Doug Trumbull - director of "Silent Running," effects producer for "The Andromeda Strain" - was one guy not watching "2001" when it showed up on the tube a few months ago.
And not just because he'd already seen it a thousand times.
He was 23 and virtually unknown 11 years ago when Stanley Kubrick saw some of his drawings and then hired him to do the special effects on his space odyssey. And as a definite believer in larger-than-life movies, Trumbull wasn't particularly interested in seeing the universe reduced to 19 inches diagonal.
"That movie just doesn't play on television," he says. "You spend four years trying to make miniatures look gigantic, and then they're back to being miniatures."
That's Trumbull's gripe: Movies are losing their dynamic impact and theaters are turning into rows of shoeboxes.
"The whole experience of seeing a movie has become a lot less adventurous than a lot of other things you can do," he says. "You know, 10th-century themed restaurants built like old castles. You go to a golf course in this town and it's like being at Disneyland. The success of Sensurround ("Earthquake" brought in $37 million in box office rentals; "Midway," $22 million) is proof that the audience wants heightened sensation other than the emotional and dramatic sensation of story and plot.I want to make movies that are total environmental experiences."
Of course, this is just what the movie industry has been clamoring for for years - even as it cranked out sequels to remakes of adaptations.
"Frankly, the immediate future doesn't look bright for movie exhibitors," writes Marvin Goldman, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, in a recent issue of American Film. "Cable television, large-screen television, video cassettes and discs-all these innovations, now on the verge of expansion, pose a serious threat to theaters. Nevertheless, I am convinced movie theaters will survive in the long run. They will be different in design and in programming. They will offer sophisticated 3-D presentations or holographic projection systems. Most important, they will provide the unique opportunity for the shared pleasure of a night at the movies."
To this end, Trumbull has developed a high-speed, 70-mm film process that is being backed heavily by Paramount Pictures. The system projects films onto 50-feet-high, 110-feet-wide deeply curved screens - 20 feet wider than Cinerama.
In fact, the initial presentation of the process spoofs the original "This Is Cinerama." It has Trumbull replacing Lowell Thomas in a roller coaster, projected on one-tenth of a huge screen.
He's holding a microphone and tells the audience that they're about to experience "a new concept in motion picture entertainment." Then, POW, the screen opens up, and the hands of the viewers dig into the seats as the car careens around banked corners.
"I have complete faith in the process," Trumbull tells a dizzy viewer of the seven-minute preview. "I know it will knock people out. And I'll tell you why. Dogs go crazy when they see the demo film. We've had three dogs jump through the screen when they saw the thing."
The process, originally called Showscan but now headed for a name change, was to have been premiered at Virginia's King's Dominion on Memorial Day. In May, Paramount decided that the system had too much potential to be revealed in a short at an amusement park, so the company commissioned Trumbull's Future General Corp. to come up with a feature-length film that can be put into several movie houses around the country late next year. One possibility is a remake of "When Worlds Collide," an obvious candidate to cash in on the new science-fiction craze started by "Star Wars." And beyond Trumbull's commission, both Steve Spielberg and John Frankenheimer have expressed interest in making Showscan features.
Trumbull estimates that it will cost a conventional theater $85,000 to convert, a price that will include a simple modification of projectors, a new screen and a new sound system that will be called Paramount Sound. He's experimenting with wrap-around speakers that can be electronically programmed to change the ambient quality of sound.
A concert hall sequence in a film will sound like a concert hall acoustically, while a rocket launch will sound like Cape Canaveral. Trumbull is also testing some devices that sense the changing absorptive qualities of the audience, clothing and seats, and alter the sound to suit the size and makeup of the crowd and the particular theater. Right now his office contains - along with one of the robot "Hueys" from "Silent Running" - two 10-foot-tall speaker systems, a bank of 300-watt amplifiers and a rack of electronic digital sound delay devices. He plays rock 'n' roll while he works - very LOUD.
The genesis of the Showscan process came years ago, after Trumbull had begun his work on "2001." In addition to photograhping many of the simulated space effects for the film, Trumbull also designed a special device to automate the shooting of the end sequence.
"That's where I got the idea for Showscan," he says. "We were putting film of abstract images through a high-speed viewer - just cranking a Moviola really fast- and it took on this crazy illusion of reality. So I wanted to try it as a new process. I modified a camera and shot the roller coaster sequence and had some scientists do some psychological tests for me. They found that 60 frames per second was the ideal rate, which is 2 1/2 times faster than conventional movies.
"There's the Candidan Imax system that they use for the flight movie at the Air and Space Museum, but that's still at conventional speed and the size of the frame is so big that the mechanics get very complicated. They have to use compressed air to move the film because it would rip up if done mechaniclly. You can't do special effects. There are only three cameras in the world and a projector costs about $500,000.
"Showscan would also 'be a wonderful vehicle for a giant-screened, super-spectacular news service. I mean, Life magazine isn't around anymore. This could be the living magazine of the '80s. I've told the Air and Space Museum that what they need is a real space film to complement their flight film. I've offered to take the Showscan system up in the Space Shuttle. It would be a great way to show people what they've been paying for. And if Mauna Loa blows up this year, like everybody says it will, I's like to be there in a Sherman tank with a camera mounted on it and drive right up to the mouth of the thing."
If Trumbull's fantasies seem full-blown, blame them partly on his father, Don. He did the special effects for "The Wizard of Oz." His son was packed off to college to study architecture, but dropped out to start doing three-dimensional illustrations for films.
"It was mostly science-fiction stuff," he says. "It's funny, because I never really liked science fiction. The preponderance of science fiction usually revolves around some kind of gimmick. And I don't think you want to peg any kind of drama on a gimmick. But it was one of the few areas of film-making that utilized my craft - visual art. After "2001" came out, everybody thought I must have been the biggest head in town. It had nothig to do with that. I was just fascinated with how you could alter images visually."
Most recently, Trumbull has been busy with the special effects for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," the $18-million sci-fi epic by "Jaws" director Steve Spielberg that Trumbull thinks is going to make "2001" look like Tinker Toys. He should know, because he's spent the last two years on this one, too. Even Spielberg has said that the effects are the real star of the movie. And they are apparently so good that some people don't quite believe them.
Two months ago Columbia executives saw a rough cut of the film - scheduled for Christmas release - and one honcho asked: "Why all this money for effects? Those aren't special effects."
Which was exactly what Trumbull wanted to hear.
"All movie-making is special effects," he says. "You assemble still images to give the effect of motion. People want to be fooled. Going to the movies should be like going to a magic show."
Trumbull expects to begin full-time work on the first Showscan feature soon, after his parts of "CE3K" are completed. Many of the shots for it are being assembled form four separate parts: live action in the foreground; a miniature background; a superimposed flying saucer; and an artificial sky. Trumbull designed a computerized system that was used in shotting the live action sequences to record on regular tape cassettes six modes of movement made by the camera. In the studio the tapes are used to coordinate the motion with moving models.
"You can pan out the window onto a moving object that's being added in the studio," says Spielberg, "Doug is an absolute genius, and when people see this movie they're never going to know that it was done in a studio."
Recently, for instance, Trumbull was fooling around with a huge 12-foot-square glass tank of water.
"You fill it half with fresh water and half with salt water," he explains. "The salt water is lighter than the fresh water, so it floats on top and creates a surface tension between the two. Then you tint the water blue, and stick a little tube in to squirt white paint. You shoot through the tank with the camera and get incredible cloud effects. It's like painting the sky. Makes you feel like God."