TO BOLDLY GO, AGAIN...
The original starship Enterprise in the 1960s series "Star Trek" was a model that wobbled along a toy train track.
Polishing a legend
A most famous spaceship flies again on our TV screens and in our memories
The average guy might be tempted to paint a mustache on Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," but was Leonardo himself tempted to tweak the painting? You know, raise an eyebrow, add an enigmatic smile, render some additional cleavage — if Leonardo were an artist interested in cleavage — modify the landscape, remove a hairnet ...
Actually, Leonardo Da Vinci actually did most of the above. And possibly didn't finish, which would explain the mismatching landscapes in the painting.
However, TV shows, meant to be aired only a couple of times and then squirted off into the ether of space, are a collaborative effort under the axe of a crushing deadline. The operative guideline is Good Enough.
But that was then, and this is now. Classic TV shows are being dusted off for the digital replay generation. In the case of "Star Trek," the original series is not only getting a facelift, it's being pumped up with new special effects and is being aired on prime-time television.
In Hawaii, it's Saturday nights on KGMB. And overseeing the show's recreation is Michael Okuda, who, as a young lad in Hawaii, was tapped by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry to be the series' corporate memory bank when it was revived. Okuda and wife Denise, a set designer and fellow Trekker, have been intimately involved with the show ever since.
Busy with the Trek revamping and other Hollywood projects, we caught up with the Okudas. Hailing frequencies open:
"About a year ago, CBS started transferring the original Star Trek for airing in high def video," said Denise. "The original show was shot on fine-grain color film. The new transfers are just plain beautiful! They're rich, they're clear, and they're truer to the original film images."
"An amazing tribute to the original filmmakers and designers who worked on the show back in the 1960s," said Michael. "There was just one problem. The original visual effects, the scenes of the Enterprise in space, were all done with traditional optical-printer technology, cutting edge stuff back then, but not as sharp as the rest of the show."
CBS, exploring the notion of re-rendering the spaceship using modern computer-generated effects, paired the Okudas with producer Dave Rossi and a team of effects wizards at CBS' in-house studio. It begins with research. "We and our cohort Dave sit down and watch the shows several times and take excruciatingly detailed notes," said Michael. "We're trying very hard to respect the original work."
"CBS Digital is doing all the effects work for the remastered episodes. Dave, Denise, and I are overseeing the project for the studio. The size of the team varies with the complexity of the episodes."
"In some cases, we've used some Paramount archive material to figure out some of the technical background of the shots, but our main source of research is the episodes themselves," said Denise. "What was the original writer's intent, as interpreted by the original directors and the original editors?"
The new edition is a state-of-the-art computer-rendered vision of the famous spaceship -- but it's still based on the original model, now in the Smithsonian.
In most cases, you'd be hard-pressed to detect changes in the show. Everything looks brighter and more vivid, and there's an added sense of detail evident in exterior scenes.
"We strive to preserve the original timings and designs, the original compositions. We might redesign something if we think we can remove some of the technical limitations of the original, but we do that carefully," said Michael.
"The new effects should look like they belonged there all along," said Denise: "We don't want the new work to be so jarringly different that it pulls you out of the show."
Being replaced are virtually all of the spaceship shots, most of the viewscreen shots, and nearly all of the matte paintings and scenic backings, with a more realistic edge to those classic designs. "We're making it like the original, only more so," said Michael.
"That's been part of the fun of the project," said Denise. "We re-created a lot of the original ship shots that fans would find very familiar, a big part of the look of the show. But then there are new shots, some just subtly different, and some that were radically new. We intermix the two types of shots to avoid repeating exactly the same shots over and over, as the original show had to."
Even if Leonardo had wanted to mustache Mona Lisa, he wouldn't have had to deal with Trek fans, who are not only legion, they are highly protective of their cultural icon.
"When the project was first announced, a lot of fans were very understandably skeptical," said Michael "They were afraid that we would change the effects with no regard to the style of the original. Once they saw the first few episodes, they understood that we're approaching this project with great respect for the original artists.
"Since then, it's been overwhelmingly positive," said Denise. "One of the most popular recent shows was 'The Doomsday Machine,' which had more than a hundred new effects shots."
"Everyone put in a lot of late-night work on that one," said Michael, explaining that the show, like the original, has a weekly deadline. "We were up to 6:30 am on the last night!"
"One of my favorite new effects sequences is in episode called 'The Conscience of the King,' said Denise. "There's a scene where Kirk takes a beautiful woman on a tour of the Enterprise. They stop where there's a window that looks out into space. In the original, there are just a couple of small lights out the window to hint at stars. We added a full star field that slides past the window as the Enterprise travels through space. It's a simple effect, but it really enhances the romance of the scene."
Aren't they tempted to wrinkle the Klingons' foreheads? Just a little?
"Y'know, we did a couple of episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise that explained why original series Klingons had smooth foreheads!" said Michael.
"Yeah! Weren't you taking notes?" laughed Denise.
COURTESY MICHAEL AND DENISE OKUDA
Michael and Denise Okuda inserted themselves into a picture of the original "Star Trek" bridge in this homemade special-effects picture for the Star-Bulletin.
The classic theme music during the title sequence was also re-recorded. "David LaFountaine, our executive producer for CBS, is fond of saying, same notes, same instruments, same arrangements, better microphones," said Denise.
And the starships that swoop through space on the show are familiar icons, part of the visual language of the late 20th century.
"Wherever a physical model was originally used, we usually base the CGI model on that, although we do, in some cases, make some changes," said Michael. "What color is the Enterprise? Well, the original Enterprise model, which sits in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, is painted a flat medium gray. It was lightly airbrushed with faint streaks of greasy, browns, and dark greens to give it a little weathering. But the basic color was medium gray. Of course, you have to ask yourself, is the 'real' color of the Enterprise the color of that model in the Smithsonian? Or is it the color of what you saw on your television screen?"
"After all," said Denise, "the 'real' Enterprise is a creation that exists only on TV screens."
According to Michael, the new digital Enterprise is a very close copy of the original. "We started with measurements taken from the original Enterprise filming miniature at the Smithsonian. The artists at CBS Digital sweated bullets on that one. Once we had an accurate model of the ship, we had them add a subtle layer of texture to the hull. That let us do shots that were even closer to the ship than the original shots.
"Most of the starship designs come from the original show itself. In some cases, we're able to embellish those designs a bit to make them a little more realistic. In a few cases, we've been able to show ships that were only hinted at in the original. Niel Wray, our visual effects supervisor at CBS Digital, designed the Gorn ship for 'Arena,' for example."
"In the original episode, the Gorn ship was always just a little bit out of scanner range, so you never saw it," said Denise. "Now, it's still far away, but we can see a little hint of the Gorn ship. Fun!"
"In 'Journey to Babel,' the original episode showed an Orion raider ship that was just a spinning light," said Michael. "Not that this was a bad thing. We're really in awe of the ingenuity of the original visual effects artists, who did these great effects way back when. For the remastered effects, we looked at that spinning light, and I suggested a ship that incorporated the spinning light.
We asked the Okudas to describe, step-by-step, the process that goes into altering the Enterprise in an effects F/X shot.
"It all starts with the original episode," said Denise. "We study the original shot, and the story context. What is the ship doing, what is happening. Is it a transition shot? What was the writer, or the director, or the editor trying to do with the shot? That's the heart of the project."
"In some cases, we'll use a standard ship-in-orbit shot, because those familiar shots are part of the look of the show," said Michael. "In other cases, we'll devise a new shot to do what we think the original director or writer would have wanted. We meet with Dave Rossi, and we try to figure out which shots need to be done, and what needs to be done. We work up a detailed breakdown of each effects shot in a given episode."
"Then we meet with Niel Wray and Toni Pace at CBS Digital," said Denise. "We'll discuss each shot, trying to figure out what is do-able, given the available time and resources. As you know, television is always on a tight schedule! Once this happens, the artists at CBS Digital pick up the ball. First, they'll build digital models of any new spaceships, they'll create new matte paintings and planets, and they'll create any other new elements that a show will require. A lot of times, Niel and his team will suggest different approaches for shots that we might not have considered."
"Then, they'll create what are called 'animatics,'" continued Michael. "These are simple computer-generated animations with simplified models that show the general layout of each shot, and they show how the digital models will move in the shot. Animatics are fairly quick to create, so we can judge if a proposed shot does what we expected, and we can look for any potential problems.
"Once the animatics are approved, we can proceed to render the actual elements. This is probably the most time-consuming step. A bank of computers, called a 'render farm' generates each part of each shot in high definition."
"Each part of each shot is rendered separately," said Denise. "You end up with an animation of the ship, a separate animation of the lights on the ship, a third clip with the background stars, yet another with the foreground planet, and so on. Finally, an artist called a compositer puts it all together into a single high-definition shot. Because all the pieces are separate, the compositer can tweak the brightness of the lights, or the color of the planet, or the darkness of the shadows. This is a key part of making the final shot look realistic."
What else are the Okudas up to? Star Trek fans claim the catalogue they assembled for Paramount's auction of Star Trek props was spectacular.
"Last year, Christie's auction house brought us in to help Paramount conduct an auction of Star Trek props and costumes," said Denise. "We went through five warehouses of stuff for their big sale last October."
"It was pretty amazing!" said Michael. "Five enormous warehouses full of old props, costumes, and set pieces! It was just like the end scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. We had to go through everything and find the best, most iconic, most interesting stuff for the sale."
"Needless to say, it was bittersweet," said Denise. "Going through all this stuff that we've worked with — and even helped to make — over the years. But Paramount gave us the opportunity to help find good homes for these treasures. And that's the best part — we know that the fans who paid good money for this stuff will treasure it and take care of it and preserve it."