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STAR TREK: Special Effects Redux, Part II

Should the Original Series be refurbished with new digital effects?

By Frank Garcia     January 15, 2000

In Part One of this article, we interviewed Rich Heierling, a film and video producer at Digital Stream in Bridgeport, Pennsylvania, who has sent Paramount Pictures a proposal to remake STAR TREK The Original Series' (TOS) visual effects with new, state-of-the-art, Lightwave 3-D rendered images. His goal is to create a special edition for a new generation of viewers and, perhaps, refresh excitement among long-time fans who can see their favorite episodes with a facelift.
In his desire to make TREK more fun to watch, Heierling is potentially opening up a galactic wormhole-sized controversy. Should history be preserved, never to be altered? Are our memories of the show sacred and precious? Or is there room for changes that might give the series renewed appreciation and perhaps a larger audience? For those who want film to be forever, technology and sensibilities are increasingly making this difficult to maintain. Consider the following:
In 1997, George Lucas reworked his STAR WARS Trilogy with new special effects to great success. He extensively added and modified special effects footage to STAR WARS but less so for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI. He even added a new sunset skyline to the opening scene in AMERICAN GRAFITTI for an anniversary release of the video.
In a 1997 interview with WIRED magazine, Lucas said he feels very strongly that, although corporations own films, it is the artist who has the moral rights to decide if a film can be altered. He's unsure whether the artist is the director, writer or producer or all three. However, to protect his films from being changed, he's retained the copyrights to his movies. (Yes, STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE is owned by 20th Century Fox, but EMPIRE, JEDI, THE PHANTOM MENACE and all future sequels are owned by Lucasfilm, Ltd.) If he wants to change STAR WARS, says Lucas, that's his artistic vision.
Director Steven Spielberg re-edited and added new footage to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND in a 1980 re-release. In this Special Edition, we witnessed Roy Neary enter the gigantic alien mothership, and we saw a special effects phantasmagoria inside. As with Lucas' assertion, this is a case where it is the artist who has made the decision to change a film.
But in the Digital Stream, Star Trek scenario, this is not the case. No one involved with the company has any prior experience with the original series. Media mogul Ted Turner, if you recall, a few years ago allowed old black and white movies in his TNT film collection to be revised by colorization with the hopes of reaching a new audience. But many people did not like their old favorites tampered in this way. History has shown that if we have a capability of doing something, whether it is a good or bad thing, we tend to do it anyway. Armed with a vision, a love for TOS, and access to the technical equipment, Heierling feels empowered to act on his dream.
If we took Digital Stream's professed license to rework TOS and extend it to other film and TV icons, what would we get? Heierling has already rejected FORBIDDEN PLANET as a candidate for a facelift as being unnecessary. But will studios look at any of their assets and find 'classic' properties with bad SFX and give them special editions with the hopes of reaching a new audience? And would audiences accept that?
What if old Flash Gordon serials were upgraded with new SFX? METROPOLIS? KING KONG? Or would someone take Ray Harryhausen's spectacular action sequences in JASON OF THE ARGONAUTS or CLASH OF THE TITANS and use digital special effects tools to 'smooth out' the 'herky-jerky' movements of the various monsters? Would this be an acceptable improvement? Would Harryhausen approve? Being a prideful and successful artist, the answer is quite likely not.
Because of remarkable advances in computer technology, have we reached that stage where social progress has not caught up? Are we allowing our new-found abilities to revise a films' look and feel to desecrate its original presentation, or, is this a revelation allowing for renewal of forgotten assets?
For a discussion on contemporary visual effects and exploring the idea of recreating STAR TREK'S SFX, Fandom asked two visual effects professionals who are working in the business today for their views. First is Todd Vaziri, a noted visual special effects supervisor whose artistry can be seen in DR. DOLITTLE and XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS. He also writes extensively about the visual SFX business at his website Visual FX Headquarters.
After a full briefing of Digital Stream's activities, Vaziri's feelings were mixed, just as they are with STAR WARS' special edition releases, about which he has written previously. 'As a purist, I think it's rather ridiculous,' says Vaziri. 'At a certain point you have to call a piece of art finished. And when they're done, you let it be. And you move on to a new project. You don't continually go back and fix a mistake that you may have made or retread the same ideas you had before.
'I'm very much an advocate of preserving the past and looking forward to try and create new classics. Which is the current, most accurate film? Are we going to get special editions with every film every 10 or 20 years? When a film comes out I'm assuming already 'Okay, this is the first pass, the rough draft.' '
On the other hand, Vaziri recognizes the allure of a compelling idea. 'It was such a refreshing change to see in DEEP SPACE NINE's 'Trials and Tribble-ations' the technology and the detail we can get today of the space station and the Enterprise. It was an interesting gimmick. Replacing the SFX of a single episode, that would be kinda cool. You put it on UPN and get great ratings. But to get into it for the entire series or a couple of episodes, is ridiculous.'
Vaziri also has strong feelings from an artists' point of view. 'I think of the people who toiled feverishly over the original STAR WARS, getting the shots and how revolutionary they were. The original SW shots that were replaced, they'll never be seen again!' Although Vaziri recognizes that the original STAR WARS releases will live on with DVDs and videotape, he says, 'The Special Edition is the 'final edition.'
'They made those episodes as well as they could with the money they had,' he says. 'Don't betray their efforts just because, oh, 20 or 30 years have passed and they can do it much better now.'
Asked if it is likely for Hollywood to develop a practice of replacing SFX on other iconic film or TV projects, Vaziri replies that the bottom line is economics. 'It could be profitable,' he says. 'The studio executives have to look and say, 'Are we going to spend to revamp this 30 year old film?' Studios are even reluctant to making new video transfers. They think it's not worth it. I think it will be very sparse.'
If there are any sins in Hollywood, in the way that visual special effects are produced, says Vaziri, are those projects that are spectacle over substance. 'I'm constantly pushing towards the use of SFX as a portion of the film,' he says. 'Not as a character gimmick or 'Hey! Look at me!' The best films are always about stories and characters. The SFX creates the worlds in which they live. In rare cases, the SFX are the characters, like JURASSIC PARK or THE PHANTOM MENACE where an entire character is being generated as SFX. For the most part, they should never take center stage. They shouldn't draw attention to themselves. The best SFX I've ever done are the ones people haven't noticed because they were so caught up with the film. We did about 50 or 60 visual effects for A STIR OF ECHOES, and there were only two or three that were really 'in your face.' Nobody noticed any of the other SFX. That's a big compliment because the work doesn't draw attention to itself. People don't walk out of the theater saying, 'Wow! Great SFX!' I think invisible is important.'
Contextual usage of SFX as part of the film is also very important, says Vaziri. Sinful 'spectacle over substance' effects films includes THE AVENGERS, LOST IN SPACE and GOZILLA, says Vaziri. In the case of a Digital Stream-created STAR TREK vision, Vaziri also has a problem with the forced comparison between the original and a new edition. 'That's extremely distracting. You're going to see an episode where the sets were so cheaply made that you can see a little gap on the floor and then you cut to this new, perfectly detailed CGI SFX shot? It totally does not fit within the context of the film! It takes you out of the film and draws attention to itself. If new SFX are made for 'The Doomsday Machine,' they're out of place and context. It draws attention to them rather than being a service to the story and characters.'
For another perspective, John Gajdecki, a Canadian award-winning visual special effects director and supervisor whose work has been prominently displayed in episodes of TEKWAR, THE OUTER LIMITS and STARGATE SG-1 replies on the issue: ' 'The Doomsday Machine' was one of my favorite episodes; it was one of the things that gave me nightmares as a kid,' says Gajdecki. 'It's not a bad idea, of redoing the visual special effects, but it's one of those things, like colorization, that people will either really like or really hate. The other problem is that the film could use some basic restoration in order to match the quality of the new SFX.
'When we do effects, we are trying to trick people on a whole bunch of levels. Models are mistaken for full-size ships, paintings for planets and animation for phaser beams. But contemporary effects try to run the ruse much deeper. We carefully match the grain of our composites to the surrounding footage, add similar camera moves to locked off SFX shots to make everything look like it was shot by the same camera operator. Color correction and contrast are constantly played with until the final shot is not even noticed by the audience.
'Also, even if they re-do the SFX shots that stand alone, the work will not be justified if they do not also fix up the shots that are composited into the live action. This required a bit more than just straightforward CGI skills since the original SFX elements have to be removed first. Not very hard since pretty well everything was shot as a lock-off. Remove the original SFX and add cool new animation. No problem, really.' Examples, perhaps, are the transporter effect and phasers.
However, Gajdecki also warns, 'If the new SFX shots are not executed with flair and style, but also without subtly, they will not work for purely emotional reasons. We use SFX shots to tell stories. So long as everyone involved remembers this there's a hope it will turn out well.'
'There seems to be a lot of discussions and concerns about the future of the STAR TREK franchise,' notes Vaziri. 'There's a lot of controversy running around. 'Oh my God! There's only one Star Trek series on the air!' Are they going to do the feature in two or three years? Are they planning another series? They're really going back and thinking about their franchise.
'As a prediction I don't know if [Paramount will] go for it. They might go for a single episode out of curiosity, but they won't want to appear as if they want to milk the previously accepted and revered episodes any more than they already are. They're at a major crossroads right now. It's going to be interesting to see where they go with the franchise. I lean toward the prediction that they will try something bold and new rather than rest on their laurels. It's time to come up with a new vision.'
Ultimately, the decision rests with Paramount, a giant corporation who has to evaluate the economic and creative merits of a special edition. Their response, whether positive or negative, will reflect their true feelings about what has been called the company's 'crown jewels.'

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