Behind the Scenes at CBS Digital

The folks at CBS Digital were kind enough to let TrekMovie.com visit CBS Television City to get a behind-the-scenes peek at how they are breathing new life into Star Trek.  

Getting chosen as the effects house to create the new CGI effects for the remastered Star Trek was quite the coup for CBS Digital. As Craig Weiss, Director of CBS Digital says "it is huge deal – the biggest thing we have done so far.” Every single one of their twenty artists does at least some work on Trek, with over half of them dedicated full time. CBS had to bring on about 8 new people in order to meet the rigorous work schedule. Most of the new people are crowded into a single dimly lit (to avoid glare) room that used to be called ‘the morgue’. It is quite a thrill to look around the workstations and see the various bits and pieces of recognizable Star Trek elements being worked on. It is clear from just a quick visit that  each member of the team is dedicated to their craft and to digitally recreating the magic of Star Trek.

 

Some old Trekkies…and some new ones too
As one might imagine, many of the team members are lifelong Trekkies. "For me it is kind of a dream project," says Visual Effects Supervisor Niel Wray. Although not all of the team are ‘Trekkies’, they are all at least familiar with the show and the films from the point of view of their visual effects. And the project itself is creating new fans. One convert is Cliff Welsh, a 2D Compositor who says it was the episode ‘City on the Edge of Forever’ that really converted him “I wanted to see how my work looked, but then saw that storyline was pretty good and I have got into it…these are great stories." Now every Monday Niel and Cliff start off their days by discussing the episode that aired over the weekend. Others on the project have taken to learn all they can about Trek. An example would be Max Gabl, the Swiss-trained matte painter who has taken to studying the history of Trek art and former Trek artists such as the late Albert Whitlock. All in all the CBS-D team seem thrilled to now be part of Star Trek history themselves.


CBS’s Trek room…formerly ‘the morgue’

A Digital assembly line

The CBS team are tasked with delivering a new episode of Trek every single week…only the week before the episode is to air. Each episode starts its life with a meeting with a couple folks from CBS Digital and the producers David Rossi, Mike Okuda and Denise Okuda. Rossi and the Okudas will have already watched the original episode and come in with a list of all the shots they want to have recreated digitally. They go over the shots and see where there are opportunities to combine shots as well as create new shots. Although the mandate is to focus on space shots and matte paintings, the producers often bring in requests for augmentations to live action shots. As we have seen in the first few episodes, it is often these shots which are pleasant surprises to the audience, and it is in this meeting where they pick and choose where to make these enhancements. "It’s beyond the scope of the work, but because we are all huge fans of the show and we want to do everything we can to make it look fantastic," says Wray. According to Wray they end up doing most of the requested shots, but some are just too complicated to do in the allotted time. An example would  be the purple sky seen in the opening shot of ‘Mirror Mirror’. It was just too much work to matte out all the live action elements so the purple stage backdrop stays in, but they still got new agonizer and agony booth effects.

After deciding on the list of shots for an episode Niel Wray and his team start planning out how each shot will look. Often if they plan on doing a new space shot they will make a simple animation test (called an ‘animatic’) for everyone to agree on before commencing with building the shots themselves. Wray explains the process in detail for shots of the Enterprise: "It starts as a model, then it will be textured by our texture painters who add all the various things, then it is is rendered out inpasses…Each shot gets a color pass, an inclusion pass which is basically simulating shadows, two spec passes which are for specular kicks on the body of ship, a nacelle pass, window pass, and a shadow pass. Then the planets and the star fields which are their whole separate thing." Sounds easy enough. For each stage the shots are handed down from artist to artist. "It is like an assembly line," says Wray.


One piece of the the Enteprise (a nacelle skin) gets worked on in the digital assembly line

New Model: From 120 minutes to 4
It is the above-mentioned assembly line that has seen the biggest change with the introduction of the new model of the Enteprise (story).  The model they started with took 2 hours per frame to render, the new model only takes 4 minutes. According to Wray this has freed up the team to do the finalizing that was missing from earlier episodes: "Now we are able to go in there and sit with each shot and try different lighting schemes. You will now get these nice specular kicks off the side, which makes it feel like it is something made of metal. every surface has a sheen to it."  The team feel the new model is so much better that they plan on redoing previous shots that end up being reused. "You will never see that model again – it is gone," says Wray emphatically. Of course that isn’t entirely true because the old model can still be seen in the opening credits, but they are planning on tackling that as well. The new opening credit sequence will first be seen with the first 3rd season episode ‘Wink of An Eye’ in January. They hope to retrofit this sequence into future Season 1 and Season 2 episodes after that.


the old Enterprise had the CBS render farm working overtime

Some episodes take a few weeks, others months
Although they deliver an episode a week, they vary the time to start on episodes greatly. Some episodes (like the recent ‘Catspaw’) only take about 3 weeks to work their way through the digital assembly line. However other effects heavy episodes can take months. For example the team began working on the episode airing this upcoming weekend ‘The Menagerie’  over 2 months ago. This episode has two different Enterprise models (Kirk’s and Pike’s) and has a particularly tricky shot where the camera zooms up on the bridge of Pike’s Enterprise. The team have constructed an entirely CGI bridge complete with a crew that will be transitioned seamlessly with the live action, not an easy thing to do…hence the advance work. One episode in particular looms large in the minds of both CBS and the producers: ‘The Doomsday Machine.’ Niel Wray lays out the issue: "that is such a big episode, it is like a movie of the week or a mini series, there are 105 visual effects." A typical episode only has between 20 to 30. Even though the episode isn’t due until January, work began in October with Mike Okuda going into the Trek archives to find the original writer’s notes for the doomsday machine itself. [UPDATE: Mike Okuda tells TrekMovie.com they were looking for notes to determine some of the original lenses used in photographing the ship model and not related to the design of the Doomsday Machine itself…the CGI planet killer should look much like the original] Speaking of the Menagerie, yes the team also plan on creating a standalone version of the original pilot ‘The Cage’ from which the Menagerie borrows much of its footage. This will be the last episode the team do so don’t expect on seeing it until 2008.


Building digital crewmembers and a bridge
(Note blue screen wall for use in shooting new live action elements)

Creating new canon
Originally Star Trek Remastered was promoted as being a ‘shot by shot’ recreation of the Original Trek. Although it did start out that way, it has been evolving. The team are taking more and more opportunities to create new shots and even new ships. The ideas for these appears to be a group effort between Rossi, the Okudas and Wray, each of whom may come up with an idea for a new shot or ship.  For example in ‘Trouble With Tribbles’ there is a moment when an away team beams from the ship to the station. In the Remastered version there is a dynamic panning shot from the ship to a reveal of the staion, replacing a repeated establishing shot of the ship just orbiting the station. For that same episode CBS added a Klingon ship which was mentioned in dialog but never seen in the original. These changes show that the team are getting bolder in their approach, but they always try and stay true to the original. "I don’t want to take us out of 1966 star trek but I am willing to push it a little bit…I know what I can and can’t get away with, I am not going to show the Enterprise doing barrel rolls,” says Wray.

The team also tries and find places where they can put new ships where there should have been one before but the original team were limited by time and budget. A recent example was the Gorn ship in ‘Arena’. In the future expect to see a new freighter in ‘The Ultimate Computer’ (replacing the re-use of the Botany Bay) and a new Orion ship for ‘Journey to Babel’ (originally just a glowing ball). For the most part Mike Okuda designs the entirely new ships, but Niel Wray gets a crack too. Wray jumped at the chance to design the new Gorn ship after Okuda offered "I thought ‘how cool, I can design something totally new for Star Trek." Making changes isn’t always easy though. Just like with fans there is often debate about what to change and what not to change. An example would be Kirk’s tombstone in ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before’. In the original it reads ‘James R. Kirk’, but of course we all know that Kirk’s middle name is ‘Tiberius’. So far there is no consensus on if they should alter the tombstone to reflect Kirk’s real middle initial ‘T.’ Whichever they decide, there will be fans on the other side. [for the record, TrekMovie.com votes ‘James T. Kirk’]


The new Gorn Ship (model wasn’t ‘skinned’ because it was never seen close up)

 

Putting themselves in the picture
One area that has gone over very well with the fans is the new matte paintings. Much of the credit can go to the teams matt painter Max Gabl. Before working on a new painting Max pours over Trek art books to find inspiration and ideas. Although the original paintings were often beautiful they were always quite static, now the team can add depth of scale and the appropriate lighting and animation effects to make these key shots come alive. In fact these shots are literally ‘alive’ now because they are incorporating people walking about when appropriate, and they are putting themselves into the paintings. This was first seen in ‘Devil in the Dark’ where there was a couple of workmen walking into a tunnel in the lower corner. As it turns out that was Niel Wray and another member of the team shot against a blue screen and placed into the image. Niel was chosen because he fit into the costume but now more members want to be part of Trek history. For the shot of Starbase 11 in the Menagerie expect to see tiny versions of Dave Rossi, Mike Okuda, Denise Okuda, David La Fountaine and others. "Everybody wants to do it now," says Wray.


Max Gabl paints a new Starbase 11 for ‘The Menagerie’

Still learning…and listening
Of course things have not all been perfect, in the first dozen episodes there have been a few gaffes. Although CBS Digital was not responsible for last weeks goof of a wrong shot being edited into ‘Mirror Mirror’, they have had their share of flubs. In an early episode the Enterprise is seen in orbit around a planet which is being lit from the right, but the Enterprise is lit from the left. And in Arena when the Gorn was dying his new eyelids were half closed, but then in another shot they are open again. These kinds of mistakes can be chalked up to growing pains and the accelerated schedule the team are on, but as Wray points out "if you look into any Trek show you will find these glitches, you are always going to make small mistakes." Wray thinks his team are finally hitting their stride “we will be on episode 80 always coming up with better ways of doing this, but I think our peak efficiency will be within the next few episodes.” To date the changes the team have made were based on their own views of making the show the best it can be, however that doesn’t mean they don’t keep track of fan reactions. "It is interesting to hear about what people think of your work so quickly and so enthusiastically…one way or another," says Wray. And where does he look?  You guessed it…TrekMovie.com. So be nice.

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