Skip to main content

The best movies of Douglas Trumbull, Hollywood’s VFX master

Earlier this week, the family of Douglas Trumbull announced that he passed away from mesothelioma complications at the age of 79. And while Trumbull is not well known among the general public, he was a giant in the movie industry. Trumbull was a gifted special effects artist whose legacy includes some of the greatest sci-fi films in Hollywood history. Additionally, Trumbull was an inventor of new VFX techniques that pushed special effects forward in the age before CGI. To celebrate Trumbull’s life and his innovations, we’re taking a look back at his most impactful films from over 50 years of cinema.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Keir Dullea in 2001 A Space Odyssey.
Image via Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Did you think that the display screens in 2001: A Space Odyssey were actual computer creations? If so, then you were fooled by Trumbull’s animated screens that simulated the displays that you might find on an actual shuttle. Trumbull wasn’t the only special effects artist on Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece, but he left his mark on it with jaw-dropping visuals. This is especially evident in the stunning stargate scene, which was brought to life through a slit-scan photography process.

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

Two men investigate a control room in The Andromeda Strain.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

A few years after working on 2001, Trumbull was hired to provide the special effects for the adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain. Trumbull and his associate, James Shourt, once again used conventional animation to create the onscreen computer displays, as well as the images of the Andromeda organism itself.

Silent Running (1972)

A man looks at Saturn from a space colony in Silent Running.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Trumbull’s visual mastery did not go unnoticed. That’s what led to his directorial debut on the sci-fi film, Silent Running. Bruce Dern stars as Freeman Lowell, a botanist living in space who is assigned to look over and protect one of the last forests in creation. When Freeman is ordered to destroy the forest, he rebels against his employers and lives alongside his drones while trying to protect the green.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

The mother ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Image via Columbia Pictures

Trumbull’s next major project was one of the earliest films of director Steven Spielberg, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Most of the movie is about the ordinary people who are drawn to the landing site of visitors from another world. Trumbull’s contribution includes the visually arresting depiction of the alien ship that seems to fill up the screen. Trumbull innovated the Showscan process that allowed the ship to appear with such impressive clarity.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

The Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Because of conflicts with Paramount, Trumbull wasn’t involved with the production of Star Trek: The Motion Picture from the beginning. But when the previous special effects lead failed to deliver, Trumbull and his team were emergency hires who only had six months to deliver every VFX shot in the entire film. TMP is known as one of the most ponderous (and occasionally boring) films in the Star Trek canon. But no one can disparage the job done by Trumbull and his associates. The effects are beautiful, and Spock’s spacewalk late in the film has some of that 2001 visual flare. Unfortunately, the price of getting the film finished on time meant that everyone had to work seven days a week until it was done.

Blade Runner (1982)

A glimpse of the future in Blade Runner.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner redefined the way we envision the future. Part of that aesthetic was due to Trumbull’s creation of a futuristic version of Los Angeles, complete with omnipresent advertising, high-tech buildings, and a lived-in atmosphere that made it seem all too real. If anything, Blade Runner was a little too successful with its vision, and its look has been copied numerous times in the 40 years since its release.

Brainstorm (1983)

Angels float toward a white light in Brainstorm.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Trumbull had to fight to complete the second film he directed, Brainstorm, following the untimely death of its leading actress, Natalie Wood. Fortunately, Wood had already filmed her entire performance as Karen Brace, the estranged wife of Dr. Michael Brace (Christopher Walken). Together with their team, Michael and Karen worked on a device that could record human memories, experiences, and emotions. It’s a powerful tool, and one that they struggled to keep out of the wrong hands.

The Tree of Life (2011)

A shot of the cosmos forming in The Tree of Life.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

After decades away from the industry, Trumbull returned to Hollywood to work on director Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. This film was shot without the conventional CGI of the time. Instead, Trumbull returned to the same techniques he had used on his earlier films, including 2001. The result was a modern movie with its own visual language and appearance. There’s nothing quite like it. And it’s a fitting end to Trumbull’s extraordinary contributions to the art of cinema.

Editors' Recommendations

Blair Marnell
Blair Marnell has been an entertainment journalist for over 15 years. His bylines have appeared in Wizard Magazine, Geek…
The 10 best Star Trek: Voyager episodes, ranked
Captain Janeway gives a speech on the bridge of the Starship Voyager

As much as fans love to praise Star Trek as groundbreaking science fiction, it’s important to remember that, for most of the franchise’s history, Trek was weekly procedural television. Until the streaming era, each series was churning out roughly 26 episodes a year, and by the later seasons of Star Trek: Voyager, some of the creative crew had been in the business of making Star Trek for over a decade. The franchise was a crossover commercial success, the kind of success that the money men like to leave exactly as it is for as long as it’s doing steady numbers.
The operation was essentially on rails, and there was a lot of pressure from the studio and the network to keep it that way, which accounts for the general blandness of Voyager and the early years of its successor, Enterprise. The waning years of Trek’s golden era were plagued by creative exhaustion and, consequently, laziness. Concepts from previous series were revisited, often with diminishing returns, and potentially groundbreaking ideas were nixed from on high in order to avoid upsetting the apple cart.
That’s not to say that Star Trek: Voyager isn’t still a solid television show, and even many Trekkies’ favorite. The saga of Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and her gallant crew finding their way home from the farthest reaches of the galaxy may not be as ambitious as it could have been, but it is steadily entertaining, which is why new and nostalgic fans alike enjoy it as cozy “comfort viewing.” For our part, however, we tend to enjoy the episodes that have a certain emotional intensity or creative spark, that feel like conceptual or stylistic risks. As such, you might find that our list of the 10 best Voyager episodes differs greatly from some of the others out there. We like when Voyager dared to get heavy, or silly, or sappy, or mean. So, without further ado, let’s raise a glass to the journey ...
Like Star Trek? Then check out how do I get into Star Trek?
10. Counterpoint (season 5, episode 10)

Counterpoint drops the audience into the middle of an ongoing story,in which Voyager is boarded and inspected by agents of a fascist government, the Devore. The Devore treat all travelers through their space with suspicion, but are particularly concerned with capturing and detaining all telepaths, who they view as dangerous. Despite the risks, Captain Janeway is attempting to smuggle a group of telepathic refugees to safety, all while putting on a show of cooperation for smiling Devore Inspector Kashyk (Mark Harelik). Much of the plot takes place in the background, obscured from the audience in order to build suspense. The real focus is on the evolving dynamic between Janeway and Kashyk, a rivalry that simmers into one of the Voyager captain’s rare romances. Kashyk works in the service of what are, transparently, space Nazis, but when he offers to defect to Voyager, can his intentions be trusted?
Beyond its intriguing premise, Counterpoint is a particularly strong production with a lot of subtle hints of creative flair. Director Les Landau and director of photography Marvin Rush, who had been both working on Star Trek since the 1980s, shoot the hell out of this story, breaking from Voyager’s even lighting and predictable camera moves to make some very deliberate choices that build a great deal of tension around what is essentially a bottle episode. The makeup team, supervised by equally seasoned Trek veteran Michael Westmore, supplies a memorable and imaginative makeup design for an alien astrophysicist who appears in all of two scenes in this episode and is never utilized again. Most of all, Kate Mulgrew provides what may be her most subtle, human performance in the entire series, embodying Janeway’s famous conviction and strength of will while also granting a rare glimpse at her more vulnerable side without ever straying into melodrama.

Read more
10 most influential sci-fi movies ever
A scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Science fiction films have had a massive impact on pop culture. Their thrilling and imaginative concepts have expanded the minds of many audiences, making them one of the highest-grossing genres in cinema today.

And as technology becomes more and more advanced, including the tools for making movies, the line between fantasy and reality seems to fade with each sci-fi blockbuster. So, in the spirit of progress, let's look at the 10 most influential sci-fi movies ever made.
A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Read more
The 10 best Star Trek: The Original Series episodes, ranked
Captain Kirk, upset, buried waist-deep in Tribbles.

It’s hard to imagine today, but back in the late 1960s, the original Star Trek was not considered a hit. The ambitious science fiction series was constantly on the brink of cancellation and was cut short only three years into its planned five-season run.
However, it’s important to put Trek’s apparent failure into historical context as, given that most markets in the U.S. had only three television channels to choose from, even a low-rated show like Star Trek was being watched by about 20% of everyone watching television on a Thursday night, or roughly 10 million households. This year’s season of HBO’s Succession was viewed by roughly 8 million households a week, which makes it a hit by today's standards. Star Trek’s audience only grew once it went into reruns in the early 1970s, and by the time Star Trek: The Motion Picture hit theaters in 1979, it was a genuine cultural phenomenon. Today, the Star Trek franchise is considered one of the crown jewels of the Paramount library.
Though arguably outshined by its most prosperous spinoff, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: The Original Series holds up remarkably well for a vision of our future imagined nearly 60 years in our past. It’s a space adventure series that tackles social or political issues from what was, at the time, a daring and progressive perspective informed by the contemporary civil rights movement, sexual revolution, and backlash against the Vietnam War. Conveying these values through fanciful science fiction didn’t only allow its writers to get away with a lot of subversive messages, it also delivered them in a way that remains fun to watch decades later — fun enough that fans are willing to forgive when its ideas, or its special effects, crumble under modern scrutiny.
These 10 episodes, however, unquestionably stand the test of time, and thanks to the continuity-light nature of mid-20th century television, any one of them could be your first Star Trek episode. (Be aware, however, that the order in which classic Trek episodes are listed varies depending on the source. For our purposes, we’re using the numbering from streaming service Paramount+.)

10. Mirror, Mirror (season 2, episode 4)

Read more