Doug Trumbull––whose special effects films include 2001: A Space Odyssey & Blade Runner––pushes the limits of filmmaking
Doug Trumbull is in his MAGI theater pod in the Berkshires with scenes from his special-effects creations that he has made through the decades.
Photo by Scott Barrow
For nearly 30 years, filmmaker Doug Trumbull—an LA kid who grew up on a concrete street—has sought refuge in his sprawling compound in Southfield. His pastoral landscape stands in stark juxtaposition to the technology being created there.
“I’m a misfit, I’m an outsider. I try and do something new and different, and Hollywood really wants the same old, same old,” jokes the mild-mannered 74-year-old who is very much at ease in his home office, drinking coffee in stocking feet, and telling stories.
A dirt driveway wends through the 50-acre property, alongside a veritable menagerie of 21 Sicilian miniature donkeys, 12 pygmy and mixed-breed goats, five heritage-breed Jacob and Cotswold sheep, and a flock of 17 chickens before arriving at the proverbial mecca of such a pilgrimage: Trumbull’s MAGI theater pod. His wife, Julia, calls the animals “a visual and physical source of peacefulness in nature,” in contrast with the facility the couple has built to explore the future of cinema.
The Trumbulls entered into this venture “not knowing we were going to have to build a theater ourselves,” the bespectacled jack-of-all-trades jokes dryly. Doug Trumbull, whose Hollywood credits for special effects include 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner, is a self-proclaimed adventurer in the film industry. While he has devoted most of his career to exploring ultra-high frame rates, his facility as an inventor is impressive.
Trumbull, who rarely uses the term “film,” identifies what he calls “major moments in the history of movies” that have catapulted the industry despite the historic threat of television and a steadily eroding audience. He points to the change from “silents to talkies,” the subsequent invention of color, and the move to widescreen format as defining moments for Hollywood.
At present, he has unveiled what might very well be a watershed moment for the industry with his MAGI process. (The term “MAGI” is not an acronym but is meant to “evoke both the magic of seeing this format for the first time and the wise man who is behind it,” according to actor Terry Holland, Trumbull’s friend and colleague.)
The timing of Trumbull’s big reveal is auspicious. On November 11, a new film by Academy Award–winning director Ang Lee (Life of Pi) was released, following its premiere at the New York Film Festival. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is being touted for its use of new technology that espouses a resolution four times what is normal, in 3D, at a speed of 120 frames per second for the first time in film history. The MAGI process sprang from exploratory developments in Trumbull’s Southfield studio. Lee, the only director to date to be invited to the studio, fell in love with the possibilities of MAGI. He and Trumbull believe it may herald a new era in filmmaking.
Trumbull imagines Billy Lynn causing a similar effect as The Jazz Singer, the 1927 film whose release triggered a widespread shift within the industry to accommodate synchronized sound. Lee’s film, and the intense hyper realism it espouses, was met with mixed reviews by critics who found the visuals to be overwhelming, distracting even. While Lee’s foray into such high frame rates was done through a narrative film exploring the difficult topic of war, Trumbull’s MAGI process has the potential to impact a whole host of genres.
Diane Pearlman, executive director of the Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative (where Trumbull serves on the board), alludes to the “higher film rate, and incredible luminance on the screen as immersing people in the film experience.” In this vein, there is an opportunity for ballet, Broadway, opera, even Cirque du Soleil to translate to the big screen in a new way.
Trumbull is confident he and his team can convert and reinvigorate the movie industry, as well as theatergoers with the high-impact process. Once Lee’s film has run its course in theaters, Trumbull plans to screen it in his MAGI pod. This full-length feature film in 4K/3D/120fps, and an accessible theater in which to screen it, will serve as a model going forward. Trumbull imagines his MAGI pods at amusement parks, shopping malls, and in multiplex theaters, making a film like Lee’s “look exactly right.”
Trumbull will have achieved exactly what he set out to create: a complete new take on what a movie theater could be via a “low-cost, prefabricated theater available to anyone on the planet,” allowing the transition of the movie industry to this new form of exibition. According to Pearlman, this is just one example of how Trumbull has inspired countless people in the film industry.
His location in the Berkshires has been key; the magnitude of this latest project would have been “too difficult to do in town,” he says, referring to Hollywood. His working “quietly, off the radar” has freed him up to do what he wants, when he wants. With almost no limitations.