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     July, 22th, 2001
Andrew Probert: two Enterprises
and a DeLorean in the résumé

By Salvador Nogueira
Editor of Trek Brasilis

Andrew Probert was not just a designer who happened to work in Star Trek. He was the man responsible for the updating of the original series' Enterprise to the motion picture format and the one associated with the visual creation of the Enterprise-D, in "Star Trek - The Next Generation". After the first season of the series, however, he just left. Now, from his home in Dallas, he tells us why and remembers how it was to work for Star Trek, Disney Imagineering and his current attempt to get aboard for the updated version of the 70s' series "Battlestar Gallactica".

Trek Brasilis - Many people who later became involved in Star Trek were long-time fans of the original show. Were you one of them?

Andrew Probert - Very much so. I loved Star Trek from the very beginning because it was intelligent and did not play down to the audience.

TB - How did you come to first get involved in Star Trek, during the production of "Star Trek - The Motion Picture"?

Probert - I had become friends with Star Wars designer/illustrator Ralph McQuarrie and he had been working on the "Television Movie" of Star Trek when George Lucas asked him to come work on Star Wars II. At that point, he had just begun work on "The Motion Picture" so he recommended that I come apply for his position of concept designer/illustrator. That was at the special effects studio of Robert Abel. I showed them my stuff, they liked it and I was in.

TB - You are known to be the creator of the upgraded version of the Enterprise for the original series movies. Did you talk to Matt Jefferies (the artist who created the original Enterprise) prior to preparing your first drawings?

Probert - No, I never had the privilege of meeting the legendary Matt Jefferies. Being a fan of the series, however, I was very familiar with the show's design philosophies when the Trek Movie of the Week was canceled in order to produce "The Motion Picture". Joe Jennings (the Art Director) had already put together their version of the "upgraded" Enterprise and a model had been loosely put together. We, on the motion picture team, took on the challenge of providing a look that was beyond that scope of television thinking. You see, the image was to be SO much larger that we needed a look to match it, and that's where I came in. My effects art director, Richard Taylor, assigned me the task of designing all the humanoid hardware including the Enterprise. His one stipulation, however, was to stay close to the proportions of the Jennings design. He also wanted to strongly influence the new ship's warp engine design, but beyond that, the ship was pretty much mine. We stayed fairly close to that concept, but we changed most of the details --most of the engines, photon torpedo tubes, the top and bottom of the saucer.

TB - And how did the enlargement of budget and the fact that you had a larger screen to fill affect this work?

Probert - Well, it's just that a larger screen dictated that we needed a larger miniature. I never actually saw it, but from what I understand, it [The Phase II miniature] was about 3 or 4 feet long, probably closer to 3. The Enterprise we built for "The Motion Picture" was about 6 feet long.

TB - It is said the Enterprise you projected was able to separate in two sections, like the Enterprise-D from The Next Generation. And it is also said you suggested how to use this feature at the ending of the movie. What is true about all that?

Probert - Well, knowing that the Enterprise had always been designed in two pieces, the primary and the secondary hull, I wanted to carry that idea all the way through --at least in my design. People may remember an episode of Star Trek, the original Star Trek, called "The Apple", in which there is a machine-god on a planet that is attacking the Enterprise, and Kirk is on the planet, but he orders Scotty, who is in charge of the ship, to do what he needs to save the ship. He says: "Break out of the main hull if you have to, but save the ship" --the main hull, of course, being the saucer. So, when I did the Enterprise for "The Motion Picture", I created a specific separation line on the dorsal, just under the saucer, indicated by two red lines. Additionally, I created space for four landing legs under the saucer.

As The Motion Picture was being filmed, the script was being changed almost daily. So, I found out that there wasn't a real solid ending for the movie, and that inspired me to write a few pages of script, suggesting a dialog where Kirk actually orders to separate the saucer. Starfleet has ordered the Enterprise back to be inspected after the V'Ger incident, and Kirk is unfulfilled in this maiden voyage of the motion picture Enterprise and so he comes up with a plan where he would fly the ship into the dry dock, but then, under the excuse of testing the ship's separation, he'd allow them to keep the engineering hull but he wanted to fly away with the saucer. That was my version.

TB - And why didn't it come to the screen?

Probert - It would have been another model had to be built. At least a model of the saucer. They could have hidden the saucer and showed only engineering hull in dry dock, but they'd need another version of the saucer so that they could put it on the motion-control machinery. They didn't want to afford that. But that trouble was all that were, for the idea of showing the separation in the film they designed was that when V'Ger morphs into a life form, after it joins with Decker and Ilya and releases all of those memory crystals that it has stored --all the things that it had collected, including those Klingon battlecruisers that appeared at the beginning of the movie. And a couple of the crystals would collide with the battlecruisers and they find that they're a mile away from the Enterprise. So they fire on it to disable it so they could get away from Earth space, and by doing that it destroys the engineering hull, so Kirk needs to separate the saucer to go after the Klingons. The trouble was in the saucer, the flying model to engage the Klingons in battle that was just going to be it. So, either way, the saucer, of course, would have to be built as a separate feature.

TB - Paramount is now working on a new version of that film for DVD. Among the new features, we'll have a new cut made by Robert Wise and new special effects by Foundation Imaging. Do you believe the movie will really benefit from these changes? Do you feel "The Motion Picture" needed to be reworked?

Probert - Yes, definitely yes. There were a lot of slow moments of the film, there were a lot of contingencies because of the constant indecision of the writers and the executives. You know, Bob Wise, let's say, Mr. Wise, used to turn out top quality films. I'm sure that Star Trek was not one of his favorite projects when it was finished. I'm guessing this is one way for him to make it better, the way he wanted to.

TB - Were you aware of, involved in, or consulted for this DVD project before it reached the press?

Probert - No, not at all. Later, I got an e-mail from one of their art staff complementing me on all the work that I did, because they had to review all the past work, and I can't help but wonder why, if they liked my work so much, they didn't call me back to carry out one of these arts and finish it.

TB - Having worked on that movie, you must also have some insights about the production problems involving special effects. What could you say about those problems?

Probert - Well, you're asking me to reach back in twenty years, but the biggest problem that comes to mind was one of a complication with Paramount. Harold Michelson, the show's art director [he is credited as Production Designer] is a top-notch art director and professional designer, but he doesn't understand science fiction. I was working over at the Robert Abel and Associates, and they were aware of science fiction requirements (a couple of their people had worked on "2001 - A Space Odyssey", and I had done, by that time, "Battlestar Gallactica", and several of us were very science fiction savvy). When we tried to make proposals to Paramount that would have enhanced the fantasy of Star Trek, that was met with a lot of resistance from the people at Paramount. That because they didn't understand.

For instance, the cargo deck in the Enterprise --where Kirk first comes aboard the ship-- it was obvious matte paintings. Before the matte painting is attempted, there are what is called matte painting renderings. They're drawings, sometimes paintings, that show what the matte shall look like. I was working alongside another illustrator, who was doing his own version of that space, and he had a huge window --I'm talking four decks high-- inside the shift of the cargo. And I was trying to find out his logic, and his logic was, "well, we need to see out of that area, to look out of this bay, to see out." He opened up a window and made the picture bigger. Now, that's very typical Hollywood thinking. No way you'll have a transparent wall window four decks high in the cargo space, that's ludicrous! So, most of production people's requirements agenda is much different than that of someone in the industry sector. That was the only real problem we had. Models came together fairly well. I really don't remember any other thing.

TB - After the work in "The Motion Picture", how did you get involved in The Next Generation?

Probert - Gene Roddenberry made an announcement that he wanted to try it all again. And I heard that announcement and I got very excited and called his office. He had remembered me from "The Motion Picture" --understand, this is 10 years later, but he had remembered me-- and he wanted me to bring my portfolio by to see what I had done in the past ten years. So I came by and showed him my work. The other producers were there, Bob Justman and the other producer. They all looked at my work, and about a week later they all met me and asked me to come work with them, and I ended up being the eleventh person they hired on the show.

The reason they wanted to bring me aboard so early was to start doing concept sketches of the bridge. Their concern was that, because the bridge was going to be the central set, they wanted to make sure they were very happy with it, and they wanted to have plenty of time to make any changes they needed to.

So, I started in doing bridge concepts, but as you can understand, I was also very interested in what the new Enterprise would look like, because this Star Trek, in our planning, was to take place 85 years after "The Motion Picture". So I started, just for my own amusement, to make sketches of the Enterprise at the same time I was doing concepts for the bridge. I had one of these sketches up on my wall, just for myself. David Gerrold, who was also on the project, saw this drawing on my wall and said, "That's the new Enterprise". I said, "I don't know, that's what I would like it would look like". He asked to borrow that, pulled out of the wall and went out of the room. About half an hour later he came back and put it on my desk and said, "That's the new Enterprise". And I asked what he meant by that and he said he took it to a meeting that he was going, showed it to the producers, said "What do you all make of this?", and they all liked. So, that has to be some sort of a record. Some sort of a record for getting into time with the crew.

There were a lot of changes after that meeting, but that's the drawing that showed pretty much the direction I wanted to go. Gene pretty well liked everything that I showed him after that, and when I presented my final design for the Enterprise, I thought that the bridge should be at the center of the saucer, because that would be the most protective part of the saucer, and it was the center of command, so it should be easily reachable from all parts of the saucer. And I had engines that, while they were much larger than the original Enterprise engines (that were more than the Enterprise itself), because this new ship was 2,000 feet long, compared to Enterprise 1701-D, the engines looked small in proportion. So Gene's only two changes in my final design were that I put the bridge back on top of the saucer, because he felt that's where it belonged, but also because its shape and size get people understanding actually how big the ship was, in that basis comparison, and he asked me to make the engines a little bit longer, because he felt that, while they were bigger, they still looked smaller. That was it, everything else in terms of the ship's design went very calmly.

TB - You touched a very interesting point when you said you had to update the new Enterprise 85 years in the future. Now the next Star Trek series will be set 100 years before the original series. From a designer's point of view, how difficult is it to project ship and technology that precedes the original series?

Probert - Well, when the original series came out, probably a lot of people can remember how incredibly revolutionary that design was. It was such a departure from everything we've seen before that it was very exciting. But projecting backwards from there... there have been attempts to come up with ships before Kirk's Enterprise. I think in one point the Enterprise was thought of looking more like a wheel and a very long nose, pointing out away from the center axis. And there's at least one painting of that, a documented reference that there was another Enterprise design. And, of course, they showed how Cochrane's first warp drive ship would look like. It was probably be up to anyone's guess where they should go with it, but Rick Berman is in charge of the show, he'll manipulate it into whatever he thinks it should be.

TB - Are you implying Rick Berman doesn't give the designers a lot of freedom in terms of creation?

Probert - Yes.

TB - Did you have problems with Rick Berman during the first season of The Next Generation?

Probert - Yes.

TB - Could you elaborate?

Probert - Gene Roddenberry was initially in charge of Star Trek The Next Generation, as he well should be, and something happened politically to change that. You know, I had no idea what caused that change. But while Gene was in charge, he and I got along very well. We understood each other. And I liked him because of his creation of Star Trek, and he fully understood exactly where he wanted his show to go. Yet he was fully opened to any ideas that we threw at him, and he would talk about that, and he talked about it intelligently. When Rick Berman took over the show, half way through the first season, every time we showed him a design concept, his constant response was, "no, we can't do that, because it reminds me of something that I've seen somewhere", or "it looks like a shaver", or "it looks like something I've seen in a furniture store".

The only thing of note that Rick Berman did before Star Trek was a show called "The Big Blue Marble", a kid's show. For some reason, Paramount left him into this. I don't know. I've heard conflicted stories that Gene thought he was a great producer and wanted to bring him in. Whatever it is, Rick Berman did not, in that time, and, as far as I can see from what is being produced, does not understand science fiction. I've seen a lot of great concepts, by Doug Drexler and a few of the other illustrators that they have working on the projects, all by the way in favor of much more controlled concepts. My experience with Rick Berman is, you know, he does not understand what he's doing, he does not understand science fiction.

TB - Do you believe his conducting of Star Trek was not able to fulfill the standards of the original series and the early Next Generation episodes?

Probert - No. I think Star Trek died when Gene died. Well, as I said, Gene understood exactly what he wanted for his show, and his main focus was maintaining consistency in the show. And everybody who cared about Star Trek eventually left the show. Bill Theiss, the costumer, left, I left, Bob Justman left. So... I don't know what to say, it was very frustrating working on that.

TB - Do you believe Rick Berman cares about Star Trek?

Probert - I think he cares about it for the money. I think he cares about it because he is confident that, no matter what they produce, if it has the name "Star Trek" on it, people will go watch it. They'll complain about it, but they will still make money from the watchers. But, you know, this is just my opinion.

TB - Turning back to your creations during the first season of The Next Generation, we have a lot of ships, like the Ferengi cruiser and the Romulan Warbird. Do you have a favorite?

Probert - There was a ship, which you would call an alien ship, from "Haven". I think I like that one the most. My favorite ship is still the Enterprise, although a lot like the Romulan ship more. And a surprising majority prefer the motion pictures Enterprise over all of them. My favorite ship is the Enterprise itself, but beyond that, I like the ship from "Haven" for a couple of reasons. One, it was a ship that Gene and I put together. I was stuck on a concept of the ship I wanted to be different. Every ship we've ever seen typically has its power source in the back, engines-like, pushing the ship. I was working on a concept where the engine will be in the front, somehow manipulating and pulling the ship. I went to Gene and I just told him I got this kind of creative block and I really wanted to have something different. I told I thought of having the engines on the front. And Gene said: "Put the engine in the middle". I said, "What do you mean?". "Well, just put your power source in the middle. The ship is built around it and makes it go where it was meant to go." And I came with that design. Power source is as a big energy thing --of course, you don't necessarily have to fully explain how it worked--, and I took from Herman Zimmerman, you know, the production designer, I took his "zap screener", or their "breech", which was basically a triangular shape, and I duplicated that at the front of that ship. I don't know, I was just very pleased with the shape, the concept, it brings me good memories of Gene and me working together.

TB - About the Romulan Warbird, did you have any inspiration from the Romulan ships shown in the original series, or was it all from scratch?

Probert - The Romulan Warbird from the original series had, of course, a bird design on it. And I wanted to stay with that in someway. So, I started with bird and bird wing shapes. And eventually came to a design similar to what is on the screen. But my concept was to have one engine above and one below, because I felt that having a vertical design alien ship in front of the Enterprise, which has a very horizontal configuration, would be a nice contrast of ships. Now, Gene dictated that there are no three-engine starships and no single-engine starships. When I was first designing the new Enterprise he said, "The Federation ship's engines always are co-dependent". It is the same as to say they always worked in twos. So that's why when Sternbach and I came up with the Stargazer, it had two sets of twos.

And then I started thinking that, back in World War II, all the nations that had fighter aircraft and airplanes did the same thing: they took off, they flew, they landed, they maneuvered. They usually had one engine, two wings, two tailwings --so they all had the same components, but they all looked different. There was a national design bias to each aircraft, but technically they all did the same thing. So my thinking in Star Trek was --since the Enterprise used to have two engines --I came up with the idea that the engines had to reach out each other in order to work co-dependently. In other words, there would be no obstructions between the engines to disrupt the energy fields or connecting forces between them. And, well, all the alien ships could look different but still operate in the same principle. So that's why the Ferengi Marauder is curved, is concave, because that allows the two engines to reach each other. And the same thing, the Romulan Warbird, the engines would see each other through the ship. The ship is built above and below the energy field of those engines. But my original concept would be that there was a lot more ship, a lot more structure, packed inside those wings. So it was, look like two big wing sections, obviously big enough to contain people and cargo. But my original concept had that bigger.

TB - You've had the experience of both upgrading and creating a new Enterprise. Which do you think is most difficult?

Probert - Upgrading. My educational background is industrial design. We're taught to generate new ideas, and therefore to come up with a new concept, rather than take something and sort of turn it toward an upgraded version. And Gene always maintained that the Enterprise was a character in the show, so it has to basically look, or at least feel, the same way. So, much like an old model T4 and a brand new Ferrari have the same components, they obviously look very different, that was where I was taking the Enterprise. I was maintaining the same components --the saucer, the engineering hull, the pylons holding the two engine nacelles-- and that maintained Gene's idea of keeping the same carrier ship when the picture starts, visually.

TB - Do you believe this concept of creating ships is now perverted in Star Trek? Because we have different ships with three nacelles, four nacelles...

Probert - Yes. And it is a bad thing because it deludes the consistency that Gene was trying to maintain. I'd say that most of the concepts that Gene dictated were purposely dropped when Gene died. And that goes with the three-engine Enterprise [seen in "All Good Things..."]. The idea of having this huge cannon under the saucer is totally against Gene's thinking of what the Enterprise represented. The Enterprise, yes, does have a lot of weapons, but having a huge cannon like a battleship or a warship...

TB - With CGI [computer generated imagery] you can do everything you want, either if the model can be built or put into a state of balance or not. Do you believe this somehow distracts the designers from the realistic sensation of projecting ships, the fact they are building something that should be an actual ship?

Probert - That's very possible. I haven't actually thought of that but everything I've designed, because of my industrial design education, has been designed as if it were a real project. You know, when they came up with the idea (again, this is Hollywood, Gene wouldn't have a starship landing) of have Voyager landing on a planet, and that was so out of balance, and you had those tiny little sticks for landing with that incredible huge bow. That was ridiculous.

TB - Do you think CGI participates in that effect? Because if they construct a model and put it over a surface and discover the model doesn't stand, they can realize that was not a good idea.

Probert - Well, they should be, but the producers don't follow logic. But I don't think CGI is the problem. I think people don't understand hardware designs, and science-fiction logic. CGI is just a way of presenting visuals, and I don't think that computer graphics are yet capable of replacing miniatures. They may well be, but right now probably CGI is "too perfect" and therefore lack a real quality to it.

TB - When designing a ship, do you generally look more at the technical aspects of it or the overall look of the vessel?

Probert - The first thing I like to come up with is a pleasing shape. Then, I look at it with a technical eye to determine how practical the initial shape might be, and if there are some little red flags going on. Then I change the shape to accommodate those technical requirements. But I still try to keep the pleasing visual.

TB - And are there times those technical aspects simply tear apart the original concept, because they can't work both in the same project? Or is there always a way to accommodate things?

Probert - Well, for me there is always a way to accommodate things. Because we always have to remember we're designing a science-fiction spaceship that represents a vehicle of the future, and one must always assume there will be technological breakthroughs that will have occurred, allowing certain technologies to work. If somebody had thought of having a steel airplane that would fly, back when the Wright brothers flew, they would think that this was fic scene, especially a plane the size of a 747 or a Concord. They would not even imagine something like that getting off the ground, because their small engines would never have the power to get lift for a 47. So, there are times when practical technology or technology based on today's understanding of power sources needs to be sort of replaced. As long as it is based in logic, consistent logic, it works.

TB - After the first season of The Next Generation you left Paramount and went to Disney. What works did you do at Disney? Were you happy with this decision?

Probert - At the time I was happy with it, because I was very tired of Hollywood politics and I did have a lot of success designing hardware and various objects for motion pictures, so I wanted to try my hand designing for the real world. I'm not talking about real world toasters, or hand mixers, but I'm talking about the real world entertainment on a scale of Disney's.

Walt Disney has been a hero of mine, and every time I visited Disneyland, I was fascinated by the processes behind the design in all of those attractions. A couple of classmates of mine, who coursed college design when I went to school, were at Disney. And when I left Paramount I called one of them to ask about the opportunities as a Walt Disney Imagineer. Imagineers, of course, were the designers of the rides from the parks. And he encouraged me to come by and show my portfolio.

Working there was a fairly good experience. It wasn't great, because there was frustration in not having any credibility. And it seemed to me that after having designed for ten years in Hollywood, and being recognized throughout the world, I shouldn't have to start from scratch as an Imagineer. Of course, they had a lot of brilliant people working there, creating these rides. And they were looking at me, they talked 'you've not created any rides', and therefore I needed to work my way through as if I was a kid out of high school. So, there was frustration on my part. But, generally, the atmosphere was very creative and everybody there is a great artist. You don't have mediocre people working there, they were all great talents, so to be in that atmosphere was a thrill.

TB - What was the specific project you enjoyed the most when you were in Disney?

Probert - I was there for only four years. Disney was hiring a lot of people to work on large projects. The project starts to begin completion, they start to leave people along. So, a lot of what I've worked on was Euro Disneyworld, the Discovery Land projects. I also worked on the water park that Disney proposed for the city of Long Beach, which is close to Los Angeles. There were some Tomorrow Land upgrades in the Disneyland park.

TB - Euro Disney is not as successful as DisneyWorld in the USA. Why do you think this happened?

Probert - I would love to fully understand why that park is not a successful one. I thought it would be. It is the most thoroughly thought out and designed park that Disney has ever done. Any special considerations were in that park's construction. Any lessons that were learned by other parks were put into place in Eurodisney. For instance, Main Street has always been crowded with parades. Eurodisney has long way behind the stores so that you can get out from the other side of the store and avoid the crowds. So, I was very optimistic about its success. I was surprised to hear that had not done well, and I think that there is, well, a mysterious misunderstanding of Europeans to the amusement park that Disney conceived.

TB - Tell me a little about what you're doing now. Are there any projects going on?

Probert - Currently I'm in contact with the producers of the new Battlestar Gallactica. There was an announcement to bring back the show Battlestar Gallactica. So, I've been in contact with the show's producers and director about a possible work on that show, updating the visual.

TB - But there's no deal yet, is there?

Probert - There's no deal yet. The last I heard they were talking to networks to sell the show and they said they would get back to me, but I don't know.

TB - Is there anything you created, either for Star Trek or for other projects, that you would improve now if you had the chance?

Probert - Very good question... If I could have done something better, what would be? (Some seconds in silence) I can't think of anything. Probably, that Warbird, I'd like it to have better proportions, but the fans like the way it is, so I can't argue with that.

TB - Do you usually participate in Star Trek conventions?

Probert - I used to go to conventions all the time, I had a two-hour slide show. But I normally don't go to conventions as a Star Trek designer anymore because I don't want the people to believe I am trying to get attention by doing that. I just have this concern that people will look at me and say, "Gee, it is over ten years since he worked in The Next Generation and he is still doing conventions." Unfortunately I don't have any project that is happening in my life currently that is as creative. If they pick me up to do the new "Battlestar", then I'd love to go to conventions and talk about the new "Battlestar Gallactica", because it is an ongoing current project, and that will be great. Now, you know, I still get invitations to go to conventions, but I usually make a stipulation that I'd love to go if I was just there as a designer that just happened to do Star Trek, "Battlestar Gallactica", "Back to the Future" and other projects.

TB - Oh, you were in "Back to the Future"?

Probert - Yes.

TB - It is sure a great movie. What did you project for it?

Probert - I did the final design for the car, I did the show's logotype, I did the comic book cover. I did a lot of storyboards...

TB - Do you believe there is hope for a "Back to the Future 4"?

Probert - I don't know. I was amazed there was a 2 and 3. And they did it so well. Usually a sequel is not as good as the first one, but all the "Back to the Future" are very good.

TB - Do you know Brazil?

Probert - Well, I do know Brazil. I went to the city of Brasilia, in Brazil, and I was very impressed. And my aunt just recently visited Brazil, but I cannot remember the city she was in, it was a small city but... ah... beyond that I know very little of your country. It is a country that I would like to visit sometime.

TB - Perhaps you could come to talk about "Battlestar Gallactica".

Probert - (laughing) Yes, I would love to have that opportunity.

TB - Thank you very much for this interview, Andy.

Probert - Thank you. It was a pleasure talking to you.

Mr. Probert's homepage is:
http://members.tripod.com/~DesignR/index.html

 

Interview made in May 4, 2001.