ILM - a combination of artist, magician and scientist


On May, 8, the most famous Starship of all time returns to the big screen. But Director J.J. Abrams will make sure that this movie goes where no Star Trek has gone before. The film, written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, shows the first adventure of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the Enterprise crew. With a quantum twist.
Abrams went for a fresh and realistic look for his movie, while he tried to honor the last 43 years of the long running franchise and it‘s worldwide fan base as much as possible.

For this he went to Industrial Light & Magic, the company that started the modern era of visual effects. ILM has a long history with the Star Trek films and provided with the „Genesis Effect“ the first completely computer-generated sequence in a movie for „The Wrath of Khan“ in 1982.

I talked with ILM‘s Roger Guyett and Michael DiComo about their work with J.J. Abrams on Star Trek.

Roger Guyett joined ILM 1994 and worked on movies like Casper, Dragonheart and Pirates of the Caribbean. He won a BAFTA 1998 for „Saving Private Ryan“ and earned Oscar and BAFTA nominations his work on „Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban“
Roger worked as Visual effects supervisor and Second Unit Director on Star Trek J.J. rendered the title sequence for Lost himself, how was working with him as Second Unit Director?

RG: This is the second movie after Mission: Impossible III we did together, and we have a really good relationship. Bad Robot was looking for a Second Unit Director, and Vic Armstrong, who did the Job on MI3, was not available, so J.J. ended up asking me to do it. Most of the big action and stunt sequences tend to be very visual effects oriented, so it makes sense to have a Second Unit Director who is the Visual Effects Supervisor as well. We worked very close together and met almost every day.

Have you been a Trekkie?

RG: I love TOS, for me the Original series is the most relevant part of the Trek world… as a kid I never missed one episode while it was on TV. Part of my homework for Star Trek was that I watched all 10 movies that came before and re-watched some of TOS, to create the right feeling for the prequel we were doing. How did you upgrade the classic Star Trek effects, like the warp rainbow?

RG: J.J. wanted the movie to be based in reality as much as possible. The Enterprise should be a believable starship, the warp effect should look real and exciting. That means you have to upgrade all of these classics. You have to look at the design of the Communicators and Phasers and the transporter effect. All those things that are fixed in the Trekkies minds, like what Matt Jefferies original design of the warp nacelles looked like. Our version of warp travel is extremely exciting. Throughout the movie we paid respect to all of the classic elements the fans will be watching for, including a lot of the sounds known from The Original Series. We paid our homage to classic elements while upgrading them at the same time. The transporter chime or when the Communicator beep. They are all in there, not as exact copies from 1966 but updates true to the original. Everything the hardcore fans have affection for is there. Like our version of the uniform, they are very familiar but a more contemporary version of what was done in the original. We kept the colors, the Starfleet Delta and the shapes and styles are very familiar to the fans. It is the right balance between just copying something that would seem dated and making it more contemporary. The new bridge of the Enterprise is bright and glossy, some fans compared it to an Apple store…

RG: Yeah, I heard that too.. When you deal with such a hardcore fan base as the Trekkies, some people love what you do while others are disappointed. But you need to make strong decisions if you want to make a great movie. And our goal was to make the best and exciting movie possible. Spock Prime showing Scotty the formula for transwarp beaming is a nice nod to „The Voyage Home“, where „Professor“ Scott introduced transparent aluminum to the world…

RG: That is the great thing if you have somebody like Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman writing the script. Bob is a huge Trekkie himself, he is very aware and respectful of all the things the fans love and embrace. There is a lot of tipping the hat to the fans in the movie, while it is very contemporary film. It is a great adventure story, a high energy, and fun movie. The main viewer on the bridge looks like a real window with heads-up displays in it…

RG: Watching TOS as a kid, the screen always reminded me that the bridge was a set. It was hard to imagine the Enterprise warping through space if you just have a view screen that is playing back footage. But we were very keen on putting the crew really into space. These people are explorers, and if you want to make this experience realistic you don‘t want a view screen but a real window on the bridge. You can see the dish of the primary hull with the NCC 1701 on it, like the hood of a car spread out in front of you. You are connected all the time to the geography of space, where the crew of the Enterprise is going, and what they are about to do. While that created more work for us, it is an important aspect of the bridge itself, making the impression of being out there much more believable. The window can behave as a screen with Nero‘s face displayed on it, or can be a mixture of window and heads-up display. One of the advantages of that for telling a story is that you can have many things happening at the same time. You might be talking to somebody on the screen, but at the same time you can see where you are, adding more layers of context to what the characters are doing. In the sequence were Chekov is addressing the crew about the distress call, we see lots of different areas of the ship, and it appears really huge…

That is one of the main things J.J. did so well on the movie. Schedule wise and physically filming it was a difficult task, but it was certainly worth it. J.J. really wanted to show the size of the Enterprise, as a massive ship, by travelling around in her. So by doing a ship-wide broadcast and following Chekov´s image on the view screens you get the impression what all those different people of the crew are doing. You get a glimpse of Engineering or go down to the torpedo bay, and it really gives the movie a great kind of scope. For 43 years it was part of Trek canon that the Enterprise was assembled in earth orbit. Where you surprised that the ship was build on the ground in Iowa?

Yes, that was a potentially contentious area. We probably negotiated one aspect of that by not showing how the ship got into space… I talked to Bob Orci about that, he was aware of the contradiction, but the way it services the plot makes it worth having the ship built on the ground. What was the toughest job for ILM doing Star Trek?

We spent a surprising amount of time on the transporter effect. J.J. was very interested in the way the effect worked and wanted to make sure that it had real dimension.

We spent an enormous amount of time on making the Starships look the coolest and most interesting of all Trek history. Then there is a tremendous amount of destruction in the movie, which is a lot of fun to do. We spent a lot of time developing the virtual pyrotechnics for the space battles, making sure that the explosions when a ship is hit are appropriate to real space. It is a huge visual effects movie, there are more than 1.000 effects shots in Star Trek.

I am very proud of what we did and the movie is fantastic. There is nothing like doing a space movie, and Star trek has a history of pushing the envelope of visual effects. It is a great honor of being part of that tradition. Michael DiComo joined Industrial Light & Magic in 1996 as a technical director on 101 Dalmatians. On Star Trek he worked as Digital Production Supervisor. How do you destroy a starship?
MDC: First off all we need R&D to come up with a procedural way, luckily we don‘t have to break up the models by hand anymore. So a toolset is built and tested to blow up starships in a convincing way. Did you provide a lot of pre-viz materials for J.J.?

MDC: J.J. was already shooting the movie while we began to send him pre-visualized shots. It was a very tight and collaborative creative process. So while shooting live action J.J. received the pre-vis, got back to us and we had the chance to redo the sequence to deliver exactly what he wanted. We had ILM people on location so that J.J. could check the sequence on a Laptop, he saw the explosions as QuickTime movies while he was directing the scene.

After things got more settled down we would send whole sequences for reviewing to Maryann Brandon, the editor in Los Angeles. So the editorial team was able to react to our work in the right context. The space sequences look astoundingly real, how did you achieve that?

MDC: From the very outset Roger Guyett and J.J. were going for a much more realistic space environment. We started with very high contrast photography, because a lot of viewers know from real footage with NASA‘s Space Shuttle that the Earth bounces a whole bunch of light. Stanley Kubrick went for that look in 2001, but usually space movies go for a flat, low contrast look. We assumed that your primary light source in outer space is the next sun, and that there is very little bounce light. The dark side of the Enterprise is not illuminated by any fill light, you see only the windows and the ships tracer light. So we tried to play with that and forced that realistic contrast space look on the ship‘s hull. Things slide into darkness, so you can‘t tell on the dark side of Nero’s ship, the Narada, where it disappears. It‘s just so big, it looms out of the frame, and so dark that you can‘t see the surface, which makes it much more interesting and menacing.

For the details on the Starfleet ships, we asked the modelers and the painters in ILM‘s model shop who had built the Enterprise by hand for the earlier Trek movies. The Starship‘s outer hull is made from a lot of different panels, and they told us how to get that structure right. Some of the panels are matte, some dirty, some are scruffed and some clean. So we built the complete hull in CG, including virtual layers of paint. CG starts very clean, and then we worked in all the dirt and the grime. Our main task is to mess things up, to give the ships the look they get from patrolling at the final frontier. How did you build the Enterprise?

MDC: Bruce Holcomb, our lead digital modeler and our lead painter Ron Woodall brought in their amazing experience while building the Enterprise. Of course there is a big difference between a few concept drawings by Ryan Church and then building the ship in 3D space and orbit around it. When you see the light shining at the model you start to make some design decisions on top of that. But J.J. Abrams gave us so much creative freedom that we were able to built a beautiful Enterprise for him. When we pointed out that the relationship between the primary hull‘s saucer and the warp nacelles look a little weird, J.J. allowed us to change that, he is pushing something through the creative process till it is perfected. It was an amazing experience. The warp nacelles are equipped with Bussard collectors to collect hydrogen particles from space, after more than 40 years they don‘t glow red anymore…

MDC: While J.J. wanted to be stay true to the past on the Bussard collectors, he did not stick to every square inch of Star Trek that came before. If we showed him something that made sense and made the Enterprise look better he went for it. We actually started with the red warm look on the Bussard collectors, but then we moved to the cooler, bluish look because it worked better with the overall design. J.J. was aware that he would have to take some heat from the hardcore Trek fans, but he was not afraid to do something cool and fresh that could exist inside the established canon of Star Trek at the same time. Was Star Trek shot on film stock?

MDC: Yes, it was shot on film using anamorphic lenses. The negatives get scanned and we work on digital files. Anamorphic lenses like Panavision come with certain artifacts and signature distortions. There are certain ways that flares happen in anamorphic lenses, so when we blow up these giant mega spaceships with huge explosions we need to mimic the trademark anamorphic lens flare, a long horizontal blue line. Let‘s say you have a shot on the bridge of the Enterprise with all those bright lights. When the highlight moves toward the edge of the lens it does this unpredictable magical and beautiful thing. It flares up and creates all sorts of aberrations and reflections within the lens. Our compositing team developed a lens flare toolkit for all starships. We also created those flares by filming a flashlight on a dark stage to combine these real anamorphic shots with the ones we mimic in our software. But the look adds greatly to the scope of Star Trek. What special effects applications did you use?

MDC: At ILM we work with third party software and our in-house solution called Zeno. It serves as a hub and animation environment for most of ILM‘s production pipeline. Within the modular Zeno structure the artists only use the tool needed for the task at hand, and modelers and animators are collaborating on the same file in real-time. Changes on the file are updated automatically through the pipeline. A lot of modeling and animation is done in Autodesk Maya, and the final rendering happens in Pixar‘s RenderMan and mental Ray.

For the space battles we created a whole new set of 3D simulated explosions. Just 10 percent of the shots were supplemented with real live material from our archives. To show the realism of space, without oxygen, our explosions burn off superfast and are sucked back into the ships. We are physically true to what happens in space.

Sometimes you have this exact part of a Starship you want to break off and reveal the decks inside. ILM has a procedure called „Fracture“ for that, which gives us procedural control. This allows an artist to select five missiles for example, and determine which panels of the starship will be damaged without creating this by hand. When the Enterprise warps into this huge debris field of destroyed starships there are these beautiful pieces that come right at the camera. The artist has total control about the pieces of hull that are missing, and the bodies drifting in space.

He can take the piece of saucer and cut it open by hand, having all the creative decisions at his fingertips. How much hardware was needed to create the movie?
MDC: In ILM‘s basement in San Francisco‘s Presidio is a huge, freezing cold room filled with more than 10.000 processors. Star Trek was created at ILM‘s renderfarm on 400 Terabytes disk space. One frame of film, and there are 24 frames per second, takes between six and eight hours to render, depending on specific lightning in the scene. Have you been a trekkie before working on the film?

MDC: No. Of course working at ILM means you are a combination of artist, magician and scientist, so we have a lot of trekkies on our crew. They figured out all the hints in Orci and Kurtzman's script at once and pointed to different episodes and stories, and we others had to do our homework about all the alien races and ship models in Star Trek. Are you excited to see the movie?

I couldn‘t be more excited to see Star Trek, more than any other movie I worked on in a long, long time. It really has a freshness to it that makes it different from all the other space movies we worked on, and totally cool characters in a very real environment. I am very proud on the work we‘ve done on it. It‘s just beautiful looking work in a really good movie, which is a combination that doesn‘t always happen in special effects films.

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