In this digital extra, the late Oscar-winning filmmaker and special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull discusses some of the cutting-edge immersive filmmaking that he developed at his studio in the Berkshires. 

Executive Producer Tony Dunne looks back at the life and legacy of Hollywood legend Douglas Trumbull through the eyes of those that knew him best. 

This interview was originally part of our March 24, 2022 show.

Read the full transcript:

Diane Pearlman, Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative: One of the things that always surprised me about Doug was…in pushing technology, his understanding of the human body and how it worked in relation to film. So, if he wanted to push frame rates, it’s because he understood optically how your eye worked.

Douglas Trumbull, Visual Effects Artist/Filmmaker: If you want to tell a bigger story like I want to do — I want the audience to be more immersed in the movie and directly experience to the movie — the screen has got to be a lot bigger, but it’s got to be a lot sharper and it needs to be a lot brighter.

And one of the things that’s been acknowledged now by some of the major filmmakers is that 24 frames a second, which has been the standard of the industry for, you know, since the 20s, since talking movies began, is inadequate for 3D and inadequate for fast action. And our movies are filled with fast action. And if you actually analyze the individual frames in a movie, you’ll see there’s a tremendous amount of blurring and lost information.

And I found out years ago when I was doing my show scan film process, which was one of my stepping stones along the way to immersive cinema, that I was shooting 70 millimeter film at 60 frames a second, putting it on giant screens at double the brightness.

And everybody said, “My God, you know, it’s like it’s like 3D without glasses.”

I feel that the movie screen has become a window onto reality. And I started exploring how to make a new kind of movie experience. Now, because of digital cinematography and digital projectors, it’s effortless to go to high frame rate. We can do it easily. Flip of a switch and you’re at 120 frames a second, which is what I’m experimenting with here.

And the illusion on the screen becomes much more like a window onto reality. We can shoot over there on that green screen with a digital camera 120 frames a second.

The camera can be suspended weightlessly in the middle of the stage, be supported by this crane. But there are sensors all over that crane. So, the computer knows exactly where it’s pointed, what the focal length of the lens is, where the focus is set, and where it is three dimensionally on the stage. That goes into the computer and generates the background for that scene.

So, I can superimpose actors into a computer-generated environment in real time, not a post-production process. It’s all about real time. We see it instantly. So, we can immerse actors in a synthetic environment in real time and shoot very quickly. Because I don’t have to build any sets and I don’t have to go on locations. I shoot it all right here.

We’re on a small stage. There’s only, like, six people here. This is not 150 people movie crew on location with 40 tractor trailers and remote generators and stuff. This is very inexpensive.

Now, it’s not for everybody. It’s absolutely not appropriate for most movies. But I’m making weird science fiction movies that call for sets that are alien planets and strange spacecraft, so it all has to be made anyway. So, my mission is to make a movie, the first movie that’ll be made this way and show it to people, because showing it is everything.

I feel like I’m kind of a mountain climber or an explorer or something. I like finding something that no one’s found before. It’s a lot of fun and I love kind of being ahead of the curve.