Monday, July 22, 2024

Doug Trumbull’s contributions and legacy

Testimonials compiled by Joe Kleiman and Judith Rubin


With his vision and innovation, Douglas Trumbull touched multiple industries over the past several decades – cinema, visual effects and attractions. In specialty cinema and media-based attractions, his vision and innovation helped shape new genres of entertainment. Trumbull helped lay the groundwork for today’s 4D theaters, gamified dark rides and immersive experiences. His pioneering work in motion simulation and high frame rate led to disruptive technologies and breakthrough projects such as the 60 frames-per-second Showscan format; “Back to the Future: The Ride” at the Universal Studios parks; Secrets of the Luxor Pyramid and the creation of the IMAX Ridefilm division. BTTF:TR was not only a breakthrough in its combination of technologies but also a milestone in how movie IP could be brought to life on themed entertainment platforms to realize new dimensions of guest experience, fan connection and brand expansion. He remained actively engaged in the field until shortly before his death this month at age 79 and his influence will be long felt.

As with part 1 of this tribute, Joe Kleiman and I called on our industry connections for statements about Trumbull, his legacy and influence.

— Judith Rubin, Editor, InPark Magazine

Larry Paul, Executive Director – Technology and Custom Solutions, Christie

I had the opportunity and honor to work with Doug Trumbull in the last 12+ years of his life on various projects and developments. High frame rate was not his only focus – he was a prolific inventor, director, special effects wizard and a visionary for all sorts of things that people see and experience. His death is a tremendous loss.

“2001: A Space Odyssey” [1968] was his first big film [special photographic effects supervisor] and he realized the frame rate was a huge limitation, so on his own he started experimenting: going beyond 24 fps to 30, 48, 60 and 72. Back then it was all mechanical film, so there was a limit to how fast you could actually push film through the cameras and through the projectors without the equipment burning out prematurely. So, he settled on 60 fps at the time because it was the practical limit of what you could do then – but Doug was very wise to recognize the potential to go further, and most significantly, to keep going beyond what we’re currently doing.

Larry Paul (L) with Doug Trumbull. Paul shares: “This was the date that Doug introduced me to Ang Lee at FotoKem.  October 31, 2014.” Courtesy Larry Paul

Someone who was inspired by Doug was filmmaker Ang Lee, and his 2016 film “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” was the world’s first true HFR 3D feature film, although only a few got to see it in its original 120 fps format. A regular movie in a regular movie theater shows about 53 million pixels per second, but an HFR movie the way Ang shot it delivered 2.2 billion pixels per second in theaters equipped with 3D HFR-capable projectors. That temporal resolution adds to realism, and that’s what Doug was pioneering back in the day. Doug continued that development with his Magi format [4K and stereo 3D up to 120 fps] – and right up to the end he was inventing and creating things – he was just a tremendous talent.

I met him at a trade show where he was a keynote speaker, and we became friends; we both experimented a lot with HFR, which is one of the realms in which Christie is a pioneer. Christie was the first company to deliver 4K at 120 fps – we were years ahead of anyone else doing 120 Hz 4K. Doug realized the 4K@120Hz potential and that sort of helped inspire the Magi format to exist. Coming out of his experience with Showscan and going beyond that into the digital world, he was able to bring it to the next level, and others have built on that. I think that’s part of his legacy: Doug was an an inspiration to so many people for his pioneering efforts in changing the way we think about things. He was a visionary, and when you’re a visionary, it’s hard to communicate and have the world understand what you’re seeing. HFR is one of those things that when you’ve seen it and experienced it, that’s when you really understand what it’s about. And with all these technologies it can show off flaws in the process – it highlights the errors and pushes you to step up your game. It does take more creativity but when you put it all together, that’s where you really can transform the experience.

Debra Walker, International Media Consultant

Walker & Company LLC

While I did not know Doug Trumbull personally, I followed his work which was always extraordinary! He was a true pioneer of visual effects. He pushed the envelope like no other. “Blade Runner” [1982, visual effects supervisor] was the film that impressed me the most and it still does.

Stanley E. Walker, International Strategist, Themed Entertainment

Walker & Company LLC

While I never worked directly with Doug Trumbull – his media was amazing. His use of the dome created one of the most memorable immersive IP-driven experiences in theme park history, “Back to the Future: The Ride.”

Rick Rothschild, Founder and Chief Creative Officer

FAR Out! Creative Direction

I had only a few moments of contact with Doug over the years.

Most memorable to me was back in the early 1980s, when I was with a small group of Imagineers who visited the highly secure and secretive Showscan mockup in Culver City. It was awesome enough to experience the mind-blowing demonstration, but even more to meet and chat with Doug and his team about the impact of 60 frames-per-second image capture and display. We’d just recently opened EPCOT where many of our attractions featured 30 fps… this was something to see.  

Considering how significant a role 60 fps media (video now rather than film) has come to play in my work for much of the last 15 years, this was certainly a seminal moment in my career. That was a glimpse into the future coupled with the opportunity to meet and talk with one of the geniuses of our industry. What his efforts and creativity provided to filmmaking and themed entertainment is legacy… his personality and his mind will be missed for sure!

Dina Benadon, Founder and Chief Executive Officer

Super 78

When I first started in visual effects, my mentor Sherry McKenna shared stories about Doug Trumbull helming Back To The Future: The Ride at Universal Studios. In those early ’90s, Luxor Pyramid in Las Vegas opened with three shows that included a 4D ride and a live theater experience projected in Showscan – Doug’s latest projects that happened to be in the very industry I stumbled into – theme park attractions and location-based experiences. 

Like the small handful of amazing Visual Effects innovators, Doug never tired of the experiments and the problem-solving challenges this field demanded, as seen in his works throughout the decades. 

In March 2019 I was invited to see Doug present his 12-minute screening of a short demo, “UFOTOG,” showcasing his Magi Process – mixing and matching frame rates for varied results. He spoke elegantly and was full of the same curiosity from decades earlier. He was excited about the future of “Immersive Cinema” and eager for actors to break the fourth wall in the movie theater while blending 24 fps with 120 fps in 4K definition. The 50 or so colleagues in the theater that day heard a visionary speak in his scientific, passionate voice about the continual melding of technology with the art of storytelling.

Magi Pod prototype theater

Doug was a dedicated trailblazer who challenged cinematic norms and pushed audience immersion to new levels. He catapulted our industry forward, forever living in the future. 

Thank you for your inspiration, Doug Trumbull, and for making things a whole lot more fun for the rest of us.

Doug Yellin, Executive Producer

Matilda Entertainment

Doug Trumbull was a true genius, a trailblazing pioneer and consummate artist. He was also a wonderful, caring and loving man who treated all who came into his orbit with warmth, respect and encouragement. Meeting and working with Doug was a dream come true for any and all who got that “E ticket” ride into art, invention and iconic imagography. He was truly one of a kind…and we are all lucky he shared time in our Universe… and inspired us to push the boundaries and explore the limits of imagination.  

RIP Mr. Trumbull.

George Wade, President

Bay Laurel Advisors

We sometimes overuse the word “Legend” in describing people, but there are a few individuals who are true visionaries in our industry, who have blazed a trail for us that enhanced all of our abilities to develop incredible guest experiences. One of these individuals was Doug Trumbull. I had the opportunity to work with Doug early in my career, after he was well established as a leader of the industry. It was a blessing to work with him and to learn so many lessons about VFX and how they could contribute/enhance to great guest stories. Doug was always challenging the status quo of experiential design, exploring how unique technologies led to awesome guest experiences.

Mark Cornell, President

Mattel Adventure Park & Malvern Entertainment

I had the privilege of working with Mr. Trumbull at IMAX and HITACHI, and creating attractions at the Luxor Hotel (In Search of the Obelisk).

The passing of one of the greatest creative minds of our time is a cruel reminder that all good things in life must come to an end. Doug Trumbull will be remembered as one of the trailblazing pioneers of the film and special effects world. He inspired me early on to know the privilege of working in attractions and entertainment.

Hans Kummer

President, Wild Child Entertainment, Inc.

I first encountered the unique futurist spirit of Doug Trumbull in early 1992. He had recently completed “BTTF:TR” to critical acclaim and was starting work on the “Secrets of the Luxor Pyramid” attractions. He was also soon to become a key player in taking IMAX public and expanding the entertainment possibilities of the giant screen experience. As a relative newcomer to the professional worlds of large format filmmaking and themed entertainment, I was eager to learn as much as I could about these immersive and experiential industries. Knowing of Doug’s cinema heritage as well as his passion for the giant screen, I cold called him and could not have been more pleasantly surprised by the reception I received. In that instance and many others over the years, Doug’s warmth, kindness, humility, generosity, patience, unique insight, candor & passionate encouragement have been profoundly appreciated more than he could have ever known. I can still recall sitting with him outside of Moody Gardens in Galveston, TX during the 1995 ISTC (now GSCA) conference talking about life and the creative promise of large format film. Whether it was an individual conversation or an impromptu group discussion among filmmakers, Doug always exemplified the rare arts of listening, creative collaboration, experimentation and most of all a profound curiosity to explore with others the depths of what a well-rounded life could be.

Experiencing Showscan’s various demos, including the ingeniously playful deception of “New Magic” as well as Doug’s subsequent ridefilm attractions was a bit like Willy Wonka handing you a Golden Ticket to be surprised & amazed at cinema’s undeveloped potential. Throughout the 1990’s, I conversed with Doug on several occasions about Showscan or IMAX Ridefilm as possible companion simulator platforms to several giant screen film projects that I was a part of – including a bobsled & auto racing adventure, an Everglades airboat tour and a Dakar (off-road) Rally experience. While timing and other circumstances prevented these projects from moving forward, Doug was always available to brainstorm (pun intended) and understood all too well the endless frustrations of “Development Hell.” From 1999 through 2001, I became involved with “Deep Ocean Odyssey” – a large scale multi-year / multi-platform oceanographic media venture created by Jean-Michel Cousteau and Kevin Costner. This was the early days of digital cinematography as well as the Internet 2.0 that would eventually become the on-demand digital media universe we now take for granted. While technically feasible, much of the planned production would have pushed the limits of broadcasting and media creation at that time. I had various concerns about the viability, development, budgeting and logistics infrastructure to create such an epic transmedia effort. Doug was gracious enough to lend an ear and be a sounding board from time to time – offering wisdom from hard-won lessons of several productions, advice to recognize potential pitfalls & detrimental ideologies as well as a gentle prodding to experiment, cross-collaborate and push the limits when & where possible. Sadly, the project folded in the eleventh hour due to investor concerns after the global dot-com financial investment bust. Efforts to reconstitute a smaller scale venture likewise collapsed in the wake of global financial insecurity after 9/11. While the knowledge & lessons learned were many, I am most grateful for the consideration & wisdom Doug freely shared which continues to enlighten me to this day.

Speaking with Doug was not just a masterclass in cinema history and technical filmmaking. It could also be an examination of thoughtful intelligence & the nature of life / consciousness and how that can apply to artistic expression. I have always been of the belief that audiences are a lot smarter than we give them credit for and that they are starving for more depth & engagement. There is no need to talk down to people and treat them like they are stupid. Doug was a deep thinker and he felt the same way. Walt Disney encouraged his Imagineers & attraction Cast Members to “Plus It!” (find ways to enhance the audience experience). I would dare say that Doug Trumbull encouraged that a step further – find ways to engage audience’s minds without them necessarily knowing that they are learning or questioning. It doesn’t have to be overt and they may not be able to put their finger on it, but they know that they have been moved in some way. To that end, I always smile a wry grin and think of Doug whenever I hear a myopic executive say something counter-intuitive: “You need to dumb this down.” / “You need to reach people where they’re at.” / “This documentary needs to be a reality game show.” / “This script (drama) would work better as a comedy if you could get rid of these characters and change the plot points.”

In thinking about Doug’s death and his passion for the giant screen experience I am reminded of what we collectively as a cinema community have lost – not just the man, but the history, collaboration and innovative thinking that he represented. In his own ways, Doug was a champion for the creation of the former Large Format Cinema Association (LFCA) – to celebrate the large format / giant screen experience (past, present & future) as an art form and challenge the notions of what “life-long learning” could be. The LFCA brought together a wide array of people – documentary filmmakers; Hollywood producers, directors & executives; themed entertainment designers; cinematographers; various production & post-production artists; cinema legends & historians – all with the overlapping goal of “plussing” the giant screen experience in ways not yet imagined. I am deeply saddened that these celebrations & collaborations have gone missing from the landscape, but those are conversations for another time. For now, recalling the memories of engaging visionaries like Doug Trumbull and passing their torch forward in whatever way that I can seems appropriate. Unfortunately, I lost touch with Doug in the last decade or so – my loss for letting life get in the way. I saw him briefly a few years ago at the Berkshire International Film Festival where he remained a local fixture – still eager to inspire & mentor upcoming filmmakers and promote the future of immersive cinema to anyone who cared to listen. Although he considered himself a bit of a misfit and an outsider to the filmmaking establishment, I’d like to think that Doug could look back on his life as a grand and creative adventure well lived. Ad Astra, Doug …

Gregory Beck

Architect and Experience Designer; former Dean of the School of Entertainment Arts at SCAD

The first week, Doug threw the script on my desk and said, “I want the architecture to follow my story, not the other way around”. For me it was a themed design baptism by fire.   

My career changed when Doug asked me to design three special venue theaters for Luxor Las Vegas. Not surprisingly, each featured one of his brilliant inventions- the Ridefilm, a Showscan virtual stage set, and an impossibly steep vertical screen theater. Doug was creating immersive cinema way before the term was fashionable, typical for a man whose storytelling techniques began with the infinite Stargate journey in “A Space Odyssey” and trail-blazed across feature films and into our world of attractions and rides.     

As the Vegas temperatures rose and the stress of building something truly special became more evident, Doug remained focused on what was possible, even if we through it was beyond our reach. He was asking for theaters where everything had never been made before, even the subwoofers. A 180-degree spherical screen floating precisely above a motion base that looked like a rogue transformer toy. A stationary theater so steep we needed lap bar restraints to keep guests from falling into the row in front of them. And we’re building this in the pyramid atrium of a 2,500-room hotel?

Making of Luxor Las Vegas

Doug recently installed a prototype theater at his studio in the Berkshires featuring his radical ultra high frame-rate camera system and producing the most clear, realistic and yes, immersive, images I’ve ever seen. His lifelong quest was to revolutionize the multiplex and turn the movies we love into an experience again. A huge undertaking, but has he described it with a twinkle in his eyes that belied a piercing intellect, it was just about making the impossible tangible- something he knew a great deal about.       

If any of us are fortunate enough to leave this earth with a title, for Doug there would be at least three: peerless innovative filmmaker, visual effects pioneer, and master cinema inventor. A life well lived, my friend.      

Monty Lunde

Founder/CEO Technifex; Founder, Themed Entertainment Association

I only met Doug once in the early ’90s, so I don’t have much personal connection. I was a huge fan of the “New Magic” short film when I saw it back in the early ’90s, which is when I met Doug. I think it was at a Showscan open house that TEA members were invited to attend. He is rightly credited with created an amazing film process that started a whole genre of large format type films and companies. He was also an amazing pioneer in the feature film industry, with many of the films he worked on being some of my personal favorites today (“Blade Runner,” “Close Encounters,” “The Andromeda Strain,” “Silent Running.”) His incredible talent and vision will be missed.

Peter Weishar, Professor of Themed Experience

University of Central Florida

Douglas Trumbull was a tremendous influence. I remembered being inspired by his early work as a child and young artist. I grew to appreciate how he changed the industry and significantly raised the bar for visual effects. I still show scenes from “2001: A Space Odyssey” in my classes. They hold up to this day and show students amazing things can be done even without a computer.

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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