It's been four years since J.J. Abrams successfully rebooted Star Trek by putting the venerable sci-fi franchise on steroids for a harder and more believable space adventure. Now with Star Trek Into Darkness, the director continues his rite of passage story for Chris Pine's Captain Kirk with a hybrid approach that mixes up the foundation while staying true to the spirit of the franchise.
Once again, ILM took the VFX lead with Roger Guyett serving as production supervisor and second unit director. This time he worked with Pixomondo, Atomic Fiction and an in-house team at Abrams' Bad Robot production company to create 1,700 shots. However, nearly half of the movie was shot using the large-format IMAX camera for the action sequences and it was done in 3-D for a more immersive spectacle.
"There's the comfort of having established the world but wanting to take it further and expand it," Guyett explains. "The very fact that it was 3-D gave us more opportunities to go deeper into it. The pyrotechnical aspects of simulation have expanded to include more efficiency but also the realism and level of detail has expanded too."
Last time, ILM boldly went where no Star Trek had gone before, with bigger space battles, explosions, black holes and planetary destruction, as well as cool upgrades for the phaser, the transporter and Warp Speed. Along with it came some new wrinkles, including a new fracture program and improved procedural rendering and volumetric shader tools.
For Into Darkness, there's a more expansive view of this tricked out Enterprise, both inside and out, allowing the audience to get closer to the crew. What's more, ILM goes deeper into Warp to take full advantage of 3-D. It's still basically a particle and compositing trick with a series of noise patterns mapped onto cylinders and smeared through time. But here ILM added a tail.
But some of ILM's best work on Into Darkness was building the architectural worlds that define the futuristic London and San Francisco, which was a sleeker and more efficient retrofitting. The idea was to make these cities look advanced yet still familiar. There's softer metal and higher vertical structures, but warmth to the appearance.
"The Star Trek universe has a level of accessibility and optimism," Guyett explains. "Landmarks such as Big Ben and Saint Paul's Cathedral will still be there but modified. We try and shoot on location as much as we can within the range of our process but there's a lot of augmentation, futurization and functionality. At the same time, it's a very human world, which is what J.J. wanted."
Future San Francisco was created by ILM art director Yannick Dusseault, who made flying vehicles but kept some trams. "I originally thought I could shoot plates and then we could augment them. But the reality was that San Francisco wasn't large enough for such an expansive backdrop. In the end, we built the entire city."
However, there were some low-tech choices, such as shooting the opening Bond-style chase on the red planet Nibiru on a small Marina del Rey set with CG enhancement rather than doing it all virtually. It's another testament to Abrams' embrace of the old and the new in his staging of the jungle action (which looks like a cross between War of the Worlds with the red foliage and Apocalypse Now with the white faced tribesmen). Even so, ILM was able to use simulation for the jungle with built in calculations to add motion to the trees to help them look real.
But the tense moment inside the erupting volcano, with Zachary Quinto's Spock willing to sacrifice himself to save the planet, featured ILM's latest advancement in fluid simulation. "To make the shots possible, we constructed a small patch of rock for Quinto to stand on while the surrounding areas were layered and mapped with pools of magma," Guyett explains. "The surface is a large area, a mile or so across, so in order to get the foreground and the detail, Dan Pearson built a system that was a tialed version of simulations. The tial that was around the camera was at the highest resolution so you can see droplets of lava. But it was sophisticated in the way it dealt with viscosity changes based on temperature. And when the lava cools down it forms a crust. He built all of this information and then we rendered hundreds of elements that included smoke and debris and embers that went into such a visceral texture.
"But while we used a digital double of Spock, as second unit director, I shot pieces of Spock descending into the volcano. We built a single rock with Zach and then it became a big compositing sequence. Plume was used for generating smoke and fire. We still need some practical elements in there, especially when they're interacting with the character."
When a ship attacks the Starfleet building in San Francisco, one of the primary light sources for the scene were the lights on the ship itself. Pixomondo (under the supervision of Ben Grossmann), took the lead on this sequence. "We figured out a system with the grips where we flew a computer-controlled basket with lights on it built in the same configuration as our final ship and we controlled that through hundreds of feet of area," Guyett recalls. "So we pre-animated the ship and plugged that data into a Nav Cam system, where you can puppeteer this light rig based on the wire systems. The interactive lighting system was so successful it was used elsewhere."
If there's a greater level of realism, it's a result of ILM using a different pipeline for rendering. In the last movie ILM used a straight up RenderMan pipeline but here they started to use the Arnold ray tracing system more. "Lighting with a single-point source is much more accurate and you don't have to cheat the bouncing with simulation," Guyett adds. "RenderMan is great, but using Arnold we got a lot of the global illumination and the way surfaces interact for free. It was probably more scientifically correct and we were certainly more efficient in some of the techniques we adopted.
Guyett enjoyed working with Abrams again in making Into Darkness a more visually exciting and emotional experience. "It's a job that requires looking at absolutely every detail on the most microscopic scale, and only making that more of a challenge is the fact that J.J. has shot the film both in 3-D and using IMAX cameras.
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld, the owner of Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), a columnist for Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen, featuring interviews with all six actors.