Sunday night at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, the Art Director’s Guild held a special event honoring the design of Star Trek. On hand was a panel of distinguished designers, including Scott Chambliss and Herman Zimmerman, sharing their thoughts and memories with the capacity crowd. Video will be made available next month, but we have photos and a report with some interesting comments below.
Star Trek Designers Honored
Report from Star Trek ADG Event September 27th
The panelists for the event were John Jefferies, who worked for his brother Matt Jefferies on Star Trek: The Original Series, Joseph R. Jennings, Production Designer on the aborted Star Trek Phase II and then on Wrath of Khan, Herman Zimmerman, production designer for all the Star Trek TV movies and TV shows (except Voyager) from 1987-2005, and Scott Chambliss, Production Designer on the new JJ Abrams Star Trek. The moderator was Darren Dochterman, one of the ultimate Trek fans, who also worked as an illustrator on Voyager and VFX Supervisor on the director’s edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
(L-R) Dochterman, Jefferies, Jennings, Zimmerman & Chambliss
After some quick introductions the event was broken up into four sections, one for each panelist, firstly showing clips. Things kicked off with Jefferies and clips from episodes of the original Star Trek. Jefferies said that he got his start from his brother, but felt pressure because his hiring was "smacking of nepotism" and how he worked "under the shadow" of his brother. One of the tidbits the designer talked about was how much set dressings they used were scavenged from RKO where they would "paint them bright colors, stick ’em on the wall and run a piece of plumbing to it". Noting that they always wanted things to "identify things with a form of nomenclature" so they would color code and put numbers on things even though "it didn’t make sense, but look believable." John got a big laugh telling the crowd his favorite bit of nomenclature was putting "GNDN" onto things, which means "goes nowhere, does nothing."
Next up was Joseph R. Jennings, who started talking about being an Art Director for Star Trek Phase II, the aborted TV show that was morphed into Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He talked about how the initial challenge for Phase II was how the show was to be set after the original series, noting "how do you go from depicting the future to fifteen years further into the future?" Discussing how TMP inherited the designs of the refit Enterprise, he said that he had a "war on his hand" that after the success of Star Wars, the studio wanted the ship to be much more complex with lots of bits and pieces on it, but in the end he won the argument to keep the simpler "Chris Craft" look, but in the end he said "I won the argument and the Enterprise stayed looking pretty slick."
Discussing his return to Trek for Star Trek II, the Jennings noted how that film saved a lot of money by using a TV sensibility. On the notion of re-using set pieces Jennings quipped "if you are used to television, they save a lot of money because they don’t have time to argue about it" and joking that usually when you change things over and over "you don’t have anything that is any better." In discussing creating Ceti Alpha V on stages at Paramount, requiring all the sand and the big fans, the people who had it even worse than the actors were the cameramen who had to take apart the equipment at the end of every night worth of shooting because of all the sand that got into the cameras. Jennings also took some credit for the famous Mutara Nebula battle in Star Trek II, saying he had to convince director Nicholas Meyer that it was the only way to make his notion of two galleons fighting make sense, by stripping them of their sensors.
Up next was Trek vet
Herman Zimmerman, who reigned as Production Designer for Star Trek for 18 years. Zimmerman talked about his background before Trek and then how he interviewed with Gene Roddenberry while working at Paramount. According to Zimmerman the word on the lot was that Next Generation "was going to be a failure", but he was convinced by Roddenberry’s personality and commitment so he took the job. Zimmerman also gave credit to illustrators Andy Probert and Rick Sternbach for the look of Next Gen, especially the Enterprise D, but he noted that Probert did not have "a practical bone in his body" with regards to practicality or budget, and his job was to take their designs and "make it happen."
Zimmerman went on to discuss Star Trek V and VI, noting that on Final Frontier "the studio cut the legs out from under that film", citing how the studio would not give director Shatner the $2 million he needed to do the elaborate ending the film needed. Zimmerman talked glowingly about working with Nick Meyer on Star Trek VI. Zimmerman then went off on a tangent on how Gene Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek is like the Sherlock Holmes series, where Arthur Conan Doyle set up the premise and other writers can come along and do Holmes stories. He then tied this to the new Star Trek movie saying:
I think the biggest tribute to Star Trek storytelling is what happened with Scott Chambliss’ film, and how JJ Abrams is able to grab a hold of the original story and take it way, way up in the stratosphere. Don’t you think?
Zimmerman pays Chambliss a compliment
Going on to talk about Deep Space Nine, he admitted that it was his favorite series to work on, as he had "three empty stages to fill" starting from scratch. And regarding his work on the TNG feature films, he discussed a highlight being the Ba’ku village that was built for Star Trek Insurrection, where he noted how the art department "made a village where there was nothing." Wrapping the discussion of his time with Trek, Zimmerman said of Star Trek Enterprise again talked about how he liked that the show was "closer to our reality"
The final panelist up was Scott Chambliss, the Production Designer on the latest Star Trek movie. Dochterman started off noted that Chambliss had the "no win scenario" taking on the venerable franchise and trying to please both core base and new fans, with Darren paying the compliment "I think you did it." Chambliss admitted that his first reaction to getting the job was "terror". He was concerned that director JJ Abrams would want to make a film dark, like the dystopic film Children of Men, which was released around the time Star Trek was in pre-production. However, and the designer was relieved in his early talks finding that with Abrams wanted an optimistic look for the film, actually telling Chambliss ‘we are not doing Children of Men, we are going Roddenberry here.’ Chambliss was also magnanimous in calling out his whole art department and how they "all did their best work on this film", especially noting the work of concept
illustrators Ryan Church and James Clyne.
The discussion then moved on to the decision making for using sets, versus locations and CGI. Chambliss noted that they were blessed with a large budget, however that doesn’t mean that they got to always do everything they wanted as they wanted it. He then brought up the controversial use of a Budweiser plant for the engineering set of the USS Enterprise, as well as another industrial location for the engineering set for the USS Kelvin. Chambliss explained:
Those were choices based on the circumstance we were in with the budget. Both engine rooms were designed to be massive entire sound-stage filling sets that did not look at all what you saw on screen. But the realities of what we had to deal with made JJ And I go "okay, let’s find a location that has got to have huge scale…and see what we can find." I think that is the most vivid case where our original intention had to be modified to fit our budget circumstance.
Chambliss also discussed the different looks of the Earth/Federation, Vulcan and Romulans, explaining:
That was a building block of doing the show. It is three different cultures, and in our philosophy of where they came from, they come from three different places. The Vulcan culture, that technology so heavily relied on logic and science and the sensibility of emotion being way down there [motions down]. Starfleet and human beings obviously, emotion plus logic, hopefully in equal parts. And we determined that the Romulans were very much physicality, emotion, passion–that defined their world and technology.
Regarding the part of the film he was most proud of, Chambliss cited the interior of Spock’s "Jellyfish" ship. And, as he noted in our recent interview, he again cited the Iowa Bar scene as his least favorite. He went into more detail noting that originally that part of the film was to take place in a big village on an alien planet, but again it was something they couldn’t afford, so the scene was rewritten for Earth and Chambliss (noting he wanted to do it at the funky Clifton’s) chose to use the bar in an American Legion hall to suit Abrams taste.
Things wrapped up with some audience Q&A followed by a special credits reel made by Mike Okuda, crediting everyone who worked in the art department on Star Trek over the years, followed by a very candid unaired interview with the late Harold Michelson, Production Designer on Star Trek The Motion Picture.
Star Trek panel at ADG event honoring Star Trek
Video for the evening, both the panel as well as the clips shown, will be made available by the Art Director’s Guild in October. The above is only a small taste of the full event which went on for around 2 hours, so when the video is available TrekMovie will post it.
Star Trek panel at ADG event honoring Star Trek
Photos: Paul Cantillon