Streaming Series: <I>Star Trek: Picard</I>
Issue: March/April 2020

Streaming Series: Star Trek: Picard

Star Trek: Picard is a new series available on the CBS All Access streaming platform. The hour-long sci-fi program stars Sir Patrick Stewart, who reprises his iconic role as Admiral Jean-Luc Picard, which he played for seven seasons on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Picard follows the iconic character into the next chapter of his life. Now retired from the Star Fleet, Jean-Luc spends his latter years overseeing a vineyard in France, along with his dog, Number One. And while his retirement is supposed to be relaxing, he has nagging memories about the way he handled a galactic event and its subsequent repercussions.

Paul Ghezzo is creative director/VFX supervisor at Technicolor VFX in Los Angeles and says the studio got lucky when the show brought its post work to Southern California in order to take advantage of tax credits. The studio has worked on the series since Episode 5, and contributed to all of the following episodes in Season 1, concluding with Episode 10. Multiple vendors provide visual effects for the series, including Pixomondo, Dneg (all 10 episodes) and Crafty Apes (1,200 shots — 140 on the pilot alone).

Ghezzo is one of two VFX supervisors that oversee the show for Technicolor.

“We’re doing a lot of set extension work,” he notes. “We’ve done some props — bringing practical props to life, because that’s still not easily done in the real world. We’re able to essentially create a digital version of it and have it animate, or create an effect from it.”

Ghezzo calls attention to Episode 5, which features a puzzle box that emits a toxic gas, as a complex effect created by the studio.
“[For that], we got to animate and kind of come up with the design, the functionality, how it opens and how it emits everything. Beyond that, a lot of what we’ve been doing is either digital matte painting or full 3D set extensions, along with some additional prop work and some of the graphics work as well.” 

Much of Technicolor’s set extension work is based around inside the ‘Borg Cube’. Borgs are an alien race that were introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and later appeared in movies as well as the TV show. The Cube is an incredibly-large spaceship — square in shape — measuring miles in diameter. 

“A lot of our work goes into extrapolating on the set pieces that they built on-stage, and then we build in a ton of depth,” says Ghezzo, noting that if a character were to fall over a handrail, they would appear to fall dozens of floors to a dark and scary death. The studio also adds football fields of length and detail off into the distance to really sell the idea of its massive scope.

Technicolor also handled set extension work on latter episodes of the series, where the storyline takes place on Commander Riker’s new home planet.

“It’s a lot of exteriors [and] a lot of interiors,” he explains.

One of Technicolor’s most complex visual effects contributions comes in Episode 10, where there is a fight sequence with some of the main characters. 

“It’s a set extension [with] over 40 shots, which entails not just geometric building up the environment in 3D, but adding a lot of atmospherics,” he explains. “There’s some steam, some smoke, some sparks. We have to do a couple of character takeovers, where we’re replacing the performance with a digital double. There’s hologram-style graphics that pop up that are being interacted with as well. One of the performers gets thrown through it! So there’s a lot of complexity, both from the standpoint of the actor having to interact with something that just simply doesn’t exist, to making certain that the environment and everything around them really just feels the part. And it all just blends together seamlessly.”

According to Ghezzo, Technicolor completed work on approximately 250 shots for the five episodes they worked on. Each episode involves numerous contributing studios.

“Just the number of shots and then the amount of work that has to go into them can be pretty daunting,” he says of the show’s demands. “If one VFX studio were to take on the whole episode, I think that would be akin to putting all your eggs in one basket, and probably not a good decision for the studio or for the production team.”

The different studios often collaborate, sharing assets and effects.

“We’ll be tag teaming, whether it’s graphics or a certain effect that another company might have created. We’ll integrate it into what we’ve done, or we will create an asset, or an environment, or a prop, or something along those lines, and then we’ll hand it to the other vendors so that they can utilize it in their sequences. There’s definitely collaboration between studios.”

Technicolor currently provided visual effects services to approximately 18 shows, and Ghezzo oversees the LA-based VFX department. In addition to Picard, he is involved in overseeing VFX work on FX’s Snowfall, Fox’s Deputy, AMC’s Nos4a2, Netflix’s Dead to Me and Firefly Lane, and NBC’s This is Us.

On average, the studio has approximately six weeks to complete visual effects for an episode, give or take a week. Technicolor is the sole VFX vendor on Snowfall and Deputy. For some shows, the studio also provides sound, editorial and color grading services.

The LA VFX department has a team of more than 60 artists. Technicolor also has offices in Toronto, London and Mumbai.

According to Ghezzo, the studio uses Autodesk Maya, Foundry’s Modo and Mari, Pixologic ZBrush and the Adobe suite for 3D and CG. Chaos Group’s Phoenix FD and SideFX’s Houdini are used for dynamics and effects. Foundry’s Nuke is used for compositing. Andersson Technologies’ SynthEyes and The Pixel Farm’s PFTrack are both used for camera tracking. Motion graphics are created using the Adobe suite, and rendering is performed with Chaos Group’s VRay and VRay Next.