Star Trek director JJ Abrams has worked for years with the Emmy-winning production designer Scott Chambliss and that includes the new Star Trek, but in a new interview with SciFi Now, he explains how he needed some convincing to go to the final frontier. The designer also talks about his approach to (re)designing the future, see excerpts below.
Scott Chambliss: Designing the future’s past
Considering production designer Scott Chambliss’ long association with J.J. Abrams, from Alias through Mission: Impossible: III, it’s a little surprising to hear that he didn’t immediately jump into Star Trek with both feet when he had the opportunity. In the interview with SciFi Now, Chambliss admits:
My reaction was really all over the place. Of course I wanted to do J.J.’s next movie and I was excited that it was something we’d never done before. But at the same time, I also felt a lot of trepidation because of all of the history and baggage that the franchise has. That was a little troubling, but then we figured out how we had to approach it and moved forward. From a creative standpoint, there’s a real difference between approaching a piece of new material that doesn’t have any history and expectation based on what’s come before, and this only has history and expectation. It’s got a fervent group of believers in the material and there’s just so much that you had to be aware of beforehand in terms of what’s come before, which had to be considered before we even approached how we might want to do this newer version.
The new USS Enterprise
When they began designing Star Trek, Chambliss and Abrams had a few ground rules. First of all, they were primarily paying attention to The Original Series from the 1960s as well as Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the direction it took. The designer explains:
From that point, to me, what made Star Trek the concept radically different from sci-fi of the last 15 or 20 years, was Star Trek was optimistic. It wasn’t a view of the future that was post-Vietnam, post Nixon, post environmental disaster where the future was bleak and f—ed up. They worked things out and no matter how much conflict they had to deal with in outer space with different cultures, it was ultimately an optimistic framework for the story. That made me, just from a design point of view, look at what was going on. Not in the era that the original designer was drawing his references from, which was an updated Flash Gordon, but, instead, I was looking at what was contemporary and really forward-thinking and very scientifically based in architectural design, vehicle design and industrial design. I remember in one of our first meetings about the basic concept, we were saying the same things about the optimism and I began fleshing out with him visual references from there.
The new USS Enterprise Transporter room
It’s suggested that optimism from a design standpoint means something sleeker and “cleaner” looking than, perhaps, vessels from the Star Wars universe. Chambliss agrees, noting:
That’s part of it. From looking at the work I’ve done with JJ, you can tell that he always tries to make things accessible. He always tries to suggest real life. If you’re in a vehicle, whether it’s a military transport spaceship or an older, massive spaceship like the Kelvin in this movie, they’ve been around for a while. They’ve got bumps and scratches and paint is peeling and things have been fixed with gaffer’s tape. That’s real and that gives an environment a tactility that a super sleek, clean, everything-is-perfect kind of cartoon view of a perfect world would not have. That’s not what we were going for. At the same time, if you look at something like Children of Men, where everything is charred, sawed-off and smoking, it’s the opposite of that. It’s still a real world, there are still physical realities you have to deal with and things do still break down and explode and catch on fire, and that’s part of what they’re still dealing with in outer space and on planets. But, for instance, look at the new starship Enterprise: that’s optimistic in its sleek, beautiful design. If you make a comparison, that’s the digital world as opposed to the analog world of the older ship that’s 30 years older. There’s a streamlining effect that doesn’t imply that things will be forever perfect, but it’s the kind of thing where you look at it and you feel good about it; you feel good about the present and hopeful about the future.
The USS Kelvin
Without going too into detail, Chambliss does point out that there were elements of the original Star Trek that they wanted to maintain in this new incarnation:
You wouldn’t want to go on the Enterprise and it not look anything like you remember from the TV show. You want to make sure you have the heart and soul. We did three different passes on what this thing should be, and one of the things we focused on, of course, was the bridge. Particularly the captain’s chair and his relationship to Sulu and Chekov and their consoles in front of them. That was such a given. We wanted to keep Spock and Uhura in the places, physically, that we were so accustomed to seeing them in the old show. It was about recreating the physical relationship of these characters on the ship in a way that was familiar; we wanted similar spatial relationships and the rail that wraps around the central core of that area, without slavishly duplicating the color palettes. We wanted to update the technology in such a way that was super cool without being cheeseball.
Bridge of the new USS Enterprise
Chambliss goes on:
We wanted the bridge to feel really functional and very detailed and very multi-media. And very tactful at the same time. Sexy, by all means. One of the problems with the old show is that they had no budget and everything is made out of cardboard; it felt like a soapbox derby in outer space. All of that stuff is so sweet to look at now and it was definitely of its moment. Well, we wanted this one to be our moment, just brought further into the 21st century. But it’s virtually impossible for a movie to present technology that’s way ahead of its time, because everything we’re referring to right now as new, by the time the move comes out it’s all going to be out there. We didn’t want to find ourselves in the trap of making such a big fuss about the technology, that it was super cool and super new, when we would find ourselves down the road saying, ‘We’ve seen that at Sharper Image and it’s really fun to play with.’
For more of my interview with Chambliss, pick up a copy of SciFi Now #23 (available for to purchase online).
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