COVER STORY: 'STAR TREK' RETURNS
SAN FRANCISCO — Star Trek. After some 43 years of intergalactic action, there are a lot of things you could have named this movie for Paramount's "reboot" of the franchise, but director/producer J.J. Abrams stuck with the two basic Gene Roddenberry-inspired syllables that say it all.
Abrams, famed for creating blockbuster television such as Lost and Fringe, favors character-and-story over spectacle and gritty verisimilitude over sleekness. We'll trust Abrams with Star Trek's character development and focus on his choice for much of the film's look — ILM, the lead effects house, created about 789 VFX shots out of around 1,000 total, or about one hour of Star Trek screen time. (Other houses that contributed work include Digital Domain, Svengali and Lola VFX.)
At the peak of production last year, ILM threw virtually its entire staff — 400 artists and technicians — at Star Trek shots. For Russell Earl, the movie's premiere this month presents something of a space-time warp. The visual effects he oversaw were essentially all done last fall, in time for a Christmas release (which Paramount then bumped to May due to box-office-share considerations). Now Earl, who was Star Trek's co-VFX supervisor for ILM with Roger Guyett, is stationed in Prague, where he's on the WW II actioner Red Tails (it has air combat).
Star Trek represents something of a promotion for Earl to visual effects supervisor. He worked in tandem with ILM veteran VFX supervisor Guyett who, in turn, wound up taking on second-unit direction duties for Abrams.
"We kind of split the work," Earl says. "Roger did a lot of the initial planning, working with J.J., for how we were going to shoot certain sequences." While Guyett got involved in second-unit shooting, Earl started to commute down to LA to balance supervision of effects there with the work on-going at ILM.
"I was overseeing the asset development," Earl says, "the building of the ships and everything that goes into the pre-production of the film." This may at first sound unexceptional since ILM has often employed scale models of ships — but for this Star Trek, everything, grit-and-all, was built in CG. Alex Jaeger was visual effects art director.
"J.J. and Roger and I would go over things and I would send retouched drawings or diagrams back to the folks at ILM," says Earl. "It's sort of taking everything that's come before and trying to build upon that. J.J. wanted you to be in a moment with the characters on a ship and then be able to cut to an exterior shot of the ship and have it feel just as realistic."
Another aspect was the daunting scale of the ships. The Enterprise is 3,000 feet long but bad guy Eric Bana's ship is designed to appear a humongous five miles long.
Director Abrams, Earl stresses, wanted it all "to look real," which means he was willing to take on what Earl calls "the CG curse." Even today there are directors who shy away from CG because some still feel it looks fake. "We were confident that we could do the CG well and not have that sort of fake-y 'curse' to it."
With the film's vast scale and numerous changes in scale, the number of different-sized spaceship miniatures ILM would have had to build would've been prohibitive. Hence Star Trek is ILM's first film with all-CG spacecraft.
Paul Kavanagh was ILM's animation supervisor who, with his team, would often start with a black card that simply read "Enterprise enters frame and fires." The movements in space of very large computer-generated ships needed to be carefully plotted so they maintained their sense of size and heft. "We were very careful about how fast a ship this large would move," Earl says, "because as soon as you start doing a really grand camera move, if you move the ship too fast it just blows the scale."
Because they were building CG ships, ILM developed some new techniques for all-digital explosions. The trick here is to give the audience a satisfying battle sequence without violating their hard-fought-for sense of reality. So, when the Enterprise is hit in battle, the fiery explosions seem to flare outwards — fueled by gasses you imagine are within the ship — and then suck back in, leaving black particulate and other debris flying outward.
The explosions are all-digital but aim to be as true as possible to the physics of space. "In space, explosions would happen quickly, with high velocity, and they would burn off really fast leaving behind this dusty debris," says Michael DiComo, ILM's digital production supervisor. Perfecting the new-style explosions took many tests and iterations, and multiple passes between the rendering and the compositing to ultimately evoke the excitement of battle.
DiComo's role was to "oversee all the disciplines and make sure that everyone's playing nice and everything goes through our pipeline cleanly and that we have the technology in place for all disciplines to get the job done," he says. Add to that DiComo's involvement in R&D to develop tools for effects "that we've never done before" and a grasp of staffing needs and you get a sense of his finger-in-every-pie responsibilities.
Abrams wanted a heightened sense of realism — more so than anything that's ever been done before, DiComo says, and that was especially true of the USS Kelvin, an older, slower, pre-Enterprise spaceship that meets a very dramatic end in battle. "We had the freedom to beat the heck out of it so there's all the dirt and the streaks in the [exterior] panels," DiComo says, including newer panels replaced in repairs. "You can build history into it and that's really a pleasure for all of us as model-makers and digital painters and technical directors and compositors to be able to add these levels of complexity and realism."
Compositor Greg Salter was sequence supervisor for the scenes where the Kelvin is under attack. Mark Nettleton was compositing supervisor on the Kelvin sequence and Tom Fejes was CG supervisor.
When first depicted under construction, ILM gives clues to the scale of the new Enterprise like a human-size ladder here and a handrail there, to signal the viewer as to its size.
Later, when light plays across the craft's surface, you see numerous plates having many different responses to the light — some pearlescent, some flat, some very shiny, some specular, dull or reflective. "We strive for that kind of complexity because it's easy to make something look perfect in computer graphics," DiComo says, "it's hard to make it look real, beat it up a bit and make it not be so perfect."
"We wanted to make sure that things have mass and weight," Earl says, and a prime example of that is the movie's imploding-planet sequence. "That was where the computer lent itself to being able to build something on one scale and then, if we're seeing it up close, we can dress it in-camera."
The imploding planet (a victim of the villain's mischief) was created via ILM's proprietary Fracture program, which automates some functions of destruction while still leaving room to "direct" some others, creating a random, natural feel. Using Fracture, the team started with a sphere model, made big continental breaks in it; then smaller breaks along the edges of the continental fractures with smaller bits and layers inside of that.
"The modeling procedure gives you, out of a very simple sphere, a very complex model of a broken up, thick planet," says DiComo. "We send that to the creature TD folks and they apply forces and do a lot of different, insane stuff to have these broken pieces that, when they're together, look like a whole planet, slowly breaking in a dynamic way that can be directed." David Weitzberg was the sequence supervisor on the planet implosion, working with a team of 13.
Then there's a hand-off to the lighting and effects sim TDs. They also use the Fracture simulation data to add the motion of very small particles representing the planet's boulders, pebbles and dust. You need multiple levels of realism to "sell the scale." There are dozens of compositing layers in the finished planet-implosion shot.
Similar work is done on missile strikes on spaceships' surfaces, except the Fracture system directs debris outward rather than inward. The surface is told to react to the force of an explosion and the interior guts of the ship get spewed out, including more dirt, grime, large metal panels and little shiny shards of metal, along with the brief fireball explosion.
ILM's considerable R&D effort was carried out in conjunction with the key players on the Abrams production team. DiComo says together they'd "figure out what we need and what we have that needs to be enhanced and changed to execute this project."
Simple tasks were important, like getting ILM's digital elements through the pipeline with all the proper naming conventions. "That's what makes the machine here go so smoothly — so when VFX elements get to the client they're not confused by what they're seeing."
On the "super high-end of the pipeline" is the work of Raul Essig, the CG sequence supervisor who helped develop the whole space explosion pipeline. Essig worked with compositor Greg Salter who "came up with the complicated compositing script that took all the different render passes and combined them and made it look so beautiful."
ILM's animators and layout people combined forces on Star Trek. For so much of the film, DiComo says, "there were no plates. They were full-CG shots. You get a description 'bad guy's ship fires at good guys' and you have to make it interesting. There's a lot of chances to be super creative on this show — more so than most of our projects. J.J. Abrams gave us the chance to design these sequences for him at the animatic level." Abrams "had his ideas during the early animatic sequences, and those became kind of place-holders that told the story — but now he really wanted to make it exciting." One VFX sequence place-holder card with a description could easily grow into three shots.
TDs do lighting and particle effects, DiComo says, volumetric rendering for digital explosions, digital clouds, and weapons like laser fire.
ILM's "creature department" TDs, led by sequence supervisor Karin Cooper, do a lot more than creature work (creature-rigging and enveloping, cloth and hair simulation). One huge task — destruction — was not about creatures at all. They also specialize in rigid simulation — taking a spaceship and breaking it into a bunch of bits and making it do the right physics in collisions, etc.
Creature shows have long been ILM's bread and butter — dinos, dragons, you name it, it's slithered or stomped out the shop's doors. But now, DiComo says, even more is expected. "There's no such thing as a 'simple creature sequence' anymore. Everything is turned up to 11 all the time." For instance the abominable creature that attacks Jim Kirk on Delta Vega, the ice planet, interacts with its icy environs. "When it puts its foot down it kicks up snow and ice and debris. If it smashes into something, we're creating digital chunks of snow, down to the smallest particulate of ice crystals and a dusty, fine snow so it looks like it's really in that environment."
ILM's proprietary Zeno package does all their camera tracking, lighting, rendering and effects simulation, rigid sim, hair sim, cloth sim. And ILM's R&D team builds in new functions and tools as needed. Eddie Pasquarello is an associate VFX supervisor at ILM who also served as a compositing supervisor on Star Trek, and he says the VFX and compositing departments really worked hand in hand given the complexity of the shots.
Compositing on Star Trek was done entirely in Apple Shake. (Not the free version that comes bundled with Final Cut.)
Roger Guyett shot Kirk's challenging visit to Delta Vega, on the elevated parking lot of Dodger Stadium, using environmentally safe shredded paper as snow. Despite the LA location, "it was overcast, really cold, you could see your breath and the paper got wet, so it really felt like snow," Pasquarello says. A compositing question (and therefore a shooting question) here was whether or not to shoot falling, blowing "snow" in the scenes. "We used some practical snow, some rendered snow and we actually had snow in-camera. It was a true hybrid and we had a rule book" of shots that either did or did not have snow blowing.
"Most of the stuff we shot was Kirk doing his stuff — landing, being chased by the creatures [a second beast joins in], falling down the mountain. It was a neat set, but it did open a lot of compositing challenges. There was some bluescreen in it, and snow, and adding an infinite horizon by Digimatte [ILM's environments department] was huge."
Conny Fauser supervised compositing on this sequence and "she was spot-on amazing."
Kirk and cohorts descend to a giant drill platform known at ILM as the "jump platform" in order to contend with bad-guy Nero. They get down there the hard way — in a kind of extreme bungee-cord jump from a high altitude, except without the bungee. That sequence and the ensuing martial artistry actually make up about one third of the compositing work on the film, Pasquarello says. "That was supervised by Jay Cooper, as a TD, and Francois Lambert was the comp sequence supervisor. That was an incredible challenge."
Like the Delta Vega ice-planet sequence, the jump platform was filmed by Guyett with the top level of the Dodgers' parking lot standing in for the platform. "Roger brought back some amazing stuff to work with. The platform was partial and we had to create the entire platform." Depicting the heroes' precipitous jump required a lot of atmospheric smoke.
J.J. Abrams and DP Daniel Mindel shot Star Trek with an anamorphic lens. If you work at ILM, you know there's a certain look to an anamorphic lens flare. And if there's the sun or a star in the corner of a synthetic ILM shot — or when the Enterprise passes in a beauty shot and its lights strike the virtual lens — the compositors have to replicate all the complexities of light dancing across such a lens. "There are all these different layers to the lens flare that we have to replicate digitally," DiComo says.
ILM's Todd Vaziri analyzed what anamorphic lenses do and all their different properties so they could be used in simulated shots and they call the resulting program "Sunspot."
Vaziri was a sequence supervisor whose job was to overlook all the sequences and make sure that ILM's shots were "correct to the film" — that they matched. "He takes great, great pains and it shows," says Pasquarello. "That was one of our compositing coups that I feel made a difference here — finishing touches that help our shots blend with the live action that J.J. gave us."
Pasquarello cites ILM's paint department, headed by Beth D'Amato, and their "intense, intense" roto-spline and paint work on sequences such as the jump platform. "A roto-spline is the articulated matte that's done on keyframes," Pasquarello says. "If I have Kirk and I need to isolate him and put a new background behind him, they'd use roto-splines and follow his shape and let the computer procedurally fill in the middle frames. In some cases you have to articulate every frame — like if there was debris from an explosion and we had to put something on the middle."
Star Trek's explosions in space have a new look, but there were additional key effects that needed updating — the director's vision of what "warp speed" should look like, for instance, or how a "transporter beam" appears. Still, Abrams gave ILM "a very loose blueprint and a lot of rope" creatively, Pasquarello says, to realize these shots. "He knows exactly what he wants, but gives you enough room to create that. We just watched the film," Pasquarello said a month before its premiere, "and I'm blown away by it. It was really, really intensely rewarding to be trusted with that authority."