Yesterday TrekMovie put up our interview with Scott Chambliss, Star Trek’s new production designer. The man who held that position for the last couple of decades was Herman Zimmerman, who will join Chambliss at an event on Sunday honoring the design of Trek over the years. In an exclusive interview with Zimmerman below, we talk to him about his time with Trek, and also get his thoughts on the new Star Trek.
Interview: Herman Zimmerman – Star Trek Production Designer from 1987 – 2005
Herman Zimmerman was production designer on three series: “Star Trek The Next Generation”, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Star Trek Enterprise”. He was also production designer on six Star Trek feature films, starting with “Star Trek V” through to “Star Trek: Nemesis”.
TrekMovie: This weekend the Art Director’s Guild is celebrating the 43 years of Star Trek. You joined Star Trek in 1987 with Next Generation…
Herman Zimmerman: I was working as an art director on the soap opera The Days of our Lives back in 1966, and watched all the old Star Trek shows when they were running and thought they were the best thing on television, never thinking I would work on it.
TrekMovie: Looking back on that era, and then going into the Zimmerman era starting with Next Generation, what do you think are the quintessential things about the look of Star Trek that flow through all of it?
Herman Zimmerman: Well the first thing you need to know is that the Enterprise itself is one of the characters. And everything you invent on the Enterprise, whatever new room or engineering facility, or any part of the ship that hasn’t been shown before, is a new opportunity to re-introduce the character and to bring audience awareness of the advances in technology onto the screen. That is part of the fun of doing a new series. Even on Enterprise, which was going back in time to before the era of Kirk and Spock. I enjoyed it to put a nail on something that would grow to be what we are already really familiar with, from the original Matt Jeffries work and Robert Wise film, to the Next Generation and the Enterprise D and on the the Enterprise E. We had to start from the premise that wherever it is that we start, it must be logical where it ends up. That was a fun exercise, it is literally back to the future. Enterprise was also more fun for me because it
was more present day. It was only 90 years in the future, so we can more readily see HD video screens on the bridge. On Next Generation everything was on black plastic, very slick, everything touch screen. On Enterprise we were able to give the actors knobs and levers and things they can actually deal with. I was able to do a couple of fun things, like putting chairs on the bridge that were on glides. so the operator could turn around and slide, and then slide back. I liked that bridge almost more than the Enterprise E bridge, which was considerably more elaborate.
Zimmerman oversaw the look of Trek from Next Gen to Enterprise
TrekMovie: Of all the ships and bridges you worked on, can you pick a favorite?
Herman Zimmerman: I was blessed with a crew of people that worked with me pretty much from 1987 until 2005, but I had the most talented people in the industry. It is really hard to pin down what was a favorite, because it was the experience of all of us being creative. Taking the sometimes hair-brained ideas of a script and finding a way to make it happen in a very compressed time period. I can say Enterprise was my favorite because it was closer to our own reality, but I could also say the Enterprise E is my favorite bridge, because Patrick Stewart liked it best.
Bridge of the Enterprise E – Patrick Stewart’s favorite
TrekMovie: Looking at this another way, of all of the shows (TNG, DS9, Enterprise) and ships, the D, the E, the NX-01, and the original series era movies you worked on, which was the most challenging for you and your team?
Herman Zimmerman: It always boils down to: do I have enough time and did they give me enough money? Even with the films, we were always trying to make a silk purse out of something other. I inherited a lot of stuff from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek II, and III and IV, which had been saved – most of it in really bad shape. Where possible, I recycled things and I certainly owe a lot of the ideas of the Next Generation ship interior to Hal Michaelson from the Robert Wise movie [Motion Picture], because those things were still physically standing on the stages when I started Next Generation. Every movie that I did owed a lot to the scenery that was left in the warehouses, that I was able to mix and match and re-invent. And then as things went on, things from the movies would wind there way back to the TV series. It is kind of like you are doing crisis management all the time, when you are doing Star Trek.
Corridors from TOS movies Enterprise and TNG Enterprise – Zimmerman did a lot of recycling
TrekMovie: Did you ever resent that and wish you didn’t have to re-use things?
Herman Zimmerman: We would always want to start with a blank slate, and the only time I was really able to do that was with Deep Space Nine, and then when Enterprise came along. But then they both ended up making their own scene dock full of things, because you cannot make a series television show without recycling.
Cardassian look of DS9 allowed Zimmerman to start with blank slate
TrekMovie: As you worked on the show, both in the fanzine era and the Internet era, how much of an influence did fan feedback have on your work?
Herman Zimmerman: Many of the people in my art departments were, and are, Trekkies…and now Trekkers. When I was watching the show in the 60s, I had the impression that the people that went to conventions and made Star Trek their life, were the lunatic fringe. I have grown to appreciate them as real visionaries, because they were the ones that kept the show on the air between 1968 and 1979. They were the ones that buy all the products. Faithfully millions of them go to the movies, whether it is a good one or not. Yes, we pay attention, but frankly the fans don’t run the show. The producers and the studio run the show. That doesn’t always make for the best that could be, but it is what has been. It is, after all, a business and casual entertainment. It has become a cult of sorts, a philosophy of sorts. It is a byproduct of this casual entertainment.
TrekMovie: You worked with a lot of different feature film directors over the years with Trek, which one did you enjoy working with the most?
Herman Zimmerman: They were all different. Nick Meyer was one of my heroes. He did Star Trek II and I worked with him on Undiscovered Country, and we worked together really well. He was the one who put me onto what was always my philosophy, but I had never articulated, which was "the future is now." Whatever you think about the future in your imagination. What you know is in the past, and what you aspire to is now. The only way you can imagine it, is by collecting things in your consciousness that already exist. So anything that you are inventing that seems futuristic is always couched in something from the present.
Meyer and Zimmerman applied "the future is now" approach to STVI
TrekMovie: The last feature film you worked on, Nemesis, that had a different look…
Herman Zimmerman: Well [director] Stuart Baird was convinced, in his mind, that this was going to be the first Star Trek movie. He wanted to make it such an important movie in the world of movies in general, that all other Star Trek movies would be forgotten. As such, he was not easy to work with or respectful of the things that had preceded him. He made a movie that was darker. It was a darker story and it was OK. It was certainly worth having done it. Personally, we, meaning the art department, didn’t have as good an experience as we had making the other films. Because of the–I am going to say it–the ego of the director, the film had an edge that well, well I hope we don’t do too many films with that dark philosophy. It was certainly against Gene Roddenberry’s philosophy of Star Trek.
Zimmerman did not have good time working on ‘Nemesis’
TrekMovie: Let’s talk about the new [Star Trek] movie…
Herman Zimmerman: Well, they did a hell of a job. The movie was terrific. The nod or deep bow to The Original Series, is what put it over the top, because that is what the franchise needed–to go back to its roots. JJ Abrams knows that more than anyone. I know he is a huge fan of the show, and it shows. He was careful with the way he re-invented things. He polished them off and gave them a new lease on life. I love Dr. McCoy with the back story that he invented of this young doctor that is so energetic and so willing and knowledgeable, but not quite experienced enough to make the right choice at the right time, and yet he is lovable, like DeForest Kelley made him. The whole cast was perfect. I can find no fault with it at all.
TrekMovie: With your production designer hat on, what did you think of the look of the JJ Abrams movie?
Herman Zimmerman: Well it is a different problem. The movie is an action-adventure in a way that none of the other Star Trek movies had been. They were slow and pondering by comparison, especially the Robert Wise film which took ten minutes to look at the Enterprise. Since he had CGI to work with, and this cast of characters, and a lot of story to tell in a short time, the problems were entirely different. A good many of them were CGI. And there is nobody better than Scott [Chambliss] to solve those problems. I think it was terrific. If I had done it, I would not have done it as well.
TrekMovie: Did you spot any of your own influences in the film?
Herman Zimmerman: Well the bridge looks like all the other bridges we have done. It is innovative in that it is a whole new bridge, but it is made up of same elements that all the other bridges are made of, but they took everything a step further.
TrekMovie: When I talked to Jonathan Frakes, he too praised the film, but did admit to having some budget envy…
Herman Zimmerman: Well, we all had that. [laughs] Yes we did have budget envy. That again is a function of the times. The studio’s willingness to put that kind of money on the screen is kind of a new thing, but they got a great film out of it.
Zimmerman impressed with the work of Chambliss on the new Star Trek movie
TrekMovie: So are you now retired?
Herman Zimmerman: Well I am officially retired as I am not looking for work as a production designer or art director. But I am working as visual consultant to architects. I worked for the Army doing Iraqi Villages, which are like sets, at Fort Irwin, for the all the people that go to the Middle East (see LA Times article for more). I am also working on the back lot at Paramount, re-inventing the New York street there. And I am just about to start working on Plymouth Rock Studios in Massachusetts, they have asked me to design the back lot there.
Zimmerman at Star Trek: The Tour opening in 2008 – officially retired, but still designing
See Zimmerman, Chambliss and more this Sunday in LA
On Sunday September 27th the Art Directors Guild Film Society will be honoring the the designers of Star Trek movies at an event at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. Here is a blurb explaining the event from the press release.
John Jefferies, Joseph R. Jennings, Herman Zimmerman and Scott Chambliss will participate in a panel discussion to be moderated by Production Illustrator Daren R. Dochterman, featuring video clips from their work on Star Trek, as well as a screening of the Director’s Edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Documentary video clips of the late Harold Michelson, Production Designer of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, will also be shown
General admission: $10. American Cinematheque members: $7. Students/Seniors with valid ID: $8. 24-hour ticket information is available at 323-466-FILM (3456). More info at americancinematheque.com, and you can buy tickets at Fandango.