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'2001' and 'Blade Runner' visual effects wizard Douglas Trumbull has died at 79

Douglas Trumbull in a publicity portrait from the film <em>Close Encounters Of The Third Kind</em>.
Michael Ochs Archives
Getty Images
Douglas Trumbull in a publicity portrait from the film Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

Douglas Trumbull, the pioneering, pre-digital, effects wizard who brought to life the impossible landscapes in 2001, A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and Star Trek: The Motion Picture has died at age 79.

Those roiling clouds before the spaceship's arrival in Close Encounters? They were white paint shot into a mixture of fresh and salt water. The light show that catapulted audiences into hyperspace in 2001? That was illuminated art shot through a slit in a rotating piece of sheet metal.

In the days before digital effects, those scenes had to be created physically, and Doug Trumbull was the kid who figured out how. First hired in his 20s to fill Space Odyssey's computer screens with images (back before most people had ever seen a computer screen), his inventive use of slit-scan shots in the finale made him Hollywood's go-to guy for sci-fi imagery. George Lucas came calling, but Trumbull had to turn down the original Star Wars because he was too busy with effects for Close Encounters. By that time he'd also directed Silent Running, in which Bruce Dern and robots Huey, Dewey, and Louie tend what's left of Earth's vegetation in geodesic domes in outer space.

Observers marveled that Silent Running cost one-tenth the budget of 2001. Trumbull later saved Star Trek: The Motion Picture, when the film's supposedly state-of-the-art graphics-imaging system couldn't produce even a few seconds of useable footage.

Tiring of imagining spacecrafts against starry backgrounds, Trumbull took on Blade Runner's polluted, dystopian city of Los Angeles and made it look a lot like an oil refinery. He also spent years trying to convince Hollywood to embrace a hyper-real 70-millimeter process he invented that would run at about three times the speed of normal film. His early 1980s virtual-reality movie Brainstorm was supposed to be a showcase for innovation, but theater owners balked at paying for the equipment.

Trying to persuade Hollywood to take chances exhausted Trumbull and he mostly retired from moviemaking. He emerged occasionally to work on an immersive theme park ride or do effects for the big-bang segment in Terence Malik's The Tree of Life. Trumbull was always happy to astonish audiences who were used to digital effects with his practical magic.

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Corrected: February 15, 2022 at 10:00 PM MST
In this story, as well as in a previous web version, we incorrectly call Brainstorm a 1992 movie. It came out in 1983.
Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.