Special Equipment for Filming Star Trek the Motion Picture (Tm)

By Kennedy, Sanford | American Cinematographer, February 1980 | Go to article overview

Special Equipment for Filming Star Trek the Motion Picture (Tm)


Kennedy, Sanford, American Cinematographer


This unique production required custom-built cameras, mounts, lenses and electronic systems in order to achieve its very special effects

In my capacity as designer and camera equipment builder, I had the opportunity to build or modify much of the equipment used both at Maxella and Apogee to film special effects for STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. I worked up until two weeks before the picture was to be released to get out that "last shot."

The special effects for STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE were shot using two different film formats by two different special effects organizations. Doug Trumbull and his group at Maxella in Marina Del Rey used 65mm equipment for the close shots of the Enterprise-and its space drydock, the V'ger interiors, and San Francisco of the future. John Dykstra and the Apogee group in Van Nuys used VistaVision (with 35mm film traveling sideways) for the shots of the V'ger cloud, the Klingon ships and the exteriors of V'ger. Many of these and other sequences by both groups were optically composited after duplication on a specially built 65mm-to-VistaVision printer. When finished this footage was printed down from VistaVision to 35mm anamorphic on a second specially built printer, using a Panavision lens.

The difference between the two formats is that the 65mm aperture measures 2.072'' X 0.906'' while VistaVision measures 1.458'' X 0.991''. Compare that to a standard 35mm aperture of 0.839'' X 0.715'' as used on the final anamorphic projection print. Both Trumbull and Dykstra have chosen these oversized formats in order to obtain the largest possible negative upon which to photograph the various visual elements. The greatest difficulty in terms of final image quality in any optical composite is the loss of detail and the increase in film grain size when dupes are made. Often seven or more separate pieces of film have to be printed on to one final negative. Additional losses can occur during the three-color separation process used with the Blue Screen to generate hold-out mattes.

All special effects equipment is subject to a compromise between the limitations of budget on one hand, and the demand for the highest possible quality on the other. This time the crew was forced to run a race with the picture's advertised release date, which prevented some equipment from being finished before it was pressed into service. STAR TREK is the "star" example of this, creating an atmosphere where the special effects were expected to be done yesterday. Both special effects groups must be commended for working an incredible number of hours, seven days a week to pull it off.

Shooting methods and equipment requirements differed markedly between Maxella and Apogee. Doug Trumbull and his Director of Photography, Dave Steward, used three makes of 65mm cameras: Mitchell, Todd-A.O., and Panavision. All these cameras are pin-registered, using the Mitchell-style movement. Some of them were fitted with follow-focus bases and motion-controlled gear heads. These, in turn, were mounted on different carts, and towers which ran along linear bearing tracks. The electronic motion control units varied in configuration, some using disc and others tape memory to achieve absolute repeatability.

Doug Trumbull favors Hassleblad lenses and has adapted all cameras to them. In addition he had Laikin Optical build a massive 32'' snorkel lens for super closeups. A special heavy-duty follow-focus base was designed and assembled for it by the author at E.G. Engineering, owned by Dave Gereaux and Don Trumbull, Doug's father. To support the large Enterprise model, the author built a 40''-tall model rotator that ran along its own set of tracks at right angles to the camera track. One of the problems inherent with the 65mm cameras is their tremendous size and weight, which can easily exceed 120 lbs. when set up for stop-motion photography.

John Dykstra and the Apogee group have taken a different approach. …

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Special Equipment for Filming Star Trek the Motion Picture (Tm)
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