The American Society of Cinematographers

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Star Trek
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Visual Effects
CAS Part 1
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With Star Trek, cinematographer Dan Mindel, ASC and director J.J. Abrams update Gene Roddenberry’s universe for a new generation of fans.

Unit photography by Zade Rosenthal, SMPSP
In 1966, when audiences were introduced to Capt. James T. Kirk, he was already exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, and boldly going (with his equally enterprising crew) where no one had gone before. However, Kirk’s journey to the bridge of the USS Enterprise and his first contact with his core crew is a story that the Star Trek franchise’s six series and 10 feature films never told. Director J.J. Abrams has filled in the gaps with a new Star Trek feature that reboots the franchise, and he concedes that finding a look for the movie, which was shot by Dan Mindel, ASC, was a challenge. “This isn’t a reinvention to a degree that ignores the history of the franchise,” says Abrams. “We needed to embrace what had come before, but the spirit of what Gene Roddenberry created needed to be treated in a modern context, with an awareness of today’s audiences.” 

Mindel, who previously teamed with Abrams on Mission: Impossible III (AC May ’06), recalls, “J.J. told us early on to use the original TV show as our key reference. He wanted us to pay attention to that young, go-get-’em, positive attitude.” Other Mission: Impossible collaborators who signed onto Star Trek included production designer Scott Chambliss and visual-effects supervisor/2nd-unit director Roger Guyett. 

Mindel was eager to employ the anamorphic format for Trek’s 23rd-century vistas. “I’m not interested in using Super 35mm,” says the cinematographer. “J.J. wanted me to convince him to shoot anamorphic, so he and I looked at every test we could do, and when he saw the 50mm Primo projected, with the falloff in focus, he was convinced.” Guyett notes that although the distortion inherent in anamorphic lenses complicated the visual-effects work, “the result is worth it.” 

The Trek crew’s first assignment took them aboard the USS Kelvin to shoot the opening sequence, in which the Kelvin is pitted against the time-traveling Romulan warlord Nero (Eric Bana) and his starship, the Narada. Chambliss says his design for the Kelvin, which predates the Enterprise by some 25 years in story time, “had the feeling of combining Flash Gordon with a Corvette commercial from 1965, with a cigar lounge thrown in for the bridge. Because it’s the first spaceship we’re on in the movie, J.J. and I wanted to do a bit of a fake-out that would enable us to make the Enterprise feel really different.” The Kelvin’s interior lighting is dominated by harsh toplight that was created with open, undiffused sources, and Mindel notes that “the Kelvin was where we learned everything we needed to know about lighting the Enterprise, but we had a lot more freedom on the Kelvin because there were places to hide lights.” 

The hard-light strategy was carried into a power plant in Long Beach, Calif., that served as the Kelvin’s lower decks and engineering section. Chambliss describes the location as “stressed, textural and oily, which was the feeling we wanted the Kelvin to have.” 

Mindel was intrigued by Abrams’ desire to shoot Star Trek on location as much as possible. The director explains, “This movie is a space adventure and could potentially feel artificial because of that premise, and I was very nervous about it not having guts and reality. I decided it would be critical to shoot in real, practical locations or build sets that would, for the most part, give us the freedom to shoot as if we were on a real location, perhaps with some set extensions.” 

The introduction of the adult James Kirk (Chris Pine) takes place in an Iowa bar populated by Starfleet cadets. To create the futuristic watering hole, an array of 23rd-century adornments was added to the bar at the American Legion Hollywood Post 43. “We used some Blondes for toplight and a High End Systems DL.2 behind the door to project a moving image and add some life,” says gaffer Chris Prampin. “We also used Element Labs’ Stealth Displays and Versa Tubes, which are big, connectable LED pieces that allow you to put any color into them or run an image across them. We built [a rig with those units] big enough to encompass an entire wall, and, with the help of PRG, where we rented them, we had a full library of images and colors.” 

During his momentous night at the bar, Kirk meets Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana), dukes it out with four of Starfleet’s finest, and endures a blunt scolding by Capt. Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood). Suitably chastened, Kirk musters the dignity to enlist in Starfleet and attend the Academy, where he befriends Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) and sows the seeds of his rivalry — and eventual friendship — with the half human/half Vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto). 

Later, when Spock’s home planet of Vulcan is threatened, Kirk and his graduating class receive their first field assignment, reporting for duty via shuttlecraft that take off from a large hangar. For the shuttle launchings, the filmmakers shot inside the Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin, Calif. A mixture of 16' HMI balloons and stand-mounted Gaffairs (rented from Skylight Balloon Lighting) provided ambience inside the 1,000'-long-by-300'-wide hangar, while 120' Condors rigged with Xenons and 18Ks on Arri MaxMovers swept the floor for added effect. 

Shooting inside the shuttlecraft, Mindel would squeeze in a Kino Flo or LED panel for fill, and his crew would often position a Xenon angled in through the windows and bounced off a piece of Rosco Soft Silver on the floor. “It was really hard to get dollies in there, so we often shot handheld,” says Mindel. “That allowed the camera to be part of what’s going on.” (On larger sets, the filmmakers more often moved the cameras via a Steadicam or Technocrane.) 

Boarding one of the shuttlecraft, Kirk and McCoy depart for the Enterprise and catch their first glimpse of the ship in space. “There are certain things you can’t let go of if you’re going to do Star Trek, and one of them is the general look and shape of the Enterprise,” says Abrams. “You want people to glance at it and go, ‘Yeah, it’s the Enterprise.’ And those who already know it can study it and realize how different it is.” 

In updating Starfleet’s flagship, Chambliss abandoned the Kelvin’s pulp influences in favor of “designers who were interested in futurism and future technology, such as Eero Saarinen. I got some line drawings of the original exterior of the Enterprise, which was all right angles and flat discs, and started applying the curvature of Saarinen’s architecture to the main structural elements. It was an elegant approach that allowed the ship to be itself and get kind of sexy in the process.” To carry that sex appeal through the starship’s interior, Mindel tried to lend the sets “the feeling of a brand-new car, when it’s all sparkly. I sometimes used Tiffen Black Pro-Mists to give them a bit more sparkle, and I was very keen to have reflections on the set from glass, shiny objects and surfaces. It just feels so full of life when you get that. 

“We made a huge effort to stay within the confines of the set and maintain the realism,” he continues. “We don’t like to fly out walls, and we built a vast amount of practical light into the set.” In the corridors, Mindel’s crew hung 2K Blondes and 750-watt Lekos above holes that the art department cut into the ceiling. “We also had MoleBeam Projectors in various parts of the hallway,” adds Prampin. “Al DeMayo, our lighting-fixtures foreman, made sure what we wanted was possible.”

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