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A question on Star Trek TMP


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The first decade though of CGI spaceships, there was such a high cost to detailing the digital model at a high resolution, that CGI spaceships either tended to lack texture or they avoided getting too close to them or they did everything at a low resolution. The physical model of the Enterprise E in "First Contact" looked better than the digital version in "Insurrection".

 

I'm not sure how much of that was really a limitation of the technology, and how much a failure of technique. Spaceships are, as far as anything's easy in CGI, easy, especially in the context of a major motion picture. I think the problems with the way Insurrection's effects look have much more to do with creative decision making. Particularly, there's way too much fill light, which is incorrect for space, and a huge proportion of shots have purplish nebulae in the background. The whole thing lacks contrast and punch. Early effects artists on Star Trek films understood the need for space to be black and the lighting consequences of that, which is why early ships tend to have lots of spotlights aiming at themselves.

 

The motion sickness issue was mentioned in the context of the (awful) film Stealth, which used CG to represent atmospheric fighter jets. I'm sure I saw a very cautiously-worded interview somewhere to the effect that there was a directorial desire to have the camera flying madly around, which of course is unrestricted with CG, to the point where the entire thing was a mess of motion blur.

 

I was recently asked how I'd do fighter jet effects for a TV show, given the high standard of current TV shows, and my first reaction was to make models - large models, of course, perhaps sixth scale. A 1/6 MiG-29 would be about ten feet long. Some shots in Top Gun were done with miniatures often simply being thrown from a cherrypicker and caught in a net.

 

Radio-controlled models might be useful, but I suspect much of it could be done with static miniatures on a clifftop. The models would be expensive, but for anything not involving explosions you could more or less just shoot them with the second unit and end up much less restricted in the number and variety of shots. CG could be used where necessary to remove supports and add things like wingtip vortices, missiles coming off rails, and so on. In my view this sort of approach has historically led to much more convincing work.

 

P

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The first decade though of CGI spaceships, there was such a high cost to detailing the digital model at a high resolution, that CGI spaceships either tended to lack texture or they avoided getting too close to them or they did everything at a low resolution. The physical model of the Enterprise E in "First Contact" looked better than the digital version in "Insurrection".

It's a real shame that the E-E miniature from FC never saw any further duty, except for being scanned. Outside of the Phoenix and the old Klingon Bird of Prey, the E-E is the only Trek miniature I've seen in person, on stage actually, when they were shooting the reveal of it coming out of a nebula. They had set photographs mounted on slides inside the windows, and it all really looked gorgeous. There are a few shots of a CG E-E in FC, when the ship goes to warp (which looks pretty nice as I recall) and a less successful shot of it coming out of the time warp, but FC is the last time the filmmakers remained predominantly miniature-oriented (though several Starfleet vessels in the early Borg battle are CG.)

 

DD did a few good CG shots of the E-E in NEMESIS, but most of that stuff only looked marginally better than the INS digital work to my eye. But DD was smart enough to go physical for the ramming scene.

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I'm not sure how much of that was really a limitation of the technology, and how much a failure of technique. Spaceships are, as far as anything's easy in CGI, easy, especially in the context of a major motion picture. I think the problems with the way Insurrection's effects look have much more to do with creative decision making. Particularly, there's way too much fill light, which is incorrect for space, and a huge proportion of shots have purplish nebulae in the background. The whole thing lacks contrast and punch. Early effects artists on Star Trek films understood the need for space to be black and the lighting consequences of that, which is why early ships tend to have lots of spotlights aiming at themselves.

 

The motion sickness issue was mentioned in the context of the (awful) film Stealth, which used CG to represent atmospheric fighter jets. I'm sure I saw a very cautiously-worded interview somewhere to the effect that there was a directorial desire to have the camera flying madly around, which of course is unrestricted with CG, to the point where the entire thing was a mess of motion blur.

 

I was recently asked how I'd do fighter jet effects for a TV show, given the high standard of current TV shows, and my first reaction was to make models - large models, of course, perhaps sixth scale. A 1/6 MiG-29 would be about ten feet long. Some shots in Top Gun were done with miniatures often simply being thrown from a cherrypicker and caught in a net.

 

Radio-controlled models might be useful, but I suspect much of it could be done with static miniatures on a clifftop. The models would be expensive, but for anything not involving explosions you could more or less just shoot them with the second unit and end up much less restricted in the number and variety of shots. CG could be used where necessary to remove supports and add things like wingtip vortices, missiles coming off rails, and so on. In my view this sort of approach has historically led to much more convincing work.

 

P

 

Yeah, I don't understand the need make the camera whizz around a model in any context. It's unpleasantly disorienting. If you're going to do that to an audience, you'd better have a good reason. I suspect the main reason for doing it is directors' vanity. They want to be remembered for doing something "cool" with the camera. If it doesn't help tell the story, it's a distraction.

Besides which, I don't think that's anything like what a fighter pilot would experience in a dogfight in standard gravity, let alone zero gravity. There's a Discovery tv series from a few years back that documented RCAF 410 Squadron in Cold Lake, AB. They followed a full training course for a small class of fighter trainees. The camera work in the CF-18s was impressive. It was disorienting to be sure, but after awhile, you started to think in 360 degrees. This would be very instructive to any director or dp wanting to shoot flight in space or otherwise.

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I hated the CGI space battle camerawork in the Battlestar Galactica remake, all those shaky zoom-in shots and rack focusing. Then they copied that in STAR TREK NEW VOYAGES (which has awful cinematography throughout, especially compared to STAR TREK CONTINUES) and it was a turn-off.

Edited by Samuel Berger
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  • 2 months later...
  • 2 years later...

Hey David,

With you being an appreciator of TMP, was wondering if you had looked at the 4K disc yet. Have read a lot about the weird stuff done to the image in some VFX shots (I guess to smooth out or cover mattework) that creates a smear effect where before there was crisp beautiful miniature photography. I don't have a 4K setup right now (just player, no big TV), but even if I did, I'd have to think twice about 'up'grading on this, given that the whole reason I wanted TMP on UHD was to see the modelwork and the vger cloud passage looking the way I remembered them from the theater.

One site indicated that the smearing on the model shots came from averaging the frame in front and I guess behind it, so it is kind of like cascade optical printing, but done digitally. Can't figure out the WHY of messing with something that is the theatrical version of the movie. I can see an excuse for wrecking it all with the 'director's' version (not that I'd support it), but not the theatrical.  

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I haven't seen anything yet but the old HD transfer was quite noise-reduced and smoothed-over, compared to the recent restoration of Trek 2 which was quite grainy. I don't have a 4K set-up either but I was looking forward to a new transfer of TMP. I don't object to some grain reduction to reduce inconsistencies as long as it still feels like the photochemical version.

Deep down I was hoping that they would discover the original 65mm effects before they were reduced to 35mm (the 4k restoration of "Blade Runner" was lucky enough to discover the 65mm effects rolls. Back then, Trumbull finished everything from 65mm to 65mm and then had it duped to 35mm elsewhere.)

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