This is the fifth installment of a six-part interview with Richard Taylor, the lead designer at Robert Abel & Associates, who were the original special effects team hired to produce the designs of the miniatures and special effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Gore: Again this is all great stuff, and I greatly appreciate that you are willing to delve into the weeds on this with me. One of the things I had… (chuckles) …this was kind of the lynchpin of my mania with trying to reconcile what was designed with what was built and eventually ended up in various model-kits and fan-based blueprints, is that the docking port, the cargo bay docking port where the Travel Pod docks into the side of the Enterprise…
Gore: I noticed that the docking port is slightly above the waist-centerline of the secondary hull. And it seems to be a visual mis-alignment compared to what ended up being on the interior matte paintings. Which showed that the catwalk that where Kirk and Scotty arrive being completely level with the landing deck going back to the fantail hanger doors.
It’s close to a six or seven foot (at 1:1 scale) discrepancy there.
So I guess the questions are what was the design rationale for that being above the centerline?
And how was it supposed to reconcile with the matte painting?
Taylor: You are talking about image 14?
Gore: Yes. And you can see the matte panting reference images below (images 15 and 16).
Taylor: Well, there was no tight co-ordination with what was built into that model and those matte paintings. Matt Yuricich did those matte paintings after the models left the model shop and were at EEG (Entertainment Effects Group).
Gore: Well I know Andrew Probert worked up the original sketches for both those matte paintings, but yes I believe it was indeed Matthew Yuricich that did the paintings. But ok yeah. So it was just an oversight as far as not aligning.
Taylor: Yeah. I think it was pure oversight. You know theoretically that hatch should have been down on the same plane as the hanger floor.
Gore: Because that’s one of the things as I was doing some 3D modeling that I did to try and theoretically reconcile those, because it is above the centerline, it’s about a 6º angle curvature in the hull at that point, so I was thinking the docking port and the airlock inside of it was angled down to that catwalk (like a shallow ramp) so that way it allows them to basically meet a point with the even plane of hanger deck. But that’s just my fan-based attempt to try and square-the-circle so to speak.
Taylor: Yeah. Well to answer your questions as best I can, the position of that hatch or rather the door where the Travel Pod docks in your illustration is placed? This is the first time I ever realized that it wasn’t parallel with the hanger floor level. So it’s an arbitrary mistake.
Gore: No problem. Hey, you guys got too many things right, I’m totally being a rivet-counter nut-ball trying to point these things out.
Taylor: Yeah I got it.
Gore: One of the other things as far as that secondary hull area I had a question about, and this is in reference to page 04, the bottom two images, image 11 and image 12, there’s what appears to be a blue patch within the model itself in the upper area of the inner wall of the hanger deck.
Was that a piece in the model to do a blue screen effect that was going to have something optically stripped in at a later date?
Taylor: No. When the model left me, basically what was inside that hanger was built out, to a point. But there was never going to be any type of matte painting or tracking optical effect put in there. If there had been, it would have been a lock-off shot because this was all pre-digital. So everything was optically composited or was composited in-camera.
So that little blue piece, I really don’t know what the little blue area is. That was something they did once they were filming. You can see that it is in the dry dock there, and you can see the dry dock lights and so forth… other little detailing like that was obviously done when they got into shooting the actual models. I’ve got some pictures that are pretty cool that show parts of the model under construction that I’m sure you’ve never seen before. So I’ll send you some more stills.
But the answer is I don’t know why that’s blue in there.
I had it designed so basically you could look some detail inside the hanger. There were no real shots of craft flying into the hanger from that angle and there was not a tight shot of that area with something coming from the exterior into the hanger. Also the hanger doors were not built to open on camera. The views are from the interior where workbees arrive moving cargo containers.
Gore: Gotcha. I know, and you can see they have what looks like two-dimensional versions of the workbees parked on the fantail deck, but yeah. It would have been cool to have seen them flying in and out of there. So, if you have any images of what was actually built into the hanger before the model left to go over to (Doug) Trumbull‘s that would be awesome to see.
Gore: Ok, great. Anything you can send my way would be great. If for no other reason than I know the fan-base, which is legion, would love to get as much of this stuff “archived” if you will. So anything you can share would be viewed as a godsend to us hardcore Trekkers. We would like to document what went into these models that are, for many of us, a seminal moment in entertainment and film history and definitely within Trek lore. Because basically this movie really un-corked the entire franchise and led to what it became.
Because to my knowledge, and what other people have noted and commented before about it, this was the first time that a television show had been turned into a major feature film. And it’s pretty amazing what then followed and flowed from that. And I think a lot of it does speak to the dedication, talent and work that you guys put into its production. I for one have always been appreciative of it. It has been seared into my childhood memory so I appreciate this.
It’s one of the reasons why I am glad to have this conversation with you. Because I think the work that you guys did doesn’t get enough attention or heralded as much as I believe it deserves.
Taylor: Well that’s because as the old saying goes “the winners write the history.”
But there was a lot of things that my art department and the people I hired to work with me designed and created, from the hand props like the phasers or the tricorders etc. One thing I am very proud of is the Starfleet typeface, and the Vulcan typeface. We designed all the graphic parts of everything seen on any of the models so it all had continuity.
I was frustrated a lot working with the guys at the studio art department. But look, you can imagine; here they were working along happy as can be building these sets for the television show. I’ll send you some pictures of what the interior sets looked like. And you’ll understand why it had to be changed.
So when I came in and basically… I was the principal art director at the Abel studio. And as the saying goes Bob could sell refrigerators to Eskimos. So initially we were brought on to do the special effects for the film. So first we had to review what had already been built and see what could be used. And in the end my opinion, none of it could be used because basically it all had a dated design sense.
So when I show up as a young guy and tell a seasoned art department of union guys, who have been doing feature films for decade, that all they have done isn’t going to work and we have to start over, they were not happy about that.
They’re thinking so “who is this young guy who hasn’t done a feature”, coming in here and telling us what we’re isn’t going to work?
They learned after a while that I knew what I was talking about. But initially that didn’t matter I was the person representing the Abel studio in all the design and production functions. The problem came about because Bob would go into some major reviews with the producers, the director, the art director and others and all of a sudden volunteer or promise that we would or should be doing other aspects of the production. Some things we needed to be involved with the design but in too many other cases we really shouldn’t have gotten into. One that we needed to have input into was of course the bridge.
The Enterprise Bridge was one of the sets that I got deeply involved in because we were going to shoot and create many effects shots in there, like the energy-probe sequence. By the way, do you know about that whole light-system that we built to produce that blazing light effect for the energy probe sequence.
Gore: Yeah I read one of your earlier interviews, I can’t remember if it was Beyond the Marquee, or Forgotten Trek where they had posted an interview with you about the super, super bright light tube system that you guys had developed in order to do the practical on-set light reflections around the bridge set.
Taylor: It was amazing. Stuart Ziff, worked with me to build that light system. He had worked with me building the camera system we used to shoot the Levi’s “Walking the Dog” commercial. He’s brilliant and went on to ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) and developed the Go-Mo (go-motion) system to animate the Dragon for Dragonslayer. Anyway the unit was an incredibly powerful strobe tube that was about five feet long inside a Plexiglass capsule. It was built to be mounted on a Steadicam camera rig so an operator wearing black could move it about in the scene. There was an umbilical cord that went from the unit to a semi-truck that was a huge capacitor.
Taylor: Yes, Amazing.
We had it linked to a computer so we could make it pulse and animate exposure in different rhythms. If you are going to intentionally overexpose a large space it takes a really bright light to bloom out the exposure. Light drops off by the square of the distance from the light source. So if you double the distance you have half the amount of brightness. So, for us to bring a light source onto the bridge that would light that whole bridge and to really overexpose it… there was no traditional stage light source that could be used.
So that was the initial background plate. Then to complete the effect and the look of the energy probe I had designed a process where curved white pieces of wire which would be rotated by motion control. These rotating shapes when shot with shutter open and streaked created these unique shapes.
Gore: Like a high-speed lathe almost.
Taylor: Yes. But the other trick was I was projecting light patterns on them. We did tests that were beautiful. I projected high-contrast designs onto the spinning armatures. So this technique created these organic, spinning cocoon-like images made of light that were like nothing you have ever seen. We never got to do that. We shot the live-action footage for that sequence before that sequence moved on to EEG and then on to Apogee. How they completed the effect I’m not exactly sure. I was told it was some Mylar projection effect they finally used. By the time they got to finishing those scenes they were really running short of time.
Part of the whole reason the film went was moved to the EEG was that Trumbull was brought in to analyze where we were at the time and if we’d be able to finish the fx for the film on time. He basically said we couldn’t get it done. In my opinion he was wrong. There was much more to the decision than I want to reveal or discuss. I’ll say this, our budget when we first got involved was $12 million and during the time we had been working on the project had risen to $20 million. That increase in the budget was due to the constant changes and re-boarding of the script, which added more complexity and more shots to the effects.
Part of the premise on EEG’s part was that they would keep the budget under control and keep in around the $20 million budget we had reached.
Well, when Doug took over the effects he moved everything to a soundstage and then moved it again to Glencoe (The Glencoe Avenue workshop/studios in Marina Del Rey) and some of the effects were done at Apogee. But due to the time left when they took over production and the logistics involved in moving and setting up again they ended up working a lot of over time and triple over time to get the effects done. So it ended up costing $40 million dollars.
I mean that’s how much money they saved. They doubled the budget!
Anyway… the point being that there were a lot of things we were designing that were really going to be killer cool.
One of the things that just broke my heart is what we were going to do for V’ger…