On July 22nd, the third chapter in the current Star Trek franchise hit theatres. J.J. Abrams directed both 2009’s Star Trek and 2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness, but for the new release, Star Trek: Beyond, Abrams took on the role of producer. This time, Justin Lin of Fast & Furious fame would serve as director and apply his own unique style to the Paramount Pictures release while also respecting fans’ love of the Gene Roddenberry property.
The Enterprise crew of Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) all return for the latest sci-fi adventure, which features more than 1,400 visual effects shots that help take audiences to the furthest reaches of the galaxy.
Double Negative (www.dneg.com), with locations in Vancouver and London, served as the lead VFX house on the film, handling nearly 500 shots among its studios. Kelvin Optical and Atomic Fiction (www.atomicfiction.com) also contributed approximately 400 shots, and another 200-plus were created in-house by the production team of Bad Robot/Sneaky Shark/Perfect Storm Entertainment.
Post recently caught up with Dneg’s Peter Chiang, who served as the film’s overall VFX supervisor, and Raymond Chen, who led the studio’s Vancouver team. According to Chiang, he and director Lin realized right from the beginning that they would have to observe certain laws of the franchise or suffer the wrath of Trekkie hate mail.
“Obviously, this is a Justin Lin film. It’s not a J.J. Abrams film,” says Chiang. “We talked a lot about the aesthetic. Right from the outset, I knew we were going to present things in a Justin Lin way — even down to the design of the Enterprise and what it goes through.”
The team made minor alterations to the Enterprise created by ILM for the Into Darkness film, keeping the spirit of it, but making sure it could fit the narrative that Lin was striving for.
“Justin comes from this gritty Fast and Furious-type photography, therefore, that aspect had to translate to this Star Trek film,” says Chiang. “We did a lot towards dirtying things up, making sure it has that filmic, photographic look — from B Series Panavision lenses, less of the lens flare — which is a signature of the J.J. Abrams films — and more going for the photorealistic, blown out, photochemical reaction.”
The feature was shot predominantly with Arri’s Alexa camera, though Red cameras were also used. “We really wanted to keep that filmic look,” Chiang explains. “A lot of effects were worked out so it fit in with Justin’s photographic style, and (DP) Stephen Windon’s as well. We talked about how we would grunge things up. Although we were capturing the best image to work off of, in the end it was going to be ‘this.’”
Double Negative, according to Chiang, handled much of the “heavy lifting” when it came to the film’s VFX, but elements were often shared among the different VFX houses. For Dneg, this included the Enterprise, the warp-speed effect and the Yorktown base. Kelvin Optical designed the CG marauder soldiers that populate the film, as well as worlds and environments, and Atomic Fiction created many of the elements that were then used by Dneg and Kelvin optical in their respective shots. Kelvin and Atomic also collaborated on the unfamiliar planet that the crew encounters.
While this the first Star Trek film for which Dneg provided VFX, they weren’t necessarily starting from scratch.
“We actually received a number of models and textures from the previous film’s production,” says Raymond Chen. “A lot of that stuff, I believe, came from ILM. We did start from that, but we did have to make a lot of modifications to it.”
Chen points to the asset of the USS Enterprise itself. “In the last film,” he recalls, “the Enterprise gets damaged and gets rebuilt, so there is a shot at the very end of the film that shows a slightly retrofitted Enterprise, and it was only built for that one shot. That is actually the ship that we started our film with. Even though they made an asset for it, it was very custom just for that shot. We had to flesh it out and make it into something we could use for the whole take-down sequence.”
The studio’s shot count — the Vancouver location was responsible for 274 shots, with London handling another 197 — doesn’t necessarily represent the true extent of Dneg’s work.
“Even though the number, to my mind, is somewhat low, a lot of these shots are very, very large shots,” Chen explains. “Especially in the space sequences. The filmmakers opted for longer shots, with rotating and traveling cameras. To say it is one shot is underplaying a little bit of the complexity of some of the shots.”
Beyond the space sequences, there’s also a lot of “on the ground” action that relied heavily on VFX. “The crew is stranded on a planet,” says Chen, “which is partially set extensions [and] some full CG environments. Also, a lot of stuff happens within the bridge or the interiors of the different space ships. There’s a quite high number of full-CG shots. The environments themselves are quite massive. We had to create the environment of a space station — the Yorktown — which is essentially like building an entire city out in space. Almost everything in there is a 'build item' — every building, every bench, every lake and waterway. It’s a massive undertaking just to build.”
Dneg runs a Linux pipeline and uses Maya for most of its modeling and animation. The studio relies on The Foundry’s Nuke for compositing. For this film, they employed Isotropix Clarisse (www.isotropix.com) for lighting.
“It’s something that hasn’t been used a lot in production,” says Chen of Clarisse. “We’ve had to work closely with Isotropix, the publisher, to work out a lot of software issues. I don’t think it has been used in such a large production before. It’s an interesting lighting and rendering package, but we had a lot of technical issues to get it to perform for something like the Yorktown, for example. It’s a massive environment — 1.3 trillion polygons! We’ve gotten to the point where we are hitting memory limits and we’ve kind of had to find a sweet spot with reducing the degree of detail on things like trees that are scattered over the entire space station to where we can render it and it still looks good.”
When asked which shots are their favorites, both Chiang and Chen had different replies.
“It was a fantastic opportunity to give a new version of warp speed,” says Chiang of the VFX effort. “Right from the outset I kind of presented the idea of folding space and gravitational lensing — all that sort of stuff — the science of it. They did a stretch idea in Into Darkness, and they always do that streak, slip/scan type idea throughout, from Star Trek: The Motion Picture all the way through to Into Darkness, there has always been this slip/scan idea. I really want to sell it more as the science of folding space. We came up with that look to try and sell that idea a little more, and harken back to a bit of science. Luckily Justin was very amenable in accepting those ideas and the thought process. We end up with a pretty unique shot and look of the way in which the warp bubble works.”
Chen points to the film’s environments: “Not to reveal too much, but there are a couple of worlds that we created that are unique. The Yorktown is supposed to be the pinnacle of Federation civilization, set out in space. It’s a large city built out in space that has multiple planes of gravity and is built for docking spaceships and housing different species of the different civilizations of the Federation. We spent a considerable amount of time building it and are very proud of the final results.”