Kimberly French © 2015 Paramount Pictures
Star Trek ’s history with visual effects has been both acclaimed and troubled—sometimes for the very same project. The original series, which began airing on NBC 50 years ago, required the services of four separate vendors in order to continue to meet airdates. Unlike several Irwin Allen sci-fi series that also aired in the ’60s and could rely on the in-house 20th Century Fox effects team, Desilu (and later Paramount) had no such resource, and the pressure of dealing with elaborate old-style optical effects contributed to at least a few collapses and breakdowns among the crew.
Just over a decade after leaving the airwaves the series returned, but this time to the big screen as Star Trek: The Motion Picture. After years of false starts, the film was finally greenlit, in part as a response to the mega-successes of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The production subsequently experienced difficulties that could fill a phone book. (The 670-page Return To Tomorrow published in 2014 is a recommended oral history covering much of what went wrong—and right.) Panicked over a near-total lack of progress on the optical work, Paramount wound up dumping its original effects provider less than a year before the film was due—having already been presold—in theaters.
The VFX houses of Doug Trumbull and John Dykstra were brought on to work round-the-clock, ultimately delivering nearly 600 shots in a massive salvage effort that earned the film an Oscar® nom, but left Trumbull hospitalized—and Paramount did make its release date.
Over the next two decades, Lucasfilm subsidiary Industrial Light & Magic provided VFX for six of the nine Trek sequels, and also contributed a library of spaceship and starfield elements for the 1987 launching of the syndicated sequel Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Miniatures and motion control, coupled with video compositing of originated-on-35mm elements, formed the go-to methodology that enabled VFX supes Rob Legato and Dan Curry to expedite large numbers of VFX cuts for the next decade of TNG on the airwaves, including the bulk of the spinoff series Deep Space Nine.
By the late ’90s, CGI had become a speedy and popular alternative to physical models, and that was reflected in the last two Next Generation feature films, as well as the final (to date) pair of TV entries, Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise.
When J.J. Abrams rebooted the dormant franchise with the 2009 Star Trek and 2013 Star Trek Into Darkness, Paramount at last loosened the purse strings for the first time since the original film, up to a nine-figure tune. This enabled the makers, again working with ILM, to put across an incarnation that would appeal to mass audiences without suffering the “tell, not show” element often prevalent in earlier efforts.
The offer to direct a new Star Wars enticed Abrams to exit as Trek helmer before the film began, though he stayed on as executive producer and engaged Justin Lin to direct. The result: Star Trek Beyond, taking place well into the Enterprise’s planned five-year mission as the crew encounters a new threat to Federation space and are left to fend for themselves after the ship falls prey to swarms of enemy combatants.
To realize the outermost reaches of the 23rd century, VFX vendor Double Negative came aboard. DNeg had previously contributed to the filmmaker’s The Fast and the Furious features and was no stranger to new worlds, having won an Oscar® for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar; the company’s first major credit called for them depicting life on another world in Pitch Black.
After completing Godzilla and then Exodus: Gods and Kings (see HDVP, February 2015), Double Negative co-founder Peter Chiang served as Beyond’s overall visual effects supervisor, aided by in-house deputies and VFX supervisors Raymond Chen and Sean Stranks. Chiang’s duties also involved overseeing the work of supporting vendors carried over from the two previous films.
“We inherited a good legacy,” he acknowledges. “We maintained a free flow of data between vendors so that assets created at DNeg could be handed off quickly to Atomic Fiction and Kelvin Optical—a company J.J. has an association with—to composite into their shots. QuickTimes and EXR let us get each iteration to Justin so he could approve the look. The studio was always comfortable continuing with the Kelvin/Atomic formula, so it made sense to carry that forward into this one with veteran VFX producer Ron Ames [Real Steel] coordinating all our efforts.”
Also carried forward from the Abrams-directed efforts was the Enterprise herself—or rather the geometry and texture maps used to depict her in flight by ILM. “All of the digital assets belong to Paramount so we inherited the ILM model,” says Chiang. “Even so, there was a lot of shader work needed to translate that into the ship we wanted to see onscreen, which is the Justin Lin version of the Enterprise. It goes back in time a bit stylistically, looking closer in appearance to the original TV version, which always seemed a little vulnerable with those slender segments linking the saucer, engineering and the nacelles.”
ILM had already altered aspects of the design over the course of their two films, with the repaired starship at the end of Into Darkness sporting several cosmetic differences.
“In examining the history of the franchise, you realize the last thing you want to fall into creatively is to just repeat things verbatim,” Chiang opines. “Our new changes included adding a ‘fastback’ aspect to the nacelles, which formed a bit of a ‘V’ shape going back. We also stretched and thinned both the nacelles and the ship’s neck, making them more obvious targets for the scene when the ship comes under attack.”
Depicting 23rd-century military engagements meant the visuals had to offer more than just space-bound battleships firing off broadsides at each another. “Both the director and DP were coming from The Fast and the Furious world with its Eyemos and ingenious camera mounts, so we needed to translate some of that energy to the VFX shots,” continues Chiang.
“Justin wanted to attain a definite 35mm Panavision camera lens feel—but not as ‘flare-y’ as the Abrams vision—with plenty of camera artifacting that would help convey a grainy grittiness on a subconscious level. We also took the opportunity to give fans close looks at parts of the ship they’ve never previously seen from these angles, a way to pay tribute to the fantastically original design of the TV ship [created by series art director Walter ‘Matt’ Jefferies].”
Getting There Is Half The Fun
Chief among the givens in Trek is a depiction of faster-than-light travel by starships, called warp drive.
“In the past films, there was always a kind of light-driven way they had for showing the streak to warp speed,” says Chiang. “In reevaluating our options, this gave us a chance to take inspiration from real physics for our warp effect.”
This wasn’t the first time a scientific muse was brought to bear on this issue. An unused concept for depicting warp in the first Trek feature derived from suggestions by the science advisor, NASA’s Jesco von Puttkamer. Artwork showing the Enterprise encased in a warp bubble that refracted a color-spectrum-shifted starfield around it was suggestive of a pre-Interstellar majesty, but dropped in the actual film in favor of a more straightforward shutter-open streaking of the motion-control stage miniature.
Chiang’s research led him to the idea of presenting the warp bubble as seeing space fold around the ship. “Right from the outset, I was presenting Justin with ideas on how this could look,” he enthuses. “We did studies on how light is bent by gravitational lensing, then looked at high-speed shooting of 3000 to 4000 fps to see how bullets create a wake as they travel through water. We also scrutinized images of planes and their vapor trails as they go beyond the sound barrier. I imagined multiple shock waves building up and stacking on one another, forming this layer ahead of the vessel. That tells us we’re traveling at high speed and gives a dimensional quality to it.”
DNeg utilizes the Clarisse iFX package from the French company Isotropix, which combines a 3D-rendering engine with animation package and 32-bit composting software.
“We’ve transitioned in recent years into ray-traced rendering, which provides extremely realistic lighting simulations,” Chiang reveals. “It was only due to this approach that we’ve been able to capture such an extraordinary look for this lensing bubble effect.”
Chiang was also able to influence the aesthetic of starships in the void. “We looked at a lot of NASA footage to see how the whites blow out in genuine conditions of harsh direct sunlight up there,” he states. “And I wanted to introduce a lot more of a feel for 3D space this time, in terms of ship and camera movement. That way, it wouldn’t all be so linear, and instead reinforce how there’s no up or down in this environment. Playing with that harkened back deliberately to a bit of the 2001: A Space Odyssey feel, when Kubrick had that Orion space clipper docking with a space station; you had perspectives constantly changing with these rotating objects.”
The City On The Edge Of Forever
When the Enterprise rendezvouses with distant Starbase Yorktown, the perceptual gymnastics that Chiang enthuses over are clearly evident.
“The base is out at the frontier of Federation space, constructed as a series of angled structures, set on these sea-urchin-like arms within a 16-mile diameter sphere,” he explains. “Using a volume of space in the most efficient and economical manner would absolutely be the way to go with structures out there, and that meant maximizing the inner volume.”
To provide cinematic variety to the scenes set in Yorktown while simultaneously implying a deliberate Earthlike feel to life, a day/night lighting scheme was evolved.
“We played with the idea that the sphere surrounding the station was opaque during the day, but that the inner hemisphere becomes more transparent at night, letting the inhabitants see the stars outside,” adds Chiang. “That would be a comfort for visiting space travelers.”
Live-action for Starbase Yorktown was shot in Dubai, a locale that features some of our world’s most space-age/futuristic skyscrapers. “The plates shot there served as a basis for our finals,” says Chiang, “but we had to embellish very extensively for pretty much every view. Everything changed color-wise, since the Federation is principally blue, white, silver and black, but Dubai feels very beige/yellow.
“During shooting, we were very conscious of what was supposed to be visible overhead, and framing took that into account,” he notes. “We had LIDAR scans done of about 40 buildings there that worked for our purposes architecturally. These were heavily textured, and we could put those assets into frame procedurally to populate the background and the other arms of Yorktown overhead.”
Captain Kirk and the surviving crew spend most of the film marooned on a planet, mixing it up with alien combatants while seeking a means of escape. Along the way, many trademark Trek elements are woven into Lin’s action mix, from transporter beam-ups to gunfights with hand phasers, the latter requiring coordination between VFX and production’s live-action crew.
“Special effects supervisor Cameron Waldbauer was great about providing us with blue-white spark hits for phasers and green sparks from the Marauder swarm soldiers,” Chiang notes. “He created pyrotechnics in the form of fireballs for us, like the one in the trailer behind Kirk and Chekov, which we’ll enhance just a bit. When there’s a specific choreography in play involving our animation, we always shoot a clean plate, as well, but what those real-world interactives give us in terms of credibility and reference is just extraordinarily useful to us.”
While screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung relied on a fan website to inform their Trek knowledge, Chiang had his own in-house equivalent.
“We found that every facility working on the show had what I call ‘Star Trek Yodas’ working there,” he laughs. “Each of them was like a kind of brain trust you could question to find out if some design or maneuver went against what had been established on other Trek shows and films. We had sequences with a vessel from an earlier century and the design process took a bit of a hit when the Yodas told us it should reflect what had been seen in the 22nd century on [Star Trek: Enterprise],” he muses.
“Even with all that, it was a real honor for me to work on Beyond,” says Chiang, “and I think we gave both fans and the general audience a new way of looking at the familiar sights in the Trek universe.”
To learn more about the film, go to startrekmovie.com.