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July 01
2020

ISSUE

Summer 2020

STAR TREK: PICARD Warps the Gamut from Subtle to Spectacular

By KEVIN H. MARTIN

Among the references for the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D drawn upon by VFX Supervisor Jason Zimmerman were the huge volume of TV imagery shot at Image-G, plus ILM’s work on the series pilot for Star Trek: The Next Generation and again on the Star Trek Generations feature film. (Images courtesy of CBS All Access.)

During its downright rocky first two seasons, Star Trek: The Next Generation was able to only occasionally capture the magic of its legendary but short-lived predecessor, and few could be faulted for thinking history would treat it less kindly. But the direct-to-syndication series – already a ratings juggernaut right out of the gate, featuring lead actor Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean Luc-Picard – saw drastically improved storylines in later seasons. This helped many viewers imprint on it as the definitive vision of Star Trek, set within a near-Utopian 24th Century featuring the powerful but benign United Federation of Planets. While some darker textures emerged in the inevitable NextGen feature films, the much-beloved Picard character and his crew were still viewed as virtuous types.

Perhaps taking a page from the original Star Trek’s writer’s guide – the one indicating its lead character feels “responsibilities strongly and is fully capable of letting the worry and frustration lead him into error” – the makers of Star Trek: Picard have continued down a darker path, one that presents him as an older, somewhat infirm and long-retired Starfleet officer at odds with the powers that be and operating without his usual coterie of stalwarts.

Spearheading Picard’s visual effects was Supervisor Jason Zimmerman, who previously undertook that task for the first two seasons of CBS All Access’ series Star Trek: Discovery and Short Treks installments. A multiple Emmy and VES award nominee and winner of the latter for Terra Nova, Zimmerman’s breadth of experience with contemporary action-drama (Hawaii 5-0 reboot, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), as well as the fantasy genre while at Pixomondo made him an ideal choice for the new series. Picard, however, eschews some of the starship-battle bombast of Discovery in favor of a sometimes more intimate, character-driven storyline.

Civilian Picard (Patrick Stewart) uses one of a series of transporter booths in future San Francisco. Delivering bright materialization/dematerialization effects in broad daylight was just one of the aspects to the production that required greater finesse on the part of the VFX artists.

“There was a specific tone planned for the show’s visuals right from the beginning, and that aesthetic breaks some from what had been seen in past series. We felt justified, given that a lot of time has passed for this character between his last appearance [in 2002]. Making it look more cinematic was an important concern, plus our new dramatic situation informed our choices, with more happening on various planets.”

—Jason Zimmerman, Visual Effects Supervisor

Seven of Nine, aka Annika Hansen (Jeri Ryan), an ex-Borg featured in Star Trek: Voyager, now a peacekeeping space ranger.

“There was a specific tone planned for the show’s visuals right from the beginning,” states Zimmerman, “and that aesthetic breaks some from what had been seen in past series. We felt justified, given that a lot of time has passed for this character between his last appearance [in 2002]. Making it look more cinematic was an important concern, plus our new dramatic situation informed our choices, with more happening on various planets.”

That tone helped Zimmerman differentiate the new series from Discovery, which for its first two seasons took place in the 23rd Century. “We’re less about the spectacle and more about invisibly integrating elements into the live-action environments,” he states. “There’s a lot of work that goes into removing elements that aren’t supposed to be there and tweaking others, essentially modernizing contemporary aspects when necessary. It’s been fun to take these kinds of challenges on, and it makes for a nice change of pace for us from Discovery, where we had this huge 85-ship battle last year.”

Zimmerman cites the outdoor transporter booths seen on Earth as an example of effects work that doesn’t call attention to itself, but still requires an expert touch. “When you’re out in broad daylight, the flash of dematerialization doesn’t allow for as much of an interactive effect,” he relates. “Going to absolute white on the flash in those already-bright conditions in the frame meant we needed to do a lot of finessing to get a good blend.”

VFX is able to weigh in on possible approaches and solutions very early in the show’s prep period. “We are very involved up front,” he declares, “not just the writers but also the executives. We can help by giving them our read on a given scene, and they in turn ensure we understand exactly what is needed from us. Getting a bead on things prior to shooting means we can offer production an informed opinion. If they determine warp [speed] is made up of blue and white streaks, both we and those shooting live-action can create work that reflects that and dovetails together, so the thing really sings. And there’s always an appetite on our part to work with [production designer] Todd Cherniawsky’s team, so they can start us off on the right foot with a lot of practical elements that VFX can build upon. Same with the cinematography, as we carry on from the lighting done by the DPs [Philip Lanyon and Darran Tiernan] and also with the [VVDFX] prosthetic makeup team.”

The title character is not the only familiar silhouette on Picard. The immense, cube-shaped ship of the implacable Borg – a hybrid form of machine and organic life – is also back. Illusion Arts portrayed the vast interior of the cube in the series’ seminal Borg installment, “Q Who,” then topped themselves by delivering a spectacular pullback reveal of the cube that expanded its scope exponentially at the start of Star Trek: First Contact. Zimmerman chose to revisit this territory with another impressive pullback.

“Sometimes we work with camera lockoffs shot by the main unit, and then ‘postage stamp’ what has been shot into a CG realm to make the space look larger,” he explains. “But in a lot of instances, such as when the characters are on a catwalk with the camera booming up from beneath them to wind up looking down at them, production executes crane moves that can address shifts in perspective and parallax changes. From there, we can continue the move in CG. That’s a matter of making sure there is an ease-in and ease-out from the physical crane move, so when we take over with the digital camera it is as smooth as possible.”

To populate the cube, VFX creates digidoubles, an approach also seen for planetary crowd scenes. “Having more people moving around in the background really seems to help make the scene come alive,” Zimmerman acknowledges. “We’re guided by the lights set by the DP for the actual set. Taking a cue from that work, we try to ripple that same approach into the vaster area seen in the comp. It’s often not a cut-and-dried matter. Again, we are finessing the image. Sometimes it is as simple as adding a bit of halo to the lights to indicate atmosphere in larger spaces, or perhaps some lens flare – though we try not to overdo those – if they’re facing something bright in-frame. We map all of production’s lenses in order to mimic what and how they see, and to get some idea of what it would look like if there were dirt on the lens. Occasionally this requires an additional CG pass, but we do a lot of our finishing touches in the comp phase.”

Another aspect of the main-unit shoot relates to the creation of interactive light effects. “We have to anticipate what might happen after the shooting,” says Zimmerman. “What if, in the edit, something changes the story – but we’re still tied to the flash that was done on set? When we foresee such a possibility, we prefer to not use an on-set interactive. But the DPs definitely help our integration with interactives done right, and with the programmable light effects now possible, the gaffer’s work can be very precise and repeatable, much like a lot of the show’s physical effects gags.”

“For our hero ship, the La Sirena, production started the design process. That ship is smaller and more maneuverable, so that impacts how we animate it. This is well-removed from how the big Federation starships move, which were more like [naval] battleships. Our first animation tests revealed this ship could do banks and more exciting turns.”

—Jason Zimmerman, Visual Effects Supervisor

Without Starfleet resources at his disposal, Picard sets out on his mission with a rag-tag crew on a privateer-style vessel, La Sirena. The vessel is deliberately utilitarian and starkly functional, as opposed to the relatively lavish trappings seen elsewhere in Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets. Instead of traditional instrumentation, the controls are of the ‘air guitar’ variety seen throughout the science fiction genre ever since Minority Report. Joining him are a pair of ex-Starfleet officers: Raffi (Michelle Hurd) and ship’s owner Rios (Santiago Cabrera), whose crew includes a series of holograms bearing his likeness. Others aboard include cybernetics whiz Dr. Jurati (Alison Pill) and Soji (Isa Briones), the surviving member of a pair of twin androids.

No Trek series would be complete without spaceships. In the case of Picard, many designs emerge from the production office. “Sometimes we’ll have modelers working with production to create a first-pass look, though they also have their own,” reveals Zimmerman. “From there, we make it camera-ready. For our hero ship, the La Sirena, production started the design process. That ship is smaller and more maneuverable, so that impacts how we animate it. This is well-removed from how the big Federation starships move, which were more like [naval] battleships. Our first animation tests revealed this ship could do banks and more exciting turns.

“The other key aspect for the ships is the lighting,” Zimmerman continues. “If the ship is out in deep space, where is the lighting coming from? And then you have to figure out key and fill for when the ship is near a planet, or in a solar system with multiple suns. There is a huge bulk of real space imagery from NASA in addition to all the previous Trek [incarnations], so what emerged was a kind of amalgamation of these influences. It’s kind of daunting when you consider the amount of reference material amassed with Trek series and movies down through the years – a lot of which still holds up very well. We have to consider how to represent these staple Trek elements in an updated way, using the tools available today.”

One example is Picard’s former command, the USS Enterprise NCC 1701-D, which appears to him in a dream, moving very close to camera in a way somewhat reminiscent of John Knoll and ILM’s work in Star Trek Generations. “Both the Borg cube and the Enterprise are daunting challenges because they are so well loved and well known, but we try to up the ante. We’ve been trying to solve the issues with the cube all season long, and I think we’re getting much better at it with the later episodes. Showing it in relation to La Sirena is a genuine challenge. You have to create depth cues, because there’s nothing [no atmosphere] in space to give you that automatically. And if this thing moves too fast – say, zooming up from five miles away to just 100 yards – the scale can easily get destroyed. We’ve had previs iterations that make it look like a two-inch model a foot from the lens. But that’s all part of the process. We previs everything, so the CG shots go through multiple iterations for speed, scale and maneuverability to nail down all aspects prior to going to full render.”

Zimmerman employs multiple VFX vendors, a Trek tradition dating back to the original series when work was spread among four principal optical houses. “Since we’ve been doing Trek for a few years at this point, we have a shorthand with several vendors we enjoy working with,” Zimmerman affirms. “If a vendor gets burdened with a ton of work on a particular episode, then somebody else we know is reliable can be brought on, which permits a degree of overlap. The division of labor is based on knowing who does the best work, who has the supervisors that are most experienced with a particular kind of effect and which facilities have a workflow and the personnel availability to execute.” Vet Trek providers include Pixomondo, Crafty Apes and Gentle Giant Studios, while Technicolor VFX, Filmworks/FX and DNEG TV are more recent additions.

A small craft on a landing pad within the Borg cube. Lighting for the series’ VFX scenes take their lead from live-action, with ships often illuminated by their specular highlights. Haze and glare are often added as finishing touches during the comp phase. The many smaller craft on Picard demonstrate a wider variety of dynamic maneuvers that would have looked less credible if executed by the bulky starships previously seen in the various series.

The interior of the Borg cube contains countless drones being assimilated during conquest, each in its own regeneration chamber. Picard showcases advances in VFX technique by delivering an even more ambitious pullback reveal, echoing similar shots from the series Star Trek: The Next Generation and the feature film Star Trek: First Contact.

Countless Borg drones are ejected out into space. Digidoubles were often used to populate stellar and planetbound vistas. Several VFX vendors, most already familiar with its universe through work on Star Trek: Discovery, handle the wide variety of effects challenges, which range from ship design to particle and character animation.

To ensure consistency in looks, Zimmerman ensures the vendors all start with CDLs and a spec sheet. “When we review their dailies, this guarantees their shots will match what is coming from editorial on the Avid,” explains Zimmerman. “Preserving our color pipeline from start to finish means there won’t be unwelcome surprises for the execs and the episode directors, as well.”

Musing about the show’s ‘brain trust,’ Zimmerman notes that, “Pretty much everybody working on the show has some kinship with Trek. [Creator and supervising producer] Kirsten Beyer is such an incredible resource for us in this regard that we check in with her weekly to make sure our work is going to pass muster. Executive producers Alex Kurtzman, Akiva Goldsman and Michael Chabon all started as fans, so there’s an expectation to be met on all our parts, and that challenge is also part of the fun of the show.”


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