Half a century has passed since the Starship Enterprise started a technological revolution in serial television that continues with every new addition to the franchise.
by Pauline Rogers / Photos courtesy of CBS Star Trek Archive / CBS Interactive
On September 8, 1969, Gene Roddenberry began with the first episode of Star Trek, "taking the television audience where no man has been before". Who would have thought that their mission to use future environments to investigate current issues would spawn eight television reboots and 13 feature films? Who would have thought a TV series by Steve Wozniak, co-founder of the Apple computer, jet propulsion scientists and even pioneers of non-invasive imaging technology would be cited as inspiration?
The visual history of Star Trek begins with the first Director of Photography, Gerry Finnerman, ASC, and industry VFX legends such as Howard Anderson, ASC (miniatures, travel and materialization effects). Linwood Dunn, ASC (optical printers, walking mats); and Joseph Westheimer, ASC (special photographic effects); all of which helped prepare the Enterprise for its first mission. The highlight is (at least for now) the use of more than two million LED lights used in CBS All Access' digital platform Star Trek: Discovery. One can only imagine how difficult it is to realistically portray the maiden voyage of the USS Enterprise with older film cameras and lenses – Arriflex, Bausch & Lomb, and Mitchell systems photographing 35mm Eastman 50T 5291 and 100T 5254. no doubt) very hot sets.
By the time Star Trek: The Next Generation aired in September 1987 (one of the highest-budgeted single camera shows of its time at $ 2 million per episode), technology had been dynamically advancing. The series was shot with 35mm Eastman 400T 5294, 5295 and EXR 500T 5296, but with Panavision cameras and lenses.
“I remember going into the pilot (as a Local 600 trainee). Working with (Director of Photography) Ed Brown (ASC) and his team and literally changing my life, ”remembers AC Maricella Ramirez. Brown shot the pilot and the first two seasons for Next Generation, and when Ramirez later returned, Marvin Rush, ASC, director of photography at Next Generation, put her on 1st AC. "The recordings, designed by Marvin and executed by Operator Joe Chess (SOC), were very complex," adds Ramirez. “We made masters with very complicated dolly movements, lots of dance floors, long lenses, and sometimes zoomed in on the old Panavision 5: 1 at the same time. When we zoomed, they couldn't look like we were zooming. I could never drive the dolly because Joe had to "pretzel" himself in uncomfortable positions. The steadicam, which was considered highly specialized at the time, was only used for a specific exterior or an occasional interior. "
Ramirez adds, “We used a vibration isolator that the Panahead would sit on. It isolated the camera's vibration, but the attacks were difficult to work with. We had to have a fourth person who went with the three of us and carefully locked the isolator so that the end of the shot didn't look like jelly and bounce back and forth. "
There was no far focus, and the handles were challenged to pull the heavy hustler dolly onto the carpet. "It looked easy, but it wasn't," says Ramirez.
Next Generation was a pioneer for TV VFX ”and they was quite a challenge, ”recalls Lowell Peterson, ASC cinematographer who worked on the series. “Many of the tricks we came up with, including using anamorphic lenses to create optical dolly shots, I still use today to get VFX shots that don't require expensive rotation. Rob Legato (ASC) was on set a lot trying to figure out how to achieve VFX without rotoscopy. Often times, a moving shot was designed so that I could shut off the Panahead at the moment the visual effect took place. If you pay attention, you can see it during the show. "
When directors wanted complex, long takes, locks had to accommodate multiple VFX moments in a single take. For example, when two characters came out of a turbolift on the main bridge where the camera was being tracked in front of them until they stopped on the ramp, the camera was locked and they were transported out and an alien character was unlocked and panned the alien 180 degrees Degrees over the bridge to the other ramp. Eventually the camera was turned off again when Worf fired his phaser at the alien and he disappeared.
“We had two working models to support this closed economy,” Legato explains. “First we shot the A-side with the empty set and then entered the actors who appeared. This was all a setting as we would be telling the other actors in the scene to ignore them as they walked and then react to their appearance. The action would continue and we would break the camera and pan, lock it up for the next section, and then perform the same ritual in reverse. The stationary actors reacted to their disappearance, rolled on and let go of the disappeared actors and fetched the clean plate. The camera effect would pan in and out, then pan the camera from one end of the set to the other.
“The other method was to shoot with an anamorphic lens turned off – twice as wide so we can pan in the mail – and stage something like that, but with the ability to pan and scan the frame and move the camera too can pan in the middle of the effect instead of waiting for the effect to finish before breaking and paning the frame. A poor man's motion control, ”Legato adds.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine continuation to raise the stakes. The pilot ran around $ 18 million. The main set was two-tier and expansive. The show was still being shot on film – 35mm EXR 500T 5298 with Panavision cameras and lenses. But now the narrative drifted away from the space station and was the first in the TV franchise to use CGI imagery for outdoor scenes. The USS Defiant, for example, was the first spaceship with a CGI model, although real "models" were still used for several episodes.
The pilot's opening scene was a single shot, all handheld.
"It begins when the ship is in the midst of destruction," describes Chess, "and the captain tries to free his dead wife from fallen debris while his shocked little son looks on." The camera is hectic, as is the doomed crew. We run through the carnage as the ship is torn apart and eventually reach the final escape pod. When we follow the captain and his son into the house, we see the horror on their faces and are struck again. As they fall into their seats, the camera vibrates and searches. Then the command to eject is given. The camera jerks violently and then falls very quietly as the capsule detaches from the dying hull. As the capsule shoots into the silence of space, the ship explodes in a ball of fire. "
The story moves to the bridge where the series introduces the new (then) Enlouva crane and a power pod mounted on dolly and rail. "We're moving out of the orbiting pit to meet an alien crew member and the chief engineer," continues Chess. "We follow them upstairs, through an arch, past a busy crew and back upstairs and through some doors into the captain's office, where we meet captain Sisko. Another shot and a small miracle given the tools of the day Dolly track was built through a small hole in one wall of the elevated set, adding 30 feet to the arm travel. The arm and bucket kept rotating precisely around the wall. "
The fourth installment in the franchise, Star Trek: Voyager, which debuted in 1995 continued the tradition of Panavision / EXR 500T 5298. According to Ramirez, the Local 600 team tested several video cameras, “including a Sony, before the pilot launched, likely to aid the VFX. However, we ended up using Panavision film cameras and Mitchell filters to soften the makeup, as well as white pro mists in some episodes to differentiate between locations and the ship. "
Chess remembers a negotiation scene in which a fight breaks out.
“An alien is in a wall-sized fish bowl (green screen, CGI), one is a shapeshifter (a man in a green suit), one only existed in CGI, where we had to leave it open (a tennis ball on a stick) and another in elaborate SFX make-up and complete with animatronics operated by two puppeteers – and then the guns came out, ”he explains. “Phaser explosions and CGI projectiles. There was also a green screen showing others involved in the negotiations. And everything was done in hand on a seven-day schedule! "
Six years later, in September 2001, Star Trek: Enterprise debuted. The show started with Kodak Vision 500T 5279 with Panaflex Gold II and Panaflex Millennium XL cameras and Primo and Super Speed 2 lenses, as well as several Cooke lenses. However, in season four, Rush tested Sony's digital system, and production switched to CineAlta and Zeiss DigiPrimes. Enterprise went on to "go where others haven't".
Mark Reilly of Enterprise AC notes, “We were one of the first TV shows to switch from film to HD, and I was possibly one of the first (ACs) to get focus with a monitor on Marvin's car. Up until this point, I usually worked with a Preston on the camera to allow flexibility as we regularly changed the camera configurations – from handheld to crane. However, the new Sony F900 and the improved video surveillance capabilities – Marvin used a 24-inch Apple monitor – were a huge improvement over a video tap on film cameras. I would sit with my Preston on an apple box by Marvin's monitor cart and say, "Follow the ball." He also liked the ability to tweak the exposure or sneak into a zoom with a whisper. Obviously it took a bit of getting used to, but I enjoyed focusing on a big screen and instantly knowing if we got the shot. The biggest challenge was getting to know the new camera menu and the new camera systems and then adapting them to our numerous recording modes. "
Corporate Cinematographer Gary Tachell adds that other new devices were featured on the show. "When the ship is attacked and hit, the A-cameraman / DP of the 2nd unit, Doug Knapp (SOC, who died in May 2020) shook the camera to simulate the hit," said Tachell. "Many of the scenes on the bridge where we were on a crane and a distant head used Marvin's hot gears. These tools allowed us to program a customizable shake and trigger it right at the point of impact. We could even do a variety of motion control functions with the Run gears. "
Tachell notes that Rush even brought a Sony FX1 prosumer to test as an Eyemo crash camera. "We had a scene where we blew up a shuttle capsule and we put it in a crash cam position, far and close to the explosion," he adds. "We were all pretty amazed at how well such an inexpensive camera can work."
"Star Trek has always been something special for me, something that needs to be valued and protected, ”says Rush. “Most science fiction stories are dystopian in nature. Not Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry's vision was more hopeful and ambitious. It had integrity. My job as a cameraman was to take this into account when lighting and taking photos. I wanted the light to come from honest sources and to maintain the integrity of that source as much as possible. Conspicuous and conspicuous decisions were not made. Instead, the circumstances of the story would always dictate the lighting and camera look.
"I also felt it was my responsibility to promote people on a regular basis," Rush added. “My criterion was that when I noticed someone in their current position had reached a zenith, I had to find a way to take them a little further. Sometimes they hesitated at first. I put it this way: "You cannot get better in your current role because you are almost perfect." If I don't apply to you, you'll get bored after a while … then complacent … then finally bitter. Then we will both be unhappy. “To allay their concern, I made a promise. "While you are learning your new job, I am not going to ask you to do something you are not ready for." I'll cover you until you get there! “This was the best part of working on Star Trek for years. To see my friends have their dreams as I had mine. "
Until 2017 and with the change to CBS All Access The Star Trek TV franchise was entirely digital. "We were asked to shoot this new show, Discovery, as if it were a feature," explains Cinematographer Glen Keenan, CSC. “Due to the technological progress and the structure of the set, several new tools were available to us. For example, the incredible Enterprise Bridge only took 20 weeks to build. Since we have the sensitivity of the digital medium, we were able to use programmable LED lighting and dimmer board technology to bring the bridge to life. Discovery used three dimmer board operators, and I know it sounds incredible, but we had over two million LED lights in the entire set. "
Keenan adds that with the advent of small HD digital cameras like the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema system, his team has been able to mount the cameras on actors and within the sets for different scenes, which in turn connects the audience with the characters.
“And to help our focus pullers, they can use tools like the Preston Light Ranger Focus System to remotely focus on complex sequences,” Keenan adds.
"Today the shows can be even more exciting," says cinematographer Philip Lanyon, who worked on Discovery and Star Trek: Picard, which debuted in early 2020. “Technological constraints have traditionally been of great help to history and often where we find the most creativity. Conversely, new technology can advance history and vice versa. I just think it shouldn't be in the front seat. Sci-fi is more engaging when technology is used to support the story rather than letting the spectacle take the lead for itself.
“For Picard we use the ALEXA MINI in combination with Cooke 2 × Special anamorphic flare glass and a variety of LED and traditional sources, ”Lanyon continues. “My favorites are the Kino 850 with a chimera as a softkey and LiteGears LiteMat 4 as a filling. We use Area 48s, SkyPanels and rainbow tubes for the ship. This gives us a lot of control over color and layers. With the Borg sets, we use 20K mol projectors as sun rays and many LED strips in the cube. "
Lanyon says he's amazed at how much Star Trek has grown over the years as it has adapted to the various technologies. "One of the things that made the biggest difference for us is the use of VFX and CGI," he says. "The VFX wizards are so good at problem solving that directors and DPs can focus on the story."
Lanyon cites a creation on Picard that is of particular interest. "It's called the Wrap Core on the La Sirena spaceship," he explains. “It's an interactive part of the story and allows us to incorporate some nice lighting effects. Its creation is due to a good collaboration between the art department and lighting. We use simple LED room lights for the design and they work well in such a narrow wall in front of a firebreak. We used the fire brigade trail for extra depth as you can see through the fins of the room lights to the other side. We lit the rear wall of the fire brigade with Color Force stripes and bounced them off silver pebbles. It worked wonderfully and became the heart of the ship. "
According to Lanyon, the warp core has an output of 35,000 watts. With modern digital sensors: "We have such an enormous dynamic range and such a soft roll-off for highlights that we could just keep getting brighter and it always looked better – more scattered light, nicely packaged backlighting," he concludes.
In keeping with Rodenberry's essential message of exploration in the service of mankind, the eighth installment of the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds TV franchise is coming up for CBS All Access. The show takes place in the years prior to Captain Kirk's leadership of the USS Enterprise with Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) as commander, supported by Science Officer Spock (Ethan Peck) and Number One (Rebecca Romijn). It promises to continue Trek's technological development. With new tools like virtual devices, large format cameras and new lens designs, Finnerman, Anderson, Dunn, Westheimer and the company, who have invested years in helping television “go where no one has been”, would be proud.