Animation tricks create modern 'Star Trek' Enterprise

Director J.J. Abrams turned to ILM to get the latest tricks and tools to make a film that would both update the classic sci-fi franchise and please its more hard-core fans.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
ILM visual effects and animation teams had to employ some of the latest tricks in the industry to make the new "Star Trek" film feel both realistic and true to the classic franchise. Among the biggest challenges was updating the Starship Enterprise for 2009. Industrial Light & Magic

SAN FRANCISCO--For Paul Kavanagh, the animation supervisor on the new "Star Trek" movie, one technical element of the film was particularly challenging.

During live-action filming, director J.J. Abrams had done something unusual: In a bid to incorporate a shaky, handheld effect, Abrams would frequently sit behind the camera and literally tap on the back of it with his fingers. But "Star Trek" is jam-packed with computer graphics, and for Kavanagh, it was imperative to find a way to replicate the effect of that finger tapping, even in the purely digital sequences. Not to do so, he said, would have created a visual inconsistency that threatened to disrupt the audience's experience.

Back at Industrial Light & Magic, where Kavanagh works, he considered several ways to solve the problem. He talked to the people in ILM's motion-capture department, who showed him a number of 3D mo-cap cameras and techniques, but he felt those were too time-consuming and expensive.

Still, the mo-cap folks had another technology that was both simple and cheap: an orientation sensor that could be plugged into a computer with a simple USB connection and used to record motion. So Kavanagh and his animation team figured out that if they tapped on a desk while filming scenes with CG cameras--on-screen camera viewers that incorporate realistic lenses--and layered the motion from the orientation sensors underneath, they could get the same effect as Abrams got with live-action.

"J.J. did come down to visit us, and he loved it," Kavanagh recalled. "He definitely wanted the same kind of handheld look, but (what we did) was a big surprise for him. He loved that the look carried across the shots."

As you might imagine, "Star Trek" is a feast of effects and animation. According to ILM's Roger Guyett, the film's visual effects supervisor, it has a full hour of visual effects in all. "Every aspect of (the effects has) to be planned and thought through," Guyett said. "It's easy to underestimate the amount of work that goes into creating" an entire world.

Yet Abrams wanted a very tactile feel to the movie, Guyett said, and that meant filming as much as possible and adding in visual effects, rather than relying entirely on CG. "It was closer to the model of the original 'Star Wars' movie"--building actual sets that audiences can react to--"not filling in all the blanks (with CG) later on."

For example, when considering how to create a shuttle hangar, Abrams decided he wanted an actual set, rather than crafting it digitally. That meant finding a suitable space and then lighting it to match the look and feel of the rest of the film.

One benefit of that, Guyett said, is that it helped the actors to have a real set to work on, because they had to imagine less. "You've got actual wind blowing in your face," he said, rather than having to act like there's wind.

For Guyett and his team, another big challenge was figuring out how to handle a massive amount of destruction in the film.

For example, he said, they had to bring photo-realism to the way two colliding spaceships would fall apart. But the physics involved in something like that happening in space are far different than they would be inside the Earth's atmosphere. Similarly, the team needed to figure out how to realistically show what the explosion from a missile hitting the Enterprise would look like.

"The rules of physics aren't the same" in outer space, Guyett said. "Explosions behave in a different way."

Making the physics of an explosion in space look right was no easy task. But Guyett said one of the biggest advantages of working at ILM is that the company is rife with "geniuses" who he can consult with on just about any kind of scientific conundrum.

"You can e-mail a guy," Guyett said, "and say, 'When a ship explodes in space, what actually happens?'"

Then, because of ILM's latest tools--which accurately model the way gravity, or the lack of it, would affect an explosion in space--the filmmakers can find a way to make it look as close as possible to what the in-house science experts say it should.

Guyett explained that ILM's computers allow teams like his to simulate happenings like a nuclear explosion on film and not have it be prohibitively expensive. Just four or five years ago, he said, such a thing wouldn't have been possible. As an example, he said that creating a crash sequence in "Men in Black" had been very expensive because it involved breaking up a costly model. On top of that, they'd had only one chance at getting the shot. But back then, he added, doing it in CG wouldn't have worked because the technology didn't yet exist to get the physics right.

Another challenge, Guyett said, was finding a way to update iconic "Star Trek" elements for a 2009 film without upsetting hard-core Trekkies.

For example, he said that he and Abrams had labored endlessly to try to create a transporter effect. "It's a very iconic thing in the 'Star Trek' world," Guyett said. "It's a sound that everyone knows."

One problem they had to solve was that the transporter ended up looking different on each of the different sets were used in the film. "So we'd just have to adjust it (each time)," Guyett said. "The seemingly smaller challenges can take the longest to figure out."

In animating the new "Star Trek" film, animation supervisor Paul Kavanagh crafted a unique hybrid team of animators interested in camera work and camera department people interested in animation. Each member of the group would be given responsibility for working on individual shots. Industrial Light & Magic

For animation supervisor Kavanagh, working on "Star Trek" presented the chance to do something he'd never done before: create a single working group of animators interested in camera work and people from the camera department interested in animation, and let individuals take responsibility for individual shots.

"We haven't tried that before at ILM," Kavanagh said.

He explained that for his eventual team, "Star Trek" was start-to-finish crunch time. They had to work on 860 shots in less than six months, and sometimes Abrams would toss in wild cards by deciding to change the story during sequences, and ask the animation department to do their own pre-visualization, something the director is usually in charge of.

In the past, it would have taken too much time, but because Kavanagh had created his hybrid working group, they were up to the task. "The benefits that came from it is that we came up with new camera techniques for all-CG shots," he said.

One of Kavanagh's favorite sequences is one in which Captain Kirk is banished to an ice planet and ends up in a battle with a beast known as a polarilla.

Crafted in CG and meant to be a hybrid of a polar bear and a gorilla, the polarilla was the animation team's responsibility, and Kavanagh said it was up to them to find a way to both breathe life into the creature and give it character.

He said they did a number of animation tests on the polarilla, trying to find the best creatures to base it on from a series of reference sources, including the BBC's Motion Gallery, YouTube, and visits to the San Francisco Zoo. In the end, they decided it would run like a polar bear, but have the rear quarters and hanging knuckles of a gorilla. It would also feature the weight of a grizzly bear.

In the sequence, however, they had to animate another creature, known as Big Red, a lobster/crab hybrid that jumps up through the ice to challenge the polarilla for the chance to attack Kirk.

Big Red "was fantastically fun to animate," Kavanagh said of the beast, which has 120 eyes in the back of its head.

As the chase sequence evolves, he recalled, they had to figure out how Big Red would reach out to grab Kirk's leg, as spelled out in the script. But because the creature's mouth was "so long," the animation team felt it didn't work to have it grab Kirk with its arm.

"We thought, what if its tongue is what grabs Kirk's leg?" Kavanagh said. "We had to figure out how that creatively looks. And that's really the fun part of the job."

They decided to have it slip and slide, Kavanagh said, but no so much "that it looks comical.

It seems that in the end, that was a challenge that both Guyett's visual effects team and Kavanagh's hybrid animation team had to tackle. But in updating "Star Trek" for 2009, will true Trekkies recognize the latest iteration of the franchise?

Judging by the mostly enthusiastic reviews, the answer seems to be yes. But Guyett's less interested in reviews than whether he did his job.

"Oh yeah," he said. "There are nods to the history of the series, what has happened and what will happen....But we just made it contemporary."

On June 22, Geek Gestalt will kick off Road Trip 2009. After driving more than 12,000 miles in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last three years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and South and North Dakota. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. And in the meantime, join the Road Trip 2009 Facebook page and follow my Twitter feed.