Star Trek: Boldly Going Where Some Men Have Gone Before

Star Trek photo

Paramount Pictures

In the early 60s, writer/producer Gene Roddenberry proposed a television series modeled after “Gulliver’s Travels.”  Marketed as a “western in space,” each episode was intended as both an action/suspense story as well as a morality parable.  On September 8, 1966, “Star Trek,” the embodiment of Roddenberry’s vision, first aired. 

Roddenberry and the series writers were able to fill episodes with political and social commentary that slipped by the sensors.  What they weren’t able to do was develop ratings the show needed to survive.  On June 3, 1969, the last flight of the Starship Enterprise boldly went “where no man has gone before.”

Or so it seemed.

The series gained popularity in syndication and developed a rabid fan base that eventually became its own cultural phenomenon, featured in movies such as the 1997 documentary “Trekkies.”  As popularity for the classic grew, the original actors were reunited in 1979 for a feature film.   Five features later the old crew retired, and the franchise was split into many incarnations.

This May, director/producer J.J. Abrams’ resurrection of Roddenberry’s concept will present the original series’ characters to a new generation.  Cinematographer Dan Mindel, costume designer Michael Kaplin and production designer Scott Chambliss were part of the crew that breathed new life into “Star Trek.”

“I loved the idea,” said Mindel. “Having grown up with the shows on TV, they sort of felt like a part of life to me.  The opportunity of elevating them into today’s psyche was an exciting prospect.  The idea that we could give it a new look and fresh legs was a good one.”

Kaplin was less familiar with the original series.  “I said to J.J., ‘I don’t really know why I’m here. I’ve seen a few episodes of the TV show, none of the movies, and going into this uncharted territory makes me feel a little uneasy.’  I felt that leading the large following of Trekkies was a responsibility not to be taken lightly,” said Kaplin.  “J.J. said he was glad that I wasn’t overly familiar with ‘Star Trek’ because he wanted to provide a fresh take and breathe new life into it.”

As Chambliss began retooling the look of the classic "Star Trek," he felt the pressure of recreating the franchise for a new generation, and developing a new look.

“It was daunting and demanding of everything I had to offer as a conceptualist designer,” said Chambliss.  “The ‘Star Trek’ franchise is loaded with history, one that morphed significantly over the years.  The conceptual foundation J.J. and I developed for approaching the physical world of our new take involved going back to the saga’s roots: the first TV series.  We fully embraced Roddenberry’s optimistic take on the future, and paid tribute to the most iconic physical elements of the tale: the exterior of the Enterprise, and its interior bridge.”

“The main ingredient, I think, was to not repeat what the other movies had done.  They shot a lot of those movies that were, aesthetic, perhaps a little dismal by the end,” said Mindel of his shooting style.  ”We wanted to encapsulate the positivity and the naivety of the first TV series.  We leap-frogged passed other versions to give a fresh, 21st century, new car, straight out of the wrapper feel to the original.”

“Basically, the whole movie centers on setting up the TV series,” said Kaplan.  “Obliterating the original style, or making the new uniforms unrecognizable, wouldn’t have really served any purpose.  They’re so iconic; I wanted to have them recognizable yet modernized.  J.J. and I agreed that was the best way to proceed.”

“We employed some different cuts,” said Kaplin regarding the alterations of the uniform’s aesthetic.  “I wanted them to be a little more wearable.  The shirt became a two-piece shirt. There’s a charcoal grey undershirt, with a colored shirt worn over this piece.  The colors: red, gold, blue, determine what department the person works for, as it did in the original series.  We used a jumbo spandex fabric on the dull side for the uniforms. I wanted the pants to be very utilitarian, to function like a futuristic blue jean.  They’re in a different fabric than the shirts; they’re more of rough work denim that we dyed a charcoal grey.”

“We did an homage to the sixties with the female crew.  We gave them the option of wearing a dress, jumper or pant suit.  They were all made out of the same fabric,” said Kaplan. 

“We felt there was no point in reinventing the Enterprise exterior or the interior bridge,” said Chambliss.  “Instead, we held on to what was most significant.  For the bridge, primarily this meant keeping the actual physical relationships between Kirk, Spock, Uhuru, Sulu and Chekov in- tact.  The overall layout follows the basic plan on the TV show as well, with expansions and refinements.  Though you wouldn’t look at our new bridge and mistake it as a copy of the old one, you can see the historic bridge in the skeleton of our new one.”

“In working with the color palette for the Starfleet, I embraced the primary colors of the original series: red, yellow, blue, black, gray and white,” said Chambliss.  “For all things Vulcan, I either based the palette in steel blue cool tones or red-planet earth tones.  For all things Romulan, I used dark, organic hues.  Additionally, Romulan surfaces were very roughly textural.” 

In developing a design that embraces digital effects, Chambliss said, “I love working on VFX films, actually.  I generate all the key art in the art department with incredibly talented concept illustrators.  It was difficult, because we were attempting to create a new future, one that wasn’t picking up where the old future left off.  The enormous pleasure comes in developing a dialog with the VFX guys that resulted in gorgeous visual approaches fully detailed in post.”

Although Mindel was aware that many studios encourage HD shoots, he was certain “Star Trek” would be shot the old fashioned way.  “I like to work with film, and assumed that‘s what we were going to do all along,” said Mindel.  “J.J. said to me, ‘Listen, we have to shoot tests in order to convince various people within the industry and ourselves that we’re not going to shoot HD.’  That’s where we really started.  My job was to convince him first.”

“We would have all the departments in meetings where the art department would show us schematics of sets and the wardrobe department would show us textures of fabrics, and we would look over everything and get a unified idea of how this movie was going to look and feel,” said Mindel.  “By doing camera tests with the actors in wardrobe and make up, we could see which direction to go in.  With a guy like J.J., he’s very specific about what he wants.  Once he saw it, he knew it, and that was the way we went.” 

What was shot on film itself did not employ any unusual devices.  “We didn’t do anything to the film in the lab photo chemically.  We just used standard Kodak film stocks,” said Mindel.   “I really pushed myself not to have to tidy up anything in post. The way we made the film is very old-fashioned compared to films shot these days.”

While reviving and modernizing the franchise’s classic look, Chambliss, Kaplin and Mindel had opportunities to incorporate their unique visions and styles into “Star Trek.”

“I always try to shoot my movies anamorphically,” said Mindel.  “I suggested to J.J. that shooting anamorphic would give us an edge over all the other ‘Star Trek’ movies.  We’d give it a really glossy, almost ‘Vogue Magazine’ cover feel, and really elevate the stakes of it.  I shot a few weeks of tests.  The day he saw what he wanted in those tests was the day we committed to shooting with anamorphic lenses using the Panavision systems, and off we went.”

“Eero Saarinen became a strong influence for me in approaching all things Starfleet related, and the ship was no exception,” said Chambliss in referencing the renowned Finish American architect who designed the original television series captain’s chair.  “The curvaceous futurism of his architecture inspired the new look of the Enterprise.  We sexed up the ship’s exterior.”

Not being a big fan of straight-forward primary colors, Chaplin found ways to modify the Starfleet uniforms that represented his sensibilities while also improving their appearance on camera.

“I basically took the original colors and changed their hues and values,” said Kaplin.  “I thought the colors would look better on the big screen with skin color.  We also revamped the fabric by printing the ‘Star Trek’ logo in the same color as the department color of each respective shirt.  It took a lot of testing to find the right color ink that complimented the fabric.  I think what we developed was very successful.  It added interest and depth, and kind of brought the look to the new century.”    

Despite the pressures of modernizing a popular series developed forty years ago, Chambliss, Kaplin and Mindel enjoyed participating and collaborating in bringing the original “Star Trek” concept to a new audience, and working with the brainpower behind the project, J.J. Abrams. 

“This movie was created by enormously talented people at the top of their games,” said Chambliss.  “J.J. Abrams remains the smartest, fastest, most creative guy I’ve ever worked with, and it’s a pleasure to still be able to say that after eight years of collaborating together.”
“The fact that many of us worked with J.J. on ‘Mission Impossible III’ made for a really seamless experience,” said Mindel.  “The movie just works so well, and the quality of everything is so high because J.J. inspired that in the crew.”

“I frequently checked with Scott Chambliss to make sure our colors were in sync,” said Kaplin.  “When I didn’t, there was magic going on; we were just on the same wavelength.  In the end, J.J. was extremely happy with the results.  This made me happy and eased my fears.  I know that ‘Star Trek’ fans are a very strongly opinionated group.”
“I think the fact that ‘Star Trek’ had a life of its own when we received it gave us rules that we had to adhere to,” said Mindel.  “The challenge in modernizing the genre was in hand because J.J. is one of those people that has his finger on the psychology of the ‘now generation.’  He understands exactly what they want, why they’re going to see it, and what they’re attuned to.  The balance of the movie is perfect.  I think it definitely leaves you at the end of the movie wanting more.”