Saturday, September 30, 2023

Remembering Douglas Trumbull

Testimonials compiled by Joe Kleiman and Judith Rubin


In the late ’80s, I was in high school and I called the Trumbull Studios to ask a question. I no longer recall what it was, but I was on the phone with the man who picked up the other end for close to an hour. He discussed frame rate, visual effects techniques, an idea he had for a motion simulator. As the call ended, I asked his name. “Oh, I’m Doug,” he said. “Doug Trumbull.”

Doug’s work and my life would cross numerous times over the ensuing years. On the film front, growing up in a sci-fi loving household and being a child of the ’70s and ’80s, “2001,” “Star Trek,” “Close Encounters,” and “Blade Runner” were all staples of growing up. The first laserdisc I ever purchased happened to be, by chance, Trumbull’s feature film directorial debut, 1972’s “Silent Running,” which remains one of my favorite films.

In 1986, I visited Vancouver for Expo 86. Unfortunately, I missed the presentations at both the Canada and British Columbia pavilions filmed in Showscan, Trumbull’s 60 frames-per-second (fps) projection system. This loss was somewhat remedied when Jeff Kirsch installed a Showscan projector at the Fleet Science Center in San Diego. I was finally able to watch “Zargon” (later released as “Discovery”), the film created for the British Columbia pavilion at Expo 86, where a young Fairuza Balk joined an alien, portrayed by a giant ball, for a tour of the province. Although 60 fps is commonplace now, at the time, the crystal clear images were mesmerizing.

Our paths would cross again in 1997, when I was a technician on the IMAX Ridefilm system developed by Trumbull, at Galveston’s Moody Gardens. I recall that the reel-to-reel system projected a VistaVision print at 48 fps onto a 180-degree aluminum screen. It would then automatically rewind at 90 fps through the projector. At such a high speed, the printed image was consistently being pulled off the film stock and when it was time to clean at the projector at the end of the day, we’d find a half-inch-high pile of emulsion. Nothing’s perfect.

Interior of HITACHI Interactive Ride Simulator. SOURCE: Entertainment Design Workshop

But Trumbull had a solution to that. In 1998, I visited IMAX’s booth at the IAAPA Amusement Expo in Dallas. The company was showcasing the next generation of IMAX Ridefilm, an enclosed capsule with a curved anamorphic screen supplied by HITACHI. Because the VistaVision film had been replaced with digital media, the pod also featured interactive elements. I experienced it with some HITACHI executives and we all left grinning.

The HITACHI pod never came to market, but Trumbull has left a lasting presence on the industry. From his visual effects work to “Back to the Future: The Ride,” from his experiments with frame rates to, yes, “Silent Running,” he has changed the way we experience entertainment.

Douglas Trumbull passed away on February 7, 2022 at age 79. InPark editor Judith Rubin and I reached out to some of our connections in specialty cinema who worked with Trumbull or were influenced by his work. Here are their stories.

— Joe Kleiman, Senior Correspondent, InPark Magazine

Ben Stassen, Director/Producer

nWave Pictures

No other filmmaker has had a bigger impact on my career than Doug Trumbull. In 1983, while at USC film school, we went on a field trip to Showscan Corporation. Doug proudly showed us his newest film, “New Magic.” I was blown away by it. A few years later, when I was approached by a Belgian animation studio to join their team, I immediately suggested they contact Showscan to see if they had any interest in co-producing the first-ever computer generated motion simulation film with us. Within two weeks we had a deal and “Devil’s Mine Ride” was on track to become one of the most successful ride films ever produced.

Interview with Bobbie Wygant on “New Magic”

This truly launched my career, first as a leading producer/director of ride films, then onto large format films and feature films (I have produced/directed  36 ride films, 18 4D films, eight large format films and 10 feature films). I actually paid homage to Doug in my first large format film, “Thrill Ride: The Science of Fun.” Universal allowed us to use a two-minute clip from Doug’s “Back to the Future: The Ride.” It was one of the highlights of the film.  Anybody familiar with “New Magic” will recognize that my second large format film, “Encounter In the Third Dimension,” was a direct homage to “New Magic.” The opening scene of the film where the head of the institute of 3D technology appears behind the theater screen was an exact replica of the opening scene of “New Magic.”

As I write these words, today is actually the last day of my career as a filmmaker. I am doing press for the launch of “Chickenhare,” my last feature animated film. Then it is game over for me. I have had a great time as a filmmaker and all I can say is ‘Thank you Doug, for showing me the way!’

Bob Ward

Robert L. Ward, Inc., Co-Founder of Universal Creative

“Back to the Future: The Ride” was conceived in the late ’80s-early’90s, opening in Spring 1991. The complexity of the cinematic experience combined with ride vehicle  programming was just the kind of challenge Doug Trumbull loved. His full spectrum of creative and technological experience truly created the key “Back to the Future” attributes of Ride the Movies.

Michael Daut, Distribution Representative

K2 Studios

I met Doug over 10 years ago in Galveston at the first giant screen laser projection demo.
We have been friends ever since. I found in Doug a kindred spirit of curiosity and a hunger for innovation and for moving things forward past the status quo. 

No one I knew exemplified this spirit of innovation more than Doug Trumbull. From his early days working on the To the Moon and Beyond experience at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, to his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, to Close EncountersBlade Runner, and Back to the Future: the Ride, Doug pursued excellence in everything he did, and he put in the hard work to back it up.

He was a constant advocate of high frame rates for film and video production, and demonstrated this with his groundbreaking Showscan technology that used 1570 film projected at 60 fps to get as close as possible to achieving the sense of reality.

When Hollywood pushed back on HFR, he continued to develop, refine, and demonstrate HFR 3D stereo technology to the very end of his life. We worked together to bring his 120 fps 3D technology to fulldome theaters, and he experimented with Digistar as a platform for creating new content for his MAGI system and digital domes.

Doug was more than a visionary, inventor, and a legendary filmmaker. He was a warm, generous, and kind person who sought to inspire, mentor, and bring out the best in others. I was honored to call him my friend. I will never forget the impact he had and continues to have on my life.

Doug passed from this life on February 7, the day before my birthday. I texted his wife Julia to express my deepest condolences when I heard the news. This is what she sent me in response:

Douglas Trumbull 8 April 1942 – 7 February 2022

After twenty years, side-by-side, day and night, I say goodbye to my best friend, partner, true love and soul mate Douglas Trumbull.

When he joined our family new paths were imagined.  He was the sun in our universe, our guiding light.  We adventured together on land and sea. His passion was infectious. We worked with him to realize his dreams. He loved his life in the Berkshires on his farm, with all his animals and most of all, his extended family.  He was a caring lover, father, brother, grandfather, friend, mentor, true artist and visionary.  

Throughout his life, he inspired and influenced the lives of countless people throughout the world.  He embraced the potential in us all and nurtured it.  Doug was a kind, generous, brilliant, compassionate and respectful man. To those who were closest to him, he was a steadfast friend.

Doug battled mesothelioma for the last two years. Despite this, he continued to work to the very end on various projects including a new science fiction movie script, a documentary, immersive cinemas, new film production techniques, and more. He continuously challenged the status quo of the movie industry.  He was a fighter, a dreamer, a pioneer, eternally optimistic, perseverant, always inventing and creating. He helped us all imagine the unimagined with his movie magic. Doug’s impact will be felt forever.      

~Julia Trumbull

Godspeed, my friend. I will see you again!

Christopher Reyna

Douglas Trumbull was a man of many talents: most famously, his image wizardry. He created some of the most captivating visual effects for feature films, starting with Stanley Kubrick’ “2001 A Space Odyssey” (1968) to Terrence Malick’s “The Tree Of Life” (2011). In my mind, Doug should be equally honored for his lifelong pursuit of advancing the art and science of moving image production and presentation technologies. He started the innovative 60 FPS 70mm film system of Showscan in the late ’70s, and eventually evolved to his completely digital 120 FPS/3D Magi system.  He never stopped exploring new technologies for visual storytelling. His foundational work has and will continue to profoundly influence the future of media.

Today, I would like to single out a lesser-known talent of Doug’s that effected all of his professional endeavors. In the late ’80s, I became a part of Doug’s Berkshire Motion Pictures team to create the Universal Studios Tour attraction “Back To The Future: The Ride.” The saga of BTTFTR’s juggernaut production is best suited to another occasion…but let it be said there were monumental technical and artistic challenges.

“Back to the Future: The Ride.” Source: Estate of Douglas Trumbull

What impressed me were the qualities that Doug had as a leader. He inspired us by example to be the best and smartest we could be. His style was to empower us individually, but also to move us forward as a cohesive team. For example, we created a state-of-the-art ridefilm in an IMAX dome…a huge-scale concept that had never been done, and which NASA consultants said would never work. Doug led us as the “underdogs” who could overcome whatever challenges we faced. Doug would encourage us not to focus on the “problems,” but rather to focus our minds and spirits on “solutions.” It might sound trivial, but that mindset allowed us to create one of the most successful theme park attractions of all time.

Doug was our Leonardo da Vinci, and our Sir Ernest Shackleton rolled into one genius for the ages.

Charlotte Huggins, Film Producer & CEO

Miziker Entertainment

I was introduced to Doug Trumbull in 1994 by Richard Edlund while I was in charge of Special Venue projects for Boss Film Studios. It was clear the moment I met Doug, and by the grand introduction Richard gave him, that he was a very special person.  What I would come to learn was that Doug had a passion for special format movie making, which I had just been introduced to at the time. Doug’s inventiveness with high frame rates and large format film created the industry that I fell in love with and dedicated myself to for several decades. Doug understood from the beginning of his career that clever, innovative use of technology can greatly expand creative possibilities in filmmaking, a concept that is now part of all modern filmmaking.  

Like many other people, I am forever indebted to Doug Trumbull for using his genius to enhance and grow our giant screen, special format, special venue world.  

Steve Schklair


I first met Doug Trumbull a few years after I was fresh out of film school. I had started a production company with Keith Melton and we were asked by Dentsu to produce a fairly large film for the World Expo in Osaka, Japan. The catch was we were to use a new technology from Sony called High Definition to shoot the film for release in large format at the expo. Because we were so young Dentsu paired us up with Doug as a co-producer. As a semi-newbie in the business I couldn’t have been more thrilled as Doug was one of my idols. For the Expo film I was wearing two hats as a producer and as the Director of Photography. So on that project what I remember most about Doug was the patience he had in dealing with a couple of green kids when he had spent years working with the best talent in Hollywood. He was never short with us despite our relative inexperience, and he stepped in to mentor me when needed (and it was needed a lot). Not only because of our inexperience but because we were dealing with a new technology from Sony called HD and fighting with the sensitivity of the cameras, which, for the techies reading this, was about 30 ASA. AND we were doing live motion controlled comps using the largest blue screen stage in the US and another stage with miniature sets. The amount of light needed was stupefying. Through it all, Doug was always there with us in the trenches, helping to solve the issues that came up on a daily basis. 

[Editor’s note: the film was “To Dream of Roses,” and the event was the 1990 International Garden and Greenery Exposition, which took on a scope similar to a world’s fair.]

3ality camera shooting Trumbull’s film UFOTOG. Source: Estate of Douglas Trumbull

That was the start of our friendship. Flash forward many years later and Doug was experimenting with 3D and high frame rates. At that time I was the CEO of 3ality which was one of the leading 3D production and technology companies in the business. Doug called to ask if he could borrow some gear for his tests, which of course we were honored to accommodate. Not just because we were friends, but because he was the great Doug Trumbull and I knew whatever he was working on would be fantastically interesting. And it was. 

Tom Tait, Principal Imaging Engineer

Walt Disney Imagineering

I had the good fortune to be Doug’s first employee in the Berkshires, after he left Los Angeles. Doug was a visionary, to be sure, but also a teacher and leader. He made a point of sharing the ideas behind his vision, the logic, and the steps to succeed. He brought in world-class talent to work with his local team. When we needed a concept artist, Ralph McQuarrie was his first call. It was a conscious philosophy to blend seasoned talent with new blood that generated a lot of goodwill, and positive energy. He was generous with his time, his experience, and his attention to detail, and expected those around him to do the same.

Sometimes when someone reaches legendary status we forget that they were also a person too. The industry has lost a brilliant leader, and a kind person – not a common combination these days.

Dave Cobb, Vice President, Creative Development

Animal Repair Shop

Trumbull was the visual architect of so many of my cinematic obsessions as a kid. His passion for special-venue, experimental, boundary-pushing cinema really opened my eyes to the themed entertainment industry in my early 20s, when I was lucky to work on “Back to the Future: The Ride.” I got to interact with him a few times, and even though I was new to the industry, he was generous with his time and advice and treated me as a peer. He’s definitely a formative early influence for me, and he will be missed.

Joe Kleiman
Joe Kleiman
Raised in San Diego on theme parks, zoos, and IMAX films, InPark's Senior Correspondent Joe Kleiman would expand his childhood loves into two decades as a projectionist and theater director within the giant screen industry. In addition to his work in commercial and museum operations, Joe has volunteered his time to animal husbandry at leading facilities in California and Texas and has played a leading management role for a number of performing arts companies. Joe previously served as News Editor and has remained a contributing author to InPark Magazine since 2011. HIs writing has also appeared in Sound & Communications, LF Examiner, Jim Hill Media, The Planetarian, Behind the Thrills, and MiceChat His blog, takes an unconventional look at the attractions industry. Follow on twitter @ThemesRenewed Joe lives in Sacramento, California with his wife, dog, and a ghost.

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