Douglas Trumbull, who has died at the age of 79, was a writer, producer and director who doubled as an engineer and an inventor. Holding around 20 US patents, he received a Scientific and Engineering Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as well as its prestigious Gordon E. Sawyer Award for craft ingenuity. Moreover, he drew Oscar nominations for his visual effects work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), which all proved key in launching Hollywood into the blockbuster age. And he didn’t use a single pixel.

Born in Los Angeles on 8 April 1942, Trumbull was the son of Donald Trumbull, who had helped rig the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and received craft awards from the Academy in 1985 and 1999. On joining the Graphic Films animation studio, Douglas worked as an illustrator and airbrush artist on documentaries for the US Air Force and NASA.

In 1964, he was attached to the short To the Moon and Beyond, which remains the only 70mm film made in Cinerama 360. It was projected through a 70mm fisheye lens onto a domed surface and so impressed Stanley Kubrick at the New York World’s Fair that he hired director Con Pederson to work on his forthcoming collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke.

When the production of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) moved to Britain, Trumbull wangled his passage and, during the three-year shoot worked his way up from animating data display screens to developing the slit scan apparatus used on the famous Stargate sequence. For many years, Trumbull resented the fact that Kubrick alone received the Oscar for special visual effects and he vowed never to work for anyone else again.

The realities of the film business soon hit hard, however. Having worked on the credit sequences of the Terry Southern satire Candy (1968), Trumbull and director Anthony Foutz failed to complete Saturation 70, an ecological horror fantasy that included Gram Parsons and Rolling Stone Brian Jones’s five year-old son, Jason, in the cast. He also learned a harsh lesson when Michelangelo Antonioni fired him after he had concocted the apocalyptic climax to Zabriskie Point (1970). The footage didn’t go to waste, however, as it was recycled for the Hades landscape in Blade Runner.

Trumbull also repurposed techniques employed on 2001 to generate the computer readouts in Robert Wise’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s bestseller, The Andromeda Strain (1971). He devised the electron microscope images of the deadly organism too, but nearly bankrupted himself by undercharging for his work. Nevertheless, the experience of operating on tight budgets proved invaluable when he made his own directorial debut, Silent Running (1972), an ecological saga that counted Michael Cimino and Stephen Bochco among its writers. 

Everything from the geodesic domes housing the forest samples aboard the Valley Forge spaceship to drone helpers Huey, Dewey and Louie were inspired. But Universal chose to release the picture without fanfare to see if word of mouth could create a hit. It couldn’t, but this poignant parable has since acquired cult status.

While struggling to finance a string of projects, Trumbull undertook some uncredited blue-screen work on The Towering Inferno (1974). However, having turned down George Lucas’s invitation to work on Star Wars (1977), he signed up to supervise the effects for Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which required him to refine the motion control photographic process. 

Reluctantly, Trumbull also accepted the 11th-hour commission to produce 650 effects shots for Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, after Robert Abel & Associates had failed the challenge. Trumbull wrote and directed the sequence in which Spock enters V’Ger, but he didn’t enjoy toiling under such pressure; he only agreed to join designer Syd Mead and Lawrence G. Paull on Blade Runner because he was tired of sleek spaceships floating through starscapes. 

He didn’t remain for the duration of Ridley Scott’s production, however, as he needed to prepare his Showscan system to shoot Brainstorm (1983) on 70mm stock at 60 fps. However, MGM got cold feet and Trumbull had to use 35mm for everything but the virtual reality sequences, which employed Super Panavision 70 with a 2.2:1 aspect ratio. The tragic drowning of Natalie Wood further threw the project into chaos and it took two years of legal wrangling before the film was finished.  

Tired of Hollywood, Trumbull relocated to the Massachusetts mountains, where he created the first entertainment simulator ride, Back to the Future…The Ride (1990), for Universal Studios. He followed this with the interactive Secrets of the Luxor Pyramid attraction (1993) for a Las Vegas hotel. Trumbull also put Showscan at the service of giant screen pioneers IMAX for whom he directed such shorts as Leonardo’s Dream (1989).

After three decades away, Trumbull returned to Hollywood to fashion the 22-minute creation sequence for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), which he achieved using fluorescent dyes, paints, flares and milk. His focus next fell on the Magi process that filmed images in 3D 4K at 120 fps. 

Determined to lure audiences back into cinemas with a uniquely immersive experience, he used Magi on the 2014 short, UFOTOG. However, his swan song came with the effects for The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot (2018), which he also executive produced.