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December 24
2019

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Spoofing It Up in Space: The 20th Anniversary of GALAXY QUEST

By IAN FAILES

When Dean Parisot’s Galaxy Quest hit cinemas at the end of 1999, audiences quickly realized the film was a parody of Star Trek. It featured the crew of a gleaming starship, the NSEA Protector, battling an alien race. The joke, of course, was that the main characters had been part of a Star Trek-like TV show, and now suddenly found themselves thrust into that actual world of intergalactic warfare.

Although it was a parody, the film’s setting and its other-worldly beings meant that a significant effects effort, both of the digital and practical kinds, would be needed to tell the story. The filmmakers entrusted Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) to lead the show with model spaceships, CG creatures and space-related visual effects, while the Stan Winston Studio delivered a number of practical aliens and makeup appliances.

On Galaxy Quest’s 20th anniversary, VFX Voice asked artists who were at ILM and Stan Winston Studio at the time to reflect on the making of this film that has remained a cult hit since its release.

Stan Winston, whose studio oversaw Galaxy Quest’s animatronic and creature effects, inspects the makeup and prosthetic effects on Sarris. (Image copyright © 1999 DreamWorks Pictures)

EFFECTS AT A TIME OF TRANSITION

In the late 1990s, ILM was a studio at the forefront of computer graphics. But it still retained a busy model shop, which had, for instance, worked on many shots for The Phantom Menace, released earlier in 1999. Both kinds of effects – CG and miniatures – were regularly employed to complete ILM’s large projects.

“It was definitely a time when computer graphics had taken a huge leap forward, and we were able to do so many more things,” recalls Galaxy Quest Visual Effects Supervisor Bill George, from ILM. “It felt like every year there was new software and new tools, but the one limitation that we had was our processing power. We had to be very smart at what we did in computer graphics and what we did traditionally, just because we could only do so many computer graphic shots.

“We couldn’t say,” adds George, “‘Oh, let’s do everything computer graphics.’ So Galaxy Quest became a really nice hybrid of the two techniques, which I think always gives you a better result. Still, the rock monster and the blue babies were where we put our CG resources. Things like the spaceships, which were done with motion control, we handled in a more traditional way.”

ILM model shop artists detail the NSEA Protector miniature. (Image courtesy of ILM)

SPACESHIPS FOR REAL

If you visit ILM’s San Francisco location today, you’ll still be able to see the two main miniature spaceships crafted for Galaxy Quest. The hero Protector ship and the evil Sarris’ alien ship are hanging at the studio, where they have a large presence. They – deliberately – seem to resemble something out of the Star Trek universe.

“We, of course, had a long history with working on the Star Trek films,” notes George, “and so it seemed like a natural fit for us and our art department. When it came to building the large Protector, we wanted to try to build a single model that would work for all of our needs. A bigger model is going to give you the ability to get the camera in closer and get better detail. But if it gets too big, then you have problems with shooting it on stage. It takes more lights and more people to move it around.”

The Protector, mostly white and with sleek lines, contrasts heavily with the organic Sarris ship miniature. Says George: “There’s actually water dripping on the inside of Sarris’ ship. I don’t know if it was supposed to be like a sauna, or maybe they had bad plumbing, but it was very, very dark, very slimy. And of course, the characters, Sarris and his crew, were lizard-like, so that gave us a jumping off point for the design of the ship.

“And being a big Star Trek fan,” adds George, “I love the fact that we emulated the maw of the doomsday machine from that classic Star Trek series. We had these effect lights going on inside the mouth of Sarris’ ship, which I thought was really, really cool.”

ILM sequence supervisor Ed Kramer works on shots of the rock monster. (Image courtesy of ILM)

CG ROCK MONSTERS, AND MORE

ILM took the opportunity to enhance its approach to CG creatures on Galaxy Quest, particularly for the encounter with a rock monster. This scene was filmed at Goblin Valley State Park in Utah, with the cast and crew having to imagine, during filming, a 40-foot creature that would ultimately be added later.

“There were a few large shapes that could be moved around to cast shadows, that kind of stuff,” details George. “But it was just the traditional directions, ‘Okay, look over here, look over there, run this way, run that way. At that point, even in ’99, most of the actors, and certainly the camera operators and the director, had experience doing effects work.”

At that point in time, ILM was experimenting with new lighting models that enabled more ambient bounce and diffuse illumination, so that light from one surface would reflect light onto another surface. Associate Visual Effects Supervisor Ben Snow oversaw much of this work, which was also applied to the CG blue demon child-like mining aliens ILM made for the film that at first appear cute but end up being incredibly savage.

The blue miner children were CG creations. This is the wireframe pass. (Image copy-right © 1999 DreamWorks Pictures)

Final rendered frame of the blue miner children, who turn out to be particularly aggressive. (Image copyright © 1999 DreamWorks Pictures)

Galaxy Quest became a really nice hybrid of the two techniques, which I think always gives you a better result. Still, the rock monster and blue babies were where we put our CG resources. Things like the spaceships, which were done with motion control, we handled in a more traditional way.”
—Bill George, Visual Effects Supervisor

Original plate for a shot on the alien planet, filmed at Goblin Valley State Park in Utah. (Image copyright © 1999 DreamWorks Pictures)

ILM’s CG elements, made in Maya. (Image copyright © 1999 DreamWorks Pictures)

The final composited shot. (Image copyright © 1999 DreamWorks Pictures)

“Camp is only campy because someone’s taking it seriously, and we took all the ef-fects very, very seriously. I thought that really supported the comedy. The danger needs to be real. It can’t be a joke. If everything is a joke, then the jokes aren’t fun-ny.”
—Bill George, Visual Effects Supervisor

CREATURE FEATURE

Many of the film’s aliens, alternately, were practical creature creations. The filmmakers had Stan Winston Studio create full-scale alien animatronics, full-body suits and masks, and makeup appliances for a lot of hero and background creatures. Effects Supervisor Shane Mahan reflects on getting all those things ready for the shoot.

“Stan Winston came up with a brilliant idea of hiring multiple artists to create multiple looks. So all of these fantastic designs, different looks and different designs came out of it. For example, Simon Bisley’s Thermians were just off-the-chart great as these big squid people with big eyes. And they looked very different than Bernie Wrightson’s little miner children. And then Crash McCreery designed the pig lizard and lots of other makeups.”

Mahan says the Sarris character was designed to have an aquatic shellfish oyster surface. “Stan was keen to use a mechanism that was developed for another project for the articulation of the mouth on Sarris. It was quite complicated in terms of a radio-controlled headpiece and articulated face piece and breathing shells on the body. We had lionfish-like spines that would work via cable. It was pretty advanced at the time.”

Another memorable practical effects aspect of the film for Mahan was the makeup appliance for Dr. Lazarus (Alan Rickman). “Crash and I sculpted that,” Mahan says. “We wanted it to be an homage to those ’70s television shows where the makeups were at the level of what they could be at that time for television. The joke was always a very fine line. Obviously, he’s wearing a headpiece, and he’s a trained Shakespearean actor who hates this job. And then, as the film goes on, the piece actually slowly deteriorates. The joke is even funnier because you’re seeing, towards the end, hair poking out.”

The Protector on a motion-control base being filmed in front of bluescreen for space scenes. (Image courtesy of ILM)

PRACTICAL MEETS DIGITAL

By the time of Galaxy Quest, Stan Winston Studio and ILM had worked on many projects together (such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park and Small Soldiers). That partnership was particularly valuable in realizing the Thermians in the 1999 film.

“The production threw Stan Winston’s crew a little bit of a curve, where they were initially told that the Thermians were just going to stand there,” observes George. “And then Dean came up with the idea that he wanted them walking into the ‘Gelevator’ room. Those things were made of this really amazing silicone that moved well, but it weighed 600 or 700 pounds. It was just crazy heavy. The solution was to shoot them bluescreen and then transport them into the room.”

Around 20 puppeteers brought the tentacled Stan Winston creations to life in this and other scenes, with ILM then involved in removing rods and the puppeteers from the frame. “It looks very real,” states Mahan. “The actors are reacting to getting squirted on by these things, and their eyes are bugging out, and that’s what makes it charming.”

The Protector as it exists today, hanging up at ILM’s San Francisco offices. (Photo: Chris Hawkinson, courtesy of ILM)

Sarris’ alien ship is also hanging up at ILM in San Francisco. (Photo: Chris Hawkinson, courtesy of ILM)

NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER SURRENDER!

Driving the effects effort on Galaxy Quest was, for both George’s and Mahan’s crews, the desire to tap into the Star Trek world, while also showcasing a wide range of planets, creatures and vehicles as realistically as possible. This was despite the fact that the film was a parody.

“When we started the film,” remembers George, “a lot of people would say, ‘Oh, it’s cheesy. It’s supposed to be a cheap movie.’ But my attitude from the very beginning was, ‘No, everything has to look real and has to be as high quality as we can make it. It’s not campy.’

“I mean,” continues George, “camp is only campy because someone’s taking it seriously, and we took all the effects very, very seriously. I thought that really supported the comedy. The danger needs to be real. It can’t be a joke. If everything is a joke, then the jokes aren’t funny.”

Making Models

Fon Davis worked at ILM as a chief model maker on Galaxy Quest, where his main role was overseeing the fabrication of Sarris’ ship. He also worked on the Protector paint job, and the shuttle that launches from the ship at the end of the film.

The look of the Protector took advantage of experience ILM had garnered on various Star Trek films, particularly in adding interesting detail, says Davis.

“It actually has a very, very busy pattern on it, but because it’s a curved shape, you can only see the panels that line up with the light just right. So as you’re going around a Star Trek ship, or the Protector, you just get these little glints of color from these little tiny panels. It’s alluding to a greater level of construction under all the white paint. That was a fascinating process to take part in.”

Meanwhile, the Sarris ship, which looked completely different from the Protector, was, recalls Davis, “one of the first miniature spacecraft that I’m aware of that was a sculpture. It was very organic in its design. We sculpted all the pieces and then mold and cast them out of fiberglass.”

The alien ship also had a unique paint job, in that underneath each of the ‘scales’ of the craft, it appeared to be like a living thing. “Right before it gets ready to take on some action, such as launching missiles, there are lights coming out from under each scale that light up,” describes Davis. “That’s not a CG effect, it was actually done practically.

“To do that,” Davis says, “we painted the whole ship brown, green and Earth tones. Then we took the ship into a paint booth and turned on a blacklight, and we painted florescent yellow and green paint where we wanted all the glowing to happen. So when it went to the stage, they could shoot it with or without those lights on. The neon paint was completely transparent – you could have everything from no light, to turning on all the blacklight to ramp up the pulsing and the ‘living light’ feature of that ship.”

ILM practical model supervisor Brian Gernand (right) with chief model maker Fon Davis surveying a Protector maquette. (Image courtesy of ILM)

“[The Sarris ship was] one of the first miniature spacecraft that I’m aware of that was a sculpture. It was very organic in its design. We sculpted all the pieces and then mold and cast them out of fiberglass.”
—Fon Davis, Chief Model Maker


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