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two passions collide

December 14, 2010

This week, I was fortunate enough to see Douglas Trumbull give a keynote presentation and Q&A session on the film Blade Runner, which (among many other sci-fi classics) he contributed to as a visual effects supervisor. These days, he directs films of his own, and his tales of woe and triumph inside and outside of the Hollywood studio machine were inspiring, to say the least. He is and forever will be a cult hero for his ingenious, indelible contributions to American cinema.

Among numerous fascinating anecdotes about his 45 years in the business of movie magic-making, Trumbull revealed a piece of trivia that was highly illuminating and heretofore unknown to me. The stunning fireball effects that grace the “Hades landscape” in the film’s memorable opening sequence were actually scavenged leftovers from a previous project. It seems that Trumbull was hired to create an explosive, apocalyptic climax for Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 counterculture film Zabriskie Point, and to this end went into the high desert and shot footage of enormous cauldrons filled with numerous incendiary concoctions set alight and spewing flames into the sky. Trumbull’s team then went about superimposing these pyrotechnical pieces on top of ordinary footage of Los Angeles viewed from Griffith Observatory at night. According to Trumbull, the resulting “carpet-bombing” visual effect was one that Antonioni did not understand or appreciate, having never previously worked with special effects of this kind. The Italian director fired Trumbull, who filed the unused idea away for later use in Blade Runner.

Apparently, this method of re-using old footage and set pieces from other films was a common one for Trumbull, particularly during the production of Blade Runner, where the budget afforded to all departments was relatively limited. I asked Trumbull if, when working on the film, he had any inkling that what he was creating would become so iconic to generations of future film-makers, or if he just took the brief as it came and got on with the work. He replied that no one had the luxury to ponder what broader cultural impact, if any, this work might have thirty years hence. He reported being very pleased with certain effects in the film (particularly the stunning shots of an overhead video blimp), and disappointed that it was initially met with indifference at the box office.

I’ve never watched Zabriskie Point (though I have heard that it did not age as well as Blade Runner has), I’m only aware of it because I happen to be an enormous fan of Pink Floyd, and Antonioni hired the band to produce a suitable score for his movie. Try as they might, the Floyd were never able to produce results that pleased Antonioni. Again, lacking experience with rock musicians, the perfectionist director was never wholly satisfied with the Floyd’s varying approaches to the soundtrack. It turns out, according to Roger Waters, that all he really wanted was to use their existing piece “Careful with that Axe, Eugene” for the explosive climax that had equally eluded Trumbull’s efforts.

One of my other favourite bands, Nine Inch Nails, also re-used the Hades landscape (or an approximation thereof) on their epic Lights in the Sky tour. The finale of each show occurred during the song “In This Twilight”, using a polluted urban landscape very similar to that of Blade Runner but re-rendered digitally. In a perhaps more fulfilling conclusion to this piece, the enigmatic titular trinity of lights in the sky appeared above this doomed city, engulfing it in their white light before abruptly thrusting the whole stage into darkness. Other resonances with Blade Runner crop up in one of my favourite films, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, to which Trumbull also contributed special effects, and where HAL9000’s story of a machine that develops human emotions parallels the plight of the Replicants in Blade Runner. Wikipedia also informs me that Harrison Ford, star of Blade Runner, has an uncredited early role in Zabriskie Point as one of the incarcerated student demonstrators.

Sometimes, worlds collide in unexpected ways.

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