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STAR TREK: Special Effects Redux, Part III
Trek celebrities assess Digital Stream's Trek FX Dream.
By Frank Garcia
January 17, 2000
In Part Three of our exploration of Digital Stream's vision to rework the special effects of STAR TREK The Original Series' with their own brand of cutting edge artistry, we approached a number of individuals who have made their careers working with STAR TREK for their comments. The question: Would they approve of someone reworking their beloved television show in this way?
Michael Okuda is a STAR TREK scenic art supervisor and technical consultant who has contributed to STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME and all three TV series spin-offs. He's also a co-author of a number of STAR TREK-related books such as the STAR TREK CHRONOLOGY, with his wife Denise Okuda, and the STAR TREK ENCYCLOPEDIA, with Debbie Mirek. Okuda, who has seen the Digital Stream footage, weighs in with his verdict: 'I think it is clear that a great deal of hard work and love went into the effort. You can tell that these people cared a great deal about STAR TREK. That being emphasized, I must say that I was disappointed by the work. First, the renderings just aren't that good. They have an excessively perfect, plastic, CGI look. The texture maps are not as rich as I'd like. Surface quality is too simplistic. Worse, they did not integrate the look (color, saturation, grain, contrast) of the CG effects with the live-action footage. Yes, there are ways to deal with these problems, but these techniques can be expensive (in terms of rendering time) and require both technical skill and sophisticated equipment and software. There is no way of knowing, from the demo material, whether Digital Stream is technically capable of such work, or even if they were aware of the problems.
'Second, there is more to visual effects production and filmmaking than simply having a powerful computer system and rendering software. In my opinion, the Digital Stream effects point out how important it is to have an experienced visual effects supervisor, as well as someone who knows lighting and editing. Third, I disagree with some of Digital Stream's artistic choices. For example, I dislike the arbitrary redesign of the Planet Killer, and I do not like the added paneling on the Starship Enterprise. This is not to say that my tastes are correct and that theirs are wrong. Far from it. I'm sure that if I had done a 'special edition,' there would be those who would have equally strong, and equally valid complaints about my choices. The point is that any given set of artistic choices are likely to disappoint at least as many fans as they will please, particularly in the case of a property for which so many fans feel so proprietary.'
Does Okuda approve of the idea of allowing a special edition of this nature to be made in order to present it to a new generation of viewers? 'That's a tough question,' he says. 'I can imagine that this might be a worthwhile thing to do, but the Digital Stream demo, as well-intentioned as it obviously is, points out that a special edition is extremely difficult to do well. With any special edition, there will be enormous pressure to change and 'improve' things just for the sake of providing additional eye-candy to justify the existence of the special edition. This means that things that might not necessarily need upgrading will tend to be changed, just so that viewers will think they're getting more for their money. This kind of arbitrary, unnecessary changes will almost inevitably open a special edition to charges of destructive 'colorization.' Also, I can imagine a studio withdrawing the original versions from circulation once a special edition is produced.'
The closest example we have today of what Digital Stream wants to do is the STAR TREK DEEP SPACE NINE episode 'Trials and Tribble-ations.' The crew of the Defiant goes back in time to visit the crew of the Enterprise during the events of TOS' 'The Trouble with Tribbles.' In a remarkably seamless special effects-filled adventure, Captain Sisko and his crew covertly walked around the events of 'Tribbles,' as seen in original footage from that 1960s show, in search of a bomb. Via computer special effects, DS9 actors were inserted into footage from the original series. And the Enterprise was seen in new footage made especially for this episode along with the space station K-7. However, none of the original 'space' special effects were used in this production.
In making this episode, Okuda points out that 'we took care to duplicate, as much as possible, the look-and-feel of the original series elements. We did not, for example, add additional surface detail to the Starship Enterprise, nor did we attempt to 'improve' the design or lighting of the corridors. I did make one 'upgrade' to part of one set, but once I saw it on stage, I realized it was a mistake. This is not to say that I don't enjoy seeing new, detailed computer renderings of the Millennium Falcon or the Starship Enterprise. Such things are often a lot of fun, and I've been involved with a couple of such projects, myself. It's just that my opinion that such new renderings rarely serve to improve an existing film.'
Okuda goes on to say, 'I don't think 'Trials and Tribble-ations' was in any way a 'precedent' or a 'proof of concept' for a STAR TREK special edition in the sense that Digital Stream and others has proposed. And I think that any company attempting to rework the original STAR TREK series, regardless of their resources and experience, would face the same pressures that would make it so difficult to do a special edition without compromising the integrity of the original material.' Summarizing his thoughts, Okuda concludes, 'I don't want to slam the door on special edition projects, but my feeling is that they are difficult to do well, and the potential for damaging the original film is significant.'
Another speaker who has worked for many years with Okuda at Paramount, and is co-author with him on the STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION TECHNICAL MANUAL, is Senior Illustrator Rick Sternbach. Sternbach was unfamiliar with Digital Streams' proposal, but after given a description of their goals, he remarks, 'I can't really comment officially. This idea has cropped up a few times in the past, and I suspect that anything done with the assets of the STAR TREK franchise would be tightly controlled from the studio side and would make use of the best CGI vendors that we already have access to. There's more to restoring/improving a TOS episode than merely replacing stand-alone miniature work, such as redoing phaser and transporter effects, requiring access to original negative footage.'
Robert Wolfe, one of the co-writers on the DS9 'Trials and Tribble-ations' episode, replies, 'Well, I think the old effects are part of TOS's series charm. We only updated the ones in 'Tribbles' so that they would look good next to our own modern-day effects. Side by side, they just wouldn't have measured up. Still, while I don't see the point in updating the effects, I don't see much harm in it either. As long as they don't change the timing, dialogue, or edits. My only concern would be if the 'special editions' replaced the originals. I'd want people to still have the opportunity to see those episodes the way God intended them to be, bent nacelle supports and everything.'
If there is anyone who supports Digital Stream's ideas, you'll be surprised to learn that it's 'The Doomsday Machine's' author, award-winning SF novelist Norman Spinrad. 'My answer, at least in relation to 'The Doomsday Machine,' is an emphatic 'Yes!' Gene Roddenberry asked me for drawings of my concept for the Doomsday Machine itself, something much more complicated than what was shot, and although I am not much of an artist less so in those days even than now I labored over them. When I saw the tape I was horrified. 'Looks like a windsock dipped in cement!' I told Gene. [SF novelist] Damon Knight called it a 'giant flying turnip.' Gene shrugged sadly. 'More or less what it is,' he told me. 'We ran out of budget.' '
After looking at Digital Stream's photographs at their website and downloading the movie files, he reports that he likes them. 'Much closer to my original design,' he says. 'Maybe my approval of the new effects might be a special case, since the originals were as mandated by budget constraints, rather than by what I wrote or drew. But then that could probably be said of a lot of the shows.' And what was that unseen vision of the Planet Killer? 'Basically, a kind of fusion torch ramscoop, with beam weapons on stalks. An artificial organism of sorts with a nuclear metabolism, rather than a 'robot.' '
For a literary viewpoint of this notion of redoing TOS' special effects, award-winning SF and STAR TREK authors Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch sat down with Fandom at a recent writer's conference and looked through the Sci-Fi Invasion issue spotlighting Digital Stream's work. After scanning the photographs in the magazine, Smith sat back and muttered in awe, 'Wow!'
'I'm a purist when it comes to film,' says Rusch, after scanning the pages. 'When Ted Turner colorized all those black-and-white movies, I wanted to kill him. Nobody is going to say that Classic Trek's special effects were done for artistic reasons. They were done for budgetary reasons. They were kind of cardboard. [They used] whatever they had available at the moment. I don't want to see anything changed. On the other hand, that looks cool. I wouldn't mind if they changed just one.'
'I agree. I would say one or two might be fine,' says Smith. 'But I hate the idea of [re]doing them all. That would be a bad idea. Original TREK should be what original TREK is. Original TREK is more than just STAR TREK. It's a window into the 1960s. What's really powerful about many aspects of the original STAR TREK is they were social commentaries of the social culture of the 1960s. I don't think they should be changed. Leave them and let them stand as they are for those of us now at the year 2000; we can look back at the 1960s through that window and into STAR TREK and enjoy it. We can laugh at the special effects, but enjoy it at the same time. But I don't think it should be changed.'
However, both authors concede that they wouldn't mind if a set of, say, 12 episodes were refashioned with new SFX. 'I would probably enjoy that,' says Smith. 'It wouldn't be any more than just a curiosity. And that's too bad because it wouldn't have the power of original TREK.'
Ronald D. Moore, who has variously acted as screenwriter, story editor, producer, co-executive producer on three STAR TREK series and two features, since his debut 1989 TNG script 'The Bonding,' says that he understands how Digital Stream has a fun fan idea. 'But to watch it, it just seems like there is going to be such a disconnect between the special effects and what was shot on the sets,' says Moore. 'You are never going to make those sets anything but what they are. If you suddenly have this amazing outside visual, and then you go into those sets, I just think it's going to have such a disconnect that it's not really a coherent whole anymore. They are not living in the same universe. I always felt like when you cut outside the old Enterprise that they really were in there. It was kind of fuzzy and out of focus, and wobbled slightly periodically on its little track. It was organic. I believed they lived inside that ship.
'If you really make the ship beautiful, spectacular and see all the rivets, and watch the paint on the side, and then you cut in to that command bridge, it's not the same place. They don't live there,' he laughs. 'They live in the cheaper version down the road!' Additional Reporting by Anna L. Kaplan