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High impact immersive widescreen filmmaking with Douglas Trumbull

The 70mm Newsletter
Interviewed by: Tony Earnshaw, October 6 2015 Date: 07.11.2015
Mr Douglas Trumbull speaking at the Widescreen Weekend. Image by Anders M. Olsson

What is it about high impact immersive widescreen filmmaking that has so captured your imagination for so many years?

DT: My experience as a very young starter in the movie industry was working with Stanley Kubrick on 2OO1. I was working very closely with him on this quite unusual movie that was being made in Cinerama, the five-perf 70mm version of Cinerama. But it was going to be released on these gigantic deeply curved screens around the world in many, many Cinerama theatres. And I was very fortunate as a young man to be witness to Kubrick’s transformation of his cinematic style, which was designed to maximise the impact of that giant screen and minimise using ordinary, conventional melodramatic cinematic conventions. That was a transformation that took place during the course of making the movie. I had been so profoundly changed by it that it became a really big thread in my career because subsequent to 2OO1 – and not many large screen films were made after that – the whole concept of the Cineplex was invented and all the big theatres were chopped up into multiplexes. So the big screen went away. So it was like being a giant muralist and having your canvases removed forever. [laughs] What the hell do you do? I just felt bereft. I was inculcated in Stanley Kubrick’s world and I had this wonderful time working on 2001. I thought, ‘This is amazing. I want to be in the movie business.’ I didn’t know at the time that I did but when I did that I said, ‘Count me in.’ Then I was faced with this incredible disappointment that the movie industry was headed in the exact opposite direction toward ever smaller screens. We’ve reached the point now where movies are being streamed and downloaded onto tablets and smartphones and smaller and smaller screens rather than bigger and bigger screens.

Kubrick would hate that. Bradford has a curved Cinerama screen so 2001 will play on that.

DT: That’s correct. It’s really extremely rare. I get invited to go to film festivals all over the world, many of them because of 2OO1 and they’re going to do a screening but they’re going to show it on a regular size flat rectangular screen. They don’t even understand how disappointing that is. There are very few people alive who really even know what Cinerama was. The audience today never experienced it.

Did your on-going journey into the movies feel like something of an anti-climax after having worked with Kubrick?

DT: Oh, absolutely. 2OO1 was an experimental movie. We didn’t know where we were going or how we were gonna get there but the fact that Kubrick allowed us to explore the future of cinema, to explore new techniques, to invent new machines and new devices and new lenses and cameras to enable that movie was a fabulously inspirational experience for me creatively because that’s when I learned that movies are a technical artform. If you want to explore how to make them better and better you gotta keep pounding away at the technological side of it. It’s not just about who’s the next big celebrity actor or who’s the next hot director. It’s actually focusing on the medium itself and trying to figure out how can we make this a more profound experience. That’s been the thread of my career all along. That’s why I accepted to come to the Widescreen Weekend. It’s one of the few places on the earth that is really there specifically to adore that experience.
More in 70mm reading:

Douglas Trumbull - A Conversation

Douglas Trumbull's "Silent Running" screens in Bradford

Showscan: A High Impact Experience in 70mm

New Magic

Wide Screen Weekend 2015

The Original 70mm engagements of:
"Blade Runner"
"Close Encounters Of The Third Kind"

Stanley Kubrick's "2OO1: A Space Odyssey" in Super Panavision 70

Mr Douglas Trumbull speaking at the Widescreen Weekend. Image by Tony Earnshaw

2001 and The Tree of Life. Nearly 50 years apart yet the same techniques are being used – and you were involved in both pictures. Are movies too reliant on computer effects?

DT: I think and believe that that’s true. One of the things that I seek out – it’s just about the difference between a miniature or practical effect or computer graphics. There are amazing things that can be achieved with computer graphics that we would not even begin to attempt in the world of celluloid. The opportunities that are now presented by new digital technology are awesome and are being completely ignored in my opinion. We’re at a crossroads where we can actually changed the course of what I would call immersive cinema and make experiences that are gonna be far more spectacular than 2OO1 was. And we can do it now.

Were you actively seeking to break new ground or were you pushed to innovate by Kubrick and his vision for the film?

DT: I think it was a combination of both of those things. There was a lot of experimentation [which was] part of the openness that Kubrick had to understand that in order to achieve something extraordinary you have to experiment, you have to try various versions until you find the unanticipated and mysterious beautiful moment that no one has ever seen before. That’s almost completely verboten in the movie industry today. Everything is bid out. Every shot is calculated on dollars per second of pixels and shaders and geometry and lighting and texture maps and things like that. It’s not nearly the artistically driven, passionate medium that it was 50 years ago. It’s become a marketplace of methods and practices and tools that and commoditised worldwide and bid out to the lowest bidder.

There are several filmmakers active today that modern audiences point to as being visionaries and innovators. In their own way they’re trying to safeguard the future of film by shooting in 65mm or 70mm. People like Christopher Nolan, Tarantino, Peter Jackson. Where do they fit and are they the saviours? Can they drive cinema forward by looking back to the past?

DT: I do not think so. I think that there is a misunderstanding or a lack of experience on the part of these filmmakers. I have a fantastically high regard for all of the people you’ve just mentioned whether it’s Tarantino or Chris Nolan or anybody else who really appreciates, admires or wants to participate in that kind of giant screen immersiveness. I really appreciate that and I understand that completely. But there has been a misunderstanding of film versus digital. That’s been true for quite some time because digital cinematography and digital projection has really never been as good as film. So they are resistant to it. They say, ‘Give me back my 70mm film. Let’s have the wide screen.’ All this stuff that’s still superior today to anything we have digitally except for what I’m doing. I’m going to try to explain this to the crowd at Widescreen Weekend because I have discovered that if you embrace digital technology from a new perspective and you say, ‘Let’s just get rid of all the historical artefacts and beliefs of what an image is or what it should look like and start over and do it all digitally and take advantage of high resolution cameras that are available and that very people use, the high resolutions projectors that are available that very people use and take advantage of the fact – that blew my mind, actually, a few years ago – that the digital projectors that are in tens of thousands of movie theatres can run at 144fps and no one’s using it. When I started my own experiments I went to Texas Instruments who make the chips for the projectors, I went to all the camera companies and said, ‘How do these cameras really work? Will they run at higher frame rates?’ and they all have knobs on! You can do all kinds of things that people don’t’ use because the industry is stuck at 2K resolution and 24 frames a second and the idea that a movie is a rectangular 16x9 image on our screen at the end of the room. I completely resist that idea.

I discovered that by changing the frame rate dramatically to 120 frames per second and using 4K projectors which are available off the shelf and using 4K cameras that are available off the shelf and running them at 60 frames per second, which is standard on most of these cameras, a completely new cinematic effect emerges from that, which is like a window onto reality. It’s what the movie industry has been striving for throughout its history. Lumiere would have loved it. Edison would have loved it. Everybody would love it but they don’t understand today yet how easy it is to do it. The kind of business resistance to the giant screen has not come from the fact the filmmakers don’t want to do it. It comes from the fact that studios don’t want to spend the money. They don’t want to buy the raw stock because the prints cost twice as much. IMAX costs many times more. A film print of an IMAX feature film can cost $40,000. So there’s tremendous economic bean-counter type resistance to upgrading the quality of movies up until today where I realised that all this stuff is so inexpensive and doesn’t adversely affect your budget at all. The director’s gonna cost the same, the actors, the sets, the locations. Everybody on the movie is gonna cost the same. All you need to do is shoot a little more data. It’s just data. It’s not rolls of film. It’s not 70mm chemical processing. It’s just data. And you can buy a terabyte of data for $40. So we are in the future and we are not taking advantage of it. To be pennywise and pound foolish at the costs of data is, I think, a criminal mistake because the movie industry is in my opinion in a state of continuing decline in the face of downloading, streaming and digital technologies, which are getting better every year. The demise of cinemas is in sight. They better watch out.
Mr Douglas Trumbull directing. Image from Doug Trumbull's page

Is it true that you went to Europe and spoke with Van Vetter and were experimenting then with the notion of running film at 120 frames per second?

DT: Yes. I developed my own film process called Showscan, which was 70mm film at 60 frames per second projected onto very large screens. It was met in Hollywood with tremendous enthusiasm and I got very close to making the first feature film in the process, which I was going to direct, called Brainstorm. When the chips were actually down the studio had to decide whether they were going to invest in this studio in a non-standard 70mm film format, the answer was no at every studio in Hollywood. And that was when I realised that we were up against an almost insurmountable negative attitude about it and a lack of a sense of responsibility on the part of the studios to try and preserve their own medium. All they were into was massive exploitation of a commodity product where they crank out as many movies a year as they can. Now we have gone into this completely new syndrome of the blockbuster tentpole superhero sequel reboot syndrome, which I think is a complete dead end for cinema. It’s really sad. So I’m very upset about it but I’m also extremely optimistic because I have this development that I’ve just put all my effort into over the last several years. And I’ve shot a demonstration film that I can’t even show at the Widescreen Weekend because they have no capability to show this process yet. But they will. I’m building a theatre here at my home in Massachusetts to show what it will be like. This is actually very much like some of the history that went by with Cinerama. Fred Waller was trying to adapt his flight simulator to Cinerama and set it up on an indoor tennis court on Long Island to show to investors and finally found a way to start making movies and making money because he created a vertically integrated non-standard medium that they could produce the films at low cost because the original Cinerama films were just travelogues and were easy to do. They would set up these converted theatres and so they were a production, distribution and exhibition company all under one Cinerama name. That was how Cinerama survived for quite a few years. And then it finally matured into a willingness on the part of Hollywood to make some of the first dramatic, story-driven feature films, the best of which was "How the West Was Won" with some of the greatest movie directors of all time. The failure of Cinerama was not that it wasn’t spectacular or that the audience didn’t like it. The failure was that it was too cumbersome, too intrusive, it annoyed the directors, it annoyed the actors and the overhead to operating in theatres were so high that they actually weren’t making nearly as much money as they wanted to and it couldn’t be converted to secondary markets to be distributed conventionally or put on television. I think all those things could be overcome now. I’ve got an idea that I think will be easily embraced. I think as soon as I show it to some of the major directors – I have a personal challenge that I’ve put out to Chris Nolan, for instance; every time I see him I say ‘Chris, I’m gonna show you something that is really gonna change your mind about digital. We’ve got something that’s better than any film format ever made. You should see it.’ As soon as I have this demonstration set up here in my little screening room – these new kind of theatre that I’ve devised – I’m gonna be inviting every major director and studio to come here and see what it looks like.
Mr Douglas Trumbull speaking about immersive cinema at the Widescreen Weekend. Image by Tony Earnshaw

How would you define Showscan to a layman? And could it still have a place in 21st century cinema? And if what you’re developing now is the evolution of all of that then what you developed all those years ago for Brainstorm is going to be the future of 21st century cinema, isn’t it?

DT: I think so. I don’t know of anything else and I don’t know of anybody else who is developing anything similar to it. There’s a quick short story I can tell you about Showscan. I set up a research development at Paramount Pictures and I talked the management at Paramount into experimenting with the future of cinema. They thought, ‘Oh, this is fine. As long as we own 80 per cent of the company we can write it off on our taxes. It won’t cost us a dime. Do whatever you want.’ So I set up this company called Future General Corporation. And one of the things we did was to experiment with every film format known to man. And shot tests. And set up screenings. And set up projectors. And started comparing: ‘Is D150 better than Todd-AO? Or is Todd-AO better than Cinerama? Or is Cinerama better than IMAX?’ You name it, we tried everything. And it wasn’t until we had tried everything that we realised that we really weren’t getting anywhere and there really wasn’t any profound difference of experience that was related just to the film format or to the size of the screen. We said, ‘The only variable we haven’t tried is frame rate.’ So I thought, ‘Well, okay. Let’s try that.’ So we shot some tests at 24, 36, 48, 60, 66 and 72 frames per second. And we projected these with projectors adapted to be able to project at these frame rates and we were completely dumbfounded to discover that high frame rates creates an incredibly higher level of human physiological stimulation. People get really excited. They say, ‘Oh my God! I’m actually in a submarine or I’m on a spaceship or I’m really in love or I’m afraid for my life’ or whatever the movie is trying to do. It became tremendously heightened or increased. We proved this by hooking up people to electrocardiogram, electrocephalogram, galvin skin response, electromyogram and graphed out human physiological stimulation and got a US patent on the process. Even the patent examiner didn’t believe it was for real. That gave birth to the Showscan process. So there wasn’t anything fundamentally wrong with Showscan but it was more expensive because we were using three times as much film, the prints were bigger, every theatre would require a new projector and a new screen… the studios said, ‘We just don’t think it’s possible. We can’t risk making a multi-million dollar investment in a movie if we don’t know that there’s 20,000 theatres out there able to show it.’ We went to the exhibitors and they said, ‘We love this process, we think it’s fantastic and we would convert our theatres to your process IF all the studios in Hollywood would agree to make movies in the process.’ And that became an intractable Catch-22. I spent several years of my life trying to break through that and I finally had to give up. So I stopping directing, stopped writing. I moved out of Hollywood, came back to the East Coast and kind of regrouped myself personally. I was in despair, really. And that’s when I slowly started to say ‘I’m gonna think about what to do next.’ And the next thing I did was the Back to the Future ride. Have you ever seen that?

It was a complete incredible breakthrough. It was taking ideas that I’d been developing of giant screens – this was like a planetarium-sized screen – and having a simulation ride where you’re gonna become the protagonist of the movie yourself, personally, and you’re gonna be inside the movie and you’re gonna experience the movie as though it’s happening to you in real time. The whole thing was like a flight simulator. So we used IMAX film and giant screens and multi-channel sound and made this dramatic movie where you are actually in the DeLorean car, driving the car, having this experience, chasing Biff and Doc Brown and going through all the components of the original trilogy of movies. And this was a huge success for Universal and for Spielberg. And that got me believing that there was in fact a tremendously powerful and profitable future for immersive cinematic experiences.

I’m saying to myself, ‘Okay, I’ve gotta figure out how to do this for the masses.’ And then I started experimenting with digital photography and projection. That’s when I discovered, probably seven or eight years ago, that these digital projectors are actually run at 144 frames a second but they’re just showing each frame multiple times. And when I discovered that I realised that the infrastructure in theatres to make a movie at 60 frames like Showscan was already there. I didn’t have to talk the world into buying new projectors. That was the first phase of feeling confident that we could actually start transforming the movie industry from inside without spending a ton of money or having to buy expensive 70mm prints or anything else. I could go on and on about this but the bottom line is that I’ve got this technology that I have a patent on now, that runs at 120 frames per second in 4K, in 3D. You can put it on any size screen you want, the bigger, the better – deeply curved like Cinerama was is even better – and it’s inexpensive. And it’s totally compatible with all the secondary markets if you want to cut it down to 24 frames or to a flat screen or put it on television… all of that works just fine at the touch of a switch because we’re in an electronic future where all that stuff is instantly feasible at low cost. My challenge is to show people what can be done, try to get their interest in it and see if anybody wants to do it. One component is the equation, and it’s not a secret, it’s just that it’s not being promoted very seriously right now, is that Ang Lee came to my studio last Fall seven times and saw my demonstration movie in the Magi Process. I call it the Magi Process. It’s very hard a two syllable name for a product these days but Magi seemed to work. Ang Lee came here over and over, saw the film and said, ‘I want to make my next movie this way.’ I said, ‘Okay. I will help you.’ And so that has led to a very quiet project that has actually been publicly announced so it’s okay for me to mention it. His current film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has been shot at 120 frames a second, 4K, 3D and it’s gonna open in the Fall of 2016. So he’s the only director that has actually gone to the trouble to come to my studio and see this process and he went for it 100 per cent. And I think Ang Lee is an extremely talented and brilliant, gifted, creative filmmaker who understood what he wanted to do and he’s doing it. If I can have the same success with other directors – because directors drive the industry. If Jim Cameron says he wants to use something for Avatar 2, he’s gonna have it. If Peter Jackson wants to do something, he could do it. There’s a side story about the trilogy of the Hobbit movies at 48 frames that I can talk about, as well.
Mr Douglas Trumbull posing for the Showscan brochure.

Is it true that you demonstrated Showscan to Steven Spielberg and bamboozled him?

DT: Yes. I had this crazy idea. I knew Steven because I’d worked with him and I knew how he thinks and how the industry behaves. I decided that if I was going to show a demonstration to professionals in the movie industry I needed to play a trick. And the trick was that I knew that people come to my office, to my screening room, to see a demonstration film. And I purposely made the worst demonstration film known to man in this process that was only about two minutes long but was an opener to this little thing called New Magic. And the idea was that it was a movie of a movie. What I did was I made a really bad documentary film about a fireworks technician. I chopped the film up, I scratched the film, I ripped the sprockets out, I projected it badly, I made it go and out of focus and I made it look like a complete disaster. And it was 35mm but I projected it onto a screen and re-photographed it at 60 frames per second in the Showscan process. So it’s a movie of a movie – a 60 frame movie of a 24 frame movie. And then the film rips and burns in the gate and the dowser closes. And then you hear a commotion in the projection booth because I had speakers all around the theatre and you hear the projectionist saying, ‘Oh shit! I’m gonna get fired.’ And you hear him run around the theatre and come out through a door behind the screen. Turns on a flashlight and comes up to the screen and starts talking to the audience, apologising for having screwed up the screening. And this is a Showscan movie of a real person behind the screen. That was the point at which Steven Spielberg – and many others; I’m not trying to nail Steven, he’s a good friend of mine – would get out of his seat, come over to me, shake hands and say, ‘Doug, why don’t you give me a call when you’ve got it fixed. I’ll be happy to come back.’ And it wasn’t until he was headed to the door that he realised this was a movie. And that it wasn’t really the projectionist behind the screen, it was a movie of the projectionist behind the screen. And so he would sheepishly come back to his seat and see the rest of the demo.

So that was back in about 1977 or something. But that was the beginning of my complete conviction that we can make movies that are utterly different from what we have today. That’s also led to my abject disappointment that the movie industry wasn’t ready to embrace anything that was going to cost any more money or create any problems for them. So I went through that whole experience and re-started my career. So now I’m at this point where I’ve finally figured it out and I feel like I’m a lone wolf and a loner in the sense that I don’t have much support from the industry. No one seems to be going down this path or exploring this territory or trying to make a new version of what cinema can be. Because I truly believe in my heart that if we don’t do something truly spectacular in cinemas pretty soon, it’s gonna die.

Peter Jackson ran into trouble with his high frame rate on The Hobbit.

DT: Right. Well, I’ve been communicating indirectly to Peter and letting his people at Weta know that I’ve done this thing and that they’re invited to come and see it. A couple of people at Weta have seen it. I’m waiting for some response. I believe that visionary filmmakers like Peter and Jim Cameron and Chris Nolan and Ridley Scott and all the people that I know, when they see this thing they’re gonna say, ‘Oh my God. This is easy, it’s compatible, it’s inexpensive and let’s try to revive the movie industry.’ Fundamentally everything else remains pretty much the same if you want it to in terms of cinematic language or how you tell a story or how your direct a movie or how actors act… that’s all kind of the same. But the thing that motivates me more than anything is what Kubrick was onto when we were making 2001, which is that when you have a new immersive medium you can start telling stories in a new way. It’s not just storytelling, it’s experience making. It’s immersive experience making. Right now we’re in this fortunate context of tremendous buzz about virtual reality. I’m not a big fan of virtual reality myself. I’m interested in it, curious about it; I actually have a patent on a way to do virtual reality, things like that. But it’s evidence to me that there’s a huge untapped audience who want experiences that transcend literal everyday reality. They want to go out there. They want to have experiences that expand their consciousness like a good psychotropic drug, that are safe and non-toxic. I think we can do it. And I’m eager to start finding filmmakers that not only like the technology or the process but want to explore a somewhat new way to tell stories and make movies where there’s a much closer connection between the audience and the movie. The little demo film I’ve just made has a lot of shots of this actor talking directly to the audience from a very close angle. It’s the first time in cinema history I feel as a viewer I have eye contact with another human being who’s in the room with me. You have to see it to understand it. I can’t really explain it to you but I can guarantee you that this will happen when you see it. It means that you can be in the room with your favourite actor or actress, as though they’re a foot away from your space. They’re in your space. And whether they’re gonna kill you or make love with you or chase you or thrill kill or tell you a great story it’s a new dynamic relationship between the audience and the screen, because the screen no longer exists. It’s like a window on reality.
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Updated 21-01-24