Original storyboard

Redesigning the Walk to V’Ger

1979 set for the walk of V'Ger scene
1979 set for the walk of V'Ger scene

When Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released in 1979, the 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 had 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. In among the stacks of memos they found dozens of storyboards showing shots that would have made the film both more dramatic and more cohesive. They realized that if they could complete these shots, the film would not only be finished; it would be completely transformed.

Visual effects supervisor on the Director’s Edition was Daren R. Dochterman. He found his team of CG artists in Foundations Imaging, which was well qualified to produce the new shots because for the last five years they had been contributing computer generated effects for 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 said that their artists were delighted to be give nteh chance to go back and contribute to one of the films that had inspired them as kids.

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 any new CG models appeared on screen they had to look just like traditional models; nothing would be added for looks and stylistically all the new shots had to be in keeping with the original film. As Dochterman said, “We were going to finish this film they way they originally intended to.”

Even before Foundations began work, Dochterman knew they would need to construct a CG model of the Enterprise, so he began building one at home. Although he is proud of his model, he eventually realized that it was a monumental task for any one person to tackle. “I did my best to come up with a workable ship. I used my model in some rought composites as we were stroyboarding it, and it looked OK. But specifically for the end shots it had to be much more detailed. So I handed that model over to the guys at Foundations.”

When Bob Bonchune learnen that the CG Enterprise was going to be rebuilt, he could not resists getting involved, even though he was already busy supervising shots for Voyager. “That Enterpriseis my absolute most favorite starship of all the Star Trek series,” he explained.

Mojo was going to be in charge of the project but I said, ‘I’ve got to be in charge of that part because I just love that ship so much!’ I wanted to make sure it was finally done justice.

The original eight foot shooting model was delivered to Foundations for reference and Bonchune and his colleague, Lee Stringer, began to study it. As Bonchune recalled, one of the biggest problems they faced was recreating the painted surface of the hull. “There were just these subtle variations everwhere that gave it so much depth and reality.”

ILM had matted the surfaces down for bluescreen photography but they left a few parts of the 1979 paint job near the back. There were layers nad layers of subtle airbrushing and a little pearlescent here and a little less there. I was told by some of the guys who originally did the paintwork that they took white and fifteen or seventeen different colors like pink and blue and magenta, all these different shades, and just put a few drops in each of the paints.

Original concept  art
Original concept art

In the end, Stringer rebuilt the saucer section while Bonchune worked on the engineering hull and the nacelles. They are confident that the finished model is one of the best ever built for Star Trek.

Meanwhile, Dochterman had been working 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 explained. “That was a really long list! But we were able to priotise 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.”

Daren says 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 walked 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.

Bob Peak poster artwork
Bob Peak poster artwork

The modeling was done by Trevor Pierce, who worked from new storyboards created by Steve Burg. As Mojo explains, Dochterman was insistent that the new shots looked as if they could have been created in the 1970s. “Point 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.”

Another thing that was all the particles were moving in true 3D space, with perfect perspective changes and perfect vector paths. If someone was animating it by hand, they wouldn’t have that kind of accuracy, so we made sure we removed any of the particles that looked as if they were following too perfect 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 then walked out on to the saucer and on to 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 laughs. “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.”

Original concept art
Original concept art

The lightning in this scene is actually the original lightning from the film, which the team were able to scran from the original pieces of VFX film and place in teh scene. The crew then set off across the bridge to 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.

Ultimately, Foundation were able to complete every shot on Dochterman’s effects list, and he is absolutely delighted with their work. As far as he is concerned, the most impressive thing is that the new shots fit seamlessly with their 1979 counterparts, and he takes great pleasure watching people scratching their heads as they try to identify the new shots. “I’m really proud we were able to do that,” he smiled. “It’s quite an achievement!”

While both scenes run roughly the same length of time, there are a number of elements that differ from the compromised version in the theatrical release. In the original, Captain Kirk and crew exit the ship from the top of the saucer section — a Star Trek first — 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. However, the emphasis is now placed on what they exit to — an immeasurable black chamber in which V’ger constructs a pathway of the blocks that build out to the ship’s hull and gradually solidify. As the crew begins to 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 been missing.

Early concepts called for the crew to approach V’Ger wearing space suits but this suggestion was abandoned before filming began.

From “Director’s Edition VFX,” Star Trek: The Magazine 2, 8 (December 2001)

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