Renee Dunlop boldly goes where no journalist has gone before in reporting on the re-mastering of the original Star Trek series with subtle 3D enhancements.
Captain Kirk: How long to re-fit?
Scotty: Eight weeks. But you don't have eight weeks, so I'll do it for you in two.
Against a formidable deadline, Niel R. Wray, vfx supervisor at CBS Digital, wrangled the task of re-mastering Star Trek for HD in a way that should please the fans and make a generation of new ones. Star Trek is a show with such a dedicated fan base that every detail of the show is scrutinized, so keeping that fan base happy was the sacred challenge. The other was time, so Wray began ticking off solutions that would satisfy the viewers as well as the production schedule.
The first was to rapidly assemble a team of 20 top freelance and in-house artists. The second was creating an accurate 3D model of the Enterprise. Though they had built a model for the tests that won the bid, it was by no means adequate for the demands of production. They needed something far more exact to the original model that now hangs in the Smithsonian.
Mike Okuda, Denise Okuda and Dave Rossi, producers of the re-mastered Star Trek, have worked on various Star Trek projects over the years. Okuda had previously collaborated on some projects with engineering student Petri Blomqvist from Finland. Blomqvist was a hard-core fan of Star Trek and was contracted to create a model of the Enterprise, using measurements taken directly from the one hanging in the Smithsonian. The detail was extremely accurate, down to nearly every nut and bolt, built entirely in 3D. Though the model was far too heavy for weekly production, it was the best option for getting the initial shows done on time. Okuda, who is considered a walking encyclopedia of Star Trek information, considered Blomqvist's model so accurate that Wray's team could use the Blomqvist model without concern. Assistance in the form of drawings, photos, and information in the Star Trek universe, especially with the K7 Space Station, came from Gary Kerr. Both provided information that helped to launch the project against an extremely difficult timeline.
The first two shows completed were "Balance of Terror" and "Miri. Adding to the challenge, "Balance of Terror" and "The Doomsday Machine" are two of the more effects-laden episodes in the series.
With the first two shows finished and the team in place, they began the task of rebuilding the Enterprise model to something that was tailored appropriately for visual effects, replacing the extreme detail with texture maps where appropriate. They chose Maya for 3D animation, Inferno to composite and Rush to manage the 110 proc mental ray render farm. The original show was shot in 4:3, but the vfx work is being done in HD 16:9.
One of the toughest challenges was to know where to bring up the quality of the vfx without losing the flavor of the original. All the decisions are being made to honor the production style, the style of cinematography and the style of editing, according to Okuda. In the opening shot, for example, they chose to smooth out the motion of the Enterprise, but painstakingly duplicated the placement of the stars. Yet with current technology, even small improvements can go a long way.
Scotty: ... they don't make them like they used to.
One of the production limitations in the 1960s was the lack of motion control capabilities when the models were shot against bluescreen. In the original title sequence, dolly tracks were set up to the practical model and, with the camera starting from perhaps 50 away, they would push in to a close-up. The goal was to make it appear as if the Enterprise was flying toward or away from the viewer. To imply additional increased distance, they would take the last still of the ship and simply shrink it down.
In "The Devil in the Dark, several shots of the ship are coming from a distance and flying right by camera, or starting by camera and flying away and are edited together for a fly-by. "They are a little jarring at times, because there are cuts in the shots where they are pieced together, another byproduct of previous limitations, Wray explains. "Now, the camera pans with the shot, and we are adding a slight bank to the ship to remove the bump and add realism. This doesn't take anything away from the effect. It just resolves the limitations of what they couldn't do then."
But the production is still so focused on remaining true to the original show, there are times when the decision is made to even leave in some of the bumps.
Another example is when the Enterprise is drifting in space. The previous method was to take a still frame and gently shift its position to imply drifting. But with the new enhancements, they can add realism with a slight rotation in the drift as well.
On occasions where additional CG does improve the clarity, some license is allowed. There is a scene in "The Naked Time" where Scotty uses a phaser to cut through a wall, and while there are sparks, there is no beam coming from the phaser. To help the realism, the decision was made to add in a beam.
Several matte paintings were redone in "The Devil in the Dark" since the perspectives were off, perhaps due to time and/or budget restrictions. In "Devil, there are scenes where the actors are in an office, and outside the window was a drop of a mining facility. Wray's team roto'd out the actors and created a new 2D matte painting in PhotoShop, keeping the original style of the 60s shot but fixing perspective issues and making it feel a lot more robust.
Editing is also a challenge, and they are usually limited by the existing edits. Since Wray's team rarely has B-rolls, on occasion they've had to add some frames to a dissolve to make sure that live footage matches up. In "The City on the Edge of Forever, Captain Kirk falls in love with Joan Collins' character, but in the end she has to die. Wray explains, "If she lives, it will change the future. Kirk knows she will die, and has to allow it happen. It's an intense scene, but then dissolves to a visual fx shot. There was a lot of massaging to get that shot to work while maintaining the integrity of the emotion."
In the Future
At the time of this interview, CBS Digital had delivered five out of 79 episodes. Eighteen shows are due to air this year, and the remaining episodes are scheduled for 2007. The schedule demands delivery of one show a week with anywhere from 15-105 vfx per show.
Currently they are refining the pipeline and finishing up rebuilding the Enterprise. The original Star Trek actually had three versions, what they refer to as the first pilot Enterprise, the second pilot Enterprise and the series Enterprise. To maintain accuracy, they are rebuilding each one. They are also building the Romulan Bird of Prey, Botany Bay, the K7 Space Station and the Klingon Battle Cruiser that will be added to "The Trouble with Tribbles. In "Mirror Mirror," the crew encounters a transporter accident and is transported into an alternate universe. In this episode, the crew and the Enterprise are geared for war, so the model requires a slightly different presence, and will require yet another model.
Updating a show with such a passionate fan base makes Star Trek a daunting task, but as technology improves in the studio, so it does in the home. By making the subtle improvements, Star Trek will not only entertain its original fans on improved equipment, but will also stand up to the expectations of a new generation. Wray is a huge fan of the show, and Star Trek influenced his decision to enter the field of vfx, so the project appears to be in good hands.
Renee Dunlop has worked in film, games and multimedia since 1993. She currently works at Sony Pictures in Culver City, California, and freelances as a Maya lighting digital artist and as a writer for several trade publications.