For 'Star Trek' VFX team, Oscars are the final frontier

ILM visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett is up for his third nomination, in large part because of helping to build surprising shots like the Enterprise suddenly rising from the sea.

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
4 min read
One of ILM visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett's favorite effects from 'Star Trek into Darkness' is this scene, when the Enterprise rises from the sea. Guyett was nominated for an Oscar for best visual effects Thursday. Screenshot by CNET

When "Star Trek Into Darkness" director J.J. Abrams and the visual effects experts at Industrial Light & Magic were deciding how to introduce the Enterprise to the audience for the first time, they knew technology could help them make a very big splash.

If you've seen the film -- which was nominated Thursday for an Oscar for best visual effects -- you probably remember the famous spaceship materializing suddenly out of the sea as Captain Kirk and McCoy run for their lives, chased by the white-faced natives of the red planet Nibiru. We see the ocean, and suddenly the Enterprise rises from the water, sea-foam and spray cascading off the top and over the side. It's exciting to the extreme, and meant to thrill audiences already sitting on the edge of their seat.

Yet that moment, as dramatic as it was, was kind of a last-minute idea. Abrams and the VFX team, led by visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett, arrived at this idea because they knew it would make the biggest possible impact -- and because they knew they had the tools to make it great.

"The Enterprise rising out of the water wasn't in the original script," Guyett told CNET. "We were thinking of a different way of introducing the Enterprise, and [Abrams] said, 'What if it was under water?' Originally, it seemed crazy when you said it out loud, but it's so much more interesting than it might have been."

In 2010, Guyett and his "Star Trek" team were nominated for the Oscar for best visual effects, but few imagined they'd win, given that they were up against the team that made the effects for a little movie by James Cameron: "Avatar." This time around, Guyett and his ILM colleagues are up against the VFX masters behind "Gravity," "The Lone Ranger," "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," and "Iron Man 3." It's hard to say at this point who will walk off the stage on March 2 with the gold statuette.

But while the "Star Trek" story was surely compelling on the printed page, there's little doubt that the film owes its worldwide box office haul of $467 million in large part to the hundreds upon hundreds of visual effects Guyett and his ILM cohorts brought to life. Surely, then, it's among the leading contenders to win this year's Oscar.

To Guyett, keeping ILM at the forefront of the visual effects industry is a never-ending quest, one that requires being very aware of the state of the art in visual effects technology, and often being the ones to break new ground. But perhaps because visual effects is always subservient to the larger goals of a film, he knows that what he does is at its core about serving the story. "If you can do work to serve the story well," Guyett said, "and really create a moment for the audience [with the effects], that's the stuff that everyone wants to do. Not just effects for effects' sake. It's about blending into the story, and that has a much more significant impact."

Still, Guyett is now a three-time Oscar nominee, and you don't get to that place in his industry without being responsible for some truly memorable effects. And for him, "Star Trek into Darkness" was packed with shots that will stand up over time as potentially groundbreaking. Among them are the scenes in the film's opening sequence with the volcano erupting, the high-speed foot chase of Kirk and McCoy, and, yes, the Enterprise suddenly rising from the ocean.

The USS Vengeance crashes into San Francisco Bay, a scene from 'Star Trek into Darkness.' Screen shot by CNET

But another that sticks out as a Guyett favorite includes the USS Vengeance, piloted by Khan, attempting to disguise itself as the Enterprise, and finally crashing into the San Francisco Bay -- destroying Starfleet headquarters in the process.

Another involving Khan is when the film's villain, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is seen moving around a frozen scene of a heavily damaged London. "Those kinds of ideas evolve out of the script," Guyett said, "and realizing when working on the movie that there's a different way to show an idea."

Guyett has worked with Abrams for years -- and will work with him again on 2015's "Star Wars: Episode VII" -- so the two clearly know how to make each other's ideas better. And part of that is being able to both give, and take. Abrams is "very good at giving people the space to do things," Guyett said, "but at the same time, he's very specific [about what he wants]. But he's so open to ideas."

And that's crucial to someone like Guyett, who has risen to the role of visual effects supervisor at ILM -- already home to 15 Oscars for best visual effects. Having the freedom to go beyond the script and to take initiative beyond the director's instructions is key. "It's the ideal thing," he said. "You don't want to just be told what to do. That's boring."

Fortunately, that's not really a problem at ILM. With hundreds of shots to figure out on a film like "Star Trek," especially working for a director who takes as many chances as Abrams does. These films "are just an extraordinary amount of fun to work on," Guyett said. "It's visual effects heaven, isn't it?"