The American Society of Cinematographers

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Star Trek
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Visual Effects
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Visual Effects for the 23rd Century

In AC’s October 1967 coverage of the original Star Trek series, ASC members Howard A. Anderson, Linwood G. Dunn and Joseph Westheimer detailed their Emmy-winning special-effects work on the show, and for the purposes of the discussion, Westheimer broke this work into five basic categories. To lend the new Star Trek feature some historical perspective, we asked the film’s visual-effects supervisor, Roger Guyett, to use the same parameters to summarize the work done by artists at Industrial Light & Magic, Digital Domain, Svengali Visual Effects, Lola Visual Effects, Evil Eye Pictures and Kerner Optical.

Joseph Westheimer, ASC: First are shots of the USS Enterprise flying in space or orbiting a planet.

Roger Guyett: Trying to think of new ways to show off the Enterprise was a challenge of its own. The level of complexity ILM artists are able to create in their digital surfaces is just phenomenal. We were able to talk to people who had worked on the original Star Trek movies about how they dealt with surfaces, and we [digitally] created stuff like interference paint, which the original effects teams achieved practically on the Enterprise.

Westheimer: The second type of effect is materialization of the people as they are transported to the ship from a planet or [vice versa] …. The materialization or transporter effect is accomplished by superimposing a glitter over the form of the people or object being transported.

Guyett: We wanted to update the transporter but still make it familiar. J.J. [Abrams] had a lot of really good ideas, and the idea you see in the movie is his; he thought it should look like light beams traveling in a very dimensional way so you can understand the space where this stuff is happening. The effect was always slightly different depending on the environment the characters were in and the lighting conditions, and it was always difficult to achieve. I think the transporter was our Battle of Waterloo — it was tougher than we first thought it would be.

Westheimer: The phaser effect [has] a variety of settings and adjustments. Most often used is the stun effect, which can knock a man down and render him unconscious. Full effect, which causes an object to dematerialize and disappear, is another.

Guyett: Of course you want to embrace the old stun vs. kill. But you can believe our phasers are actually firing; they’re more high-energy and gnarly than the original phasers, and they just feel more dangerous. If you get hit by one of these things, you’re going to get a horrible wound. It feels like getting hit by a projectile.

Westheimer: The fourth type of effect is the television reductions and superimposures. Aboard the Enterprise are many view screens, [and] the most important is the Bridge Viewing Screen.

Guyett: It’s the greatest bridge window of any battleship, and at the same time, it’s got great heads-up display capability and an advanced user-interface system, so you can play back information. We used greenscreen because a lot of the characters wear blue, but the issue was that we wanted to reflect the interior of the ship. We tried using a real piece of glass so all the reflections would be true, but building a piece of glass like that was an absolute nightmare. In the end, we shot plates of the interior view that we could reflect back onto the window when we added it digitally, and we had a CG mock-up of the interior that would give us a correct reflection with correct perspective.

Westheimer: Finally are the scenes or sequences in which an optical effect is created literally from scratch. These effects can be classified as ‘esoteric adventures’ …. A recent request, to quote the script, was for a ‘columnar-like area of blurry, misty interference of some sort. It is rather like a gentle whirlwind, but one of force rather than air current. Faint pastel lights and shades appear and disappear. It moves from side to side gently and then disappears.’ From this description, our optical company must create on film the effect that the writer has conceived.

Guyett: We hit a home run the first time out with our warp effect. Russell Earl, my co-supervisor, and I decided we wanted it to feel like you’re traveling faster than light, but what does that mean? We had some great artists working on this show, and the effect came together very quickly. It has enough flavor of the old-style warp, but you get more of a first-person experience — it’s as though you’re inside it.

One thing we did with our space battles that’s slightly different was a lot of completely virtual pyro. Traditionally, if you blow something up, you have to shoot an element, but we wanted a much more automated process. We studied the way things would explode in space and invented a whole system based on that. There’s no oxygen, for example, so there has to be a source things burn back to. There’s also no drag or resistance, so if something has a velocity, it doesn’t slow down or arc back to the ground.

We also created some full-on CG creatures. We had one that’s sort of halfway between a polar bear and a gorilla — we called him the Polarilla. Neville Page designed pretty much all of the creatures and species within the movie. They probably did less of that on the original show because it was harder to do, whereas it’s relatively straightforward in CG. But having said that, it’s still not easy!


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