Over the weekend at WonderCon in Anaheim, CA, CBS brought some of the people behind the scenes for a “Star Trek: Discovery Inside the Visual Effects” panel. Participating in the discussion were director and executive producer Olatunde Osunsanmi, visual effects supervisors Jason Zimmerman and Ante Dekovic, and previsualization supervisor Stephen Pavelski of Pixomondo. TrekMovie was there to bring you all the highlights.
Second season challenges, from the Red Angel to Section 31 to a blinking Saurian
After briefly discussing some of their Star Trek fandom bona fides, the panel got into a discussion of some of the biggest challenges of the second season, with a consensus that the creation of the Red Angel was the toughest thing to get right. This was summed up by Osunsanmi:
The Red Angel took so many different departments to pull together correctly with costume and props. For VFX, from when Alex [Kurtzman] first came up with the idea and it was an 18-week build to build it. And the VFX has to build a full CG character of that. We have to make sure it fits on the character it has to go on. And then the VFX has to make sure it does all these wondrous things it has to do and make it look real, and legit. I think that—at least for us on the production side—took the most time. I can remember a lot of 1:00 AM phone calls with [Jason Zimmerman].
Osunsanmi also talked about the development of the Section 31 ship and how the visual effects team based in Los Angeles has to coordinate with the production team in Toronto to make everything fit:
We started with a lot of concept art and talking with J.Z.[Jason Zimmerman]… First we tried to figure out, what does the Section 31 ship do? Does it camouflage itself? What kind of technology does it have that is slightly advanced or slightly afield of where the rest of Starfleet is? The guys came up with this cool thing where it folds and it transforms and it has different shapes that it takes. Taking that into the actual environment on the set, which is a two-level environment that would fit what the exterior of the ship looked like was a challenge, but it was a lot of fun to introduce. This stuff is a lot of fun.
Another element of season two that was a challenge was the asteroid sequence in the second season premiere. Work on that was actually the first thing they started on, as explained by Zimmerman:
Previs started for that sequence while they were finalizing 115 [the season one finale]. [Alex] Kurtzman brought the idea to the team even before the script had been completed.
Zimmerman later joked that despite all the time and effort that went into that sequence, it wasn’t Kurtzman’s favorite part of the season opener:
We did that asteroid sequence and it was a massive CG undertaking, and I think Alex’s favorite thing was probably making Linus blink. He laughs every time.
Creating effects where you wouldn’t expect
The panel discussion was interspersed with a number of clips from the show, showing various visual effects passes as they went from original previsualization or on-set shot to the final. Many shots revealed how things that may have appeared to be practical effects done on set were actually CG. These included adding space suits to the characters during the space pod/asteroid sequence, duplicating background actors to create a bigger gathering at Airiam’s funeral, and adding candles in Michael Burnham’s quarters. Zimmerman also noted that usually with scenes involving blood, the blood is added by the VFX team to make it easier to shoot multiple takes on set without getting it all over the actors and costumes.
The Red Angel was also used as an example of how sometimes visual effects is called on to create an effect that would otherwise be done on set. In the episode “The Red Angel,” the entire capture sequence was done with visual effects because using an actor on location was deemed impractical, as explained by Zimmerman:
That was a good example of something when we were planning on how to shoot that, was “can we suspend this person on location, can we get the wires up?” And that is part of the reason it became CG.
Zimmerman also explained how you never know what kind of requests they may get:
It’s always the shots you don’t see coming, like when you are doing something Alex will come in and say, “Hey, let’s make the floor look different.” And okay, we are swapping out the floor.
Osunsanmi noted that the people on the production side are turning to the visual effects team more and more for what otherwise would have been done on set:
We are quickly approaching the era where if you have the VFX do it, it might actually look better than doing it with practical. We are becoming more and more cognizant of that production-wise. So, as we become more conscious of that, more and more stuff gets heaped onto Jason’s plate than ordinarily would.
Zimmerman discussed how the effects team can be called on to create CG to help fix things that happened during production, like if someone scuffs up the set by accident they “clean it up.” He talked about how the process works for both planned and unplanned shots:
For the most part we kind of have an idea of what it is going to be. We try to inform it as much as possible in advance, so they do have an idea. And there will be times when we will be like “you have to go a little wider here because we have this graphic.” And then there are times where shots that are not supposed to be visual effects, become visual effects, because there is something in there. And in that case, then you look at it and that is what the shot is, what can I do with that. You kind of reverse engineer it.
Osunsanmi chimed in to note that Zimmerman was being polite:
That’s a very polite way of saying they save our…[laughs]. But they do. They come in there and if something isn’t quite where we want it to be, they do come in and save our butts.
Doing their Star Trek research and not letting effects drive the story
When discussing creating the visuals for the vision Spock was given by the Red Angel, including the destruction of a number of planets visited before by Star Trek, Zimmerman talked about how the team always starts with what has been done before:
We definitely look back at what has been done before. Trek has a very lasting legacy in visual effects and visuals in general. So, you always want to start with that. Speaking for the art department as well, they do a lot of research. They set us up really well with a lot of good concept images. And then there is a little bit of how we update that for now.
Even as the technology of visual effects improves Jason Zimmerman says Discovery will still be driven by the story:
Obviously it is served by technology, which is blisteringly fast. So, we are going to continue to grow and be able to do better versions of CG people where you are not going to be able to tell at some point. But, the one thing we can’t do with visual effects is write the story and make the story. So, it is still our job – regardless of how flashy we can get – that we have to tell the story. That is why we have to work with production and everyone else. We can make some really flashy stuff, but if at the end of the day it doesn’t tell a Star Trek story, then it doesn’t do anybody good.
Keep up with all the Star Trek: Discovery news at TrekMovie.