I think “2001” stands alone on the planet as evidence as a really different kind of cinematic experience.

More than 50 years after “2001,” we can image the solar system better than ever before. How might the approach to the effects look differently if the film was made more recently?

At the time we made “2001,” there was no good imagery of Jupiter or its moons. It was just a fuzzy ball. I had to make it up. Now that I’ve seen the Juno photographs and video — the Juno video is mind-boggling in terms of what that planet looks like. It’s so intensely beautiful. The moving images are just incredible. I’m trying to figure out if I can get this “2001” exhibit back online, I would want to include all these things we’ve learned since then. I think we’d have interviews with some of the scientists and engineers inspired by it. I hear all the time from astrophysicists, doctors, technicians, who say they decided to go into science and technology as a result of seeing “2001” when they were nine years old.

The MOMI exhibit has a lot of your miniatures alongside screens that show their functionality in the film. It’s significant to see how they work in the movie since miniatures aren’t used as much these days.


MOMI’s “2001” exhibit

Thanassi Karageorgiou

Special effects have gone all digital. As I watch a lot of these movies, my experience has been that I see mind-boggling things achieved by CGI, including flames and water, all kinds of spacecrafts and alien planets. The problem is that you give it about two years, look at it again, and think actually, this doesn’t look as good as I thought. It doesn’t age well. There’s new stuff that gets better every year. I look back at the things I’ve done with miniatures and they’ve aged very beautifully. They still look as good today as they did then. They still look credible today even though they were made more than 50 years ago.

I’m all about what I call “organic effects” — miniatures, liquids, fluid dynamics, really beautiful stuff, some of which I did for Terry Malick on “Tree of Life.” It’s very exciting work because it’s always a little bit weird. You never know what’s going to happen when you blow something up to 1,000 frames a second. All kinds of natural phenomena emerge. It’s not just about miniatures; it’s about forms of photography at high frame rates, which enable all kinds of other stuff that very few people know about.

Even today, there are people whose trade is visual effects and they’ve never even seen a film camera or anything like that. They’re not aware of long exposures or time lapse or other kinds of techniques that we were using on “2001” that can get you almost infinite depth of field and photorealism. The fact that computers allow us to do digital compositing is fantastic and far better than optical printers ever were. There are no matte lines or artifacts or edges of the blue or green screen. So it’s a combination of both. I’m not in one camp or another. The mixture of the two is the best way to go.

Where do you fall on digital lighting effects? “Godzilla vs. Kong” has some incredible moments in Tokyo where the neon lights reflect on Kong’s fur. But “2001” and “Blade Runner” have more sophisticated lighting schemes as a whole.

Kubrick had this really gifted cinematographer, Geoffrey Unsworth, on “2001.” He was also involved in the miniature photography along with [effects supervisor] Wally Gentlemen. That wasn’t a completely separate part of the movie. The interactive lighting is really important. I was just looking at some shots of “2001” the other day to try to remind myself about what happened.

There are shots where you see the Discovery spacecraft sitting there and the little tongue has come out of the door. The pod is rising up to the antenna. The pod’s lights are on and they shine right onto the front of the Discovery. That interactive lighting between the two is part of the key of why it looks like it’s there at scale. There’s a lot of things like that very thoughtfully considered by Kubrick and Jeff and Wally and me. Lighting is everything in the movie.

How did your role on the movie evolve over the course of the production?

When I started on the film, I was 23 years old and my initial work was animation. The first job I did was all the HAL readouts. We found out right then that traditional readouts were going to take forever so we had to come up with another way, which was to be much more extemporaneous. We built our own animation camera, our own backlight system, some mechanical linkages between the camera and the artwork so we could semi-automate the readouts throughout the film. Kubrick was so impressed with the way we were reimagining what animation could be that I started getting jobs on other stuff.

The next thing that came up for me was the moon bus. That was the first miniature that came in. It was really terrible. The art department had designed it really well out with fiberglass. It was this fiberglass brick. I said, “I’m an artist, I paint with my airbrush.” Part of it was trying to make it look functionally real. There were rocket engines on it. We would make these burn marks on it, and dirty, leaky oil drips, stuff like that. Then Kubrick said, “Why don’t you photograph it?”


“2001: A Space Odyssey”

Everett Collection / Everett Collection

So I got a job doing my first live action high-speed photograph with the moon bus landing on the moon. One thing led to another and it was all about this aesthetic of lighting that Kubrick was very focused on all the time. The landing of the moon bus was surrounded by brilliant lights that were actually projector bulbs from thousand-watt projectors that we could aim into the camera lens to create all these lens flair and glow.

The location where they first discover the monolith was all about lighting too. Big pales of lighting instruments that were in the shot. That was part of Kubrick’s aesthetic. It was all about functionality and making everything look natural. The interior of the centrifuge and other sets in the movie were self-illuminated. You had to be able to turn the entire centrifuge on and then rotate it 360 degrees without a key light or anything. That was part of the design work of Geoffrey Unsworth, working with the art department and the production designer to build natural light sources into the set.

What do you make of the way the “2001” aesthetic — or a look that seems like it’s inspired by the film — crops up in contemporary cinema?

I see remnants of “2001” al the time, whether it’s “Ad Astra” or “Star Wars” or “Avatar.” People refer to it visually as they do with “Blade Runner.” But they often just miss the boat. They just don’t understand why it works. A lot of people just don’t think about lighting that way when you’re in the world of computer graphics. When the lighting is synthetic and you have to place lights into the graphics, it’s very hard to create true naturalism. It’s getting better and better — I don’t mean to denigrate it. There is a lot going on with the Unreal engine and volumetric lighting systems. But in terms of having fun on set, there’s nothing like shooting miniatures and making magic with lights. It’s tangible. It has an odor to it. The physicality of it is very satisfying.

How do you feel about what “The Mandalorian” is doing with virtual sets?

I think it’s a good step in the right direction, but it’s basically replacing blue or green screen with rear projection. They’re using LCD displays. It’s not perfect and it’s not the magic bullet that everybody wants. It’s helpful, but it’s very expensive to install these giant screens. They cost millions and millions of dollars. I’m all for virtual productions, though. They allow everybody on set to see what the magic is. You’re at the location. But when you do that, you’re baking in the illusion, so it better be perfect; otherwise, you have to go fix it in post.


StageCraft "The Mandalorian"

Shooting “The Mandalorian”

There are many versions of “2001” out there. Even MOMI is showing multiple ones in tandem with the show — the 70mm and the 4K restoration. Do you have a preference?

I actually think the 4K is better than the 70. I’m not entirely in love with some of the color grading but it’s not seriously bad. If you actually compare the 70mm print — sprocket, celluloid film is on its way out, and finding a projectionist who understands how do it properly is very difficult. I have great admiration for the Museum of the Moving Image, but they were running that projector at, like, 30 foot-lamberts of brightness, which makes the image flicker really badly, and it’s too raw. It should never be more than 13- or 14-foot lamberts to look more natural. But the other side of this is that when “2001” was made, it was made in the context of Cinerama, in that period of time when there were many other 70mm films being made. Prior to that, there were some Cinerama films and one of the greatest was “How the West Was Won.” They were showing on these gigantic 100-foot screens.

As someone committed to cinema as a big-screen phenomena, how are you feeling about the state of exhibition?

I’m really worried about the direction of the movie business on the exhibition side. It’s the weakest link. I don’t think there’s any shortage of talent or ability of filmmakers to make awesome-looking movies with a good budget, good script, and good director — but the exhibition side is being eaten alive by streaming, Netflix and all this commoditization of the moviemaking process that makes it cheaper and less spectacular. By its normal built-in financial limitations, these movies can’t be epic.

People today aren’t really being adequately introduced to “2001” because there really aren’t enough big screens with 70mm projectors. Even IMAX screens are relatively flat.

What did you make of Christopher Nolan’s 70mm print of “2001”?

I disagreed with some of his color grading but I thought it was great he was doing it. However, I was kind of flabbergasted because I had a previous intimate relationship with Warner Bros. about “2001” because I was developing this documentary for them. At the time, I said, “I know where the original negative is of everything. I’m a guy who was on the set, working with Kubrick, and I’d love to contribute to any restoration you want to do.” Instead, they called Christopher Nolan and they did not call me. Go figure. It’s all corporate. All about money.

It’s really important that if you’re doing a restoration of any movie, you should be making every attempt to bring in the principles who made the movie in the first place, whether it’s George Lucas or Bob Wise, who was involved in a restoration of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” He made the movie better. There was work done on “Blade Runner” that made the movie better, and I helped them, because I had 65mm negatives of all the effects shots stored away that I gave to the studio. Generally, these restorations are not done by the principles who made the movie, particularly the cinematographers. If you’re going to restore “The Godfather,” you’ll include Coppola.

What’s the most important aspect of the movie that you want to make sure any future restorations take into account?

One of the key things about “2001” that we were going through in the making of the movie was the stars. We were very cautious to make sure the stars — which are only the size of one grain of film emulsion — wouldn’t disappear when the film was duplicated to make 35mm prints. So we did various tests to make sure they wouldn’t just disappear. You could easily end up with a black background, no stars, and that wouldn’t make much sense. Fortunately, that has been pretty well preserved, including on the Blu-ray. The stars are still there.

The MAGI system you’ve been developing is all about increasing frame rates to 120 frames per second. That’s what Ang Lee used for “Gemini Man” and I thought it looked pretty bad for the most part, other than some action scenes — like television with the motion-smoothing effect turned on.


"Gemini Man" Motorcycle

“Gemini Man”

screenshot

Here’s the thing. Celluloid movies, we’ve known them for 100-plus years, have been sprocketed, acetate prints projected in a projector, which has a rotating shutter. The light has to be blanked out when the film is moving to the next frame. That’s been the nature of the cinematic experience for a long, long time. That includes a problem, which we noticed while making “2001”: Each frame is shown twice. The flicker is really bad if you show each frame once. So the Lumière brothers invented a triple-blade shudder where each frame is shown twice or even three times. When movies were called “the flicks,” it was because they flickered really badly. And now you have that word still around with “Netflix.”

The problem with digital projectors and televisions is that they have no shudder. If you increase the frame rate and don’t have the shudder, it’s going to look exactly like television. That’s the problem with “Gemini Man.” I tried endlessly to explain this to Ang Lee, over and over again, and he never got it. None of those guys ever understood it. And they put that movie out with no shudder. Digital projectors in movie theaters don’t have shudder.

I found that you can actually add a shudder in the DCP copy of the movie with black frames that replicate the shudder. That’s the difference between cinema and television — the shudder. They keep making the same mistake. Peter Jackson made the same mistake with “The Hobbit.” I don’t know what Jim Cameron is doing with the next “Avatar” movies but I’ve shown him what we do here and he was blown away. I don’t know if he’s going to try to alter the frame rates or tone down the high frame rate stuff that looks so video-like.

Most multiplex theaters are too narrow and deep. The screen is often a flat screen at the end of the room and the seating is not very steep. It’s not stadium style in most cases. There’s tremendous upward mobility for movie exhibition to get way better. Cameras can go 60 frames or 120 frames. It’s easy to do in 2D or 3D. You can project at high frame rates. Any Series 2 projector can run at 144 frames per second. What I discovered was that when the digital projection industry wanted to enable 3D, that’s 144 flashes per second of light onto the screen. In 2D, that means you’re seeing every frame five or six times before it goes to the next one. That’s not good. That gives you bad blurring and strobing, terrible motion artifacts.

You’ve been fighting for a big-screen technology for years even as the exhibition world continues to face an existential crisis. What keeps you going?

There’s a magic that happens in movie theaters when everyone knows it’s dark, everyone knows they can’t be seen. My opinion about movie experiences in theaters is that it’s a really interesting, cathartic opportunity for emotional release. It’s OK to be sad, in love, to watch someone get chased or killed and feel all the tension and anxiety of it. In a darkened room, there’s something safe about that — completely separate from COVID and everything else — and there’s magic in that. I don’t want it to go away. I’m all about making movies for giant screens.

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