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Monday, May 4, 2015

Best of SFIFF: Douglas Trumbull's State of Cinema Address

Posted By on Mon, May 4, 2015 at 4:00 PM

  • San Francisco International Film Festival.

On Sunday, May 3, Douglas Trumbull gave the mostly-annual State of Cinema Address at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. I say "mostly" because there wasn't one last year, for whatever reason; perhaps it's because everyone was still recovering from Steven Soderbergh's now-legendary 2013 speech in which he solidly eviscerated the studio system. Trumbull played a couple clips from Soderbergh's speech (the entirety of which you can read or watch at your leisure, and you should), but this year's speech went in a different, more gloriously gear-headed direction.

Douglas Trumbull is responsible for some of the most indelible sci-fi images of my childhood; I have distinct memories of seeing Star Trek: The Motion Picture in the theater when I was six-and-a-half years old, and it was the first time I was truly awestruck by the images in a movie. I still have nothing but love for that much-maligned film and have written about it at length elsewhere, and Trumbull's effects work — which he accomplished under some duress in a ridiculously short amount of time, and mostly to get out of his contract with Paramount — remains dazzling and emotionally potent for me.

  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Paramount Pictures, 1979.

When I saw that first full-on shot of the Enterprise in Spacedock, in conjunction with Jerry Goldsmith's stunningly gorgeous score — and, of course, on a very big screen — I turned to my mother and said, "It's beautiful!" I think I whispered it, I hope I whispered it, but it was an immersive experience of exactly the kind that Trumbull is still trying to create to this day.

  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Paramount Pictures, 1979.

  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Paramount Pictures, 1979.

Trumbull's talk similarly started out with childhood wonder about movies, and he went into a fair amount of detail about the Cinerama system, and how it influenced wide-scale filmmaking going forward, including the first film he worked on going forward, 2001: A Space Odyssey.


The speech was ultimately a history of his filmmaking career, including the first film he directed, Silent Running, which was part of the post-Easy Rider wave of frightened studios giving kids money to make whatever movie they want. He spoke about giving the two robots in the film emotional depth (inspired by the legless Johnny Eck from Freaks, no less), and this also gives me an excuse to post this ad from the May 5, 1972 Deseret News:

  • The Deseret News, May 5, 1972.

The Young Romantics of the Tolkien-Vonnegut Generation, indeed. Were we ever so hopeful? (Shocking but true: I've learned from occasionally writing for Topless Robot that a lot of modern sci-fi fans, many of whom are disturbingly conservative, hate the movie for all its namby-pamby liberalness.)

He also went into some detail into not just Cinerama but Walt Disney's multiplane process, IMAX, as well as Trumbull's own ShowScan process, which never quite got off the ground the way it should have. It ultimately led to a promotion of his new Magi system, which he hopes will create an even more dazzling experience than Cinerama. As he put it: "If you want spectacle and immersion, it better be spectacle and immersion." Sadly, we weren't able to properly experience MAGI or its first short film, "UFOTOG," though he promised that a 40-seat prefab MAGI "pod" theater will exist in San Francisco sooner rather than later.

Higher frame rates have always been one of his passions — ShowScan photographed 65mm film at 60 frames per second, and it was shown on 70mm prints at the same speed — and he spoke glowingly of James Cameron and Peter Jackson's experiments with such things, especially the HFR Hobbit trilogy.

I got the sense that the audience was a little unsure what how to feel about this — aren't we SFIFF cinephiles who are more concerned with, like, important films? Sure, it's safe to applaud a big spectacle like 2001: A Space Odyssey now, but this kind of thing makes it difficult to feel superior to all the mindless proles currently giving Avengers: Age of Ultron the No. 2 opening of all time.

While waiting to be let in, I heard a gentleman in line laughing about the very absurdity of a new Mad Max picture coming out. Why do we need such a thing, he asked? And having watching the trailer, he found it very silly indeed that in the film's post-apocalyptic world, a lot of the people have skull-and-crossbone jewelry. How could they get such things after the fall of civilization?

I was reminded of a Patton Oswalt bit about his hometown film critic, who always talked down the most interesting-looking films: "So there's this new movie from Australia — so, right there, whatever — called The Road Warrior. Now, let me get this straight: it's the future, there's no gasoline, but everyone's driving around in cars. I don't get it. NO STARS! Doesn't make sense!"

(If the gentleman in question who had the plausibility concerns about Mad Max: Fury Road happens to read this, thank you for visiting the Exhibitionist! Please to patronize our lovely sponsors.)

Douglas Trumbull wants to make things big and pretty and emotionally compelling. More power to him, I say — and if I were to speak to him in person, which I made a point of not doing at the event because I know I can be a little overwhelming when I get into fangirl mode, I'd thank him for expanding my sense of wonder at a young age, and for continuing to do so today.
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Sherilyn Connelly


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