Douglas Trumbull, visual effects master known for ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and ‘Blade Runner,’ dies

Douglas Trumbull holds an award.
Douglas Trumbull with an award at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland in 2013.
(Urs Flueeler / Associated Press)

Douglas Trumbull, a visual effects master who showed movie audiences indelible images of the future and deep space in films such as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Blade Runner,” has died after a years-long battle with cancer.

His wife, Julia Trumbull, said he died Monday of complications from mesothelioma. He was 79.

“He was an absolute genius and a wizard and his contributions to the film and special effects industry will live on for decades and beyond,” his daughter Amy Trumbull wrote on Facebook.


Producer and documentarian Charles de Lauzirika, who worked with Trumbull on “Blade Runner: The Final Cut,” tweeted that Trumbull “wasn’t just innovating magnificent visuals, but also pursuing the big ideas behind whatever story he was telling.”

Classic Hollywood: A week of honors for Douglas Trumbull

Born in Los Angeles in 1942, Trumbull was the son of visual effects supervisor Donald Trumbull, who worked on “The Wizard of Oz.” The younger Trumbull got his start at Graphic Works Films, where one of his short films caught the attention of Stanley Kubrick, who was beginning work on “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

At age 23, Trumbull not only talked himself into a key job on “2001” but helped innovate the process that would be used to create the iconic stargate sequence at the end of the film.

“It was a really unique time because we were at these Borehamwood Studios outside of London and it was a highly unionized studio,” he said in an interview. “Here I am, this weird L.A. young 23-year-old cowboy kid that they took on as kind of a mascot more than anything.

“It didn’t frighten them that I would cross over between all these different departments and get components built for me to do the things I wanted to do ... and we did some pretty amazing stuff that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

Over the course of his career, which more recently included work on Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” he pushed forward filmmaking techniques like slit-scan photography, which was used for “2001.” He also developed the Showscan film process, in which 70-millimeter film is projected at 60 frames per second to create a sense of heightened reality.

After he made a name for himself on “2001,” he worked on Robert Wise’s adaptation of “The Andromeda Strain,” Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Wise’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” and Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.”

He made his directorial debut with “Silent Running,” a dystopian science-fiction film starring Bruce Dern in which plant life is becoming extinct on Earth. Roger Ebert, in his review, wrote that Trumbull “is one of the best science-fiction special-effects men. ‘Silent Running,’ which has deep space effects every bit the equal of those in ‘2001,’ also introduces him as an intelligent, if not sensational, director.”

He also directed the 1983 science-fiction film “Brainstorm,” which had the distinction of being Natalie Wood’s last role. Wood died during a break in production after most of her scenes had been completed. Wood’s mysterious death in the waters off Catalina Island and the subsequent fights with MGM soured Trumbull on the business, and he said in an interview that he had no interest in doing another Hollywood feature.

“I just had to stop,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2013. “I had been a writer-director all my life, and I decided it wasn’t for me because I was put through a really challenging personal experience. I do not think the story has ever been told. I don’t know the story myself, but I know what my experience was. I decided to leave the movie business.”

He didn’t exactly retire, though. He developed the “Back to the Future” ride at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., and Los Angeles, and eventually returned to Hollywood after some 30 years to work on “Tree of Life,” where he consulted on the beginning of the universe sequence, and an experimental science-fiction short, “UFOTOG,” among other projects.

Trumbull earned three Academy Award nominations for visual effects (“Blade Runner,” “Star Trek” and “Close Encounters”) and, in 1992, a special scientific and engineering award for his work helping design the CP-65 Showscan Camera System for motion picture photography.

In 2012, he received the academy’s Gordon E. Sawyer Award, a special technical Oscar for his contributions to the industry. More recently, he was at work on a documentary about “2001” and developing a science-fiction script with John Sayles.

The family said in a statement: “In Trumbull’s memory and his love of the giant screen, we hope that you will support your local theaters.”