Oscar-winning FX guru Douglas Trumbull's 9 greatest sci-fi moments

Contributed by
Dec 16, 2012

You might not know the name Douglas Trumbull, but you probably know his work. He's produced the special effects for some of the best films in sci-fi, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And now his amazing work over the past 40+ years is about to be rewarded.

On Feb. 11, Trumbull will be given an Oscar for his technical contributions to the world of filmmaking. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced:

In the course of his work, Trumbull created, developed or improved numerous filmmaking techniques and tools. These include slit-scan photography, process photography, miniature compositing, interpositive matte painting, large-format filming, high frame rate photography and projection, synchronized multiscale filming, motion control photography, virtual reality systems, interactive motion simulators and digital cinema. He has been awarded more than a dozen related patents.

Because we also happen to think he's terrific, here's a roundup of some of the best of Trumbull's work. Check out how it's progressed, matured and generally become even more awesome over time.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Twenty-three-year-old Trumbull started his career by creating gorgeous scenes of space and spacecraft. According to The Guardian, Trumbull learned about quality control from the perfectionist, Stanley Kubrick. What started off as a nine-month assignment for him turned into a three-year mission. When you're finished with the trailer, check out this link (which wasn't embeddable) to see the the "stargate" effect that young Trumbull pioneered.

The Andromeda Strain

According to Wikipedia, Trumbull's youth hurt him during the making of The Andromeda Strain: "... I seriously underbid the job—I had no idea what these things were supposed to cost. I nearly went bankrupt as a result!"

Silent Running

Trumbull's directorial debut was Silent Running, a film with a slow pace, a serious ecological message and three cute robots. The creators of Red Dwarf and WALL-E were influenced by Silent Running. But the film also inspired the makers of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The Starlost

Trumbull was the executive producer of this short-lived Canadian show. According to IMDB, he contributed to the special effects on one episode. He would have had more of a hand in it, except, as Wikipedia tells us, the camera he had initially developed for the series did not work reliably.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Even after all these years, this movie—filmed anamorphically, to give the special effects more oomph—manages to knock our socks off. YouTuber MetalApe uploaded this, a Close Encounters special effects extravaganza.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Working to a critical deadline, Trumbull's work in the post-production of this film was nothing short of amazing. Read about his input on the Enterprise, the Klingon cruiser, V'ger and even Spock's spacewalk, here.


Trumbull had developed Showscan, an early method of providing more information on the screen, akin to high definition. Brainstorm was supposed to be the world's first Showscan movie, but plans fell through. This, as well as the death of the star, Natalie Woods, made Brainstorm Trumbull's last foray into directing.

Blade Runner

Trumbull leapt at the chance to work on Blade Runner—and not just because he admired director Ridley Scott. No, he wanted to create a futuristic world that was "something other than sterile, gray and white spacecraft." And he did. To this day, Blade Runner's look is completely recognizable as futuristic yet lived-in as well. (Effects in this video start at 1:02.)

Tree of Life

Although Tree of Life isn't sci-fi, its effects are out of this world. Trumbull worked on the movie's distant past and distant future sequences. He even gave us dinosaurs. Check out Trumbull himself discussing his "organic effects" used for the intro of this award-nominated movie.