Kubrick: I read Eisenstein's books at the time, and to this day I still don't really understand them. The most instructive book on film aesthetics I came across was Pudovkin's Film Technique, which simply explained that editing was the aspect of film art form which was completely unique, and which separated it from all other art forms.
From the Sept. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.
Trumbull drives me a short distance from his home to a full-size soundstage and escorts me into a screening room that he has constructed to meet his ideal specifications: a wide wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling curved screen, with surround sound, steeply rigged stadium seating and a 4K high-resolution projector. As I put on specially designed 3D glasses and settle into stadium seating, he tells me, with an unmistakable hint of nervousness, “You’re one of the first people on the planet to see this movie.”
Ten minutes later, the lights come back up and I sit in stunned silence. The short that I have just seen, UFOTOG (a blending of the words “UFO” and “fotog,” the latter slang for press photographer), is stunning not because of its story — we’ve all seen movies about UFOs — but because it shows, as it was designed to do, what movies can look like if theaters, studios and filmmakers embrace the MAGI process through which Trumbull brought it to the screen: bigger, brighter, clearer and with greater depth-of-field than anything ever seen in a cinema before.
All of the aforementioned conditions are part of the MAGI equation, but the most essential element is the rate of frames per second at which a film is projected. In the beginning, the Lumiere brothers projected films at 18 fps, slow enough to result in the appearance of flickering — hence the early nickname for the movies, “the flickers” or “the flicks.” That figure eventually increased to 24 fps, and has remained there, for the most part, ever since.
In 2012, Peter Jackson dared to release The Hobbit‘s first installment at 48 fps, which was supposed to create a heightened sense of realism, but which instead struck many as strange-looking and some even as nauseating. Many deemed the experiment a failure. Trumbull disagreed. He felt that if a digitally shot film was projected even faster — markedly faster, as in 120 fps, via a bright projector and onto a big screen — then the movie screen itself would seemingly disappear and serve effectively as a window into a world on the other side that would appear as real as the world in which one sits.
To the Moon and Beyond featured a 70 mm circular image projected onto a dome screen and took viewers on a journey “from the Big Bang to the microcosm in 15 minutes.” Two of the thousands who saw it were Stanley Kubrick, the filmmaker, and Arthur C. Clarke, the writer, who came away from it convinced that an A-level sci-fi film — which eventually became 2001: A Space Odyssey — was possible. Kubrick contracted Graphic Films to produce conceptual designs for the project, but, once it got off the ground, moved it to London, at which point 23-year-old Trumbull cold-called the director and got a job on the film. His greatest contribution to it was devising a way to create a believable “Star Gate” effect, representing “the transformation of a character through time and space to another dimension.” Even though Kubrick alone claimed screen credit and an Oscar for the film’s VFX, Trumbull instantly became a name in the business.
A few years later, he made his directorial debut with Silent Running (1972), a well-received film that landed him deals at Fox, MGM and Warner Bros. — but all of them “unraveled for stupid reasons.” By 1975, “desperate because you can’t live on development deals,” he and Richard Yuricich proposed the creation of the Future General Corporation, through which they would try to identify ways to improve the technology used to make films. Paramount agreed to sponsor the endeavor — which, to them, was a tax write-off — in return for 80 percent ownership. Within the first nine months of its existence, Trumbull says, “We invented Showscan [a manner of projecting films at 60 fps]. We invented the first simulator ride. We invented the 3D interactive videogame. And we invented the Magicam process [by which actors can perform in front of a blue screen, onto which nonexistent locations can be projected to create virtual realities].” And yet, in the end, Paramount “saw no future in the future of movies” and failed to support their efforts, devastating Trumbull, who was under exclusive contract to the studio for the next six years. (The studio’s one gesture that he did appreciate: loaning him out to Columbia to do the special effects for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)
Trumbull got out of his Paramount contract in 1979 thanks to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The original effects team that had been engaged for the highly anticipated film couldn’t handle the job, something the studio realized only six months before its long-scheduled Christmas release date. The studio begged Trumbull to take over, and he agreed to do so — provided he was paid a considerable fee and released from his contract. He got what he requested and, to the detriment of his health, also got the job done on time.
Newly a free agent, Trumbull continued to take on special effects jobs for others — for instance, Ridley Scott‘s Blade Runner (1982) — but his primary focus was on directing a film of his own that would demonstrate the capabilities of Showscan. For the project, which he called Brainstorm, he secured a top-notch cast, led by Natalie Wood, and a major distributor, MGM. Production got underway and was almost completed when, on Nov. 29, 1981, tragedy struck: Wood drowned under circumstances that remain mysterious to this day. Since Wood had only a few small scenes left to shoot, Trumbull felt that he could easily finish the film, but MGM, which was in dire financial straits, filed what he deemed a “fraudulent insurance claim” because “they wanted to get out of it.”
Then, in 1990, he was approached about making a Back to the Future ride for Universal Studios venues in Florida, Hollywood and Japan. Others had been unable to conquer it, but he made it happen — and in a groundbreaking way: “It took you out of your seat and put you into the movie. You were in a DeLorean car. You became Marty McFly. You became a participant in the movie. The movie was all around you.” It ran for 15 years, he says, but was “dismissed as a theme park amusement.” He felt it was something more. “This was a moment where, for the first time in history, you went inside a movie.” Even though others failed to see larger possibilities, he says, “That kinda kept me going for a long time because it validated that we could be here in the Berkshires and make breakthroughs that no one else was able to do in Hollywood or anywhere else.”
In 2009, James Cameron‘s Avatar, a digitally shot 3D production that grossed a record $2.8 billion worldwide, changed everything. Its success spurred, at long last, filmmakers to transition en masse to digital photography and theaters to transition en masse to digital projection — at which point Trumbull made a crucial discovery. He realized that digital projectors run at 144 fps — twice as fast as Showscan had been able to — but films were still being made at 24 fps, with each frame just flashing multiple times. “Could we do a new frame every flash?” he wondered. If so, he reasoned, it might just give people a reason to put down their smartphones, tablets and laptops and actually buy a ticket to see a movie in a theater.
After years of work on his farm, Trumbull is finally ready to unveil UFOTOG. Its first public presentation will take place on Sept. 11 as part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s Future of Cinema conference (at which Trumbull will also give a keynote address), and it will also screen days later at the IBC Conference in Amsterdam. At both venues, he says, his message will be rather straightforward: “It’s not rocket science, guys. It’s just a different shape, a different size, a different brightness and a different frame rate. Abandon all that crud that’s leftover from 1927. We’re in the digital age. Get with it.”
The cost of these changes, he insists, will be rather negligible: projectors are already equipped to handle faster frame rates, and would require only slightly more data time and render time; theaters are already adopting brighter projectors that employ laser illumination, which uses a longer-lasting bulb to produce twice the amount of light; and theaters, he believes, will soon recognize that they are in the “real estate business” and that it is in their interest to have fewer total screens but more big screens, for which the public has demonstrated a willingness to pay a premium.
Trumbull’s main objective, though, is “to show the industry what it is possible to do” with MAGI. He says he’s “dying to show” UFOTOG to filmmakers such as Jackson, Cameron and Christopher Nolan, whom he regards as kindred souls. But mostly, he wants to challenge the industry one more time, warning it, “If you want people to come to theaters, you better do something different.”
After seeing the fascinating trailer, I am looking forward to seeing this film. Please note the Fleischer and Kubrick comments in the interview selections below.
From the website for The Congress, a film by Ari Folman.
Robin Wright, a Hollywood actress who once held great promise (“The Princess Bride”, “Forest Gump”), receives an unexpected offer in mid-life: Mirramount Studios want to scan her entire being into their computers and purchase ownership of her image for an astronomical fee. After she is scanned, the studio will be allowed to make whatever films it wishes with the 3-D Robin, including all the blockbusters she chose not to make during her career. As if that were not inducement enough, the studio promises to keep the new 3D Robin forever young in the movies. She will always be thirty-something, a stunning beauty who never grows old. In return, Robin will receive tons of money but shell be forbidden to appear on any kind of stage for all eternity. Despite her deep internal resistance, Robin eventually signs the contract , since she understand that in the economy of scanned actors, its her only way to stay in the business, but even more crucial, Robin can give her son Aaron, who suffers from a rare disorder, the best treatment money can buy. The contract is valid for 20 years.
Twenty years later, Robin arrives at Abrahama, the animated city composed by Miramount Nagasaki, once a Hollywood studio that signed Robin, and now the exclusive creator of the cinematic dream-world that controls all our emotions, from love and longings to ego and deathly anxieties. Miramount Nagasaki’s chemistry is everywhere, from the air-conditioning to the water sources. During the intervening two decades, the corporation has turned Robin Wright from a Hollywood actress with unfulfilled potential into an international superstar and fantasy. On-screen, she has remained forever young. In the animated world of the future, Miraramount Nagasaki is celebrating a huge gathering in the heart of the desert, “The Futurist Congress.” At the event, Miramount Nagasaki’s genius scientists — once creators of movies, now computer programmers who have evolved into chemists and pharmacists—will declare the next stage in the chemical evolution: free choice! From now on, every viewer can create movies in his own imagination, thanks to chemical selection. Robin Wright is now a mere chemical formula that every person can consume by taking the correct prescription, then staging whatever story they desire: Snow White, personal family dramas, or porn. It’s all in the brain, all through chemicals.
The animated Robin Wright is an “elderly” woman of 66. When she arrives at the congress as the guest of honor, no one recognizes her as the stunning beauty admired by all, a star whose image is broadcast on screens in every corner of the congress. She is lonely, about to become a chemical formula, when out of nowhere, Paramount Nagasaki’s utopian plan is suddenly derailed: the thinking man, the resister, the rebels who have been fighting the deceptive regime of the pharmaceutical world, unite and turn the Futurist Congress into a fatally violent arena. The struggle for clarity of thought becomes a war of independence for the right to imagine. Out of the forgetting and the loss, Robin suddenly regains the ability to choose. Will she go back to living in the world of truth, a gray world devoid of chemistry, where she is an aging, anonymous actress caring for her sick 30-year-old son? Or will she surrender to the captivating lie of the chemical world and remain forever young?
The Congress by Ari Folman
In his novel The Futurological Congress, the great science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem foresaw a worldwide chemical dictatorship run by the leading pharmaceutical companies. Written in the late nineteen-sixties, the book depicted drug manufacturers’ complete control of our entire range of emotions, from love and longings, to jealousy and deadly fear. Lem, considered sci-fi’s greatest prophet and philosopher (alongside Philip K. Dick), could not have realized how prescient he was in predicting the start of the third millennium. Into the psychochemical whirlwind foreseen by Lem, the film adaptation of his novel introduces the current cinematic technologies of 3-D and motion capture, which threaten to eradicate the cinema we grew up on. In the post-“Avatar” era, every filmmaker must ponder whether the flesh and blood actors who have rocked our imagination since childhood can be replaced by computer-generated 3-D images. Can these computerized characters create in us the same excitement and enthusiasm, and does it truly matter? The film, entitled The Congress, takes 3-D computer images one step further, developing them into a chemical formula that every customer may consume through prescription pills, thereby compiling in their minds the movies they have always wanted to see, staging their fantasies, and casting the actors they adore. In this world, these beloved creatures of stage and cinema become futile relics, lacking in content, remembered by no one. Where, then, do these actors go after selling their souls and identities to the studio devil? The Congress comprises quasi-documentary live-action sequences that follow one such actress, Robin Wright, as she accepts an offer to be scanned and signs a contract selling her identity to the studio, then transitions into an animated world that depicts her tribulations after selling her image, up until the moment when the studio turns her into a chemical formula. Only the mesmerizing combination of animation – with the beautiful freedom it bestows on cinematic interpretation – and quasidocumentary live-action, can illustrate the transition made by the human mind between psychochemical influence and deceptive reality. The Congress is primarily a futuristic fantasy, but it is also a cry for help and a profound cry of nostalgia for the old-time cinema we know and love.
THE CONGRESS presents a strongly dystopic vision of Hollywood and big studio movies – is that also how you view that part of the industry? Does your film reflect a fear for the future of cinema?
While searching for a suitable location in LA to shoot the scanning room scene, I was shocked to learn that such a room already exists. Actors have been scanned for a number of years now – this technology is already here. Flesh and blood actors are not really needed in this ”post Avatar era“. I guess its economics now that dictate whether the next generation of films will be with scanned actors, or with a completely new generation of actors ”built from scratch“. As an optimist, I think the choice for a human actor will win out and I hope The Congress is our small contribution toward that goal.
So many details in THE CONGRESS are ”futuristic“ yet still very current – do you see any positive aspects of living in another reality, behind an online avatar for example? Do you think it approaches the film‘s idea of choosing your own reality?
I think the chemical world outlined in Lem‘s novel and in the film is a fantasy, but at the same time its still a major fear for those of us who travel in our imagination and our dreams. I have always had the feeling that everybody, everywhere lives in parallel universes, one, were we function in real time and the other, the universe where our mind takes us – with or without our control. Combining the two worlds into a one, is for me the biggest goal of being a filmmaker.
The film is unique but features what seems like an encyclopedia of significant references in terms of cinema and otherwise. Were there key films or other influences that served as guides or inspirations as you made this movie?
The animated part is a tribute to the great Fleischer Brothers‘ work from the 30‘s. It‘s hand drawn, made in 8 different countries and took two and a half years to create 55 minutes of animation. It was by far the toughest mission of my life as a director. The team back home, led by the director of animation, Yoni Goodman were working 24/7 to ensure the animation from a number of different studios had a consistency in the characters from scene to scene. During the process we discovered that sleep is for mortals and animation for the insane! Elsewhere in the movie I try to pay tribute to my idol Stanley Kubrick twice; once with a reference to Dr. Strangelove and another to 2001: A Space Odyssey, still my favorite sci-fi movie ever.
For more behind the scenes go here.
Photo by Steve.
Arthur C. Clarke also wrote about the geosynchronous satellite in the October 1945 issues of Wireless World. That is why the area where geosynchronous satellites orbit the Earth is called the Clarke Belt.
“In March of 1997, film critic Roger Ebert interviewed author Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The interview was featured at “Cyberfest ‘97,” a gala celebration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.”
I recommend these books and DVDs if you want to learn more about 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Great minds think alike. Facing the Void. From American Cinematographer.