VGer concept

Designing the Living Machine

VGer concept
The first sight of V’Ger would come when the Enterprise passed through the outer cloud. As the cloud layer began to thin, the crew would see a bizarre semi-metallic surface appear.

Art Director Richard Taylor and his team were initially responsible for designing the mysterious entity known as V’Ger (in early stages of production written as “Vejeur”) for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Taylor brought in artist Tony Smith to help with the conceptual design. He created the first drawings of the exterior of the entity.

Taylor designed V’Ger with the idea that the entire object would never be seen. “It was to be a dark object, not some light-covered mothership from Close Encounters,” he told T.C. Tobias in 2001. “It’s always more mysterious to show less and leave it to the imagination.”

There’s a part of V’Ger toward the tail section where there is a huge sphere that rotates and in the center of that sphere is the old Voyager 6 probe. Our V’Ger design is much more complex and much more mysterious. For one thing, it would have been a lot more interactive with the Enterprise.

Taylor’s philosophy was to make V’Ger a living machine.

It would have “morphed” and on the inside the walls would have been iridescent and changed as the Enterprise moved past them.

Images of the Enterprise would be seen on the walls as V’Ger was analyzing the ship. Parts of walls would break apart like a flock of birds or a swarm of insects.

The swarms would go from one place to another and reassemble. You could think of the particles as digital energy or digital information. I wanted it to be a very metamorphical and very mysterious place. For the exterior of the thing one of the design concepts I had was to photo-etch thin metal plates so that the outside surface would have multiple levels which would continually move creating different patterns. We found a material that you could apply like paint that when heated with warm air from a blower would change color. It had an iridescent color quality that I was looking for like a beetles’ back or butterflies wings. I wanted V’Ger’s skin or surface to change color near the Enterprise as it moved over the surface. I wanted the image of the Enterprise to be left like glowing phosphor images along the walls of V’Ger.

Transformation

Vger transformation
V’Ger’s transformation as envisioned by David J. Negron

At the end of the movie, V’Ger would have evolved into a higher being. “What we had storyboarded was that the whole V’Ger craft unfolds and turns into this incredible object in space,” said Taylor.

That effect would have started where Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the Voyager 6 was and would have radiated outward from there through the ship. There would have been this change that goes through V’Ger’s interior and then to the outside, unfolding into a big flower kind of thing with all these radiating colours and such.

The visual effects in the director’s edition of The Motion Picture, released in 2002, approximated this vision, but the original 1979 version looked far less impressive.

A “weird fish”

Brick Price, whose company, Brick Price Movie Miniatures, was brought in by Robert April on The Motion Picture, worked on the V’Ger model, or at least the early stages of it while Taylor served as art director.

Mike Minor VGer design
V’Ger design by Mike Minor

The model they started on August 1978 looked like a cigar with a maw that opened up. They disliked the design, feeling it was too reminiscent of “The Doomsday Machine”, and there was already enough trouble with the script being similar to that episode and “The Changeling.”

“But we did a lot of tests working with the textures like paint, color and light, things of that sort,” said Price, “and it wound up with a very organic art deco look to it.”

Taylor was an avid deco fan. That one might have been interesting had they gone with it. It would have had a bubble on it and the Voyager craft would have been on an island underneath one of those. The whole skin surface was sort of iridescent. But then Paramount decided to have miles and miles of white and not let people know what it looked like exactly. Ours was really bizarre and all convoluted with things hanging off it. So every time it changed hands it changed completely. Taylor’s original interior concept of V’Ger was extremely complex. You can see all sorts of actual light functions and all sorts of spheres representing the V’Ger concept of life.

Gene Roddenberry
Gene Roddenberry consults with Richard Taylor (right) on the set of Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Taylor felt the changing of hands compromised the design. “We had built test pieces and had done extensive tests of processes we were going to use when we finally began construction,” he said. But Douglas Trumbull, the movie’s director of “special photographic effects” (as VFX were called at the time) was unimpressed. “I was told Trumbull described the exterior as a ‘weird fish’.”

A new approach

Trumbull was brought in by the studio with less than a year to finish the effects. He told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014 that Robert Abel & Associations had made some fundamental mistakes by using technology that wasn’t ready for primetime. The company also had no motion-picture experience. A desperate Paramount gave Trumbull carte blanche.

He divided the work between two teams: His would work on the interior while John Dykstra was put in charge of V’Ger’s exterior.

In this area all the work that the Abel studios had done was abandoned and the two teams set about developing entirely new concepts. Syd Mead was brought in, who worked with Dykstra to design a new version of the giant craft.

The model of V’Ger that they built was never seen in its entirety, but it was an incredible beast. It was sixty feet long and Dykstra remembered that even constructing it in time posed logistical problems:

We were building the model on one end of the stage and photographing it on the other with a black curtain between the two — that was the unique approach to doing the work. We had three crews working eight-hour shifts in order to get that work done.

The situation was complicated because the camera had to record several passes over the model at slow speeds. Some of the passes took as long as eighteen hours and if the motors failed (which they often did), they had to be recorded again from scratch.

New scenes

V'Ger interior section model
Lisa Morton works on the V’Ger interior section models (Sense of Scale)

Trumbull’s team, handling the interior of V’Ger, considered several approaches — possibly using matte paintings or some kind of laser scanning effect — before settling on a conventional model. Most of the design work was done by Mead. His designs followed Trumbull’s brief, which called for six-sided symmetry.

When it was filmed, the model was filled with smoke to give it the right sense of scale. The walls were originally illuminated with miniature light bulbs, which were built into the model. However, when it came to filming they were too big to be convincing. Greg Jein, who had built the model, suggested a solution: drill hundreds of holes in the model and run fiberoptic lights behind them.

The major reason Trumbull took on the shots inside V’Ger was that he was also filming a new sequence in which Spock explored the inside of the vast machine. His Spock spacewalk replaced the “memory wall” sequence that the Abel studios had planned and which had been filmed during first-unit photography. Trumbull did not feel he could make the sequence work with what had been shot without spending an insane amount of money.

Concept art by David J. Negron
Concept art by David J. Negron

The wire work that had been filmed on the stage as awkward and unwieldy. There were even problems with reflections in the spacesuit faceplates. Instead, Trumbull convinced Director Robert Wise to let him shoot a new sequence which he designed himself. The storyboards were worked up by Tom Cranham, with several artists, including David Negrón and Robert T. McCall, developing concepts for the things Spock would see. The spacesuits were completely redesigned and built at Apogee.

The final effect — when V’Ger disappears leaving the Enterprise in orbit around Earth — was specially designed so that it only expanded horizontally, insuring that it could not be mistaken for a conventional explosion.

Incredibly, all these shots were completed in time for the movie’s premiere and the world was so impressed with what it saw that the Trumbull/Dykstra team was jointly nominated for an Academy Award.

7 thoughts on “Designing the Living Machine

  1. I believe that the image shown here is Mike Minor’s concept of V’Ger for the Phase II television pilot. If you look at the enlarged image, you can see Minor’s signature at the lower right. For certain, this image pre-dates the production of The Motion Picture because Starlog published a photo of Minor in front of this rendering back in 1977 or so.

    1. Hi Nick,

      Yes, that’s the picture I meant. BTW, I love the website and am astounded at all the images that I’ve never seen before.

      I really am interested in the production of the Phase II series and wished there was more imagery available of the sets as they stood before the switch-over to the Motion Picture. I’ve found some very nice photos in old issues of Fantastic Films as well as poorly reproduced images from the Enterprise Incidents fanzine and wished that better versions were available!

      No matter, your website is great and will keep me entertained for a good long time!

  2. I think you may be right. Let me correct that in the article.

    Thanks for the kind words about the site! It is hard to find quality pictures of the Phase II sets. There is some test footage from 1977 of the Engineering set (here) but of the Bridge, I’ve only seen a couple of photographs and no photos of the Sickbay set, as far as I know.

  3. Hey Nick,

    Yes, that illustration of V’Ger is definitely the Star Trek Phase II version as designed by Mike Minor. His signature is on it in fact. Hope you are doing well my friend!!

  4. Do any elevation type drawings exist anywhere of V’Ger’s “core” the ‘amphitheater” where the original Earth based space probe was anchored? It doesn’t have to be “fancy”, just some kind of “cross section” outline showing the relative width of the base to the sloping sides (and their angles) as well as the relative height of the “pillars” surrounding the complex. “Fan” illustrations would serve well enough

    1. You would need a drawing or schematic of the set, I guess. I checked my archive, but I don’t appear to have such a drawing myself, sorry.

      Maybe somebody reading this can help.

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