If you were to survey sci-fi geeks for a list of their favourite movies, there’s a fairly good chance that somewhere near the top of that list you’d find Bladerunner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. So it’s easy to understand the legendary status of Douglas Trumbull within sci-fi geekdom, given he helped design the visual effects on all three of those seminal films.
When Jacques Vallee ran a crowd-funding campaign last year to create a collector’s edition of Wonders in the Sky, his book with Chris Aubeck about historical sightings of UFOs, I was surprised to learn that Trumbull was one of the backers of the project. As it turns out though, Trumbull has been interested in the UFO phenomenon for some time now (in retrospect, it’s probably not that surprising, given two of the three films above are specifically about humans making contact with an alien intelligence).
In a video interview posted by Open Minds (embedded below), Trumbull describes his interest in ‘scientific ufology’, and how he thinks he could help the effort with his own skills and network, by designing a ‘UFO capture’ system he calls UFOTOG:
When I started making inroads into MUFON and the UFO community, I found that there were a number of very highly-placed and credible people, like Jacques Vallee, like air-traffic controllers, like doctors, like scientists, who took the whole thing very seriously – mixed in with a lot of people who were into auras, and spirituality, and other kinds of things that were more hearsay than science. And I didn’t like that part of it, I’ve never liked the hearsay part of it, I didn’t like people telling their stories, even though many of them are tremendously compelling and heartbreaking – abduction stories in particular. I said well, you can’t prove any of that, there’s no evidence, there’s nothing to do.
I started asking those people, has anybody ever mounted a scientific endeavour, a privately funded scientific endeavour, to quantify what a UFO is made up of, and how fast does it go, and how high does it fly, and where does it come from, and is it changing state from plasma energy to aluminum or whatever? And the answer was no, no-one had ever done that. And I said, well, I’m going to make that my mission, because that sounds like fun to me, ’cause I’m a geek.
So that was the beginning of UFOTOG, to try and spend at least some part of my hobby time going down that path, like an amateur astronomer.
UFOTOG – the name is a contraction of ‘UFO photography’ – is a UFO video tracking and capture system that came about when Trumbull considered how his own skill-set could best be put to use in seeking answers to the UFO mystery: “I had access to these high-end cameras, access to engineers who build motion-control systems that we use for movies that could be adapted to tracking systems and things like that.”
Interestingly, even with his legendary status, Trumbull soon discovered how heretical the idea of scientifically researching the UFO phenomenon can be. “That’s when I started finding out that talking about science fiction is fine,” he notes, while “talking about actually capturing UFOs is not fine…it’s actually antagonistically greeted.” Trumbull even tried pitching the idea to ‘reality TV’ producers, but “couldn’t get any traction at all…and I’ve got a really good resume.”
In the video, Trumbull also discusses his work on 2001, why he turned down Star Wars but worked on Close Encounters, and how he created a science fiction movie about UFOs as a cover for his effort to photograph UFOs – even designing the story “so that if we actually got real photography, we could put that into the movie and suddenly the movie would become non-fiction”.