Tribute To Douglas Trumbull
by Michael Arias
2011 Berkshire International Film Festival presentation honoring visual effects pioneer and director Douglas Trumbull
June 4, 2011
It must have been early 1989 when I got the call from Doug's people. I was in Manhattan working the night shift at a small animation studio, while trying to graduate from college—a chore I'd put off for years to do special effects in L.A. One of the effects supervisors on Doug's new project was a fellow alumnus of The Abyss who'd remembered that I was on the East Coast, and located me—took pity on me, I should say. When she asked if I was interested in working with Douglas Trumbull, I felt as I imagine a convict would getting an unexpected reprieve! New York was pretty far from the center of the visual effects universe in those days, and it had been tough for me to leave L.A. behind and return home for school and the rusty old down-shooter I was now shackled to.
“Working with Douglas Trumbull?” Interested, are you kidding? Doug's work was the stuff of legend. Many of my mentors in those days, including the late great Dave Stewart, had made their bones working with Doug on Close Encounters or Blade Runner or Star Trek. And (going back even further) I'd wept for the brave little drones Huey and Dewey (wherefore art thou Louie?) when my dad took me, all of eight years old, to a showing of Silent Running at the Pomona Public Library. Then, of course, there was 2001: A Space Odyssey (also courtesy of the local library). How was it possible that Doug was doing this stuff in his early twenties? When I first started working on the Dream Quest effects stages, I'd even been introduced to Doug's father Don, another effects luminary I'd often see in the camera department or machine shop. Needless to say, all of this was inspiring stuff for a young camera assistant just learning the ropes.
Legends so often disappoint, but not this one. Doug was—I should say he _is_—an enormously inspiring figure, and all the more so when one watches him work. His knowledge is vast, to be sure, but what struck me most about him during the year I worked under him in the Berkshires, was his willingness to experiment, without fear of failure, eyes always on the “next thing.” I won't put words in his mouth, but the most important lesson I drew from working with Doug was that the art that lasts—all those images we remember years later—is built by pushing boundaries and taking ideas to their limits. Beyond their limits.
And what generosity! Doug wouldn't suffer fools lightly, and I'm sure he's clashed with more than one studio exec over the years. But he made even the least experienced of us feel appreciated, and was always dropping pearls of knowledge for the benefit of me and others still wet behind the ears; ever ready to hear us out, get his own hands dirty, and even... brainstorm with us (pun most definitely intended).
In the Summer of 1990 Doug invited me to accompany him to Japan, just as the Osaka Expo was winding down. It's hard to believe now, after living in Tokyo for more than twenty years, that my first visit was as part of the Back To The Future, The Ride team, but I'll always be grateful to Doug for asking me along. I'd have been happy to carry his suitcases (even mow his lawn, for that matter). But here in Japan, Doug always treated me as a valued colleague, though I was by far the youngest, if not also greenest, member of our group. He even greeted me with a big bear hug in the lobby of a special effects house we visited (a move that definitely opened doors for me in Tokyo). It seems silly to say it now, but a lasting early impression of Japan was, “how bad could a country be that has trains running at two-hundred miles per hour, toilets that talk back, and where people on the street recognize Doug Trumbull?”
The last time I ran into Doug was about ten years ago, completely by chance, in a parking lot in downtown L.A. No mistaking him: He seemed unchanged—a Showscan™ projection perhaps? And, as always, he got my heart racing with his descriptions of the new technologies he was pursuing. He didn't stay and talk very long. But he ended the brief encounter with, to my delight, a big bear hug.
Back at you! Thanks for everything, Doug.