We Blew It? Douglas Trumbull’s ‘Silent Running’ Took the Counter-Culture Legacy of ‘Easy Rider’ As a Paean to the Planet

‘Silent Running’ illustration by Olly Moss

 
By Tim Pelan

On this first day of a new century we humbly beg forgiveness and dedicate these last forests of our once beautiful nation to the hope that they will one day return and grace our foul earth. Until that day may God bless these gardens and the brave men who care for them. —Mission Controller Anderson

After the success of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider head/road trip movie in 1972, Universal Studios executive Ned Tanen was keen to capitalize on the counter-culture demographic, and so gave five directors a shot to make a full-length feature on one million dollars, with little to no studio interference, and final cut. The fruits of the experiment were Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971), Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand (1971), Milos Forman’s Taking Off (1971), and George Lucas’ breakthrough artistic and financial success of the bunch, American Graffiti (1973). Within this grouping a young SFX pioneer and aspiring film-maker grabbed his chance. Douglas Trumbull, after a fruitful collaboration with director Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey, was 29 when he chose to write and direct another science fiction film. Only rather than a grandiose meditation on “life, the universe and everything,” to paraphrase The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Silent Running is a more heartfelt parable on man’s destructive and problematic relationship with the natural resources of Mother Earth, which has survived in the hearts and minds of many who have seen it as a cult favorite, and one of several templates for Duncan Jones’ own cult hit, Moon (2009). “We’ve allowed ourselves to be convinced that SF should be frivolous, for teenage boys,” Jones said in the press kit at the time of Moon‘s release. “We’re told that the old films, the Outlands and Silent Runnings, were too plaintive, too whiney. I think that’s ridiculous.” In Silent Running, Bruce Dern as space botanist Freeman Lowell, together with his robotic drones, disobeys destruction orders and hides out, in “silent running” mode on the spaceship Valley Forge with the last remaining forest, maintained in a geodesic-dome. The opening close-up of a snail crawling along a plant’s leaf to the lyrical, flower-powered scoring of Peter Schickele could be seen as a meta-commentary on the grand, portentous opening of 2001—Thus crept Helix Aspersa.

2001: A Space Odyssey may be over 50 years old but Douglas Trumbull helped lay the groundwork with his “slit-scan” method for the computerized special effects methods of today. Trumbull started off on the project as an illustrator but ended up helping devise many of the complex photographic systems which the film needed. The “beyond the infinite” tunnel of light that the Bowman character travels through at the climax was largely his own work. An incredibly time consuming and complex procedure yet using simple methods, the end result was a spectacular kaleidoscopic display that led to MGM marketing the film as “the ultimate trip” on its second release. However, Kubrick receiving the Oscar for best visual effects was a touchy subject. As an enormously collaborative effort, Trumbull felt the effects were directed by Kubrick, not designed by him. Unfortunately, due to the press simplifying matters by crediting Trumbull as the sole effects creator (he, Wally Veevers, Con Pederson and Tom Howard each got a single credit as Special Photographic Effects Supervisor), Kubrick felt he was taking all the credit and they never really spoke again. Trumbull and David Larson’s sadly canceled planned documentary, 2001: Beyond the Infinite from a few years ago was perhaps partly his way of trying to set the record straight with the Kubrick estate by telling the whole story of how that momentous project came to fruition. It would have used innovative green screen to film interviewees as if on the actual sets and locations, Douglas Trumbull once again displaying what a ground-breaking talent he remains, and why he thoroughly deserved his lifetime achievement Oscar. After 2001, Trumbull endeavored to work for himself from thereon. Silent Running would be both a steep learning curve and his signature work, the canny Trumbull even reusing and completing cast aside footage for 2001 that he couldn’t get to work at the time.

Written by Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino (he of later Heaven’s Gate and Year of the Dragon infamy), and Steven Bochco (later creator of TV pioneering cop dramas Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue), Silent Running went through a couple of revisions before the story we are familiar with. Trumbull originally envisioned a first contact scenario. He told critic and Silent Running devotee Mark Kermode for his BFI Film Classics edition on the film:

“Having come off 2001, and working with Kubrick—being involved with some very heady thinking about the possibility of man ultimately facing contact with some extra-terrestrial civilization—that was the original impetus of Silent Running.”

 
It’s quite likely that the title “Silent Running” was a cool sounding holdover from this original concept, where according to Trumbull in Fantastic Films magazine in 1978, Lowell has the Drones help him “tear out all the communications equipment, throw it out into space, paint the whole ship totally black so no one can see it jet off. He’s constantly threatened by the fact that he could be pursued, that the authorities will be out looking for him. He’s a space pirate, and he’s having the time of his life.” In Italy, Silent Running was marketed and retitled as 2002: The Second Odyssey on their film posters. Logical, given the genesis of Trumbull’s endeavor. The Drones could see the aliens in this original treatment whereas Lowell could not. “The point was that aliens could relate to the Drones much more effectively, without having to go through a lot of human hysteria.”

“Human hysteria,” or perhaps more accurately, passionate wildlife conservatism overriding cost cutting destruction orders, is at the heart of the final script. The surviving remnants of the Earth’s flora and some fauna have been sent into deep space within transparent geodesic domes ferried aboard massive commercial space freighters in the vicinity of the ringed planet Saturn, to ensure their continued existence. These biomes are cared for by a small crew of mostly bored trained personnel and Drones until the day they can be brought back home to repopulate and cleanse a planet scarified by humankind’s short-sighted environmental indifference.

Freeman Lowell, his fellow crew members, and their three Drones, tend the forests carried by the spaceship Valley Forge. Only Lowell seems to give a damn about what they are doing, and believes that after eight years in space, the recall order is imminent, with his appointment as the next Parks and Forests Director a given. Whilst it is implausible that life on Earth could survive without oxygen generating plants and sustainable crops, the script is aiming for an emotional connection. As his crewmates dismiss his eating of the foodstuffs he cultivates “from the dirt,” preferring their own synthetic food and longing to return to what to Lowell feels is a bland, sterile slow death of the soul on a depleted, homogenized Earth, he snaps:

“That’s right. Every time we have the argument you say the same thing to me, you give me the same three answers all the time. The same thing… ‘well everybody has a job.’ That’s always the last one. But you know what else there is no more of, my friend? There is no more beauty, and there is no more imagination, and there are no frontiers left to conquer, and you know why? Only one reason why! One reason why! The same attitude that you three guys are giving me right here in this room today. And that is—nobody cares.”

 
Lowell’s passionate defense of the spirit of imagination, exploration and artistic expression is just as pertinent today, with short-sighted politicians and business leaders’ dismissal of anything that in their eyes doesn’t put a buck in their back pockets. Lowell, however, becomes so fixated on his dream of seeing plants restored to Earth he faces down and murders his crew members, stealing the ship and its final remaining dome in order to preserve it. Just to press home the callous indifference and short-sightedness of the nuclear destruct order to blow up the domes, as Lowell’s gung-ho American Airlines crewmates arm one nuke with a cheery, “Locked and ready to go,” a cute bunny pops its head up and sniffs the air. These guys were the original bunny boilers.

As Trumbull and his writers were coalescing the film’s themes, the nascent environmental lobby was getting going, with 1970 seeing both the very first Environmental Rights Day and Earth Day being held. People were gradually coming to the realization that something needed to be done about decades-long pollution, resource depletion, overpopulation, nuclear proliferation and other man-made hazards to the planet. By embracing the theme of environmental salvation, Silent Running came to be seen as a banner film for the socially conscious class of science fiction. The environmentally aware were also buoyed up by the dramatic images of the Earth, a fragile, blue and white marble in the blackness of space, as captured by the Apollo astronauts from the moon (in the early 1960s Trumbull worked at Graphic Films, contracted to NASA, where he found himself doing pre-visualisation work on lunar landers and vertical assembly buildings for the Apollo program).

“I had never directed a live-action film before in my life,” Trumbull told Mark Kermode. “I really didn’t know anything about screen direction, about master shots, two shots, that sort of thing… But Chuck Wheeler, who was such a great cinematographer, was incredibly helpful to me, as was Harry Sundby, who was the lighting gaffer. They basically trained me how to shoot… I mean, this was really my film school, and they were wonderful with me.”

Star Wars is credited with the term “used universe” but Trumbull was also determined to have a worked in, “funky” feel to his spaceship, as opposed to the pristine interiors of 2001‘s Discovery. He needed a method of realizing what he was after whilst keeping costs down (the budget was given a small overspend, settling at $1,350,00). He found the solution by seeking out a mothballed ship he could reconfigure, eventually settling on the decommissioned Navy Essex–class aircraft carrier USS Valley Forge, moored at the naval base at Long Island. The ship, which had served in the Korean and Vietnam wars, now lent its name to Lowell’s craft. The real Valley Forge had its own illustrious scientific research record—in 1960 it was part of Operation Skyhook, whereby three giant balloons were launched from the ship’s deck high into Earth’s stratosphere carrying instruments to measure and record cosmic ray emissions. Later that same year, Valley Forge served as the primary recovery vessel for the Mercury-Redstone 1A unmanned spacecraft. This successful test mission for Project Mercury helped lead the way to the first American astronauts launching into space.

 
Wayne Smith, credited for “Special Designs” on the film, writing in 1972:

“Our budget did not allow for extensive set construction. Instead, various ways were explored and devised to cut costs, including the extensive use of an aircraft carrier, an aeroplane hangar (for the forests), and special front projection equipment. Also, new inventive photographic effects were utilized in the effects photography… The script called for miles of passageways, a kitchen, a surgery, main, and auxiliary controls, recreation room, and crew’s quarters, plus the necessary production areas. With a minimum of change, the ship would provide the look we were after.”

Trumbull and Wheeler had to think creatively to light the cramped interiors (all the power and plumbing had been stripped out of the ship). They found that coming down from above deck it took several minutes to adjust to the low light level. An entire wall of fluorescent tubes to throw a diffuse light around the set was one method. Wheeler shot mostly with the aperture wide open to compensate for shadow. “The set was pre-lit as much as possible and all cables and plugs were lace throughout the overhead areas. No effort was made to hide lights or wires but only to blend them in with the ship’s fittings.”

Dern enjoyed the experience. “Given that we were playing astronauts aboard a huge space freighter, you really couldn’t have hoped for a better location. We all felt pretty small aboard that ship, which is how I imagine Douglas wanted us to feel.”

Styrene thermoplastic vacuum-formed shapes of a repeatable nature were used extensively throughout the sets, memorably as the tetrahedron cargo containers Lowell’s jaded crewmates race around in their ATVs, open bodied beach buggy-like transports that could perform spins, wheelies and jumps off ramps, powered by a five horsepower gas engine and maneuvered with motorcycle handlebars on either side. The plastics were supplied free of charge by Dow Chemical, who, after public outcry, had by now become the sole producer and supplier of Napalm B and Agent Orange to the American Airforce in their “strategic defoliation” efforts in Vietnam. Dow were persuaded by Trumbull to give assistance as a good PR move.

 
The exterior of the spaceship model was twenty-five feet long. Smith and Trumbull wanted it to be “modular in construction, open, and to incorporate six geodesic domes for housing the ecological systems or gardens. It needed a vast amount of detail to be believable, yet unlike any preconception people might have.” They were inspired by a trip to EXPO ’70 in Osaka, Japan. The Theme building, over 300 feet tall and designed by architect Kiyonori Kikutake (1928–2011), was just what they were looking for—a modular geodesic structure which “suggested the feeling of openness and had the structural beauty we were looking for. We could envision it as a full-sized space freighter.” Hundreds of Japanese model kits of German WWII tanks were cannibalized for interesting surface texture shapes. John Dykstra, famous for his Dykstraflex camera invention on Star Wars, photographed the ship using front projection. Richard Yuricich, who later worked on Blade Runner, was in charge of animation, “taking these cut-out photographs of stars and spaceships and domes, and shooting them on the animation stand.”

The model domes were two feet in diameter, made of blow-molded acrylic plastic. Three layers of fine copper wire were laced via holes throughout the clear dome to create the framework pattern. Shots of the domes being ejected from the ship were inspired by real-life space travel. Finely ground plastic debris was blown from the model with forced air at 96fps to simulate the exploding mechanical bolts in the separations of the Apollo rockets.

Trumbull must have been extremely pleased to have solved the problem of creating the rings of Saturn, a problem which stumped him on 2001 and led to Kubrick settling on Jupiter as the destination for the Discovery. Trumbull returned to the task with relish. As Valley Forge, its other crew members now dead in a “tragic accident,” hastens towards the dark side of the planet, faking an accident and outside of radio contact, the craft “shoots the rapids” and strikes the outer edges of Saturn’s rings. Poor Drone 1 (Louie, as we will see Lowell has been humanizing it and its cohorts) gets its foot stuck on the latticework of the outer hull and is torn into the maelstrom, whilst Drones 1 and 2 safely make it back inside.

The Valley Forge approaching the ringed planet was shot using front projection, superimposed in-camera onto a large projection plate of an image using a large spinning disc. “If you rotated it around while the shutter was open, it created a ring,” Trumbull recalled. “It was just a simple spinning gizmo.” As the ship passed through the rings, Trumbull again employed his slit-scan technique for the Star Gate sequence from 2001. The light storm was blended with the model miniatures using rear-projection, and shot using hand-held camera for the violent movement through the ring formation (in actuality the average ring element is about three feet across, with elements varying in scale from mere dust particles to boulders the size of a house and larger. NASA therefore had the Cassini Saturn orbiter probe approach with its large fixed dish antenna acting as a shield when the robot explorer first encountered the planet in 2004).

 
It’s around this point that Lowell, aware of the magnitude of what he has done and the lonely, guilty future he has committed himself to, begins to humanize the Drones, reprogramming them and talking to them as if they were living companions. The Drones are the secret, beating heart of Silent Running, in no small part achieved by the talented performers within. Trumbull said “part of Silent Running is the relationship between Bruce Dern and his drones. It’s not 2001—machinery isn’t malevolent. They’re simply tools. Look, here you have this guy who’s a murderer. He’s alone on a vessel that’s as isolated from the rest of the population as possible. He’s beginning to crack, to feel his conscience. So he creates companions by reprogramming the drones.”

Wayne Smith recalled, “Six months went into the research, design and construction of the three drones. We wanted them to be machine-like in appearance, but not formidable; therefore, it was important that they be small in stature, less than three feet high.” When he was in London filming 2001, Trumbull saw the film Freaks, which, amongst other “strange” sights, featured amputees. He was struck by “this remarkable, beautiful guy, with this amazing agility, leaping and running on his hands through the room, jumping on chairs, etc. And not once did you feel horrified. You’re amazed and respectful at his adjustment. That impression stayed with me when it came time to cast the drones. I knew what I wanted.”

Once initial successful tests were carried out to ensure a bilateral amputee could walk on his hands with a prototype suit on, the hunt began for suitable performers. Two Vietnam veterans, Leland McLemore, and George McCart, acted as “drone consultants” in the manufacture and wearing of the suits. The four actors were:

drone #1 Dewey (grey): Mark Persons

drone #2 Huey (orange): Steve Brown and Cheryl Sparks

drone #3 Louie (blue): Larry Whisenhunt

 
The actors found the drone suits comfortable but awkward when walking. They were made from ABS plastic, vacuum-formed in pieces and assembled together, weighing 20 lbs, including the manipulator arm, which could be removed when the camera wasn’t rolling. A difficulty for the actors in making themselves heard led to an improvisation in the film. At one point Bruce Dern enters the rec room and the drone facing him taps the other drone facing away on the “shoulder,” then he also turns around. The performers loved working on the film. At that time amputees weren’t exactly given many opportunities. Cheryl Sparks, however, was already a sports fanatic, proficient in many outdoor pursuits, such as horse riding, swimming, surfing, water skiing—nothing held her back. Mark Persons went on to join the Screen Actors Guild.

The crew were determined to make the drones totally non-anthropomorphic: “No faces, no eyes, nothing that is glaring out.” Their emerging personalities came solely from the performances within. The small four square pink light is possibly a drones “eye”—during the poker scenes with Dern, Huey looks at his hand of cards and the lights blink on and off. Other little indicators are a footpad absently tapping, or a drone leaning in as Lowell works on Huey, his manipulator arm hopelessly fluttering as Lowell tries to repair the damage he caused when he drove into him. The manipulator arm was designed by Don Trumbull, the director’s engineer-designer father. It was a small, pneumatically and radio-controlled aluminum device that gave the drones the dexterity to weed, play cards, weld and perform surgery. For the scene where a drone operates on Lowell’s busted leg, a dummy leg was created. Douglas Trumbull operated the armature himself, with a small circular saw that cut away the bloodied material.

Universal later tried unsuccessfully to sue Twentieth Century Fox, claiming R2D2 was an infringement of their design (George Lucas admitted they were an inspiration), but Judge Irving Hill threw the case out before trial, stating “no one has a monopoly on the use of robots in art.” The last poignant image of Silent Running shows Dewey, now sole custodian of the final forest, watering a plant from a dented, flower stenciled watering can, tending the plants until the day short-sighted bureaucrats call them back and Mother Earth can nourish her bounty once again.

Written by Tim Pelan. Tim was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »

 
I couldn’t actually tell you when I decided to sit down and write my little treatment for ‘Silent Running.’ And I can’t say that even when I wrote that treatment, which was about four pages long, just a general outline of a movie, that I intended to direct it. It was just an idea. Ideas are cheap, a dime a dozen, throw something out there and see if it sticks. I’m sure someone thought “Who could direct this movie? Who could write the screenplay?,” and it just kind of came back my way, saying “Well, maybe he knows how to do,” it because it was filled with special effects. So, I became a director by default, out of the movie’s requirement to be visionary and have all these visual effects that no one in Hollywood knew how to do. It was the weirdest thing because I never went to film school, I never studied cinema, I didn’t know cinematic history or anything, and suddenly, in a very short period of time, I’m on this aircraft carrier with these robots and Bruce Dern trying to figure it out and having all these guys around me to help. —Douglas Trumbull

Screenwriter must-read: Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino & Steven Bochco’s screenplay for Silent Running [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
Interview with Douglas Trumbull by Castle of Frankenstein magazine (Issue #19).

 
An in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the making of Silent Running, the science fiction film about a lone orbital greenhouse worker ordered to destroy the plants he’s worked on for so long. The documentary includes interviews with the film’s cast and crew, who share their experiences of working on the set and discuss the efforts that went into bringing the project to completion.

 
Legendary filmmaker and Academy Award®-winning special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull joined post-secondary students and faculty for a Higher Learning Master Class. Trumbull provided an in-depth look at his career and the role visual effects have played in the history of cinema. For his substantial technological contributions to the industry, which include having designed the groundbreaking special effects for such science fiction films as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Blade Runner (1982), Trumbull was awarded the Gordon E. Sawyer award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2012. During the discussion, Trumbull revealed firsthand accounts of working with director Stanley Kubrick and conceptualizing special effects which are today considered the defining breakthrough of the medium. Trumbull also granted the Higher Learning audience rare, behind-the-scenes glimpses into his own directorial projects, Silent Running (1972) and Brainstorm (1983). Other topics included: the history of widescreen cinema—from Cinerama to today’s IMAX, Trumbull’s work with motion-simulation rides, and the current state of digital special effects and Trumbull’s own involvement with these innovations. This Higher Learning event was held on December 9, 2010 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

 
Edgar Wright on Silent Running.

 
Visual effects guru and a man who has designed the template for Vfx in films, Douglas Trumbull is a true genius. Known for his ground breaking work on Kubrick’s epic future forward film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Trumbull is a fascinating man to listen to and certainly holds court when he speaks about his craft. The SOC presented a Technical achievement award in 2009 for Trumbull’s development of the Slit Scan process of motion picture cinematography.

 
Tribute to one of the most influential, ingenious special effects gurus of our time: Douglas Trumbull.

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running © Universal Pictures, Trumbull/Gruskoff Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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