Where No Trek Has Gone Before

By Magid, Ron | American Cinematographer, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Where No Trek Has Gone Before


Magid, Ron, American Cinematographer


ILM heads up effects effort on latest film, which offers an array of new and exciting visual imagery.

With barely five months to envision an entire universe for Star Trek: First Contact, the effects artists of Industrial Light & Magic often wished they could accompany the crew of the Starship Enterprise on their journey into the past. Says Jeff Olson, a former modelshop supervisor who made the quantum leap into his first foray as a visual effects producer on the eighth Trek film, "We were running 35 shots at a time and working around the clock to get this movie done. The big challenges were organizational, getting all the different types of effects happening simultaneously in a very compressed schedule."

Keeping this latest cinematic voyage on track is veteran visual effects supervisor John Knoll, who recently helmed ILM's work on Mission: Impossible and portions of the touch-up for the upcoming re-release of the Star Wars trilogy. Knoll is also somewhat of a Trek veteran, having animated the Enterprise-D's slingshot into warp drive in The Next Generation's 1987 pilot episode "Encounter at Farpoint." He then re-created that effect in computergenerated form for Star Trek: Generations. Knoll's plans for the latest film, starting with the Enterprise herself, were no less ambitious, but he had to obey Paramount's prime directive that the ships' movements and lighting remain within familiar parameters.

In designing the fresh-off-the-lot Enterprise-?, Paramount's resident Trek designer, John Eaves, rotated the D's saucer section some 90 degrees and streamlined its overall structure. The only catch in the design process for the new Federation flagship was that it couldn't be conceptualized all at once. Paramount's Rick Sternbach made blueprints off of Eaves' concept drawings, progressively sending top, bottom and side views to the modelmakers as studio executives approved them. But Knoll and company didn't mind the pressure on the already tight deadline caused by delaying the EnterpriseE's effects shots, as it gave them the opportunity to build an Enterprise from the ground up (the D used in Generations was a repainted 6' model built for TNG's pilot).

Working from Sternbach's blueprints and a 30" prototype mockup of the ship built by Eaves, modelshop supervisor John Goodson and his crew fabricated a 10 ½' miniature over a five-month period. Patterns were carved out of wood (some were made out of foam covered with fiberglass and then detailed), then cast and assembled over a ½" aluminum plate armature designed and built by Brian Dewey to create the Enterprise-E miniature.

For Goodson, a modelshop supervisor on Generations whose first model kit - completed when he was five - was the Enterprise from the original series, this job was a dream come true. Of the redesign, he notes, "By rotating the saucer and eliminating the neck so that [the saucer] transitions right into the belly, and then moving the engines back up on the struts like wings, we made the Enterprise-E look as if it's going fast even when it's just sitting there."

In addition to Knoll's trademark "specular highlights" paintjob (the starship's panels were alternately painted matte and glossy, creating texture under raking rimlight), the effects supervisor wanted to be able to see through the windows into the ship. So he had ILM's modelmakers mount slides of the sets behind tiny laser-cut windowframes. When the camera tracks past the ship, audiences will see a parallax shift as if the rooms behind the window are dimensional. Explains Knoll, "I think of the Enterprise, with all of its windows, as being like an office building at night - [the windows aren't just] a bunch of flat-lit, glowy squares, but actual rooms with detail and variations in color and texture."

Most of the effects on Star Trek: First Contact were planned using low-resolution, computergenerated animatics - animated storyboards - to establish their length, action and composition, enabling producers Peter Lauritson and Rick Berman, and director Jonathan Frakes, to ascertain how the effects would time out before they were actually shot. …

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