Mark and I had a little conversation on Facebook the other day. We talked about this and that and of course Science Fiction and Star Trek in particular.
He also suggested that I might write a little piece for SciFi Ideas.
There have been quite a few articles and even a pod cast on the subject of Star Trek, so I won’t go into analyzing past or future incarnations. Instead I am going to tell you how it is working on a Star Trek project, as a little SciFi Ideas exclusive gaze behind the scenes.
Some of you might already know that I am working for the motion picture industry, or more precisely I am a Special Effects technician. Not CGI but the real kind. Everything from weather (atmospherics) to explosions, fires, miniatures, exploding White Houses and self lacing shoes.
The motto or slogan of my company, more or less says it all: “If you ever need a Xerox machine that swallows the secretary and turns her into a three legged alien monster that goes on rampage with acid breath…yes we can do that.”
Before I go into the Star Trek part let me explain what SFX is and also give you a little insight into my world.
Here in LA (Los Angeles) Hollywood is a community, just like Burbank, North Hollywood, Venice, Beverly Hills and so forth. Locals call it simply “The industry”. While there are many industries in Southern California (agriculture being the biggest one) in LA “the industry” means the movie industry. And only Paramount remains in Hollywood, all the other big ones are either in North Hollywood or Burbank.
The days where studios had everything in house are long gone, and services are now provided by independent contractors or companies like mine.
The first step in making a movie is having a script, of course, and someone who wants to produce it. Now there are essentially two kinds of projects: Independent- and Studio productions.
For this piece let me stay with the studio production side of things, because all official Star Trek projects are Studio productions.
Movies and TV shows are “ordered” by the big studios and that’s where companies like “Bad Robot”, “Spy Glass productions”, “Legendary Pictures” etc. come in. (Some of these companies are founded just to make a certain movie and cease to exist after its done).
In most cases these projects are supervised by an executive producer (usually someone from the studio). Scripts are written, re written, writers hired and fired. The producers then attach names to the project – the more high profile the project the bigger the director name. Projects to be released in January are often given to new names or up and coming ones, while the ones to be released in the Summer or for the Christmas season – especially those of money cow franchises – are offered to the top names in the business. Now the Pre Production phase starts. Location scouts start looking for places to shoot the movie, producers start to obtain all the necessary licenses and permits and hire a production designer. It is at this point they also look to hire companies like mine.
It is then I get a script. I produce a SFX script and give them an estimate how much it will cost to realize it all.
Once I am hired, I start producing the props and gags (a special effect in a movie is called a gag).
Everything is packed according to scene and location (this can take a year or more sometimes).
Now the project goes into Production, meaning the movie (TV show or Commercial etc.) is produced. When the cameras roll they produce a product (the film).
The average script has about as many pages as the film has minutes. In most cases you can shoot about a page a day, half that if the scene contains complex special effects.
Then there is “on location” and “studio”. The USS Enterprise D for example was spread over several sound stages.
After the production phase, which includes something called “2nd Unit” It where the model shots are filmed, the location shots whiteout the need for the actors to be there.
This concludes production and the movie goes in post production for CGI, sound, music, editing, titles etc, Once done it goes into distribution.
My job is done when the production phase is wrapped (It’s a wrap spoken usually by the director signals the end of the production)
Now to a little more detail.
A line in the script reads: Jim draws his phaser and shoots the alien.
To me it means: What kind of phaser? He draws it, out of what? What is the desired effect on the alien?
After a meeting with the writer and the director we established that Jim is outside on a snow planet and that the director wants a new type of phaser. Still recognizable as a phaser, but different. The DP (Director of photography) wants a close up of Jim drawing it. That means the weapon has to be a “Hero Prop”. A prop is anything lose and not “nailed down” on set and a Hero prop is a thing that is shown close up and must look perfect even on a 70 foot screen.
The director wants the alien to partially disintegrate and show guts and some gore, because the alien is especially evil and the audience will get emotional satisfaction from that.
To me it means research first… Finding every phaser ever used, also buy every model and toy that has been produced, pictures of phasers etc. footage of phasers used. Then I design, draw a dozen or so concepts. The director picks one or two of the designs and I build two rough full size models.
The director and maybe the production designer / art director have some input and pick the one they want. I built the hero prop and also the back ups, the rubber version (the phaser that can be tossed, dropped or used to smack someone) a dozen or so inert or simple vac forms for the extras who never draw the weapon.
I also work with the SFX make up department (in my case often our own studio) to rig a dummy of the alien to explode with all the gore bits. While the actual phaser beam and sound is added in Post, the effects are simulated and not all of it in CGI.
Then there are camera tests… Does the phaser look okay? Is the color okay in contrast to costume and background etc. This process is done for every scene of the movie.
In one Star Trek TNG episode the Enterprise explodes (several times actually). Explosions can’t be done very well in CGI even today, but back then they were almost impossible. So I (my company and I) were asked to blow up several very large very detailed models.
There is a special studio in North Hollywood with robotic camera rigs in a very large all black room. (All the old SW, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers and every space scene in every commercial and TV show were filmed there). The models were built photo realistic , meaning very big and with miles of fiber optics for “windows”. Each model worth many thousand dollars. There were four.
Now you know me, I am a Trekkie and I oh so hoped one model would survive and end up hanging in the foyer of my shop.
But the director didn’t like the first take , so we blew up the second. A large piece of the saucer section remained dangling on the fish line, ruining the shot. So we blew number three, and yes we also blew up number four. All I have is the piece of the saucer section… 😉
There are many anecdotes and little behind the scene things that happened on Star Trek sets and all movie sets really, and if this little piece is well received and you want more, I can tell you about Emmi-Lou, a Russian wild boar that doubled as a Klingon targ, or of the day “Tara died”. So let me know if that is something you like to read more about.
Article by Vanessa Ravencroft.