A Look Behind the Scenes

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.

Star Trek: The Next Generation 365 (Star Trek 365)


Article by Vanessa Ravencroft.

  • John H Reiher Jr

    Wonderful article VR. I do have a question about gags. If there is a gag that is only used once in a short scene, but it’s supposed to be part of the set, is it in place from day one or is it added only when needed? I imagine the latter, as you don’t want someone breaking it before you get to use it.

  • Gags are more or less everything that
    smokes, candles on a dinner table, the hero meal, burns, moves or
    “does something” It can be a match, a steaming cup of
    coffee, a cigarette, a camp fire, sparks from an exploding console,
    dropping debris, fake boulders, moving doors, a jumping bus, a
    syringe poking the actor in the eye or arm, a “working Tri Corder”
    , horse sinking in a mud bog, a bowl full of moving maggots the
    actors need to “eat”, Gagh, smoke, fog, ice, rain, wind, snow,
    dust, spider webs, alien slime , flooding and everything in between.
    Some gags like for example a burning house, flood scene in the belly of the Titanic or Whales in San Francisco bay are purpose built sets where the “gag” is
    integrated into the set. Then there are set integrated gags in TV
    shows that occur almost every episode. An automatic door moved by
    stage hands is not a gag and usually done by Production Assistants
    (cheap) but automatic doors that use motors, hydraulics, actuators or
    anything technical are gags..and done by the SFX department because
    they are also operated by a team member of the FX department..(not so
    cheap)
    All doors of the old enterprise (TOS)
    were of the first variety, except the Shuttle bay door and the
    Shuttle ramp (and Zulus targeting scope) –(Hangar doors were model
    shots)
    There was a set of functioning automated Holo-deck doors on the STNG Enterprise..
    These gags are “permanent” and used during the life of the show .
    Other gags, especially with pyro elements are set up per scene and often several times for different takes and POV (point of view)

    A simple scene of dialog can take all day and the candle on the table and the food if it is hot are FX and Continuity department. (By law a Special Effects technician must be on set if there is an open flame ( candle, match, etc.) continuity makes sure the candle remains at the same length, the food looks the
    same no matter how often the actor sticks the fork in it..and uses
    the same cup of coffee
    (errors lead to bloopers)
    So on day four there is a dinner scene in the script. So there are the candles (lots of them in various lengths, candle holder, matches, lighter, fire extinguisher in a box in my truck (labelled Day 4 dinner) Such a box exists for every gag,
    every scene..the size of the box can be truck sized depending on the
    scene and the effects.

  • Kirov

    I would love to hear more! I’m particularly interested in the mechanical details of the props. I used to frequent the 405th.com costum/prop forums, but at the time, the most popular methods were a bit too expensive for me. I’ve since come across some much cheaper methods that can still produce outstanding looking props, so I’ve been looking to get back into it. I already have the designs for a Halo 3 AR, and eventually, I’ll have that ODST armor I’ve been planning for years.

    • I have very little to do with costumes.. unless there is a “gag” aspect to it. I.E self lacing shoes, bullet hits, phaser burns, laser hits, it rips on purpose and on screen etc.
      But I am more than glad to give you tips how to do FX on a budget, I did plenty of student movies and they usually pay “in a meal” on set..;-)
      Making hero props can bne very expensive..especially if you want to recreate an existing one.. meaning it is easy to make a ” laser gun” for ten bucks and it will look great.. but to recreate a phaser that looks like the real thing is much costlier..everyone will now how a phaser looks like and expect certain features. Here a few examples how a you can transform a cheap water gun or toy gun in an impressive sci fi weapon.with just some paint and a few plastic parts such as bottle caps, airfix parts..stuff like that
      Sound and effects are added in post (can be done with After Effects)

  • Model shots from Night at the Museum 1) POV camera..correctly lit. 2) real size shop lights

  • Great article! I want a photo of that surviving piece of the saucer section!

  • that’s a very interesting slogan vanessa

  • Due to work I wil be incommunicatofor anfew weeks