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December 14
2021

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

REIMAGINING THE TREK UNIVERSE IN THE DISTANT FUTURE FOR STAR TREK: DISCOVERY

“The Sanctuary.” Lt. Bryce (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) ponders the Discovery’s formidable 3D information graphics. As the duration of post was in COVID protocols, the VFX team had to get up and running quickly and adapt.

“The Sanctuary.” Lt. Bryce (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) ponders the Discovery’s formidable 3D information graphics. As the duration of post was in COVID protocols, the VFX team had to get up and running quickly and adapt.

By CHRIS McGOWAN

Images courtesy of CBS Interactive, Inc.

Season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery journeyed to a place where no VFX artists on the Paramount series had gone before – 930 years in the future. The show had to take an imaginative leap forward with new worlds, spaceships and tech, and it pulled it off quite well, winning a 2021 Emmy for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Single Episode for “Su’Kal.” Discovery joins The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, VoyageR and Enterprise as Star Trek series winning Emmys for visual effects.

Star Trek: Discovery also garnered three other 2021 Creative Arts Emmy nominations, for Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup and for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Comedy or Drama Series (One Hour) for the episode “That Hope is You, Part 1,” plus Outstanding Period and/or Character Makeup (Non-Prosthetic) for “Terra Firma, Part 2.”

“Su'Kal.” The Discovery landing party faces off against a holographic monster. This episode won an Emmy for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Single Episode. The VFX artists got a chance to be especially creative in the design of the creature and the holographic environment.

“Su’Kal.” The Discovery landing party faces off against a holographic monster. This episode won an Emmy for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Single Episode. The VFX artists got a chance to be especially creative in the design of the creature and the holographic environment.

“From a story standpoint we’re over 900 years in the future, so it required a new look for a lot of things we had previously established. This was an opportunity to step outside that box and help create canon as opposed to working within it. So, there was a good amount of look development to try and determine what a transporter looks like in the future. Programmable matter is now a technology in our future, so how does that move, behave? How does it form phasers or other materials? Consoles and chairs can float now. So, it was fun to help in reimagining the way the Trek universe would’ve evolved this far in the future.”

—Jason Zimmerman, Lead Visual Effects Supervisor

The third season kicked off with Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) colliding with the small ship of Cleveland “Book” Booker (David Ajala) and landing in her special spacesuit on a barren, icy planet in the year 3188. It is a leap forward for her of more than nine centuries. There, she encounters Book, a courier transporting stolen cargo – a huge, nasty, endangered trance worm. Burnham allies with Book and has to figure out how to reconnect with the Discovery, which has been flung with her across space-time. She discovers that a mysterious event called “The Burn” has taken place in which the galaxy’s dilithium went inert and caused active warp engines to explode and destroy almost all of Starfleet. The United Federation of Planets no longer governs its former realm and barely exists as an organization.

Commander Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) crash-lands 930 years in the future on a desolate planet. World-building started with the art department brainstorming with executives and writers to “eventually land on something that was unique.”

Commander Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) crash-lands 930 years in the future on a desolate planet. World-building started with the art department brainstorming with executives and writers to “eventually land on something that was unique.”

"There Is A Tide." Lt. Stamets (Anthony Rapp) is held captive in unique fashion. For the third season, there was a great deal of look development.

“There Is A Tide.” Lt. Stamets (Anthony Rapp) is held captive in unique fashion. For the third season, there was a great deal of look development.

“From a story standpoint we’re over 900 years in the future, so it required a new look for a lot of things we had previously established,” says Lead Visual Effects Supervisor Jason Zimmerman. That included the transporter, phasers, ship consoles and such. He adds, “This was an opportunity to step outside that box and help create canon as opposed to working within it.”

Zimmerman continues, “So, there was a good amount of look development to try and determine what a transporter looks like in the future. Programmable matter is now a technology in our future, so how does that move, behave? How does it form phasers or other materials?” He adds, “Consoles and chairs can float now. So, it was fun to help in reimagining the way the Trek universe would’ve evolved this far in the future.”

Zimmerman explains, “And then there are the ships. Credit to the art department, which consistently gives us very cool designs to start from.” The new ships had “such a different look than we had become used to on Discovery.” The team had to determine how the ships would maneuver and move. “The larger ships always work well at a slower pace to help with scale, but it was cool to have some different battles, etc. happen using the new ships in that way.”

“The Hope That is You, Part 2.” The antagonist, Osyraa (Janet Kidder), is at the helm. While in the remote environment during post-production, Visual Effects Supervisor Zimmerman did weekly cineSyncs with everyone along with the EPs, and did two calls a day with teams.

“The Hope That is You, Part 2.” The antagonist, Osyraa (Janet Kidder), is at the helm. While in the remote environment during post-production, Visual Effects Supervisor Zimmerman did weekly cineSyncs with everyone along with the EPs, and did two calls a day with teams.

The courier Book (David Ajala) has his own cozy ship. Zimmerman says that it was “a smaller ship than something like Discovery, so it was more maneuverable and agile. This allowed for some sequences with some great flying by Book and the crew. The biggest challenge was the way the ship would break apart and reform. It allowed the ship to fit into places and situations that one shape would not allow.” Zimmerman and the crew had to make sure “there was a logic to how it did that, where it came apart and went back together.”

“The Hope That is You, Part 2.” Osyraa (Janet Kidder) gives Commander Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) an extremely powerful kick, as there seems to be just as much fighting 930 years forward.

“The Hope That is You, Part 2.” Osyraa (Janet Kidder) gives Commander Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) an extremely powerful kick, as there seems to be just as much fighting 930 years forward.

“The Hope That is You, Part 2.” Janet Kidder as Osyraa and Sonequa Martin-Green as Commander Burnham in a heavily-armed standoff. For the new season, it was a challenge to re-think and re-design so much Star Trek gear, from transporters to phasers to ships of the future.

“The Hope That is You, Part 2.” Janet Kidder as Osyraa and Sonequa Martin-Green as Commander Burnham in a heavily-armed standoff. For the new season, it was a challenge to re-think and re-design so much Star Trek gear, from transporters to phasers to ships of the future.

World-building started with the art department brainstorming with producers and writers to “eventually land on something that was unique.” The first two episodes featured backgrounds shot in Iceland – a good stand-in for a barren, unknown planet and nothing like familiar Trek locations such as the famed Vasquez Rocks in Southern California. Zimmerman comments, “Starting the season shooting in Iceland helped. [It has] such an amazing landscape that already looks pretty otherworldly and definitely helps set up the season. From there, it’s about us in VFX adding the small touches, whether [that] is creatures or different enhancements to aid in the alien quality of the landscapes.”

Before the Discovery reaches Burnham’s planet, it has to evade huge rocks tumbling chaotically in orbit, a scene that took months of preparation. “Fortunately, our director, Tunde [Olatunde Osunsanmi], is one of the most meticulous preparers I’ve worked with, so we started with a very clear vision and storyboards and then previs from there. Then it was just about layering in details and again being conscious of scope and scale.”

“[The courier Book’s ship was] a smaller ship than something like Discovery, so it was more maneuverable and agile. This allowed for some sequences with some great flying by Book and the crew. The biggest challenge was the way the ship would break apart and reform. It allowed the ship to fit into places and situations that one shape would not allow. [We had to had to make sure] there was a logic to how it did that, where it came apart and went back together.”

—Jason Zimmerman, Lead Visual Effects Supervisor

“Die Trying.” Jake Epstein as Dr. Attis, Ava McKinnon as Daughter 1, Ana Sani as Mom and Shazdeh Kapadia as Daughter 2 in a seed-vault ship that guards the Federation’s botanical future.

“Die Trying.” Jake Epstein as Dr. Attis, Ava McKinnon as Daughter 1, Ana Sani as Mom and Shazdeh Kapadia as Daughter 2 in a seed-vault ship that guards the Federation’s botanical future.

After negotiating the rocks, the ship enters the atmosphere and crash-lands on a glacier. Zimmerman notes, “We shot a lot on a glacier for the plates for that sequence to start with something that looked epic and amazing and real. Then we augmented as needed for the snow simulations, ship impact, etc. It was challenging at times because scale in Iceland can be deceiving. I’d think we were maybe a half mile into a glacier, and it turned out the drone was over three miles away. So, we spent a lot of time adding scale cues and finessing the camera work on the CG shots to make sure we could sell the scope and scale as much as possible.”

Zimmerman sought to retain the true wonder of the place and add to it. “The designs of the assets from the art department really helped with scale in many cases. Speed of camera and having items in frame [so] the viewer understands the scale will also help establish things like that.”

“Die Trying.” Tig Notaro as engineer Jett Reno and Anthony Rapp as Lt. Paul Stamets. The crew had been working on temps and previs “a bit” before lockdown, but didn’t get into deliveries and reviews until everyone was working remotely.

“Die Trying.” Tig Notaro as engineer Jett Reno and Anthony Rapp as Lt. Paul Stamets. The crew had been working on temps and previs “a bit” before lockdown, but didn’t get into deliveries and reviews until everyone was working remotely.

In the Emmy-winning “Su’Kal” Episode 11, Burnham, Saru (Doug Jones) and Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) travel to a wrecked starship in the highly radioactive Verubin Nebula in search of a life sign that could be Su’Kal, a Kelpien who was the child of one of the ship’s scientists. The VFX includes a CG nebula environment and the complex holographic world in which the child was raised and which is now full of his dark fantasies, including a wraith-like creature that stalks him. While saving Su’Kal, the three crew members also find out what caused the apocalyptic “Burn.” The episode “as a whole was very satisfying to work on. We got to be creative with shot design and even the creature, so we had a lot of fun,” remarks Zimmerman.

The Emmy for the episode was shared by Zimmerman (Supervising Producer/Lead VFX Supervisor), Ante Dekovic (VFX Supervisor), Aleksandra Kochoska (VFX Producer), Charles Collyer (Lead VFX Artist), Alexander Wood (On Set VFX Supervisor), Ivan Kondrup Jensen (VFX Supervisor, Ghost VFX), Kristen Prahl (VFX Producer, Ghost VFX), Toni Pykalaniemi (VFX Supervisor, DNEG) and Leslie Chung (VFX Supervisor, Crafty Apes).

“Su'Kal.” A Vulcan Starfleet hologram (Danny Waugh) reacts to the Discovery landing party’s presence. “Su'Kal” won an Emmy for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Single Episode.

“Su’Kal.” A Vulcan Starfleet hologram (Danny Waugh) reacts to the Discovery landing party’s presence. “Su’Kal” won an Emmy for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Single Episode.

 Commander Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) converses with courier Cleveland “Book” Booker (David Ajala) on Icelandic tundra serving for an otherwordly scene. The VFX crew added CGI creatures and various enhancements to help conjure up the alien landscapes.

Commander Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) converses with courier Cleveland “Book” Booker (David Ajala) on Icelandic tundra serving for an otherwordly scene. The VFX crew added CGI creatures and various enhancements to help conjure up the alien landscapes.

“We shot a lot on a glacier for the plates for that sequence [of Discovery crash-landing] to start with something that looked epic and amazing and real. Then we augmented as needed for the snow simulations, ship impact, etc. It was challenging at times because scale in Iceland can be deceiving. I’d think we were maybe a half mile into a glacier, and it turned out the drone was over three miles away. So, we spent a lot of time adding scale cues and finessing the camera work on the CG shots to make sure we could sell the scope and scale as much as possible.”

—Jason Zimmerman, Lead Visual Effects Supervisor

Remarkably, “Su’kal” and the rest of the season’s post-production were completed by artists working at home. Explains Zimmerman, “We had been working on temps and previs a bit before lockdown, but we didn’t really get into deliveries, reviews, etc. until we were all working remotely. Being in the COVID environment for the duration of post, our approach as a team had to evolve. We got up and running very quickly and learned that communication was even more important.”

He adds, “It really was a team effort and credit to our amazing team for rolling with it and helping to figure out the best way to proceed. Our in-house artists all worked remotely on machines that were still in the office, and a lot of our vendors did the same. We did weekly cineSyncs with everyone along with the EPs, and did two calls a day with our internal teams to make sure everyone had what they needed to be successful. Communication was the name of the game to get this done.”

The Discovery has to crash-land on a rocky, icy planet. An Icelandic glacier was shot for the plates for an epic base and then augmented as needed. A lot of time was spent adding scale cues and finessing the camera work on the CG shots to sell the scope and scale.

The Discovery has to crash-land on a rocky, icy planet. An Icelandic glacier was shot for the plates for an epic base and then augmented as needed. A lot of time was spent adding scale cues and finessing the camera work on the CG shots to sell the scope and scale.

“[Using an LED volume] requires a lot more collaboration up front with production because you’re working on environments that have the ticking clock of a shoot day. It also requires input from almost every department working together, so many more Zoom meetings, calls, etc. It allows the directors the freedom to shoot within the volume without focusing on counting shots like they might on a greenscreen stage. It allows the DPs to light with the actual environment and gives actors something to react and interact with. The LED volume [scenes are] going to really blow people away.”

—Jason Zimmerman, Lead Visual Effects Supervisor

Good portions of Season 4 of Star Trek: Discovery, which debuted November 18,  were shot on Pixomondo’s large Toronto LED stage. About using the volume there, Zimmerman comments, “It requires a lot more collaboration up front with production because you’re working on environments that have the ticking clock of a shoot day. It also requires input from almost every department working together, so many more Zoom meetings, calls, etc. It allows the directors the freedom to shoot within the volume without focusing on counting shots like they might on a greenscreen stage. It allows the DPs to light with the actual environment and gives actors something to react and interact with. The LED volume [scenes are] going to really blow people away.”

Regarding the visuals for Season 4, Zimmerman comments, “It will always be Star Trek, so the fans will be happy, but we’re definitely always looking for ways to up our game and otherwise make some amazing visuals that help tell the stories.”


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