The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Star Trek
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Visual Effects
CAS Part 1
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Much of the lighting built into the interior was designed to cause lens flares, which serve as a visual motif throughout the picture. “The Enterprise has lights set in frame that basically point down the lens of the camera in every direction,” says Mindel. “Wherever you look, you get a flare. It goes against everything one learns as a camera technician, which is to shield the lens from any extraneous light and stop it from flaring. We’ll either get slaughtered by our peers or be really admired for it!” Abrams adds, “The flares often weren’t made by a light source in the frame, and to me, that implies there’s something extraordinary happening just off camera. It makes me feel like I’m not watching the average moment. And I love the idea of a motif that is so inherently analog and imperfect in its unpredictability; it serves as counterpoint to the sterile, controlled look that so many visual-effects films seem to have.” 

If the built-in lighting wasn’t providing the desired flare, the crew aimed Xenon flashlights at the lenses as the cameras rolled. “Our A- and B-camera operators, Colin Anderson and Phil Carr-Forster, would tell us if we needed to go a little farther in or out of the frame, or up or down, to get the ultimate flare,” recalls Prampin. “It was funny to watch — Dan and I were running around, ducking, jumping and hiding behind things just so we wouldn’t be seen by the cameras. The flashlights were so bright that there are probably several instances where Dan’s actually in the movie, but you can’t really tell!” 

On the Enterprise’s oval-shaped bridge, the primary flare inducers comprised a ring of MR 16s and MR 11s fitted into the wall; each was mounted so it could be slightly panned and tilted for maximum effect. “The bridge had many lighting opportunities built into it: screens, buttons, blinking lights and all the bells and whistles,” notes Chambliss. “It feels contemporary and utterly fleshed out.” The consoles manned by Spock, Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) and Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin) featured practical fixtures from the art department and built-in LiteGear XFlo dimmable fluorescent fixtures, which were also installed beneath milk-glass floor panels under the set’s centerpiece, the captain’s chair. The XFlos, run off a dimmer-board system programmed by Joshua Thatcher, “allowed us to put a little life into [the set],” says Prampin. “We could set up a little pulse in them, or we could make it look like something was flickering and the power was going out.” 

Red-alert situations have been a Star Trek staple from the very beginning. To make the most of those sequences, Mindel had the electricians fit a red-gelled XFlo alongside all of the clean tubes built into the bridge, enabling the dimmer-board operator to instantaneously establish the red-alert look. To further punctuate the change in ship’s status, “we incorporated a lot of LED technology, such as LiteGear LiteRibbon RGB strips, which allowed us to change the color,” says Prampin. The strips were installed as architectural accents around steps and other cutaways on the bridge; when not in red alert, the strips glowed blue to match Neoflex tubing running through narrow channels Chambliss designed into the set’s walls and ceiling. (Neoflex is a flexible, plastic-encased LED strip that creates a glow similar to a neon fixture.) 

When the Enterprise arrives at Vulcan, its crew finds the planet endangered by Nero’s Narada, which, Chambliss says, “makes the scale of the Enterprise look rather insignificant.” To economically suggest the immense scale of the Narada’s interior, Chambliss drew on his experience working in theater. “I thought we should treat the soundstage like a theater stage and create a world where we could mix and match elements to create different and new environments over and over again. It’s not a traditional way of designing movies, but it’s a very traditional way of designing theatrical scenery.” 

Last year, AC visited the Paramount soundstage housing the Narada’s interior “elements.” The result of Chambliss’ approach was a seemingly random arrangement of almost countless pieces, some on casters, some incorporating display interfaces and Romulan insignia, some hanging from wires run to the ceiling, and many featuring corrugated black tubing that lent the entire stage an eerie quality that was enhanced by Mindel’s use of smoke and yellow light. “The larger tower elements could be shot from any side,” notes Chambliss. “We could put them together to make some massive structure, or we could pull them apart, flip them sideways and fly them up in the air. Much to my delight, as soon as I showed J.J. a model of this approach, he instantly got it and started going along for the ride. He told me it felt like having a stage full of toys.”  

“Given that the set was going to change on the fly, we had to be able to change the lighting on the fly,” says Mindel. “We built in the ability to control our lights from a dimmer board and rearrange what we were doing remotely.” Accordingly, the cinematographer employed a number of moving fixtures — including Vari-Lite VL3500s and Clay Paky Alpha Spot 1200s — above the set, with Nine-light Maxi-Brutes, MoleBeam Projectors, 5Ks and 10Ks cutting additional shafts through the smoked interior. On the floor, Kino Flos gelled with Lee 101 Yellow were placed to light particular set pieces, and the outer edge of the set was lined with a painted backdrop that was alternately frontlit with Far Cycs or backlit with Sky Pans. “It was a pretty abstract backing, so we tried to be abstract with our lighting and just pick spots that worked with the set’s configuration at the time,” says Prampin.  

During AC’s visit, a phaser battle was staged inside the Romulan ship. Between takes, prop master Russell Bobbitt offered a close look at Starfleet’s standard-issue sidearm. Staying true to the phaser wielded by the series’ original cast members, the updated firearm still boasts both “stun” and “kill” settings; now, however, the two settings are visually differentiated with the press of a thumb switch that physically flips the barrel 180 degrees. “With the guns, gadgets and all of the control panels, our intention was always to provide a literal functionality,” says Chambliss, who praises Bobbitt and set decorator Karen Manthey for their “enormous and carefully considered contributions” to that work.  

Before traveling back in time to wreak havoc, the Narada was a mining vessel, and Nero now uses its retractable drilling platform as a devastating weapon. In an attempt to render the weapon inoperative, Kirk, Sulu and a “red shirt” named Olsen (Greg Ellis) space-dive out of a shuttlecraft and into Vulcan’s atmosphere, landing on the platform. A wedge of the platform was constructed in Dodger Stadium’s parking lot and backed by greenscreen; the site’s elevation allowed Mindel to shoot into the sky without fear of glimpsing the Los Angeles skyline. “We learned on Mission: Impossible that these big greenscreen sets work better outside,” says Mindel. “You get the ambient dust and wind and sunlight, which really help sell the gag.” Condors also stood at the ready with Nine-light Maxi-Brutes and Dinos for backlight and 100K and 50K SoftSuns for fill. 

The approach “certainly didn’t make compositing the sequence easy,” says Guyett. “With a really gnarly set, greenscreens get dirty and become less effective, but I think if we’d done it [onstage], there would be a greater chance of people looking at it and saying, ‘I don’t really believe they’re outside.’” Mindel adds, “Part of working on this kind of movie is learning about the [visual-effects] technology, and Roger’s very keen to teach guys like me. He and I shared the experience all the way to the digital intermediate, because the biggest issue is blending everything together seamlessly [in post].”

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