Skip to main content

CGI Fridays

CGI Friday | Doug Trumbull Lived in the Future, and I Was Lucky to Visit

As a member of The Companion, you’re supporting original writing and podcasting, for sci-fi fans, by sci-fi fans, and totally free of advertising and clickbait.

The cost of your membership has allowed us to mentor new writers and allowed us to reflect the diversity of voices within fandom. None of this is possible without you. Thank you. 🙂

The world became a little less amazing two days ago. 

When we lost my friend Doug Trumbull to his battle with cancer, at age 79, it sent a ripple of shock and sadness throughout the universe. Particularly the universe of visual effect artists who, in complete unison, credit his work on films like Blade Runner (1982) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as one of their main reasons for entering the field.

His loss also caused a ripple through a smaller universe of filmmakers, the ones who dared to question the nature of the entertainment experience itself – why are we watching a flickering image on a flat screen, and is there anything we could be doing better?

Ed Kramer

It was June 25th, the second summer of the pandemic, 2021. My partner Nancy and I had gotten both our Pfizer doses, waited the required amount of time, and finally felt safe enough to travel. We flew out to Boston to pick up my sister Ellen’s car, which she had just gifted me. The plan was to drive it back to our home in Denver, Colorado. Since we had to pass right through the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, I checked to see if Doug was going to be at his studio that day. To my everlasting great fortune, he said “Sure, come on by for a demo of the Magi Pod. When will you be here?”

We had just left Provincetown, a bustling oceanfront tourist town at the far north-eastern tip of the state. Doug’s studio was in the state’s south-western corner, so we had more than a three-hour drive ahead of us, traversing the entire state of Massachusetts. We passed through lush evergreen-forested New England landscapes, past historic sites including the Norman Rockwell Museum, the former home of the artist whose paintings of life in early 20th century America appeared weekly as covers of The Saturday Evening Post, those magazine images defining America to the world for decades. 

We pulled up to Doug’s studio in New Marlborough, a town of about 1,500, where every resident was tucked away somewhere in the privacy of the green woods and rolling hills that surrounded us. We were a stone’s throw from the historic town of Great Barrington, where Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville once walked the majestic northern Appalachian mountains. Those green mountains and rolling hills were the backdrop as we drove the long twisting gravel driveway to Doug’s home and studio. We parked in front of a futuristic military-looking vehicle slowly rusting away in the grass, got out of the car to stretch, and walked around looking for the door to this big barn-like building that inconspicuously housed the future of entertainment – Trumbull Studios.

I thought back to a time in 2010 – coincidentally the setting of Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two (1982) – that I was excited to hear the legendary Douglas Trumbull was seriously considering Denver, Colorado as a place to build Trumbull Studios! I had been living in Denver since 2006, after my career in San Francisco as a Technical Director and Supervisor at Industrial Light + Magic. I had just started teaching Maya software as a Professor of Computer Graphics at the Colorado Film School. One day I had heard that the visual effects guru Douglas Trumbull was going to be visiting, and doing a presentation in the school’s TV studio!

I was excited, more so than just a normal fan of the visual effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was one of those few people on the planet who could claim to have worked together on a project with Doug. I was going to see him again for the first time since that work we did back in 1993. Doug had secured a deal with Circus Circus in Las Vegas. They were building a massive pyramid in the desert on the outskirts of Las Vegas, to be three-fourths the actual size of the Great Pyramid of Giza itself! It was to be a monumental hotel and casino named after the famed Egyptian city, Luxor. Doug had committed to creating three attractions for the grand opening. Each of them would stretch the boundaries of how pre-recorded entertainment could be projected and experienced. 

Doug had hired the Kleiser/Walczak Construction Company – not to construct the facility, but because they could “construct” digital objects like flying cars and futuristic space vehicles, sculpting them from virtual polygons inside a computer. Jeff Kleiser and Diana Walczak had hired me to put on a hard hat and help supervise some of that virtual construction work. Our team set up shop in the historic town of Lenox, Massachusetts, not far from Doug’s home. Lenox was known for its idyllic settings and yearly summer event, the Tanglewood Music Festival, which is still one of the world’s premier open-air classical music venues. Just down the road, in a large warehouse surrounded by rolling hills of maple trees, Doug and his team of artists and technicians created all three attractions that were ultimately installed in Las Vegas for the grand opening of the Luxor Hotel on October 15th, 1993.

The three attractions were conceived as a trilogy that represented the Past, Present, and Future of Doug’s Egyptian-themed fictional history of the Luxor pyramid. Doug liked to call the style “crypto-Egypto.” The first attraction, taking place in the Present, was a talk show, happening live in a TV studio. The Luxor audience filed in and took their seats around the stage where live actors were joking around as they set up for the talk show. As the talk show began, odd things started happening, until all of a sudden the stage collapsed comically right before the audience’s eyes. Immediately, dancers appeared, floating mysteriously above the audience – seemingly sculpted out of clear swirling water! Of course, the actors in the talk show were never actually real, they were filmed using Doug’s 70mm 60 frame-per-second Showscan format.

His projection system and careful attention to scale from where the audience sat, made those pre-recorded actors appear absolutely real and live on stage – and they gave exactly the same performance each and every showtime, including the bit where the stage collapses. Stereoscopic renderings from Wavefront Technologies software made the virtual water dancers appear to float above the heads of the audience. Refracting flowing water was rendered using new ray-tracing algorithms. And Kleiser/Walczak’s Synthespian motion capture technology was one of the first systems to digitally record human movement – a process which is almost taken for granted these days in the VFX and games industry.

The Luxor attraction set in the Past was among the first motion-based platform rides, known as ridefilms. About 20 people at a time could buckle into their seats, heavily bolted to a hydraulically controlled moving platform. The platform could move left-right, forward-backward, and up-down, but always stayed parallel to the ground, because tilting could literally make a rider sick. The platform was surrounded by a curved screen that almost completely enveloped the rider’s visual field. Our teams worked hard to make absolutely sure the movement of the base matched the movement we filmed and projected on the screen, or again, if what you saw didn’t synch with how you moved, there would be a mess to clean up every time.

Doug had created a wild story based partly on Egyptian-themed myths, partly on time-traveling science fiction concepts, and involving (surprise!) a hero, a villain, and a girl! Basically, it was just a thinly veiled excuse to whip the viewer through multiple cyrypto-Egypto landscapes and aerial battle scenes, adding physical inner-ear movement through space for a completely immersive group experience. The story had the audience piloting the platform through perspective-bending visual effects, and at times pre-filmed actors appeared to land on the front of the platform, with choreographed fight scenes little more than an arm’s length away. This ridefilm was not for the faint of heart! My mother was scared to death – and brought it up every time I talked to her for years!

The Future attraction was called the Theater of Time. This was the one Jeff Kleiser had asked me to supervise his small but talented team of CGI artists – and where I was incredibly humbled to be working directly with the legendary Douglas Trumbull! 

Imagine a super widescreen movie in a very large theater, projecting on a 70-foot (21 m.) curved screen. Now do what Doug did – imagine that whole system flipped onto its side, rotated 90 degrees. Now you have a vertical screen, tall as a seven-story building, with a modified VistaVision projector rigged to lie on its side! Now imagine a row of about 10 seats, and about five rows of them stacked one on top of the other, positioned around the midpoint of the screen. Every seat became a front-row balcony seat, with the screen curved above when you looked up, and the screen curved below when you looked down.

All the other viewers were either directly above or directly below you, so you didn’t see very much of them. It was just your row suspended at the edge, looking up and down. The whole show was rendered at 4K resolution, twice the number of pixels in each image as in our High Definition flatscreen TVs of today. It was also running at twice the normal number of frames per second, Doug’s system required 48 individual images to be viewed and rendered for every one second of screen time! This made for remarkable clarity and lack of flicker in the image – the massive vertical screen almost became a gigantic window through which you were viewing the story. That Luxor work I had done with Doug was in 1993, the year the original Jurassic Park came out. At that early time in CGI, rendering 48 frames per second at 4096 by 2732 pixels resolution was truly revolutionary. And time-consuming!

One highlight of the work itself was making the “fractal shrelp.” To simulate possible futures, the script called for the actors in their time machine to be sucked into a swirling changing fractal shape, then for the audience to see millions of those fractals representing millions of possible futures. We brought on John Hart (hart3d.com), a fluid dynamics mathematician and CGI pioneer, and he wrote code to communicate with a new particle system that was being developed for Wavefront. We turned each pixel of the film into individual particles, then sucked the particles into a swirling mathematical 3D fractal pattern. We discovered that it very quickly became hard to see the original image, so we added some additional rainbow refraction effects by using the particle renders as animating bump maps. The first thing I said when I saw Doug after many years was, “I was the ‘fractal shrelp’ guy on Luxor” and he remembered me immediately! 

I was never really a coder, but the other thing I had done as CGI Supervisor on Luxor was to learn enough to write a program we desperately needed. A new type of modeling tool called NURBS patches were introduced in Wavefront, that allowed CGI artists to model in a more organic way. I wrote a program that allowed us to create line segment ribs, then stitch over the ribs with these smooth sheets of geometry, like perfectly stretching canvas across any hull shapes you could draw. Using that code, we designed, modeled, and textured dozens of flying cars, police ships, tanker freighters, garbage scows, and military fighting spaceships, along with one huge evil Mothership. It, and the bad-guy Osiris’s ships, were made of a shiny green material that Doug called unobtainium – more than a decade before Avatar (2009) popularized that old aerospace engineering term. 

Jeff and Diana had been some of the first people to experiment with digital humans, they even coined the term Synthespians. So we used their technology to create hundreds of small humans doing motion-captured idle movements, clapping, cheering, and even walking. We also solved some complex match-moving problems to get them to track with the extraordinary miniatures Doug was filming with his computer-controlled camera on a physical set. Our digital people walked along those miniature streets and plazas, they could even be seen waving from balconies and roofs of tall buildings. The synthespians were complete with randomized variations in clothing, body shapes, and movements, anticipating the CGI crowd software of today.   

Trumbull’s technology on the Luxor project merged both practical and digital techniques. There was a huge computer-repeatable miniature photography set filled with amazing models, each wired by hand with tiny internal lights. We added our state-of-the-art digital vehicles and Jeff and Diana’s virtual people using software from the groundbreaking early CGI company Wavefront Technologies. Some of these tools were still in development in 1993. Notably, to create the fractal shrelps, as well as vehicle smoke contrail effects and rotating pyramid-shaped fireworks, we worked with Jim Hourihan, who was writing one of the world’s first “particle system” renderers. His system ultimately evolved into the particle system used in Maya software for decades. I later worked with Jim again, at ILM, on the Rock Monster dust and rock chip effects for Galaxy Quest in 1999.

In 2010, when Doug had given that presentation at the Colorado Film School, he had been gracious enough to come talk with my CGI class, who were all even more captivated by his history with UFOs than with his groundbreaking movies. Doug spent a time looking for investors and for real estate to possibly set up Trumbull Studios in Denver. I was lucky to spend some of that time with him, and to have discussed the possibility of working with him as a CGI Supervisor in his Denver facility. Things didn’t happen as fast as Doug wanted, and he finally decided to just build the studio here in the hills of western Massachusetts right behind his house, on the same property he also kept his horses and chickens. Now I’m walking toward the door of Doug’s studio, which seems so much more at home here in the Berkshire Hills, shaking off the feeling of “what would have happened if he had decided to build this place in Denver?” Nancy and I found the side door and walked in. 

There were old movie cameras and projectors on shelves, and framed posters and artwork from Doug’s career on the entryway walls. The first was a large photo of Starship Enterprise from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). On the next wall was a poster of the T-Rex from Back to the Future: The Ride, which Doug had directed for Universal Studios, a ridefilm which they installed at multiple theme parks from 1991 until the last ride closed in 2007. There were other photos of behind-the-scenes production moments from iconic films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Blade Runner (1982), and Brainstorm (1983). 

Workbenches lined the room, covered with the detritus of years of hand-tooling optical cameras and projector parts. They shared desk space with completely modern digital electronic components lying in various states of disassembly. Taking up a large part of the vast space, I recognized the hulls of the curved outer wall of Doug’s Magi Pod. I knew what it was, because the previous year I had done an interview with Doug over zoom, while he sat in this very spot, in front of the very same Magi Pod. The interview was because I am Chair of the SIGGRAPH Pioneers group, an organization of old-timers of the Computer Graphics world, representing industry, researchers, educators and artists from around the world. Doug was our Featured Speaker for the 2020 SIGGRAPH conference – you can watch that below:

Doug was in the back when we walked in, but there was a young bearded guy sitting on the floor, busy using a hot-glue gun to stick little mylar triangles onto a sheet of large black posterboard. No doubt this was going to be used on some project Doug was involved with, and even though it looked silly in 2021 to see a hot-glue gun and posterboard, I’m sure the end result of whatever optical effect they were planning would look amazing! Doug came out and found us, dressed dapperly in black jeans, black loafers, and a well-fitting long-sleeve shirt, sleeves rolled halfway up, phone tucked neatly in his shirt pocket. After the handshakes and obligatory iPhone selfies, he ushered us through the curved outer walls of his crown jewel, the Magi Pod.

It was a completely self-enclosed small theater, capable of seating around 40. The whole thing was curved, including the layout of the seats. The whole room was like the middle section of a complete sphere, with its top cut off for a ceiling and its bottom cut off for a floor. Every seat was positioned for optimum viewing of the screen which wrapped around in the front of the theater. Seats in the back were mounted higher than seats in the front, with a gentle slope and only a few stairs to reach the top.

Doug handed us each a lightweight pair of stereoscopic glasses, sat us down in the middle seats of the middle row, preparing to show us – inside this barn tucked away in the lovely Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts – the most amazingly high resolution and flicker-free immersive film experience to be found anywhere on Planet Earth!

The first thing Doug showed us was his film UFOTOG. Because of his life-long obsession with the search for alien life, Doug had built a high-tech vehicle with every bit of optics and electronics he decided was necessary for actual UFO hunting. It turns out this was the vehicle we had parked in front of, slowly aging in the grass outside his studio. When he finally had to admit that actual UFO hunting would require enormous amounts of time sitting alone in that vehicle, Doug had decided instead to make a short film abut a fictional UFO hunter who used that vehicle, and the mysteries he uncovers.

“I didn’t want to spend two years of my life sitting alone in the New Mexico desert,” he told us laughingly. The ten-minute film was a test of Doug’s Magi technology, and there are YouTube videos showing the cameras and production process for it, including this one:

The clarity and dynamic range of his cinematography were astonishing, combining ultra-high resolution 4k images, shot in stereo, projected at five times the normal frame rate of movies. UFOTOG was filmed and projected in the Magi Pod at 120 frames a second, instead of the archaic standard of 24 frames a second, which was decided upon at the beginning of the 20th century. Digital projectors of the 2020s can now handle frame rates much higher than what physical film and sprocketed projectors were capable of, and this film clearly showed what the future of prerecorded entertainment could look like. And of course, it had some really cool practical space effects!

A Conversation with Doug Trumball

After watching UFOTOG, we chatted about Doug’s current plans. At the time I gave no thought at all to his mortality, assuming this energetic futurist would be with us for at least another couple of decades. At one point I was washed over by the significance of sitting here listening to this real guy who was, at the same time, such a legendary figure – and I asked if I could start my Voice Memo app. Doug said sure, no problem, record whatever you want. Here’s a glimpse into our conversation, before I describe the rest of what Doug showed us on that Magi Pod screen. 

He was just starting to talk about multiplex theaters.

You can’t get this kind of field of view because the walls get in the way, and the seating is not very steeply raised. They’re just terrible, and that’s what happened to the movie industry back in the 70s and 80s, where they began chopping up all the big old theaters, one theater became six or eight or more. It was all done for the economics of unoccupied seats and ticket prices. They made more money. But there was also more diversity of content, you had a choice of movies and a choice of start times, so that was beneficial. 

Since then, I took IMAX public in 1994, which brought big theaters back into the equation. Exhibitors started putting in, not just IMAX theaters, but *copies* of IMAX theaters with digital projectors. That became Premium Large Format. If it wasn’t IMAX, it was PLF, or Regal had RPX, AMC has theirs, they all do. But in all that time, no one’s ever done anything with frame rate, except experiments like Peter Jackson did with The Hobbit, and that Jim Cameron was doing. Ang Lee came here eight times from New York, picked my brains dry and tried to replicate it, and didn’t replicate it properly and damaged the high-frame-rate reputation further, by doing it wrong with no shutters.

Why didn’t they just bring you on?

I don’t know, I can’t even get arrested these days. Maybe I’m too old, I don’t know what it is, but I don’t get any offers for anything. And people like Ang Lee try to steal things. 

So what are the plans for the Magi Pod?

There’re a lot of applications for this, as you can imagine. This technology is at its best when it’s educational or therapeutic or inspirational or used in training or simulation, anything other than for another cornball movie. Those are all natural markets for it, but none of those markets are necessarily very profitable. We did one show we just finished a few months ago, for the New York Power Authority. They were the first company to come here and actually commission us to do a movie, an industrial movie. That was a real struggle because they were not imaginative, very hard to deal with creatively, and they didn’t pay their bills. We got screwed. Nevertheless, I tried to bring to it something imaginative. They wanted something about Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, the battle of AC vs. DC, which actually took place in New York tate. So I said, let’s try to make this somewhat dramatic. We’ll take a look at this film in a moment.

I don’t want to spend my life doing industrial films for the power company. I’ve got a feature film I want to make, but I can’t even talk to anybody in the movie industry about doing it with this process. So, that brings us to this. I accepted the idea that theaters sucked, and I went about studying how they do that. You know, Regal, AMC, Cinemark, you name it, go into long-term leases with the mall owner. They come into space they don’t own, they do leasehold improvements, build walls between the theaters, and projection booths and candy counters, it gets them a parking lot and food and retail businesses around them. 

I could see the demise of retail was right around the corner with Amazon and everything else, and it’s all come true. What you’ve got is malls where the only “anchor” tenant left is the cineplex. So we’re now studying empty mall space to put in the Magi Pods. We can prefabricate them very inexpensively in a factory someplace, pop them up in a few days and turn them on. That’s the core idea. This is all modular, we made this one in my workshop. It’s two-foot by four-foot modular units that bolt together, a small crew of people can assemble a pod like this in just two days. We built everything you see here in house.  We still need to add a few modifications to make sure it’s up to code, but basically we’re ready to go.

I haven’t found anybody who wants to do it. I’m now talking to some ex-IMAX people in Canada, who I displaced when I took over the company. They all retired but their sons and daughters have been talking about exploring IMAX for special venue shows like Cirque du Soleil or other musical theater that you could charge a higher ticket price for. They did the Rolling Stones movie At the Max which was shot in IMAX.

I haven’t seen it.

Nobody saw it. It was really a very interesting thing to see, but there was a big lawsuit about it, because no one paid attention to the fact that science museums don’t really want to show the Rolling Stones. It was so dumbly simple. Nobody made any money. They also found out that even IMAX doesn’t give you the sense of immediacy and immersion that you get from something like the Magi Pod, not even close, this is different.

I’ve been exploring music for this, for several years now, shooting little music tests, and that’s going really well. Right now we’re talking with the Alan Parsons Project. Yes, they’re still around. He lost the rights to the name, by the way, he can’t call it the Alan Parsons Project anymore. Alan’s a nice guy, I like his music, there’s nothing prurient or bad about it. We’re talking about doing a feature-length IMAX movie with his music and visuals I would do, we’re figuring out how the visuals would relate to the band and the songs. In my mind it’s kind of a chronological history of sound and music, that’s the fiber that holds the show together, but we haven’t really figured it out yet.  

One thing I find so interesting about you, Doug, is that not only do you come up with the visuals and invent whatever tech is needed, but you also come up with the stories behind them all. 

Yep. I love creating those worlds.

Have you talked with the big video game companies like Epic?

We are talking with them right now, I want to have a further conversation with you about that. They’ve asked us to do an Epic grant application to see how we could combine this Magi Pod system with what they do.

Wow, this could be a completely interactive real-time gaming environment in stereo at 120 fps! If you were playing a video game in here, if everyone had a controller, it could look like you were laser blasting the guy sitting three seats over from you!

What a funny idea! I’ll use that. Do you teach Unreal? Has that taken off?

Absolutely! I’m more the Maya guy, but any college games program these days teaches Unreal. Unity to a lesser extent, but all my students work in Unreal. Where everything is going now is into real-time production. Nobody wants to be spending 24 hours rendering one frame anymore.

Unreal is becoming the industry standard. It’s the first time you can have real-time photorealism. They’re using it on The Mandalorian, as you know, and everybody else is jumping on that bandwagon. Now there’re like 200 virtual stages around that are exploring this.

John Gaeta, who worked with us on Luxor, was involved in getting the ILMxLAB running

Right, so that’s very much on my radar as a virtual production tool, and we think we can combine it with this [Magi Pod system] because we can do alternating left-eye, right-eye frames on a screen, captured with a camera so the whole thing is in stereoscopic space.

All these technologies are merging and becoming something new, and the Magi Pod as a platform within the gaming universe, as a premium experience where only the luckiest gamers get to experience it, wow! It seems like funds should be… have you talked to Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk about this?

Not yet, but I intend to, they’re both on my radar. Musk because this movie that I’m developing, one of the scenes in the movie is about Mars and is like ‘been there, done that, and it didn’t work out. No, you can’t terraform Mars, you can’t make an atmosphere on Mars, you can’t colonize Mars’ So there’s other reasons to talk to Elon Musk. So here, I’ll show you this industrial film called “Imagination,” the one we did for the New York Power Authority.

We put back on the very lightweight 3D glasses. The lights dimmed, the music rose from an amazing sound system, and we were immersed, appropriately, in the history of electricity. The film was shot in such stereoscopic high-resolution and at such a fast frame rate, that it didn’t look like a projection on a screen at all, it was more like you were looking through a window right into the staged workshops of Edison and Tesla themselves. As in many tourist venues, the information was presented at a grade-school level and even involved scenes with kids in a classroom. But the experience of seeing the film with all its visual effects in this immersive format in this small, self-contained theater environment was like nothing my brain had ever processed before.

Well, at least we were getting somewhere, you know? This was the first one. I was the Producer and Director. We helped them build a theater, in Utica, New York, which is open to the public. (The next day we were excited because our route took us right past Utica, but in June of 2021, the New York Power Authority Magi Pod was still closed due to Covid-19.)

Here’s something I think you’d like to see, it’s all CGI. Everything here is synthetic.

And with that, Doug played a clip from Kevin Margo’s 2018 short film Construct that blew my eyes! Margo had led a small crew bringing together Blur Studios, the development team from the Chaos Group, the graphics card developers nVidia, the mocap developers OptiTrack and Rouge Mocap, Google, Boxx Computers, and others. They even credit The Companion’s own Brad Wright for concepts in the film!

The multiple award-winning 10-minute short film used some of the newest real-time interactive filmmaking tools available, and more about the production is available on YouTube. It featured a handful of human-like robots all being driven by performances from actors on a virtual set, in an action film that was directed and choreographed in real-time. Since the film was already complete, all Doug asked Margo to do was re-render for the Magi Pod, doubling the pixel resolution and rendering in stereo at 120 frames per second. Now in this Magi Pod, I was seeing the most perfectly displayed photorealistic stereoscopic CGI that anyone had ever seen. Sorry folks, language just doesn’t have the words to describe what was going on between my eyes and my brain while immersed in the visual sensation. Rest assured, it was obviously different than anything I’d ever seen – and way cool!

That was a little movie that was already done. A trailer for a feature these guys wanted to make. Kevin Margo in LA, they were collaborating with nVidia, pushing the envelope of GPU’s, with a GPU-centric render farm. I met one of the top guys at the NAB show [National Association of Broadcasters] so I said ‘Why don’t you just render it at 120 frames a second in 4K and 3D, so they did, that and that’s what came out of it. Didn’t cost me a dime, it was just a re-render. It went very smoothly.

This was amazing, I’ve never seen CGI that felt so damn real!

I’m still stunned by it.

Was the film already stereoscopic?

No, but since it was all in the computer, they could just move the camera over a bit and render from where the second eye would be. Half the movie I’m developing now has aliens in it that we’d have to render, so this is all part of a bigger picture. Here, now let me show you a couple more things. Arlo Guthrie is a music performer who lives near here.

I remember he came by the studio once while we were working on Luxor. 

Then Doug played his high definition, high frame rate stereoscopic recording of Arlo in his studio playing Freight Train – a classic American folk song, circa 1910, that The Quarrymen used to also play, before they changed their name to The Beatles. Arlo’s father was Woodie Guthrie, a great folk music legend in America. It was slightly unnerving to see every wrinkle and pore of his face, and every hair of his scraggly beard, with such crystal clarity – but the audio fidelity and the intimacy of the experience was phenomenal.

This is fun, I’m like a kid in a visual candy store! Is this a Dolby system?

The audio system will get even better in the future. We work with Dolby now, but I think we can do better than Dolby. Let me show you one last thing. We got all this footage online, for free.

Then Doug played an immersive montage of Outer Space footage edited to David Bowie’s Space Oddity which was of course a reference to Doug’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Wow, well that’s another reason to talk to Elon Musk, to take your cameras “up there.”

I want to do that, and Jeff Bezos too. They’re vying to see who’s going to be first to get up there, and so is Richard Branson. Well, that’s it. 

That was a visual feast! I feel very honored and privileged.

Well, I’m really glad you could come, and I’d love to hear your wisdom on what’s next in the world of CGI.

At that point, we left the Magi Pod, walked up to a comfortable office area, and plopped down on couches to chat further. I asked if there’s progress on the film he wants to make.

Not yet, but we’re doing little tests that are looking good. You remember in Blade Runner there’s the Hades landscape, it’s all forced-perspective miniatures. Well, we’re building a little test of a forced-perspective Solar Sail for the movie I’m working on. We’re going to photograph this as seen from inside a spaceship that’s rotating. [He gestured toward the young bearded assistant’s mylar triangles glued to a posterboard.] The sail is about a mile wide. Part of the movie involves using the Sun, solar wind, to power the ship. Actually, more like a solar hurricane!

Then Doug turned back to the technology portrayed in UFOTOG.

We decided that, given all the advances now in VR, we designed this little module about the size of a dinner plate, with maybe 10 cameras on it, facing outward and all stitched together, covering all of the visible sky, horizon to horizon. We would have multiples of these, interconnected, all communicating with each other, and they would be able to triangulate on anything that’s in the sky. They’re all dumping data to some central CPU in real-time. Intelligent software could say ‘if it’s a bird or a plane, ignore it. If it’s got a transponder on it, ignore it. If it’s a satellite or a natural phenomenon, ignore it. But anything else, grab it and record it.’ It would be totally automated. You’d have to build hundreds of these modules and be ready to sacrifice them if they get destroyed in the desert. But if you could do it inexpensively, in volume, you’d have a massive data-gathering system. They’re doing that right now for asteroids, and near-earth objects. But I just kind of set that aside, I can’t live long enough to hunt for aliens.

I have my own art-form, what we’re doing downstairs, which is about miniatures and what I call organic effects, which are crucial to get what 2001 was 50 years ago. I’m not against CGI, and we use digital compositing all the time. We use Fusion software, Nuke is the same thing. But there’s another thing that just happened to me, because I pursue the weird shit. Did you know Evans and Sutherland in Utah, after their CGI work, they became a planetarium company?

Of course, I know their history in CGI, but I had no idea that’s what they’re doing now.

They have this technology they call DigiStar. They’ve been pioneers of the digital planetarium world, initially with one projector, now with many of them. They’d use all kinds of projectors and map a dome in a planetarium. But there’s horrible cross-reflectance and low brightness, and domes suck, there’s just all kinds of problems. But they just built an LED dome. I really recommend you go see this thing, in Salt Lake City. I’m going out there pretty soon with a partner of mine to see it. They did LEDs 180 degrees wide, it’s half a hemisphere, and they put 8K pixel resolution across this 180 degree field. They could actually screen UFOTOG there. They shoot mostly 8K 2D stuff, three-camera panoramas stitched together, which looks really good. So they’re on the way to being a good environment to shoot a movie. They figured out a way to make the pixel modules the right shape, like 800 different shapes to make it fit perfectly, and they do it in real time, 8K at 120 frames. And it’s stunning!

Is this open to the public?

No, but you can make an appointment if you have a reason to go there. I’m kind of focused on that, potentially for this music thing. I’m hoping eventually if we do something with Alan Parsons it might have a premiere semi-permanent location in Las Vegas at some big casino-hotel. I want to explore this whole idea of music, as a very easy to capture content thing. It only takes as long to capture as one show performance, two hours or less. I think that could be a pretty good market, it wouldn’t cost that much to make the show, and you could show it all day, every day, forever. Hopefully, other bands would come on, you’re providing them with a source of revenue, a piece of the box office, so the band doesn’t have to work so hard. Bands hate being on the road. I think that’s going to be a good vertical, what we call a silo, a business segment. We’re also looking at other segments, whether it’s therapeutic, psychotherapy applications using it as a safe space for exploring hallucinogens, or other ideas.

Hey, I’m so sorry I’ve really gotta run.

Thanks so much, Doug, and any CGI questions, I’m only an email away!

I’m gonna take you up on that! You know I could sit and talk for hours, but if I don’t go pick up my car I’ll never see it again!

So Nancy and I left Doug to go pick up his car from the shop, facing the same everyday real-world crap even legendary people have to face. From his energy, neither of us had any idea Doug had been battling the effects of a stroke and cancer for the last year. We drove away, catching the last glimpse of that big barn, high-tech UFO-hunting vehicle parked forever outside, and the world’s most sophisticated screening room inconspicuously housed within. Past this long winding gravel driveway, we continued through the meadows and forests of the Berkshire hills – which would be breathtakingly spectacular with fiery foliage in just a few months. It would be Doug’s last glorious autumn in his beloved New England home and studio, and on the seventh day of February 2022, he succumbed at a hospital in Albany, New York, to mesothelioma, a disease frequently associated with exposure to asbestos.

The irony is hard to miss, it’s a material Doug may have been exposed to in his early years of practical model work, while creating, without a doubt, some of the greatest visual effects moments in film history – and those images, like our collective memory of Doug, will live forever.

Ed Kramer

Recommended Articles


Testimonial Author Image

Ed Kramer is The Companion’s resident CGI expert. He was the CGI supervisor for the Scarab beetle shots in The Mummy, the Rock Monster shots in Galaxy Quest, and contributed to six films nominated for Best Achievement in Visual Effects Oscars.

Looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.