Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Four to beam up -- 'Star Trek' and its designs on the future

One of our resident Trekkies at the Los Angeles Times, Linda Whitmore, was on hand as four men who helped shape our perceptions of Gene Roddenberry's "Star Trek" in its many iterations took the stage in Hollywood to talk about their endeavors and what it took to make the visions real:

Long before there was Industrial Light & Magic, there was industrial lighting and papier-mache. When CGI was, well, science fiction, the men who created the unique look of the “Star Trek” series and movies were making chicken salad out of chicken-coop wire and plaster.

Sunday night at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, the Art Directors Guild honored four such men during "Star Trek: 45 Years of Designing the Future”: John Jeffries (classic “Star Trek”), Joseph R. Jennings (“Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan”), Herman Zimmerman(“Deep Space 9”) and Scott Chambliss (“Star Trek” 2009).


“Our winky, blinky lights were two sheets of masonite with holes drilled in them and a rope on them, and a grip pulled them up and down and it made the lights flash,” Jennings said.

While William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were memorizing their lines, Jeffries, Jennings and Zimmerman were conceptualizing what a phaser would look like, what color the rocks on Talos IVmight be and how to mount a tricorder on a strap. They know firsthand the trouble with Tribbles.

“The scenery had to be extra sturdy for Shatner to chew on,” quipped moderator Daren R. Dochterman of the Art Directors Guild.

Clips of the men’s work were shown and the panel talked about their memories of working on the show. The event was the prelude to the screening of the director’s cut of 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” completed in 2001, and which Dochterman said was one of Robert Wise’s final projects. The director died in 2005.

In the original “Trek,” other planets looked like the soundstages they were, but back in the day, the show was state-of-the-art. The papier-mache "rocks" weren’t even painted – "Paint was too expensive," Zimmerman said – they were lit with different colored lights, so the same boulders could double as other planets.

It was interesting to see clips of “Amok Time” and “Metamorphosis” from the original series juxtaposed with clips from “Deep Space 9.” Watching Kirk and Spock with their first-generation gizmos, and then clips of "Voyager" (Kes, we hardly knew ye!) and “Deep Space 9” in which shape-shifter Odo, played by Rene Auberjonois, morphs from a piece of furniture into a humoid was like watching clips of Tiger Woods as a child, playing golf with plastic clubs, then winning the Master’s by a dozen strokes as a young pro. The talent is obviously there, but the technology enabled the art directors to totally bend reality.

“Gene [Roddenberry] had a lot of do’s and don’ts,” Zimmerman said. “One was you can’t go past Warp 10!”

Much was made of the budgets and time constraints production designers face when working on TV series. There’s a little more leeway in film, but within limits. Zimmerman said the 1979 “Trek” cost about $30 million, but the creative forces wanted to film another ending, which would have tacked an extra $2 million onto the cost.

Back then, Zimmerman explained, $2 million was a lot of money, but today …

“It’s craft services,” chimed in Dochterman. Said Zimmerman of graduating from “Deep Space 9,” set in the mid-23rd century, to “Star Trek: Enterprise,” set in the mid 22nd, he was relieved “to be designing a show only 90 years in the future.”

Jennings joked about developing five designs for a phaser, and the powers that be choosing one element from each of the five they wanted incorporated. By the way, in "Star Trek" parlance, when a rock or wall has “GNDN” painted on it, it merely means “Goes nowhere, does nothing."

Chambliss, the youngest and most restrained on the panel, commented briefly about conceptualizing the look of the 2009 “Trek” film. He was thinking about Nero’s ship one evening while chopping ingredients for dinner in his kitchen. Looking at the knife, he said, “That’s scary.” Then pointing the imaginary knife at his face, he said, “That’s really scary.” Hence the idea for the Romulan’s ship.

The theater was about three-quarters full (and I sure hope the guests came by shuttle craft, because between “Disco Fever” night at the Hollywood Bowl, and the Feast of San Gennaro just down the street, traffic was …. well, damn). The discussion was capped by a tribute reel compiled by Michael and Denise Okuda featuring the names of every art director and production designer who has ever worked on a “Star Trek” series or film. A separate reel of Harold Michelson, a production designer who died in 2007. The interview, from 2000, kept the audience in stitches as the self-effacing professional talked about being nominated for an Oscar for his work on the 1979 “Trek” movie. He talked about dreading winning, because he didn’t want to stand up in front of all those people and say something. He didn’t win, but said he and his wife got a great meal out of the evening.

“Star Trek: The Motion Picture” came along at an inopportune time for some. “There was going to be another series,” Jennings said. “It was going to be ‘Star Trek: Phase 2.’ We were two weeks from starting the new series, when someone said, ‘Let’s make a movie!’”

When the movie began, the biggest round of applause wasn’t for the stars, or even the art director, for that


matter. It was for composer Jerry Goldsmith’s dead-on score, which opens with the French-horn driven Klingon's theme. Reminiscent of a hunt, the film opens as the hunters become the hunted.

Not nearly as peripatetic as J.J. Abrams’ reboot this summer, “ST: TMP” borrows heavily from an original episode (“The Changeling”), in which artificial life forms confront their limitations and long for something beyond circuitry and binary logic. ("Open the pod bay doors, HAL?") But the film adds the beautiful Persis Khambatta (pictured right with Shatner, she died of a heart attack in her native India 1998 in her late 40s) and Stephen Collins — former lovers who demonstrate for “V-ger” the ultimate human emotion.

The film’s special effects are a pay grade above classic “Trek,” but remember, between 1969, when the series was canceled, and 1979, “Star Wars” rewrote the rulebook. But asked how he felt about working as production designer for “The Wrath of Khan,” Jennings deadpanned, “It was a better show than the first one.”