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Cynthia Wisehart on Douglas Trumbull

I started my career as a theme park designer when Douglas Trumbull was already famous in my world, having set the standard for all we would pursue with the  Back to the Future ride at Universal.

Inventor of the 70mm 60fps Showscan film system starting in the 1970s, he shared the large format film-based landscape with Iwerks and IMAX—a true pioneer in both theme park technology and content. Still, as often happens for theme park pioneers, systems would advance from film to digital in his lifetime to things he could have imagined but not executed with the tech of his time. He went on to follow up Showscan with the Magi digital 3D system in 2014, and remained a technical presence until his death, advocating for HFR for six decades and vigorously still in the past year as the rest of us began to catch up.

Though his shadow and innovation loomed over my work in theme parks, and that’s how I picture him, Trumbull simultaneously had a big tumultuous, sometimes thankless, career in Hollywood. Director of the sci-fi classic  Silent Running, one of the principal creators of the  2001: A Space Odyssey and BladeRunner effects, among many others, Trumbull had to fight studio politics in the tiny world of cutting-edge effects his whole career. Trails were blazed, hearts were broken, and often he retreated to his longtime compound in the Berkshires–where I once had the privilege to visit–to regroup and create. He was nominated for Oscars, honored by SMPTE, and the American Society of Cinematographers gave him a lifetime achievement award. He was hassled and acknowledged in equal measure—not so unusual for a pioneer. He was a cornerstone of opportunity for my generation of theme park designers. In my experience he was both generous and prickly with his expertise, iconoclastic, committed, and ambivalent, much like many whose minds and egos hover around technology and art.

It’s a common experience in theme parks to visit the seminal attractions and marvel at how old school they seem, forgetting that when they were built they were impossible. Trumbull’s Devils Mine Ride was that for me. I rode it in France at the wonderful Futuroscope—which is kind of a living theme park archive. At the time, I was working on shows that were directly descended from that messy, nausea-generating, latently programmed, lurchfest that blazed the trail. My generation’s work would be the next to age and be surpassed by people who, in their turn, couldn’t have done it without us.

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