‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Designers Reveal Look and Colors Will Evolve To Be More Like TOS

Members of the art department for Star Trek: Discovery held a panel on Saturday at FanExpo Canada, where they talked about the production design for the show, with a primary focus on the interiors of the different ships. The panel was really less of a typical talking event and more of a show & tell slide show, but unfortunately they did not allow any photography so we can’t share anything that was shown. But they did say after the show premieres they expect much of what they displayed to become available online.

Discovery production design panel at Fan Expo Canada 2017

Production Designer Todd Cherniawsky (who Skyped in from Los Angeles) kicked things off by talking about how everyone working on the look of the show took it very seriously, and took fan comments and critiques seriously as well:

For all of us who have had a chance to work on the show, this is very, very precious material to us. This has all informed our childhoods. We have all been fans. So every decision that has been made along the way has been really, really carefully thought out. We also appreciate the criticism and concerns for the franchise.

Next up was Supervising Art Director Mark Steel, who talked about the scale of work being done for Discovery. He reported that the show employs 7 art directors, 9 illustrators, 35 set designers, and over 450 painters, carpenters, sculptors, model makers, set dressers, and prop builders. All of these people are spaced out across Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, and Los Angeles. He said that the show is being shot on 6 stages in Toronto, and showed an overlay comparing the original 1966 Desilu stages to the current Discovery sets. TOS sets were dwarfed in comparison.

Shot from production start promo shows scale of some of the Discovery sets

Discovery graphics will get more colorful – like TOS

Things got even more interesting towards the end, when Timothy Peel (the Lead Motion Graphic Designer) started showing off some of his work. It was very impressive to see the level of detail that goes into all the displays around the ships and how many of them are genuinely interactive.

Peel talked about how they have striven to make the look of the interfaces on the show fit into a continuum from Enterprise to The Original Series to The Next Generation. In fact, he considers TNG designer Mike Okuda his “god” and noted, “I try to honor the look and feel, but the tech is better,” referring to the tools available today.

Peel then said something almost as an aside that seemed pretty significant. While showing off one of the interfaces from the U.S.S. Shenzhou he commented on the color scheme:

This is slightly blue-y. They are sort of restricting all the color schemes and they will slowly advance and become more colorful as we get closer to The Original Series, and for other reasons I can’t repeat.

The blue that dominates the Federation interface designs on Discovery will apparently evolve to something more TOS-like and colorful

Sarcophagus ship is huge, detailed, uses Trek novel for inspiration

Perhaps half of the presentation panel was dedicated to Art Director Matt Middleton talking about the work done to create the Klingon Sarcophagus ship, which he described as a “cathedral in space.” Middleton said that Bryan Fuller’s original outline called for the set to function as “a church, a ritual space and a functioning bridge.”

Production design sketch for Sarcophagus Ship shown at SDCC

Middleton said the ship was “exercise for us for how can we make this more intricate and more elaborate and more worthy of the Star Trek universe.” The goal for the ship design was described as:

A high level of sophisticated detail for a race that has long been perceived as brutal, one-minded and simplistic, in order to breathe new life for the Klingon race and raise them to the noble status and worthy adversarial position that this new iteration of the series will demand.

Multi-level Sarcophugus ship

The ship contains multiple levels, mezzanines and “focal points for dramatic staging of our Klingon leaders orating to their followers and creating dramatic places where power plays and shifts of power can occur.” In addition the different levels allow for “swashbuckling action.”

For inspiration the crew drew from Byzantine, Medieval, Gothic and Islamic influences. And one of the Star Trek sources that Bryan Fuller directed the designers to pull from was the 1984 Star Trek novel The Final Reflection by John Ford. This book was helpful as a “launching off point thematically” for the Klingons and for specific details, such as a creating a version of the game “klin zha” which is played to teach military strategy.

The novel delves into the Klingon culture, and Star Trek: The Next Generation writer Ron Moore, who wrote many of the Klingon episodes, has said he also drew inspiration from it. Apparently it is required reading for those dealing with Klingons and Discovery; in TrekMovie’s interview with Kenneth Mitchell (Kol) he said he found the book to be “a great launching pad for understanding the depth and complexity of the Klingons.”

This 1984 book inspired designs for Discovery

According to Graphic Designer Andy Tsang, the team even researched how written languages evolve so they could make the Klingon language written into to the set of the Sarcophagus ship look “ancient.”  They also highlighted a particular plinth from the ship and gave a translation of the script:

I will go now to Sto-vo-kor, but I promise one day I will return. Then Kahless points to a star in the sky and said, “Look for me there at that point of light.”

T’Kuvma stands atop plinth with quote from Kahless

Discovery and Shenzhou sets are interchangeable

Another highlight of the panel came from Lead Set Designer Matthew Morgan who showed off many of his designs, focusing on the U.S.S. Shenzhou and the U.S.S. Discovery. He also explained how one of the challenges of designing was that the sets needed to work for both ships:

As there are two main ships for this series, one of the things is how can we use these sets for two ships. By switching different elements, graphics, paints… The challenge of switching sets over is trying to design things in a way so we can re-purpose so we can go back and forth.

He then showed examples of how this was done with corridors, turbolifts, and the transporter room.

Believe it or not, both of these are the same set underneath

Other bits

Here are a few other random bits of stuff picked up during the panel.

  • Veteran Star Trek designers John Eaves and Scott Schneider designed the Federation ships for Discovery.
  • The U.S.S. Discovery sickbay uses inspirations from U.S.S. Enterprise sickbay in TOS.
  • One of the influences for the design of the U.S.S. Shenzhou sets was 1960s James Bond films.
  • Both the U.S.S. Discovery and the U.S.S. Shenzhou have captain’s “ready rooms.”
  • They have endeavored to ensure that the sets actually fit the exterior designs of the ship but admit “there is some cheating.”
  • They have made a 3-D chess set
  • The Klingon Sarcophogus ship doesn’t really have practical touch displays like Federation ships but uses holographic displays done in post-production VFX.
  • The set build for Shenzhou was a challenge because it is on the bottom of the saucer so it had to be built off the ground and “upside down.”

Shenzhou bridge set built ‘upside down’

Star Trek: Discovery premieres on September 24th on CBS with all subsequent episodes on CBS All Access in the US.  In Canada Star Trek: Discovery will premiere  on Bell Media’s CTV and the Space Channel on the same night. Netflix will launch Star Trek: Discovery on Monday, September 25 to countries outside of the U.S. and Canada.


When not acting as our Toronto con reporter Angie Korporaal is a graphic designer and amateur prop builder. You can follow her as @korps on Twitter and Instagram.

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