Giant leaps have been made in the field of visual effects since the days of the original Star Trek
, but it may be surprising to learn that some effects are still best accomplished the old-fashioned way.
A panel of 14 special effects artists representing all four Star Trek TV series revealed some of the tricks of their trade at the Visual Effects Society (VES) 2001 festival last month. Moderated by Michael Dorn ("Worf"), the panel discussed the evolution of visual effects through the decades, and even admitted that some of their magic is done with such low-tech but handy items as baking soda and a Mylar pom-pom.
Robert Justman, co-producer of the original Star Trek, pointed out the 1960's series was quite revolutionary in what it accomplished using very rudimentary techniques. "To boldly go is what we did," Justman said. "I don't know how we did it a one-hour TV show with optical effects, visual effects... We didn't know at the time it was impossible, we just went forward and did it. As I look upon it now, it's unbelievable."
Howard Anderson Jr., ASC, talked about using blue-screen processes for creating matte shots, particularly those that superimposed the Starship Enterprise over a star field. But he admitted, "Blue screen was primitive even then the stars showed through the ship every now and then, but we got by."
Anderson said that the transporter effect was created using aluminum "flitters" shot through a 5000-watt light and a column of smoke, which was superimposed over the characters being beamed in or out. The effect was enhanced by director of photography Gerald Perry Finnerman, ASC, who added lights to the transporter platform and varied their illumination while the transport process took place.
Matt Jefferies, production designer, said he arrived at the design for the Starship Enterprise after "about six weeks of frustration" during which he "spent a pretty good batch of Lucille Ball's money." Although he had thought the most obvious shape for a starship would be a sphere, flying saucers were well known by then, so he took that shape and "squashed it a little" to create the saucer section. From there he evolved the design that ultimately satisfied series creator Gene Roddenberry.
Jefferies also elaborated on how he decided to use "NCC" as the prefix for the registry numbers of Starfleet ships. He said that American civil aircraft have their registry numbers preceded by "NC," and Soviet craft used a prefix of "CCCC," so he more-or-less combined the two. His philosophy was, "If we do anything in space, we (Americans and Russians) have to do it together."
After Justman, Anderson, Finnerman and Jefferies concluded their discussion about the Original Series, Dorn introduced the team responsible for the effects seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Justman was still part of that team, as he was co-creator of TNG, and he said that when that show was in its infancy in the 1980's, he and producer Rick Berman had to make a decision about whether to use computer graphics to create the new starships. After investigating the state of the art at the time, though, they decided "the art wasn't developed enough by then." So Star Trek continued to use model photography for its starships well into the 90's. By the second season of Voyager, digital effects had evolved enough to do almost everything digitally.
Visual effects producer Dan Curry pointed out that the revolution in digital effects has allowed his team to accomplish more in less time, and has made certain dramatic shots possible that would not have been in years past. John Gross, computer graphics supervisor on the last three series, said that CG (computer graphics) has allowed them to create entire fleets of ships, making the Dominion War in DS9 and other dramatic situations far more compelling. In addition, "One thing that's easy to do in CG is to destroy ships," Gross said. "You don't want to blow up your real models."
Other panelists immediately countered laughingly, "Yes we do!" In fact, after a number of video clips were shown where a lot of ships were blown up, Dorn remarked, "It seems like if you want a job in the future, it's spaceship construction."
Curry talked about some of the specific shots in Voyager that were made possible with computer graphics. He said that the group of people stranded on the ground while the Kazon-controlled Starship Voyager took off in "Basics, Part I" were digitally created. In fact, he said, that group of CG characters had among them "people who didn't belong, including Captain Picard, Gilligan and the Skipper."
Curry also demonstrated the shot in "Workforce, Part I" where Janeway joins a couple of colorful aliens on an elevator, which swiftly descends to another level. He said the live actors were "green-screened" as they stepped onto the elevator platform, then the actors morphed into CG people on the way down. The seamless result, shown on a large screen, drew applause from the festival audience.
Not everything you see in special effects is digitally rendered. Curry and visual effects producer Rob Legato discussed the scene in "Timeless" in which Voyager crashed onto an icy planet. They originally set out to do that sequence entirely CG, Legato said, but they came to realize the limitations of CG would not allow the spray of snow that gets kicked up by the ship to look realistic. So instead they used baking soda to create that "spray" and photographed it, then composited that digitally with other elements in the shot, including the crashing starship and the ice mountain background, both of which were sculptured in CG. It took them two-and-a-half weeks to create that crash-landing sequence.
It took another physical item to help produce the look of Voyager's shields when they get hit with phaser fire. Curry got his hands on a Mylar pom-pom, and realized he could make something out of it. By shaking that pom-pom over a mirror, he was able to create an image that he could digitally "wrap" around the ship to give the appearance of shields absorbing energy.
Visual effects compositor Paul Hill showed video footage breaking down how the effect was created for "Imperfection" in which Seven of Nine's cortical node was transplanted through a hole in her forehead. First, the live footage of the Doctor's tool touching Jeri Ryan's forehead was shot. Second, the cylindrical node was shot against blue fabric descending into a hole in that fabric. That footage was composited on top of Ryan's forehead. Since the tip of the Doctor's tool was obscured by the composited footage, that tip had to be re-added digitally. A 3D element of the node aperture closing was computer generated, as was the slight indentation the tool made on the edge of the aperture, and those elements were also composited.
After the more contemporary artists demonstrated their craft, Jefferies told them, "I'm dumbfounded by what you've people have done!" Makeup supervisor Michael Westmore, who was there to discuss how makeup fits into the visual effects equation, pointed out, "The original Star Trek was state-of-the-art at its time. We wouldn't be doing what we are if we didn't have those baby steps to pave the way." Westmore added, "Ten years from now, what we're talking about now will be old."
Looking forward to the fifth installment of the Star Trek franchise, Curry promised that "the Enterprise sets will be the most incredible sets done for any TV show." Production designer Herman Zimmerman added that the two-hour pilot for Enterprise, which took about six weeks to shoot in May and June, has utilized over 40 sets and locations, compared to most feature films which use less than 30.
Other panelists included visual effects supervisor Ronald B. Moore, visual effects animator Greg Rainoff, motion control photographer Erik Nash, and CGI producer Robert Bonchune.
When the Star Trek session ended, the audience of more than 200 visual effects professionals and students gave the panel a standing ovation. One attendee noted that this was only the second standing ovation he had seen in three years of the VES festival, the first being for the legendary Ray Harryhausen.