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STAR TREK Special Effects Redux, Part I
If Digital Stream gets its way, you'll see the original series with all-new effects.
By Frank Garcia
January 14, 2000
For the past 30 years millions of STAR TREK fans all over the world have faithfully watched 79 episodes of the original 1960s TV series in reruns and videotapes in a seemingly perpetual loop. There are hardcore fans today who can tell you, from a single line of dialogue or a glance at a scene, what episode is playing. But how would fans feel if their imprinted memories of the show were suddenly to change?
If a demonstration reel convinces Paramount Pictures to accept a proposal from a special effects company in Pennsylvania, our beloved memories of STAR TREK THE ORIGINAL SERIES (TOS) just might get shattered in a unique special edition video release. Rich Heierling, co-founder of Digital Stream (now owned by ABS Canon), has a dream of a job to eliminate TOS's special effects (SFX) and replace them with improved, state-of-the-art images. The company has already completed a makeover of one of STAR TREK's most popular and action-packed episodes: 'The Doomsday Machine.' According to Heierling, in 1994 he showed an exciting 10-minute segment from 'The Doomsday Machine' as a test reel to some 120 people at a Creation Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and the audience reacted in awe. Later, in November, 1998, when Digital Stream succeeded in completing the entire episode, the results were screened at a convention in Philadelphia, for 500 fans. 'The response was all good,' said Heierling. 'The atmosphere was electric. People gasped and cheered. And this was just a test reel! It was in no way meant to be the finished product. Of all things fans have said to convey how the episode feels, the most common reply is that it is like seeing the episode for the first time.'
A 41-year old freelance producer, Heierling had been making films and videos for 20 years until 1997, when he co-founded Digital Stream as a special effects production company in Bridgeport, Pennsylvania with Tim Wenhold. 'We have worked on projects ranging from commercials both local and national, film projects, corporate presentations, a few narrative shorts and special effects,' says Heierling. 'This was done with great care and a big Trekker heart. Everyone involved with this project is a big Trek fan. I was part of the Star Trek Welcommitte in the early 1970s. We helped get Trek back via the letter drive that hit Paramount. This project grew out of knowing TOS was fading among the ranks of younger, newer fans. And it was the SFX that was killing it.'
If the proposal that was sent to Paramount in December 1999 is given a green light, fans will play a strong role in shaping the results, he says.
This audacious special effects enterprise began in 1994 when Heierling and an office mate at Digital Stream were just sitting around one day talking about STAR TREK, and his colleague complained about the quality of the SFX. As a result of that conversation, a phaser bolt hit Heierling. 'Why not fix the special effects?' he thought excitedly. 'I figured this would get younger folks to watch the original,' he says.
He knew he had the equipment to make it happen with an Amiga computer and a newly released software, Lightwave 3-D, which was also used to create BABYLON 5's groundbreaking, Emmy winning special effects. After fiddling around a little bit with the program, a 3D Enterprise model was created, which Heierling showed it to David Deptro, a friend who worked at Paramount. Impressed, Deptro encouraged Heierling in his goals. Five months of hard work and 25 effects shots later, Deptro and Heierling had the courage to show it to a 'focus group' who responded positively. They videotaped the reactions so that they could present it to Paramount Pictures, which owns STAR TREK.
One of the most exciting moments in 'The Doomsday Machine' was selected for the initial upgrade: Commodore Decker takes command of the Enterprise and Captain Kirk watches helplessly from the battle-scarred Constellation starship, as Decker orders Sulu to fire directly upon the Machine. Instead of the familiar gigantic ice-like maw, in the new version we see a mauve-colored and redesigned Planet Killer with intricate detailing on its surface. It is still long and tube-like with an energy power core in its interior, but instead of energy emitting directly from its core, the Planet Killer now has two protrusions on the sides of its opening and energy spurts out and hits the Enterprise. 'I toyed with the Doomsday Machine and changed it again just to get a feel,' says Heierling.
In their demonstration tape, Digital Stream does not replicate the same angles for every shot. The 'timings' are replicated but in certain moments, new and more dramatically exciting points of view were chosen to illustrate the confrontation between the Planet Killer and the two starships.
A presentation was made to the head of Paramount Video at the time and, says Heierling, 'the guy jumped out of his seat. He loved it.' But nothing happened. It 'got lost' in the corporate shuffle. Digital Stream did, however, place photos and movie files on their webpage, and out of that came some publicity from the now-defunct Sci-Fi Invasion magazine who gave them a 2-page feature spread in the Summer 1998 issue. One of the images produced is only a still. And that's the Enterprise orbiting space station K-7 from 'The Trouble with Tribbles.'
Response to that story was also positive. 'One guy wrote in begging us not to change the transporter effect. Little did he know how close his heart is to ours,' grins Heierling.
In November, 1998, in an effort to present an entire episode to an audience of 500 STAR TREK fans at a convention in Philadelphia, the SFX work was rushed to meet the convention's date. 'W always knew that this was not the final piece. The whole thing was just an experiment,' remarks Heierling. But that screening was met with a very positive response from the audience. The new special effects included a Main Titles makeover. A new computer-generated image (CGI) of the Enterprise is now what is seen during Alexander Courage's musical theme and William Shatner's voiceover. A visual 'streak' is even added when the Enterprise 'swwwoooshes' across the screen as the credits appear.
Asked his own opinion of the completed work, Heierling says, 'As a fan I love watching it. As a filmmaker I am happy with the fact this works well. But the feelings are confirmed by the reaction of people who have participated in test screenings. They really seem to dig what we have done. And this is not even near what the real thing would look like. I'm happy.'
The project remained dormant until late September, 1999 when Aint It Cool News, the movie rumors website, ran a story about Digital Stream and revealed the existence of the photos and movie files online at their website at http://www.digistream.com. Immediately, vociferous online fans flooded the 'Talkback' portion of the page with their comments, both pro and con of the idea. Consequently, Digital Stream's webservers immediately crashed because 158,000 people were simultaneously attempting to download the files. The site remained offline for the duration, but the materials are once again available.
The impact, says Heierling, is that now a lot of people are aware of the project. 'We knew nothing about it until the servers went down here.' Asked what his feeling were upon reading the 'Talkback' chatter, he says, 'It was so exciting, despite what may have sounded negative. I do not feel it was. The questions that were raised are the very same ones I had from the get-go. I always knew that Trek fans are really passionate. We have gotten 10 times the letters than what was posted on AICN, and they are 99.99% positive. People said they changed their mind after they saw the footage.
'What sticks with you is that the fans did this alone. Just like the good ol' days when they got Trek back. If it is in the stars for something like this to happen, it is the kind of thing that should grow out of the Trek grassroots.'
The whole idea, says Heierling, 'is not to show what new SFX would look like. Rather, what would Trek look like with new shots replacing the old ones. In the process, I did try to create a look that would match the footage well. I am trying to make the SFX not too good. They need to match the production value of the times, while looking real. But the original show has a look and feel to it. I tried to match that by not making these SFX look like BABYLON 5. Please do not think we are doing this for fun because we are computer artists. I am a director by trade and use computers as a means to an end. They are just a tool.
'Some people comment it looks cartoony. Well, ever see the bright colors of the sets and costumes? Color TV was new back then and the networks wanted this to be bright and colorful. I tried to match that as much as possible.'
Is there anything he won't do? 'Touch the live footage,' he replied. 'It stands just fine as is. I would never touch it. Some day maybe someone will. But TOS's strength comes not from the SFX, but the characters and stories. That is why it will still stand with new SFX.
Beyond having the tools to visually recomposite the 23rd Century universe, why should Digital Stream be the company to engage in this? If this project was auctioned by Paramount, there are many other visual effects companies, including those that have already produced work for the three spin-off series. 'Why not us?' replies Heierling. 'But the package goes beyond just redoing Trek. That's all I can say. One reason we may get it is the cost of doing it. We have a low overhead.'
But what are Heierling's feelings about the potential implications if he were actually to do this? Would that open the door to other iconic film or television to be remade and 'improved' with new special effects? What if MGM/UA wanted to take one of their classic titles from the 1950s and upgrade, say, FORBIDDEN PLANET? 'FORBIDDEN PLANET?! It doesn't need it,' he says. 'I think Trek does. Trek in itself always has been changing. I remember fans bringing up the same fears when TNG started. 'This is not Trek!' they said. Oh well. I liked it. It was Trek. If change is a no-no, then why change the Enterprise's looks in the first film? If Trek were to stop changing, it would stop altogether. Isn't that what STAR TREK is about? Exploring the unknown. Trying new things. Being open minded.'
Cheer up, Rich. If Paramount turns down your proposal, there are other ideas. If someone's itching to update STAR TREK, why not take the 1973 Animated series and rework it with CGI animation like REBOOT or ROUGHNECKS: STARSHIP TROOPERS CHRONICLES? Take the same scripts and dialogue tracks but replace the now-antiquated 1970s flat animation and give them the 3-D treatment. Many fans don't like the series so any change would be an improvement.
Yeah, right. Start another controversy, that's the ticket!