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November 28, 2018

Out of the Blue

With History’s Project Blue Book, a director follows a family tradition of UFO exploration.

Robin Roberts
  • Robert Stromberg

When Robert Stromberg was a child in San Diego, his father told him about a strange light he'd seen in the sky as a teenager.

"He told it in such detail, and I was so fascinated, that I've never looked at the sky the same way since," Stromberg says.

That close encounter inspired his dad, William R. Stromberg, to focus on the supernatural and eventually write, direct and produce the low-budget 1977 feature The Crater Lake Monster. "He built monsters in our garage," says Stromberg, who grew up watching his dad create those creatures. "He taught me how to be curious and to look at the world in a slightly skewed way."

Stromberg channeled that skewed view into visual effects, working in the field for 20 years while expanding into other disciplines. He was a production designer on such films as Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, for which he won back-to-back Oscars. He's won four Emmys for visual effects: one for UPN's Star Trek: Voyager, another for HBO's John Adams and two for Boardwalk Empire.

Stromberg made his directorial debut on Maleficent in 2014, then returned to production design (The BFG) and visual effects work on, among others, HBO's Game of Thrones. He also co-founded The Virtual Reality Company, a studio for VR experiences; with $23 million of Chinese money and Samsung as a client, it lists Steven Spielberg as an advisor.

Now the mysteries of the night sky have drawn Stromberg to direct the first two episodes of Project Blue Book, a 10-part series executive-produced by Robert Zemeckis and expected on History January 8.

It chronicles the U.S. Air Force's top-secret investigations into UFO phenomena in the 1950s and '60s. Astrophysicist Josef Allen Hynek led the studies, known as "Project Blue Book." Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones, The Wire) plays Hynek, who researched more than 12,000 cases — many of which were never solved.

"There was a percentage that baffled even Dr. Hynek," Stromberg says."And there are still things happening today, and ongoing investigations, that nobody can explain." He admits to seeing unidentified objects in the night sky, but unlike his dad, he won't describe them.

The detective-like approach of Project Blue Book sets it apart from other alien-invasion stories, Stromberg says.

"The world we're creating is really interesting visually, and will have its own fingerprint that will make it great to look at. But the underlying tone is this mystery, and what people do to try and get to the heart of what's really happening. It's the unraveling facts of these true cases that will resonate with audiences."

His visual wizardry will be on display, of course, but Stromberg promises the series won't be fantastical. "We're not trying to use visual effects as a means to get people's attention. We're trying to make everything feel real, not an over-the-top fantasy world."

Yet it's that alternate reality he glimpsed through his father's eyes that keeps him intrigued about whatever is out there behind the mysterious lights, wondering if we'll ever know the truth.

That's okay, Stromberg says. "I've always been fascinated not by what's happening, but by what's going to happen."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 11, 2018

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