Back Drop
Phil LoPiccolo
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 1 (Jan 2003)

Back Drop

The effects in Star Trek: Nemesis dazzle, but their first job is to seamlessly support the story

What is the scale of digital effects in Star Trek: Nemesis compared to other Star Trek films?

What we have tried to accomplish here is more expansive in look. For example, the Scimitar is a half-mile wide and has wings that deploy its weaponry. The imagery of the ship is breathtaking in scale and detail.

Fans are familiar with most space-related special effects. How important was it to retain a familiar look?

For certain effects, such as the transporter and phaser fire, it was important to adhere to a look that was familiar. However, we spent a lot of time making sure those effects were integrated into the shot as seamlessly as possible by adding detailed interactive light, reflections, and shadows onto the sets and characters during compositing.

How important was it to add fresh effects?

That was important, but it was even more important to make sure that the effects moved the story along. A good example of this occurs in the antechamber of the Scimitar bridge near the end of the film. The effect provided a cool-looking addition to the background setpiece during a fight between Picard and Shinzon, and it had to increase in tempo, brightness, and size to add tension as the countdown progressed.

What were the advances over other Star Trek films?

The CG ships were, by far, the most detailed ships ever made for a Star Trek film. Many of the shots, especially in the battle sequence, had the ships traveling from several miles away and getting as close as several feet to the camera. In addition, the work on the collision sequence was technically complicated, both in terms of the practical miniature rigging and the CG components.

How would you define the role of CG digital effects in Nemesis?

The bigger scenes such as the Romulan senate, the epic space battle, and the enormous impact of the collision could not be shown without digital effects. And the other effects, like views out a window, holograms, viewscreens, replicators, face replacements, phaser fire, set extensions, and the like, all played an important role in moving the story forward.

Given the time and budget, what else would you have done with digital effects?

I would have probably set up an R&D schedule to develop a rigid-body dynamics version of the collision, to see how it would compare to the miniature version of the collision. CG destruction of that scale is just not there yet, so our only real option was to build the miniature.

Science fiction writers give us glimpses into possible futures. Do visual effects artists obey laws of physics to accurately present those visions?

As far as Digital Domain is concerned, we set things up initially to be as physically accurate as possible. However, if it doesn't look right, then we throw physics out the window and do what we need to do in order for it to work in the context of the film. We always like to reference current R&D at high-end scientific research centers to see if they have something going on that might tie into what we are doing. Just knowing how something might work gives us inspiration as to how it might look or how it might behave.

Kelly Port is associate visual effects supervisor at Digital Domain. To read more about his latest project, Star Trek: Nemesis, see "Collision Course," pg. 16.