Recently I was re-watching some Classics like Encounters of a third Kind and the Alien quadrilogy and I was amazed how well the VFX was holding up even to today’s standards, so I decided to do some research about who was responsible for those titles and about there whereabouts and what can be found on the web today about those masters of analogue VFX. So i´m gonna do a small series on some of these Masters of Visual Effects on my Blog.
One of those pioneers was definitely Douglas Trumbull, who was involved in Films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Blade Runner.
Besides those milestones in film history he was also a developing the slit-scan photography process in the 2001 “Stargate” scene www.youtube.com/watch?v=ou6JNQwPWE0, he was a true master in multi camera projection, miniature work and software-controlled camera rigs as well as responsible for the development of the Showscan process.
Showscan was supposed to use 65/70 mm at 60 frames per second (an idea that James Cameron is taking up right now for shooting Avatar 2 www.wired.com/magazine/2011/12/pl_screen60fps/) which should deliver a closer visual experience on how the eye actually perceives it´s vison.
Showscan digital means using 120 fps and depending on the delivery format deleting every other frame in order to gain sharper images than with standard 24 fps.
Here´s an in depth explanation about the Showscan process www.barbeefilm.com/showscan%20-%20How%20It%20Works.htm
And an article about the screening experience of an actual Showscan projection:
Besides his vfx career and doing his own movies like critically acclaimed, but flopping “Silent Running” Trumbull, commercial projects and after some difficulties with some majors turned to developping technology for movie production, and for the exhibition industry and theme-park rides, such as the Back to the Future Ride at Universal Studios Theme Park. Recently he´s also experimenting with Virtual Sets.
EDIT: in the meanwhile i watched “Silent Running”: To mee it seemed quite naive, but nonetheless charming, especially the soundtrack sung by Joan Baez, added up to that hippie kind of feeling. The space scenes where good, but not top notch as others that Thrumbull did. Although if you keep track of the storyline and dive into the film, it seems to be one of the first environmentalist films and i considered it worthwhile watching.
If you want to learn more about Trumbull, there´s great material about some of his work on his website, besides some other projects like a automated camera system for filming UFO´s (Trumbull is also greatly interested in Space) as well as a system for stopping the BP oil leaking.
In the videosection www.douglastrumbull.com/videos you´ll find a making of of the bladerunne blimp as well as other material:
I am truly fascinated about how meticulously those multi camera projections were planned and executed as well as the models, that were built with relatively small budget, but they hold up so well through the finesse that was used when filming and combining them together so that those shots still hold up onto the present day.
I guess the lesson I learned from watching those films and the making ofs is that you really need to put effort in a lot of mall details and be really precise to make a shot work and stunning.
For instance if you take the shot of Hades Landscape from Bladerunner, they used 35 mm footage of explosion rear projecting them on a semi transparent screen, which already gave some lighting into the scene, but they also used extra light that were triggered in time in order to give more ambient light that such explosion would emit, so that you get realistic lighting onto the model that otherwise would look kind of fake.
Nowadays, because it´s so quick and easy to do some people would just slap an explosion onto the footage (and i´m guilty as charged here as well 😉 ), set the transfer mode to screen and consider yourself done with it. But those small steps and attention to detail makes an impact, you have to take all the steps, all the way, just make the difference between a good composite and something that stands out for decades, a masterpiece of VFX.