When Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released in 1979, reviewers lavished praise on the visual effects but what none of them realized was that they ware not completely finished. Douglas Trumbull’s and John Dykstra’s VFX teams had worked around the clock to get the effects ready for the December release, but the time pressures were so great they had been forced to abandoned several shots and rework others to make them easier to shoot.
The production team for the director’s edition only discovered how much had been left out when they looked through Robert Wise’s papers. Among the stacks of memos, they found dozens of storyboards showing shots that would have made the film more dramatic and more cohesive. They realized that if they could complete these shots, the film would not only be finished; it would be transformed.
Daren R. Dochterman was the visual effects supervisor for the director’s edition. He found his team of CG artists in Foundations Imaging, which was well-qualified to produce the new shots. For the last five years, they had been contributing computer-generated effects to both Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager.
Their end of the project was headed up by Adam “Mojo” Lebowitz. Explaining Foundation’s enthusiams, he told Star Trek: The Magazine (December 2001) that their artists were delighted to be given the chance to go back and contribute to one of the movies that had inspired them as kids.
Staying true to the film
Foundation’s equipment is far more advanced than anything that was available to the original visual effects teams, but Dochterman was determined that any shots they added would look as if they could have been produced by Trumbull and Dykstra in 1979.
This meant that whenever new CG models appeared on screen, they had to look like traditional models. Nothing would be added for looks. Stylistically, all the new shots had to be in keeping with the original film.
As Dochterman put it, “We were going to finish this film they way they originally intended to.”
Dochterman sat down with Robert Wise, David C. Fein and Michael Matessino to decide exactly which shots were needed.
“We made a list of everything that we would do if we could,” he said.
That was a really long list! But we were able to prioritize it and come up with sections. We’d say, “Well, whatever happends, these need to be done.” We had, I think, ten or so of that type. Then we had a bigger area of, “It would be nice if we could do this.” And finally there was a section of cleanup shots; there were places that you could see problems with mattes or things like that. For example, there was one shot where we see the travel pod go by and a part of the matte bleeds over the drydock.
Sea of tiles
The most important shots were from the final sequence in the film, starting at the point where V’Ger pulls the Enterprise into the chamber that houses the Voyager VI.
In the film, an orifice opens revealing the V’Ger island surrounded by a sea of tiles, which the crew walk across.
The original storyboards showed a much more ambitious sequence that started with the V’Ger island floating in a void. A series of bridges then formed around the island, and the crew walk across one of them. The sea of tiles that appeared in the 1979 release had replaced the bridges in order to make the individual shots easier to finish within the deadline.
The modeling was done by Trevor Pierce, who worked from new storyboards created by Steve Burg.
Following Dochterman’s instruction that the new shoots looked as if they could have been created in the 1970s was a challenge or Lebowitz:
Points of light appear and start to take shape and as each point of light lands at its final resting place it materializes into the step. By their nature, computer graphics are smooth, and at first it looked too perfect. I thought to myself, “How would they have done this back then?” Well, somebody would have animated it frame by frame. Hand animation is always done two frames at a time, so we removed every other frame and duplicated the frames that were left; it looked more and more handanimated that way.
Lebowitz also realized that a hand-animated sequence wouldn’t have been perfect, so they removed particles that followed too perfectly a 3D path.
The next part of the sequence showed the bridge that was connected to the front of the Enterprise‘s saucer section. Kirk and his officers walk out onto the saucer and toward the bridge. These shots were handled by Lee Stringer, who created tiny digital verions of the crew for the wide shot.
“The four people are all exactly the same guy,” he said.
I just made a smock for them and Decker is a little bit taller than the three of them, so I stretched him a little bit. We made a really basic Ilia; it’s really just a white thing, with maybe a little bit of detail in there.
The lightning in this scene is actually the original lightning from the film, which the team were able to scan from the original pieces of VFX film and place in the scene.
The crew then walk toward the V’Ger island in a shot handled by John Teska. He was able to use the original footage of the crew, which had been shot against a bluescreen, but he replaced the original carpet of blocks with a new CG bridge.
“Quite an achievement”
Ultimately, Foundation were able to complete every shot on Dochterman’s effects list. He takes great pleasure watching people scratching their heads as they try to figure out which shots in the director’s edition are new and which are from the original. “I’m really proud we were able to do that,” he said. “It’s quite an achievement!”
While the original and the new sequence run roughly the same length of time, there are a number of elements that differ.
In the original version, Captain Kirk and his crew exit the ship from the top of the saucer section while the Enterprise rests next to a prebuilt pathway of hexagonal blocks. In the director’s edition, Kirk and crew exit the ship in the same manner, but the emphasis is now placed on what they exit to: an immeasurable black chamber in which V’ger constructs a pathway of blocks that expand to the ship’s hull and gradually solidify.
As the officers walk across the pathway, the camera pulls back and we now see that there is nothing supporting what they are walking on — a fitting visual environment that the film’s climax had previously lacked.
Text adapted from “Director’s Edition VFX,” Star Trek: The Magazine 2, #8 (December 2001)