ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS: Leslie Ekker on VFX for ‘2010’ – the Movie, Not the Year

Originally published on IDesignYourEyes on 1/12/2010.

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Well, it’s finally 2010. As you know, Pan Am currently offers commercial flights to all the major space stations; every family has pet dolphins in their specially-converted cetacean-friendly homes; computer graphics have finally hit 16-bits, displayed on futuristic CRT monitors; and the United States and the Soviet Union are on the brink of war.

Okay, so maybe the film 2010, Peter Hyams’ 1984 sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, got a few details wrong. And it’s not really on the same level as its classic predecessor. But it’s still a fun, smart, great-looking sci-fi adventure that deserves a second look.

Roger Ebert said it better:

Once we’ve drawn our lines, once we’ve made it absolutely clear that 2001 continues to stand absolutely alone as one of the greatest movies ever made, once we have freed 2010 of the comparisons with Kubrick’s masterpiece, what we are left with is a good-looking, sharp-edged, entertaining, exciting space opera…

Just as the year 1984 spurred interest in the novel 1984, so 2010 has created renewed interest in the film – Google searches for “2010 movie” have spiked sharply in the last two months, and the film is up 413% in popularity this week on IMDb.

To satisfy those succumbing to the current 2010 mania, I spoke to Zoic Studios commercial creative director Leslie Ekker, who was a member of the miniatures crew for the film.

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“The first thing we had to do on 2010 was to build the spaceship Discovery from 2001. Unfortunately, in England, where the ship was built and shot and stored, an accountant had decided years before not to pay for the storage of the ship anymore; drew a line through a number on a list; and all the models were destroyed. There was literally nothing surviving. But we had to reproduce the ship as exactly as possible so that people would recognize it. And the only way we could do it – none of the drawings existed, no information, no photographs—was to rent a laserdisc of the film; freeze-frame it; take photographs of those frames; enlarge them to the point where they were useful for me; and do overlays, tracing the edges of all the details onto a drawing. Then I did a perspective analysis, and created six orthographic views that could be used as construction drawings. I had to do that with the entire Discovery, front-to-back, in order to be able to reproduce it.

“The production was in touch with the original people. In fact, all the visual effects were being produced by Doug Trumbull, who was one the principle people on the team for 2001. He knew all the people involved, and got in touch with the right folks — but nobody had anything left. Pretty sad, considering what a classic 2001 was.

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“So first I had to do these construction drawings, and it was challenging, because the shots [in the original 2001] are actually fairly scarce. There aren’t a lot of things from different angles, and of course the image quality was pretty poor. So there was a lot of interpretation. Ultimately, we got it pretty close.

“We made two different scale models of the Discovery, and one large-scale model of the front end of the ship. One model was about 10 feet long, much smaller than the original ones they built in England. They built huge miniatures due to the shorter depth of field of lenses in those days! Ours was designed to rotate, as well. In the scenes where they come upon the Discovery still orbiting, it’s tumbling end-over-end because of precession, the physical force on a rotating body (its gravity carousel) that is 90 degrees to any other forced applied to it.

“The Discovery is dusted down with sulfur, because it’s orbiting around [Jupiter’s moon] Io, which has sulfur volcanoes that erupt into space. So that got stuck to the body of Discovery, it’s all sulfur yellow — so naturally our models were painted yellow, unlike the original.

“The Boss Film model shop supervisor was Mark Stetson, an Oscar-winning feature film VFX supervisor now. In his model shop in Marina Del Rey, we built a lot of different miniatures for the movie. Some were of the Leonov, the Russian ship, and the Discovery; but also of the moons’ surfaces. We built a few models that were pretty interesting.

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“One of the ideas they explored in 2010, that actually had a lot of controversy surrounding it, was the concept of life under the ice on Jupiter’s moon Europa. They have since found there is most likely liquid water under that ice, and it possibly could have enough warmth to support life; and it may actually harbor life, maybe in bacterial form. It’s hard to say. That was kind of interesting. One of my jobs on the movie was to help make that life.

“We built the surface of Europa, a small section of it, and filled it with some water, sections of ice, and strange looking plants. We used Madagascar palms for some of the plants, because they’re so strange looking already; they look quite alien. In the shallow water of the pond, built into the tabletop of the model, we had some invisible rigging that could move some very fine feathery plants in an intelligent way, as if they were motivated, under the surface of the water. That’s what you see in the film when you see something moving under the water — it’s actually a very fine dried plant getting pulled around by an invisible rig.”

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The design of the Russian spaceship, the Leonov, had to differ from the “American” design of the Discovery. “The common wisdom was that Russian technology looks heavier, and feels clunkier, and has more exposed detail, kind of a brutal design style. [Legendary industrial designer] Syd Mead was employed to design the Leonov, and did some beautiful drawings.

“Peter Hyams, the director of the film, scrutinized the drawings very closely to make sure every single line from the drawing was on our model; to the point where, in a perspective construction drawing, if a sketched line ran off the corner of an object, he wanted a little wire glued onto the object to represent that line. It was kind of strange, but we did it.

“I spent about six weeks just building plumbing in the hub of the rotating section. If you look carefully at the Leonov, there’s this really intricate rat’s nest of pipes of all different sizes, weaving in and out and going off in different directions. And there was one on each side, so they had to match. I had to make matching sets of this very intricate piping, melting and bending pieces of plastic model piping by hand. It took weeks and weeks to do. Then I had to make a miniature version, half that size, for the smaller scale Leonov. It was a lot of fun, but it was also really challenging.

“One of the other things I did was to create the Cyrillic typeface you see on the side of the Leonov, and the other graphics that go on the ship. We had a translator create all the different words we needed, and then went to a type house and had wax transfers made — these were rub-downs we used to use in the graphic days before computers. I had sets and sets of them made in both the different scales, applied them to the ship, and then we painted them into the overall paint scheme of the ship. It’s the only time I’ve had to work in Russian!

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“There’s a sequence in the film where the Leonov has to execute an aerobraking maneuver. That’s when a spacecraft just grazes the outer atmosphere of a planet, using aerodynamic friction to slow itself down, rather than burning fuel. It does this with a device called a ballute, which is a half-balloon half-parachute. We were had to make ballutes that were deployed from the core of the aft-end of the Leonov, and they were big inflatable airbags — gas bags, really. I had to develop a way to create airtight bags that were of a very specific shape. The surface pattern on them looked like some kind of fiber-reinforced textile. We had to be able to stow them in a very small volume, from which they would inflate very quickly to a certain size on camera. And then we made a separate set of those same ballutes that were fully inflated to a rigid shape.

“We also needed to make another set of ballutes, coated with pyrotechnic powder, and light them on fire, send them down a wire and film them, to be composited with the rest of the spacecraft for the actual moments of high friction and heat. So it was quite a project, and I was assigned the task of designing and producing these things.

“I had to learn pretty fast how to make airtight structural bags out of very tough, heat-resistant materials. I used very thin Mylar, like space-blanket material; and thin double stick tape to make the seams. I made screen prints of the graphic pattern on the surface. And we ended up using a leaf blower to inflate them. Leaf blowers are great, because they pump huge volumes of air at low pressure. You can inflate something very large without a lot of force behind it, so when it reaches the end of its inflation capacity it doesn’t burst a seam. After about five weeks of effort, that actually worked.

“Then we set about sculpting the rigid versions, which were just foam sculptures that were hard-coated, and painted and stenciled with the same graphic pattern as the airbags. Then we made copies in fire-resistant epoxies, in order to pyro-coat them and do the actual burning sequences. All this work was done at Boss Films’ Glencoe model-making facility, where there’s nothing but condos now. In those days Glencoe was all shipyards and industrial facilities; that’s all gone now.”

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Ekker remembers 2010 as a fun, if challenging, experience. He also related an anecdote on how his work on the film helped him in another way:

“When you’re in the union, you have a card in a file that tells what your specialties are. And in the union system, if a model shop is putting together a union crew, they have to just call the union and say ‘send me five model makers,’ and hope they get good people. A lot of people, who say they’re model makers, really are not model makers.

“The workaround was, you would go and request someone who had a skill that was very specific to that person. A lot of us had skills that were very unique-sounding, but they were legitimate, because we had to be able to do the skill. After 2010, my skill card said, “pneumatic inflatable structures,” and “foreign language typesetting for model making” — skills so esoteric, it could only be me. So if, say, someone wanted to hire me, they could call up the union hall, and say “I need a guy who can make an airbag,” and they’d send me up!

For more info: 2010 on Wikipedia, IMDb, Amazon; Roger Ebert’s review.

Syd Dutton: Matte Painting from Traditional to Digital

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 12/4/09.

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It’s a cliché to call an artist “legendary,” but sometimes the word fits. Syd Dutton has been a leading matte painter for film and television for over three decades. His credits include Dune, The Running Man, Total Recall, the Addams Family films, Batman Forever, Star Trek: First Contact and Nemesis, U-571, The Fast and the Furious, The Time Machine, The Bourne Identity, and Serenity.

The Emmy-Award winner co-founded Illusion Arts in 1985, which created thousands of shots and matte paintings for over 200 feature films over 26 years. When Illusion Arts shut its doors earlier this year, Dutton and Zoic embraced the opportunity to collaborate, and Dutton became part of the team.

When I sat down to interview Dutton over coffee, it was with the intention of putting together some kind of grand post about the history of matte painting. But it’s far more interesting to let Syd speak for himself.

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When I looked over your credits, I saw you worked on one of my favorite movies, Real Genius (1985).

That’s one of my favorites too. We did a practical matte for the B-1 bomber. [Val Kilmer and Gabe Jarret sneak onto a B-1 bomber on a military base.] In those days it was still paint on glass, and to get a sharp line for what was supposed to be the underbelly of the bomber, it had to be really sharp. But we were shooting at night. In order to black out the film, to do an original negative – you know what original negative work is, we needed two exposures — to get a real sharp line the matte had to be 50 feet out and 40 feet long. We spent several hours making it, putting cardboard where the belly had to go, making sure people would be underneath that line all the time. It was pretty fun.

But that was the coldest night of my entire career. I’ve been to some cold places, like Prague, but on that Van Nuys tarmac, that was the coldest ever.

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You also worked on David Lynch’s original Dune (1984). Can you tell me about the matte painting of the Harkonnen city on Giedi Prime?

Basically this was just a big painting. The people who are moving around were shot in a parking lot at Estudios Churubusco in Mexico City. Just one smoke and fire element was used over and over again. And then a car on a cable goes through the shot. The car was created by model maker Lynn Ledgerwood (The Bourne Identity), and measured about 8″ long.

The difficult thing about that was my partner and Al wanted to keep [film] as much as possible from being duplicated… we wanted to keep the painting on original film. So [we were] shooting the painting and making a very crude motion control frame-by-frame move; taking the film into an optical printer, trying to match the move through the optical printer; and then we put the people in and the smoke and the cable car. So we had to do a lot of adjustments, and we found that it had to be so exact, if we waited to shoot in the afternoon, the concrete floor had expanded. We had to shoot at a certain time in the morning, before the expansion occurred. So it was complicated, but we seemed to have lots of time in those days, and it was a fun painting to work on.

David Lynch would come by when I was painting it, and he would say “I like it, I want it dirtier.” He was always a nice guy, really a gentleman.

In your experience, what is the difference between working with traditional mattes versus digital?

There was a wonderful thing about doing original negative matte shots. You had to prepare the shot, and then you had to be committed to a matte line.

You had a whole bunch of test footage, and when the painting was completed you had to re-expose the same film, and hope that light bulbs didn’t burn out when you were shooting, or that the glass didn’t break. But it had a completeness to it, and so when you finished a matte shot, and when it came out like the ones in Real Genius — I thought they came out pretty well — there’s a great sense of completeness.

You made a long matte, you worked out the problems, you’ve been cold, you’ve endured that process, and you’ve gone through the photochemical process of developing the pieces of film, and working the matte line until it has disappeared. And finally you take a deep a breath and expose the two or three good takes that the director likes. And you put the worst one through first to make sure everything is working well, show it to the director, and then put the hero take through. Of course nobody had seen any footage unless they were shooting a B-cam, which they never did; and so it was kind of like the Catholic Church, where the director had to trust you that in two months or so you would have a finished product they would approve and like.

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Did you ever experience any disasters in that realm?

The only near disaster was when Tony Perkins — we were the first shot up on Psycho III (1986), that he was directing, and he was a real nice guy — and the first shot was this girl leaving a nunnery, and there was a piece of string that she had to follow so she would be on the [right side of the matte line].

And we had everything ready, the camera blocked off, and Tony Perkins came on the set. He came over to the camera, he looked through the lens and said “that’s perfect,” and then put all his body weight on the camera to lift himself up. And we said “we can roll in a few seconds!” I didn’t want to say “oh, you just [expletive deleted] up the shot!” We said, “oh, we need just a few more minutes of adjustment.” So we lied – we had to reset the matte, readjust the camera. If we had told him he had just screwed up the first shot of his movie, it was really bad luck. But that’s another shot that turned out well, I liked that shot a lot.

I can’t remember who the production designer was, I think it was Henry Bumstead [it was]. Everyone should know who Henry Bumstead was. He just died a while ago; he worked until 90, and died when he was 91 [in 2006]. He was Clint Eastwood’s favorite production designer, and in his 80s he designed Unforgiven — beautiful production design. Henry always made everything easy. Of course he had worked on Vertigo (1958).

According to IMDb, your first movie was Family Plot with Alfred Hitchcock?

Well, that was uncredited. I was hired by Albert Whitlock to work on The Hindenburg (1975) as a gopher, primarily, but then I came up with some ideas of my own, and Al liked them; so after Hindenburg Al made me his assistant. And Family Plot was again Henry Bumstead. Al really didn’t want to do the matte shot because he felt that it was – Hitchcock just wanted to show [actress] Karen Black what a matte shot was. It was a police station in San Francisco, a pretty easy matte shot; adding a second story, putting some what I would call “intelligent nonsense” in the background. So I painted that.

You had a fine art background?

Yeah. I went to Berkeley. Had a master’s degree. Had a wonderful time. Everything I learned, except for a sense of color, was totally useless when it came to matte painting. But it was still good to have that background. The best thing about going to Berkeley in those days was everyone wanted to be in San Francisco in the ‘60s. So I met people like Mark Rothko, pretty famous painters.

So what was it like to transition to digital, to have to train?

Oh, for me it was really hard. Rob Stromberg (2012, Avatar) was working for me at the time, and he embraced it really fast. I was just sort of afraid of it. I got used to it – it took me a while.

The people I know who were able to make the transition faster were people who like to draw things out. Bob Scifo (Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, The Abyss) for example is a wonderful matter painter. He has worked here for Zoic a couple of times. He came from the school where you drew everything out, and then painted it in. But he still got this incredible emotional result.

The way I learned to paint was the way Al Whitlock painted and Peter Ellenshaw (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Black Hole) painted — you just started painting. Sometimes you didn’t know what you were going to paint, exactly; you knew what the subject matter was going to be — it might be a castle — but you just push paint around, and you start seeing things materialize – oh! I can see it now – and you let it dry, and try to bring all of it out of the fog. And that was a wonderful way to paint.

And in Photoshop, at least in the beginning, I couldn’t paint that way. I couldn’t make a big mess – it just stayed a big mess, I couldn’t refine it. The only way I could discover things and make a big mess was with Corel Painter; you can blend colors together and have accidents happen. And then at that point I usually finish the work in Photoshop.

When painting matte backgrounds now, you’re painting a painting, but there’s also the approach where you’re creating a 3D environment and making a 2D image from that.

Yeah. And there’s also projection – projecting a 2D painting onto objects. That’s another way to get camera movement. There’s no such thing anymore as a locked-down shot — that’s what matte paintings used to be. You would do everything in the world to make sure the camera didn’t move. And now people consider it a locked-off shot if they just hold the camera steady.

In the early days, you got to go out on location, sometimes to some really adventurous environments – a rock in the middle of some bay in Mexico; on a hillside in Europe somewhere. It was very physical, so you had that physical part. That part is now gone. Now I have to exercise to stay in shape, rather than just work. It was kind of dangerous, really – I didn’t think about it at the time.

There are no circumstances where they want you to go out and see the original location?

Not anymore. The visual effects supervisor will go to the locations, take photographs. He becomes the point man for every other department.

Does that feel like less involvement on your part?

Well, that’s the trade-off. The trade-off is that we can do now what we used to dream about doing. Which was, wouldn’t it be great if we could paint a grand, futuristic city and loop through it? Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a huge crowd running towards us in that shot? Rotoscope in a thousand people or something?

Things that we used to dream about, we can do now, but the trade-off is we don’t get to be as involved in the production as we once were. I talked to [Zoic co-founder] Loni [Peristere] about that. I said I feel bad for some of the kids here, that they’ll never be on the stage. It’s fun to be on location. He said the trade-off was they have all the tools to make their own movies. So, everything has a trade-off.

More info: Syd Dutton on IMDb.

Zoic Stops Time, Creates Historic ‘Frozen Moment’ Sequence for ‘CSI’ Premiere

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 10/6/09.

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On September 24th, CBS broadcast the premiere episode of the 10th season of its venerable crime procedural drama, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation . The episode cold opened with a lengthy, two-and-a-half minute long “frozen moment” sequence, showing us a single moment in a robbery attempt involving the main characters. This sequence, which made broadcast television history, and was created by Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios.

The camera starts in the morgue, flying through a water spray over a number of corpses on gurneys. The environment is in total disarray, with bodies falling out of the coolers, and smoke and debris floating in midair. We travel past a coroner screaming into a phone and around a corner, to find Doc Robbins (Robert David Hall, Starship Troopers) in mid-leap as he whacks one of the robbers in the head, sending the man’s weapon flying. The camera swoops through floating medical instruments past the first tableau and up into the ceiling. One floor up, we find the same chaos in the Lab, with the CSIs and lab techs frozen in mid-motion.

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The camera continues past a book case tipping over, with falling curios, books and antiques suspended in shattered glass. Panning right and heading into the DNA Lab, the camera flies past one of the lab techs with a bullet exploding out of her shoulder, as she crashes through plate glass while suspended three feet off the ground. Wiping past her into the Lab proper, the camera finds Dr. Raymond Langston (Laurence Fishburne, The Matrix, Pee Wee’s Playhouse) kicking a second robber Morpheus-style through plate glass, while several rounds of ammunition leave trails of disturbed air in their wakes.

Flying smoothly past Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger, Species, Species II) and over an exploding lab experiment, the camera continues down the hall past David Hodges (Wallace Langham, Weird Science) and Wendy Simms (Liz Vassey, The Tick), who hang suspended horizontally in midair as they leap to avoid gunfire, and into the muzzle flash of the gun of another robber.

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We transition from the muzzle flash to the glare of a flashlight held by yet another robber, and the camera trucks backwards out of a van with bullet holes and impact sparks all around. Pulling back the camera passes a robber firing at our last two CSIs, Nicholas Stokes (George Eads, ER) and Sara Grissom (Jorja Fox, ER, The West Wing), who fire back attempting to stop the theft of a body. The sequence finishes with the camera panning around to reveal Nick and Sara’s faces.

Naren Shankar, CSI’s executive producer, was impressed by a short film released in April, 2009 to promote Philips Cinema 21:9 LCD televisions. The short, entitled Carousel and produced by Adam Berg and London’s Stink Digital, was a two-minute, 19-second frozen moment sequence of police battling bank robbers dressed as scary clowns.

At CSI’s season nine wrap party, Shankar approached Zoic visual effects supervisor Rik Shorten, and asked if a similar scene could be created for the show. Shorten replied, “you write it, I’ll shoot it.”

The sequence was created as the cold open for the show’s 10th season premiere episode, “Family Affair.” Zoic had produced frozen moment shots for CSI before, but never a sequence of such complexity and length (it clocks in at two minutes, 17 seconds). The sequence was three script pages long, and required three full days of shooting on the main first unit stages, involving the primary cast members. Add to that a prep day, and an additional half-day to shoot the van tableau. The Philips spot had much greater resources – but CSI had an entire season of television to shoot. Shorten says that the producers provided Zoic with all the time, resources and support that could possibly be spared.

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The main three-day shoot employed four main motion control setups. A great deal of expense and effort went toward keeping the actors comfortable, and minimizing the time that talent would spend holding still will suspended in harness rigs.

The first portion to be shot, on days one and two, was the sequence in the DNA Lab. It was the largest and most complex set piece. Shorten and the Zoic team wrote and mapped out the shots on the prep day, giving them time to experiment on the day of the shoot, with blocking, track placement, lenses, the placement of practical elements and extras, etc. What the team learned on the first day was instrumental in making sure the rest of the sequence could be completed in the remaining days allowed.

The morgue tableau and hallway sequence were shot on day three. The hallway tableau featured Doc Robbins attacking a robber (called an “MIB” on set). Actor Hall was propped up on apple boxes and suspended by wires, while the camera moved slowly past on a track. While this one tableau sequence makes up about 20 seconds of the final product, the camera move took about three minutes to shoot.

For each shot, Shorten and his people wrote and planned out the shot with stand-ins; consulted with and got approval from the episode’s director, executive producer Kenneth Fink; ran a test shot on video; and then brought in the actors to shoot the real footage.

Some actors, like Helgenberger and Fishburne, only had to spend 10- to 15 minutes rigged up for their sequences. Other actors spend as long as a half hour held up by wires, stunt harnesses, boxes, greenscreen stands and articulated pads. Shorten says these rigs are never comfortable; and of course it’s not easy to hold perfectly still for minutes at a time. But everything possible was done to keep the actors in the rig for as brief a time as possible.

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The final tableau, of Nick and Sara firing on the van, was shot separately, taking a half a day. This scene was the most difficult and time-consuming to produce, as it was shot without motion control – no track, just a crane shot, and no clean plates. The paint-out and stilling of the actors for this sequence was an incredible amount of work. In fact, dozens of still photos of actors Eads and Fox were taken, and blended and morphed together to create motionless 3D elements of the two actors. These elements were then composited into the shot.

Shorten says that he is immensely proud of the work that he and Zoic did to create this unique and amazing sequence. “This could not have been accomplished without the incredible talents of every department on the show. Our production crew really came through, exceeding my expectations. Our excellent team of artists here at Zoic gave up their summer to create this fantastic sequence.

“I’m so grateful to everyone for their contributions. Most importantly, the show and the network are thrilled with the sequence, and the fan websites are still discussing the premier two months later – that’s the best compliment we could get!”

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More info: CSI on CBS.com ; Zoic Studios website; CSI on Hulu.

Zoic Brings Visitors to Earth for ABC’s ‘V’

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 10/2/09.

v-screencap-manhattanship_630x354A Visitor mothership hovers over Manhattan.

Tomorrow evening (11/3/09), ABC will broadcast the premiere episode of its highly anticipated new sci-fi series V, which updates and re-imagines the original 1983 miniseries of the same name. The visual effects for the new V were created by Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios, known for providing VFX for a number of well-loved science fiction franchises.

Scott Peters, creator of The 4400, brings fans a modern take on the classic V that pays loving homage to its 80s inspiration. Written by Peters and directed by Yves Simoneau, the pilot episode stars Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost), Morris Chestnut (Kung Fu Panda 2), Joel Gretsch (The 4400, Taken); and Firefly alumni Morena Baccarin and Alan Tudyk.

The remake hews closely to the story of the original: mile-wide alien motherships appear above the major cities of the Earth. The aliens call themselves “The Visitors,” and appear to be identical to humans. They claim to come in peace, seeking to trade advanced technology for resources. But the Visitors are not what they seem, and hide sinister intentions. While much of humanity welcomes the Visitors, a resistance movement begins to form.

Four episodes will air this month; the show will return from hiatus after the 2010 Olympics.

Visual effects and digital production

Zoic is handling all of the visual effects for V, under the oversight of creative director and VFX supervisor Andrew Orloff (FlashForward, Fringe, CSI) and visual effects producer Karen Czukerberg (Eleventh Hour). Work on the pilot was split between Zoic’s Vancouver studio, which handled greenscreen and virtual sets, and the Los Angeles studio, where the motherships and other effects were created.

Zoic began work in February 2009 on the pilot, which featured about 240 effects shots, 125 of which involved live actors shot on greenscreen in Vancouver where the series is filmed. Another three episodes now in post-production have some 400 effects shots overall, half of which involve digital compositing of actors on greenscreen.

v-screencap-mothership_630x354A more detailed view of a Visitor mothership.

Orloff worked in collaboration with the show’s creators – Peters, Simoneau, and executive producers Steve Pearlman and Jace Hall – to design the motherships. The enormous, saucer-shaped Visitor mothership is one of the original V’s iconic images (along with a certain hamster), and visually represents the Visitors’ technological superiority and their domination over humanity. In addition, Orloff says, the creators were dedicated to realism and internal consistency and logic in the design of the alien technology and culture.

Orloff created the mothership on his laptop, working through numerous iterations with input from Peters and Simoneau. He wanted a design that was “freaky and menacing,” and would be emotionally impactful when it made its first momentous appearance onscreen.

v-screencap-mothership2_630x354The underside of a Visitor mothership begins its transformation. Buildings in Vancouver were supplemented with 3D models of real Manhattan skyscrapers from Zoic’s library.

Because the mothership itself is enormous, the 3D model used to represent it is huge and highly detailed. Zoic CG supervisor Chris Zapara (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Pathfinder) modeled the “transformation” effect, in which the ventral surface of the ship changes, causing the frightened humans below to fear an imminent attack. In fact, the ship is deploying an enormous video screen, displaying the greeting message of Visitor leader Anna (Baccarin). After many rounds of pre-visualizations, a design was chosen with large, movable panels and a grid of smaller panels arranged in a snakeskin pattern. The mothership was created in NewTek’s Lightwave 3D.

v-screencap-snakeskin_630x354The “snakeskin” panels underneath the mothership flip over to reveal a video projection surface.

Digital artist Steve Graves (Fringe, Sarah Connor Chronicles) was responsible for filling in the copious detail that gives the mothership the impression of immense scale. After the pilot was picked up by ABC, the dorsal surface was remodeled to add photorealism. The model initially was detailed only from the angles at which it was shown in the pilot, due to the many hours of work necessary. As shots were created for the second through fourth episodes, Graves created detail from new angles, and now the mothership model is complete.

v-screencap-reflection_630x354Our first view of the alien mothership, reflected in the glass of a skyscraper.

The mothership design was not the only way the Visitors’ arrival was made to seem momentous and frightening. As businessman Ryan Nichols (Morris Chestnut) looks to the skies for an explanation of various alarming occurrences, he first sees the mothership reflected in the glass windows of a skyscraper. Although a relatively simple effect (Zoic took shots of real buildings in Vancouver, skinned them with glass textures, and then put the reflected image on the glass), the effect on the viewer is chilling.

v-screencap-shipinterior_630x354Visitor leader Anna (Baccarin, seated left) is interviewed by Chad Decker (Scott Wolf, seated right) on board the Manhattan mothership. The “set” was created virtually, with the actors shot on a greenscreen stage.

Because the motherships are enormous, it only makes sense that they would feature enormous interior spaces. These sets would be too large to build, so half the effects shots on V involve actors filmed on a greenscreen stage with tracking markers. These virtual sets, based on Google Sketch-Up files from V‘s production designers (Ian Thomas (Fringe, The 4400) for the pilot; Stephen Geaghan (Journey to the Center of the Earth, The 4400) for later episodes), were created at Zoic’s Vancouver studio in Autodesk Maya and rendered in mental images’ mental ray.

The ship interiors were created before the related greenscreen shots were filmed. For the episodes shot after the pilot, Zoic provided the production with its new, cutting edge proprietary Zeus system, which allows filmmakers to see actors on a real-time rendered virtual set, right on the greenscreen stage. The technology is of immeasurable aid to the director of photography, crew, and especially the actors, who can see themselves interacting with the virtual set and can adjust their performances accordingly. Zeus incorporates Lightcraft Technology’s pre-visualization system.

After actors are filmed on the Vancouver greenscreen set and the show creators are happy with the pre-visualized scenes in Zeus, the data is sent south to Zoic’s Los Angeles studio, where the scenes are laid out in 3D. Then the data goes back up to Zoic in Vancouver, where the virtual set backgrounds are rendered in HD.

v-screencap-london_630x354An alien mothership inserted into a stock shot of London.

v-screencap-riodejaneiro_630x354A mothership composited into a stock shot of Rio de Janeiro, with matched lighting and atmospheric effects.

Other alien technology was created for the series, including shuttlecraft and a “seek & destroy” weapon used to target a resistance meeting.

v-screencap-shuttle_630x354A Visitor shuttle docks with a mothership.

The alien shuttle and the shuttle docking bays were created in Los Angeles by visual effects artist Michael Cliett (Fringe, Serenity), digital compositor Chris Irving and freelance artist James Ford.

v-screencap-atrium_630x354The “Atrium,” a city in the interior of a Visitor mothership.

The “Atrium,” a massive interior space inside the mothership, was created for Zoic by David R. Morton (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Serenity). The complex 3D model served essentially as a matte painting. It was incorporated into a complex composited shot, with actors on the greenscreen stage inserted into virtual sets of a corridor and balcony by the Vancouver studio; the camera pulls out to reveal the Atrium, which was created in LA. Extras in Visitor uniforms were shot on greenscreen and composited into the Atrium itself.

v-screencap-f16crash_630x354An F-16 fighter, its electronics disrupted by a Visitor mothership, crashes onto a city street.

An F-16 fighter crash, featured in the first few minutes of the pilot, was done by the Los Angeles studio. The airplane, automobiles, taxis, and Manhattan buildings in the background, and of course the explosion, smoke and particles, are all digital. All the components came from Zoic’s library. The actor was shot on a Vancouver street.

v-screencap-eye_630x354FBI Agent Erica Evans (Mitchell) examines a wounded Visitor and makes an alarming discovery.

A scene involving an injured Visitor, which gives the viewer one of the first clues to the aliens’ true nature, was shot entirely with practical effects (including the blinking eye). But Zoic used CG to enhance the wound, merge human skin with reptile skin, and add veins and other subcutaneous effects.

v-zoomout_469x630Visitor leader Anna looks out over her new dominion.

According to Czukerberg, one of the more difficult shots to pull off was the final scene in the pilot. It involves the alien leader, Anna (actress Morena Baccarin on the greenscreen stage), in an observation lounge on the mothership (virtual set); the camera pulls out (practical camera move) past the mothership windows to reveal the entire ship hovering over Manhattan (CG mothership over an original shot of the real Manhattan created for this production). The shot required cooperation between the LA and BC studios, and took a great deal of time and effort – “it was crazy,” Czukerberg said, but she adds that everyone involved is tremendously satisfied with the finished product.

Zoic Studios looks forward to doing more work when V returns next year, and helping the series become a ratings and critical success. “Rarely do you get an opportunity to redefine a classic series,” Orloff said. “Everyone at Zoic put their heart and soul into this show, and it shows on the screen.”

For more information: V on ABC; the first nine minutes of the pilot on Hulu; original series fan site.

The Ten Worst Sci-Fi Films of All Time: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Why does God need a starship?

For more on how I am choosing these films, see my post on Battlefield Earth.

Ah, Star Trek. Star Trek, Star Trek, Star Trek. Whatever are we going to do with you?

I was ten years, five months old exactly on 5/25/77, the day Star Wars came out. I was the perfect age, and the precise demographic: a ten-year-old suburban boy raised on The Lord of the Rings and Bob HeinleinStar Wars was the greatest thing I had ever seen.

Unfortunately, that meant I spent the next ten years dissing Star Trek. The show was stupid. The acting was bad. (Imagine a Star Wars fan complaining about acting.) The sets and effects were cheap. Everyone looked like an escapee from Laugh In. It was as if one couldn’t be a Star Wars and a Star Trek fan at the same time – a common delusion, but one I shared.

In 1979 I went to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture, because it was a science fiction movie and I went to see every science fiction movie. It did not change my opinion about Star Trek. Wrath of Kahn was much better, and I was excited for Search for Spock — more disappointment there. Voyage Home seemed like the best of the bunch, but I still wasn’t a fan.

During this period, I briefly encountered Gene Roddenberry at a comic book convention. I didn’t think I liked Star Trek, so I didn’t care, and didn’t speak to him. Idiot!

A few months before Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987, my friends and I went to an anime convention in Burbank. Next door was a Trek convention, and you could get in on the same ticket, so we stopped by. It was the first, and last, time I set foot in a Trek-specific con. I thought everything was stupid. There was already a Brent Spiner fan club. What losers.

Then Next Generation premiered, and I realized something. I had been a Star Trek fan, and not a Star Wars fan, the whole time.

I fell in love with Star Trek. I got caught up on the original 1960s series, and discovered that it was, at times, brilliant. It was possibly the most uneven show ever made, as far as writing quality, but the best episodes were classics in the true sense.

Star Wars was not a science fiction franchise. It was about knights and samurai, noblesse oblige and “hokey religions.” It was loud and cool and pretty, but it wasn’t about the future.

Star Trek was about the Cold War; the Chinese (Romulans), Russians (Klingons) and Americans (Federation). It was about racism (the Cherons), sexism (Janice Lester), hippies (Dr. Sevrin) and the nuclear arms race (Gary Seven).

But it was also about the future, while Star Wars was about the past. The Star Trek universe was something of a hodge-podge of conflicting ideas until Next Generation ironed things out. But basically, future humans lived in peace and mutual understanding within a large federation of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations. They possessed free energy, faster-than-light travel, wonderful technology, and a socialist economy that had eradicated money and poverty. Outside enemies were held at bay by a dedicated quasi-military Starfleet composed of highly trained, highly principled men and women of all races and species who were more interested in exploration than fighting.

Star Trek may be a silly space opera, but it’s not as silly as Star Wars. And it’s (often) thoughtful, (sometimes) brilliant and (occasionally) transcendent. Star Wars is rarely any of those things.

And yes, I became a Brent Spiner fan.

The question is, when should Star Trek have ended? When did the franchise jump the shark, or as the new idiom goes, nuke the fridge? Should Paramount have called it quits at the end of Next Generation? Then we would have missed Deep Space Nine finding itself in its excellent final three seasons. There were also some wonderful moments in the last couple of seasons of Voyager. The Next Generation films were never great, but contrary to popular belief, never terrible. First Contact was the best; Nemesis the most disappointing, but not impossible to enjoy.

Enterprise was… well, almost unwatchable. Certainly, the franchise should have ended, proud and whole, before Enterprise ever assaulted the world with its power ballad opening theme. And as far as the Abrams Trek film goes, well, I don’t have enough information to form an opinion. It sounds terrible. Then again, I loved Cloverfield.

Some people would argue that Trek never has to end. They’re wrong – The Star Wars prequel trilogy proved that. If the wrong people get hold of an intellectual property (Braga *cough cough* Berman *cough*), if they lose respect for it, if they wring every possible plot line and permutation out of it, if they let it migrate too far from it’s core principles, then the franchise is ruined. Like Star Wars. Like the X-Men films.

Like Star Trek.

So when should Star Trek have ended? I don’t know. But I know when it hit its low point. And it was not the Next Generation episode where everyone “devolved” into animals (although that was close). It wasn’t even Enterprise, because Enterprise had Jolene Blalock, so it can’t be all bad.

The low point of the franchise occurred on June 9th, 1989, when Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, William Shatner’s directorial debut, hit theaters in the US.

BEGIN BITINGLY SARCASTIC PLOT SYNOPSIS (spoilers)

Just working off a few pounds.

We open on Nimbus III, the Planet of Galactic Peace. No, really, “Nimbus III.” Might as well be Nimrod XII or Dorkwad XC. Or Naboo.

Anyway, Nimbus III. The funny-looking guy who played Wyatt Earp’s brother on the Original Series is digging holes in the desert and filling them with dry ice. No motive is given for this. He’s interrupted by Spock’s brother on horseback, a Vulcan who is supposed to shock us by laughing. There’s a name for Vulcans who laugh – Romulans.

Meanwhile, some fat guy is free-climbing El Capitan. This is Captain James T. Kirk, a man whom we can easily believe would be climbing 3,000 foot rocks without a harness, even in his old age. But Captain James T. Kirk would never have allowed himself to get fat. Or have worn a toupee.

Spock arrives wearing levitation boots, a nifty little gizmo that would have been really useful the dozens of times the crews of the Enterprise-D, Deep Space Nine and Voyager had to climb up and down non-functioning turbolifts. He inexplicably goads Kirk until the man falls off the rock, and in one of the worst visual effects since Jason of Star Command, catches Kirk just before impact.

This is hilarious.

What an excellent special effect!

Kirk, Spock and McCoy spend some time bonding over marshmellons and old camp songs. Kirk says that he expects to die alone, with no one at hand but a Frenchman with a British accent and that guy from A Clockwork Orange. Amazingly, this turns out to be true.

Some other hilarious things happen, involving Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov, which I won’t ruin for you. Hilarious.

Meanwhile on Nimbus III, a fat old Klingon, a sexy Romulan who can’t deliver a line read, and David Warner are hanging out together in a third-rate reproduction of the Mos Eisley Cantina. I’ll point out here that David Warner is the only actor in this movie, and he’s given absolutely nothing to do except suck on an anachronistic cigarette. Why doesn’t he pinch snuff or chew opium, fer crissakes? It’s the 23rd Century!

Spock’s brother invades the cantina and takes all three characters hostage, which would be exciting if we cared about them at all. Okay, we care about David Warner, a little, but only because we’re expecting him to sic a Recognizer on Spock’s brother so we can be spared the rest of this movie.

Starfleet orders Kirk to Nimbus III to handle the situation, despite the fact that the Enterprise-A, gloriously gifted to Kirk at the end of Star Trek IV, is a total piece of shit. Why the Enterprise-A is a total piece of shit, or why the much-lauded shipyards of Utopia Planitia would produce a piece of shit, is not explained. But it’s hilarious.

The usual, gratuitious USS Enterprise porn shot. There's one in every Original Series film.

The Klingons send a Bird of Prey to Nimbus III, because the Bird of Prey interiors from Star Trek IV were just sitting around and didn’t cost anything. It’s commanded by that old Trek staple, the maniacally villainous captain who ignores the sensible advice of his sage First Officer. This one is a smooth-foreheaded Klingon with skin the color of baby poo. I’m sure he has a name. It’s here we learn that while every other species targets enemy ships with computers, Klingons use a ginormous shoulder-mounted periscope. Yes, I said “shoulder-mounted periscope.”

Kirk takes his good ol’ time getting around to heading to Nimbus III. When the original, thin, full-head-of-hair 1960s Kirk heard about a crisis in the Neutral Zone, he was off in a flash. Fat Kirk dilly-dallies. Anyway, after much hilarity of a most hilarious nature, they arrive at Nimbus III, which in typical Trek fashion takes about 10 minutes. The Enterprise-A has no transporters, and no one at Starfleet thinks to have a working ship meet Kirk to help out. Oh well. So everyone flies down in a shuttlecraft. Then they steal horses, because this is Shatner’s movie, so there have to be horses (see Generations).

How do they steal the horses? Get out the eye bleach — Uhura performs a strip tease for the men guarding the animals. No offense to Nichelle Nichols, but this is the second lowest point in the worst Star Trek film. Yes, lower is on the way.

Ewww. This is the opposite of sexy.

The Enterprise crew defeats Spock’s brother’s army, but is captured by the fat Klingon, the sexy Romulan who can’t give a line read, and David Warner, who are now working for Spock’s brother. We still don’t know that Spock’s brother is Spock’s brother, because Spock has never seen fit to mention it. Neither, at this point, does Spock’s brother. Both men seem to understand that they can’t mention this incredibly pertinent fact, otherwise the upcoming scene in the Enterprise-A shuttle bay won’t make any sense.

Spock’s brother’s name is Sybak or Spibok or Spigot or something, so we’ll just call him Spock’s brother. He forces Kirk to take everyone who has so far had a speaking part back to the Enterprise-A on the shuttle. Just then, the Klingon warbird attacks, because this is how the Klingons avoid open war with the Federation and the Romulans — by attacking them every chance they get.

Allow me to mention the first of two glaring logical inconsistencies I have noticed in the Star Trek universe. If the Klingons are so obsessed with honor and glory in battle, why do they employ cowardly cloaking devices?

Kirk orders an emergency crash landing in the shuttle bay, which has never been done before except for all the times it’s been done before. Once the shuttle’s in the bay, Chekov orders the room filled with a harmless neuralizing gas. Kirk, Spock and Bones are rescued, and Spock’s brother and all his little buddies are locked up in sickbay until the situation can be ironed out.

No, not really. Kirk attacks Spock’s brother, and Spock picks up a rifle. Kirk orders Spock to kill Spock’s brother, but he does not, because Spock’s brother is his brother (gasp!). Instead he wounds his brother, incapacitating him until this whole situation can be ironed out.

Didn't I see you at the family reunion?

Not really. Spock hands the rifle to his brother, who invites him to join his cause and come to the bridge. Spock does so, because he knows he can do more to help Kirk and Bones from the bridge than from the brig.

Not really. Spock goes with Kirk and McCoy to the brig.

The brig is apparently the only part of the Enterprise-A that works. This is because the plot calls for it. Kirk is mad at Spock, even after he learns that Spock’s brother is Spock’s brother.

Scotty, who has gotten so fat he looks like he has two William Shatners stuffed down his shirt, rescues our heroes from the brig. He refers to the Klingons as “Klingon devils,” which is really racist or species-ist and I think it would really hurt Worf’s feelings. Then Scotty heads off on his own, and for reasons I’ll get into below, bangs his head on a girder and drops unconscious.

This is the lowest point in the worst movie in the Star Trek franchise.

Boink. I know this ship like the back of my hand, but I bumped into this thing anyway. Hilarious!

Now Spock, Kirk and McCoy are running from Sulu, who works for Spock’s brother, and they end up climbing up a – wait for it — non-functioning turbolift. Spock produces his levitation boots from his ass and rescues his two friends. This is hilarious.

Seriously, the boots weren’t anywhere nearby. It wasn’t even established that they were on the Enterprise-A. Maybe Spock had rented them at the levitation boot concession at Yosemite, who knows? He just suddenly produces them, light years away, in a Jeffries tube, while on the run from armed men. But it’s hilarious.

Well, they get to the observation deck, which inexplicably has an emergency transmitter hidden in the floor. But Spock’s brother is on to them, probably because he read the script in advance. Wait, this thing has a script?

Spock’s brother chooses to reveal how he has brainwashed the Nimbus III folks and the Enterprise crew. It involves the victim standing very still for a complex, extended hallucination, instead of doing the obvious thing and running away, or hitting Spock’s brother in the nuts.

Spock’s brother reveals that McCoy administered euthanasia on his own father, just weeks before a cure for his disease was found. This is what makes McCoy experience the most emotional pain, and not the whole thing with Edith Keeler. Or the whole thing with Nancy Crater. Or the whole thing with Spock’s ghost living in his head.

Ewww. I don't like humans. Unless they have tits.

Spock’s pain, it turns out, comes from the fact that his father was a racist anti-human asshat who inexplicably married several humans. But then, we already knew this.

We see in the hallucination that Spock was born in a cave. Now I get that Vulcan is a volcanic planet, hence the name. But Vulcans are hyper-logical scientists. They would not live in caves. They would live in gleaming white supercities, laid out in perfect grids or concentric circles. Spock would have been born in a sterile medical chamber, midwifed by robots, his every cell studied by experts in alien hybridization logically suppressing their thrill at witnessing the birth of the first human-Vulcan hybrid. Not in a cave.

Here’s the second glaring logical inconsistency I have noticed in the Star Trek universe. Supposedly, Spock has trouble achieving pure logic because of his dual Vulcan-human nature. But Vulcans pursue pure logic because they are naturally more illogical and emotional than humans, and they consider these super-strong emotions to be dangerous. Spock’s human descent should help him behave more logically than other Vulcans, not less.

Kirk turns down Spock’s brother’s offer to show him his pain, presumably because Merritt Butrick was unavailable.

Now successfully brainwashed, McCoy and Spock still resist the urge to aid Spock’s brother, raising the question of why Sulu and Chekov aren’t later court-martialed and shot. Seriously, it’s far too easy to get Chekov to turn on Kirk – all it takes is a crazy Vulcan, or a Ceti eel, or his ex-girlfriend Irina. The next thing you know, he’s stealing the ship, or starring on Babylon 5.

Hey, this image isn't from this movie!

Spock’s brother takes the Enterprise-A to the Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy, which is about as scientifically plausible as canals on Mars, Nazi planets or “fluidic space.” It is established that no ship can penetrate the Barrier. Everyone who has tried has died. It’s a long, dangerous, arduous journey no one in the history of the galaxy has ever, ever completed.

The Enterprise-A does it in about 13 seconds.

Just on the other side of the barrier is a planet that looks like an oversized blue Q-Tip. This is Sha Ka Ree, the mythical Vulcan heaven, where Spock’s brother expects to find “God.”

Spock’s brother betrays David Warner, hot chick, fat Klingon, his Nimbus III army, Chekov, Sulu and Uhura by leaving them behind, and taking only the three main characters down to the planet. The three main characters that want to throw him in the brig. Those three.

They arrive in the Mojave Desert down on the planet, but there’s no one there. Just when Spock is about to suggest they give up, giant stones burst out of the ground! Suddenly we’re on an indoor set with a flat floor, and the stones are sitting on that floor. What, the set dresser couldn’t afford any dirt?

I believe the original series had better (and more expensive) effects than this.

God actually appears, and has a chat with Spock’s brother. The deity demands use of the Enterprise-A. This raises Kirk’s hackles, and he asks incredulously, “What does God need with a starship?” Surprisingly, this line is one of the best and most memorable lines the entire 40-year Star Trek franchise, and Shatner delivers it so perfectly that you remember for one brief moment, in the midst of this turd of a film, that Kirk is THE MAN.

Spock’s brother immediately realizes the error of his ways, which you know is ridiculous if you have ever met an actual religious person. He tries out his Dr. Phil routine on God, giving the others time to escape. Scotty beams up Spock and Bones, but you know that piece of shit Enterprise-A is soooo unreliable, and Kirk is left behind.

God chases Kirk around the desert for a while, inspiring that great scene in Galaxy Quest with the rock creature. Meanwhile, the Klingon ship (remember that? the subplot?) reappears. Spock, taking his first sensible step in the whole film, asks fat Klingon to order the ship to stand down.

Look, in the background. David Warner is snogging the sexy Romulan! Go David Warner! Maybe he can teach her how to give a line read.

God is just about to kill Kirk, when the Klingon ship appears and kills God. The Klingons killed God! That is so cool.

What a great set. What did this cost, $10?

Kirk comes aboard the Klingon ship, thinking he’s a prisoner and that they’re going to read him their poetry. But fat Klingon forces baby poo Klingon to apologize – hilarious! – and then we see who’s manning the guns. For no reason whatsoever, it’s Spock!

Spock killed God! That actually makes sense.

Everyone has a party on the Enterprise-A observation deck. No, really, they all have a party. I’m not kidding. Even the Nimbus III rebels and the Klingons. An actual party. Rent the movie, I’m serious.

Also, they apparently have no trouble getting back across the Great Barrier. Nor do they perform a scientific survey of the Galactic Core.

Cut back to Yosemite, where our three heroes sit around a fire while Spock plays “Row Row Row Your Boat” very poorly on the Vulcan lute. Hilaaaaaaarious.

Row row row your... oh never mind.

END OF BITINGLY SARCASTIC PLOT SYNOPSIS

Why was Star Trek V so monstrously bad?

When William Shatner agreed to star in Star Trek IV, he demanded he be allowed to direct V. The only thing he’d directed before was eight episodes of TJ Hooker. (He never directed a major feature again; just a low-budget sci-fi crapfest called Groom Lake, starring himself and Dick Van Patten, in 2002.)

So Shatner’s feature director debut was a big-budget, effects-laden $30 million major studio release that Paramount hoped would knock Tim Burton’s Batman off the top of the summer blockbuster charts. Which was Star Trek V’s second strike – it was rushed through production to get into theaters two weeks before Batman.

As you might guess, this clever scheme on the part of the empty suits at Paramount did not go off as planned.

Shatner wrote the treatment, which is why it features KIRK free-climbing and KIRK riding horses and KIRK fighting God, although surprisingly only David Warner gets laid. Huh. Nicholas Meyer, who wrote the two best Trek films (II and IV), was busy. So the studio picked David Loughery, whose only writing credits at that time were the forgettable Dennis Quaid-as-a-psychic film Dreamscape and one episode of Hart to Hart. Whatever meager talents Loughery may have possessed, he was forced to do rewrites by Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley, which cannot have helped.

Then the 1988 WGA strike cut into production, and Industrial Light & Magic refused to do the effects, which showed. The VFX in Trek films have always been iffy, at least in the Original Series films. But the effects in Final Frontier are simply laughable, created by a company called Associates and Ferren that went out of business just after this film came out. I wonder why?

Furthermore the original script, in a ham-handed attempt to inject pathos, killed off Scotty for no particular reason (a la Joss Whedon’s unnecessary murders of Book and Wash in Serenity, but I digress). Test audiences hated this, so there were reshoots on dimly-lit rebuilt sets, and it shows. This is why Scotty hits his head on the girder. And it’s why that scene looks like it was shot without a cinematographer or a gaffer, as opposed to the very next scene, which is professionally lighted with the set properly dressed.

So the movie was inept in its conception, production, post-production and distribution. Did I forget anything?

Fortunately, it was followed up by Star Trek VI, which… Jesus, I know I saw Star Trek VI.

Nope. I’m drawing a blank.

Next: The Black Hole Actually I just watched The Black Hole, and although it’s really cheesy, and has the second dumbest ending of any sci-fi film (Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes is number one), it’s nowhere near bad enough to belong on this list. So…

Next: Red Planet. Okay, I remember not liking Red Planet when I first saw it. Well, I just watched it again, and while parts are silly, and it belongs to the “everything’s red on Mars” school of nonsense, and some of the science is bunk, it still wasn’t bad enough to belong on the same list as Pluto Nash. Also, it stars Carrie-Anne Moss, and no movie can totally suck if it has Carrie-Anne Moss in it. So…

Next: The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996). Not that bad. Some of Stan Winston’s creature effects are a bit disappointing, and the plot doesn’t always make sense. The guy who plays Professor Lupin is pretty good, and without Marlon Brando’s appealingly eccentric performance, we would never have had Mephisto & Kevin. I guess I’m having trouble finding movies bad enough for this list.

Next: Babylon AD. I liked this movie a lot better when it was called Children of Men, and was better acted, better written and better shot. Unmemorable, but not heinous.

Which takes us, finally, to: Alien3.