Space Time
Issue: Volume 36 Issue 4: (May/June 2013)

Space Time

Red planet monster

In 1966, “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry and his TV series collaborators sent the starship Enterprise into “space, the final frontier” on a five-year mission to explore strange, new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Forty-three years later, screenwriters for the 2009 film Star Trek acknowledged the indefatigable starship’s persistent popularity and a more gender-neutral time by sending her into the final frontier on an “ongoing mission to boldly go where no one has gone before.” The 2009 reboot topped $385 million at the international box office, more than twice that of any of the 11 previous films in the franchise, and was the first Star Trek feature to earn a visual effects Oscar nomination since director Robert Wise’s 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Directed by JJ Abrams, the prequel also achieved a higher rating from critics than any previous features, according to the aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, even besting the popular 1982 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and 1996 Star Trek: First Contact. No surprise then, that Paramount Pictures gave Abrams the helm again for this latest enterprise, with Industrial Light & Magic’s Roger Guyett, who received an Oscar nomination for the effects in Star Trek, repeating his tour on deck as visual effects supervisor and second unit director.

“ILM was the lead house with 520 shots split between San Francisco and Singapore,” Guyett says. “And Pixomondo did about 380. We split the work logically, giving ILM the Enterprise, the language of how “warp” works, the majority of the space work, and anything they had been involved with before. Pixomondo helped us through the shoot and took on three big sequences: an attack on the Star Fleet conference room, the big sequence on Kronos with the Klingons, and a sequence inside the warp core. We also had Atomic Fiction do 100 shots and an in-house team of around 12 people at Bad Robot for the rest, mostly simple shots.”

Halon handled the previs. “We did a lot of previs, but there’s an organic quality to making a film,” Guyett says. “JJ [Abrams] will always try to improve on his original idea. And once we start on the sequences, they tend to be post-vis’d.”

AT LEFT, simulation artists at ILM put Spock (Zachary Quinto) inside fiery CG lava, and at right, added digital doubles to practical and digital environments

AT LEFT, simulation artists at ILM put Spock (Zachary Quinto) inside fiery CG lava, and at right, added digital doubles to practical and digital environments.

Red, Burning Red

The film opens with an 18-minute sequence set on an alien planet populated with white-skinned people who live in a red jungle. “Their volcano is about to erupt,” Guyett says. “Their civilization will be lost unless Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) can drop a cold-fusion device into the volcano to seal it.”

Kirk steals a sacred scroll from the inhabitants’ temple as a diversion and they chase him, while Spock drops into the crater to plant the cold-fusion device.

ILM created the jungle set extensions with an assist from Pixomondo and put Spock on a rock inside the fiery volcano.

On set, Pine and the actors playing the alien inhabitants worked on a small set with trees and other vegetation painted red. “It would have been possible to film green plants and color-correct them, but it wouldn’t have been satisfying,” says Pat Tubach, visual effects supervisor at ILM. “We needed the complexity you get in nature. We carried that detail into our CG extensions, which helped bring realism into the scene.”

By filming the actors with different angles, the set appeared much larger. “They would run,” Tubach says. “JJ [Abrams] would point the camera in a different direction. They’d run, and he’d reset again.”

Because the 20-some actors on set didn’t fill the extended environment, ILM artists added digital doubles. “Paul Kavanagh, our animation supervisor, dressed up in a mocap suit and emulated the aliens’ moves, and we applied that motion to our digital data,” Tubach says. “They integrated well; it helps that the skin tone was a single color. In addition, we gave our digital doubles and the live-action actors an eyelid like the nictitating membrane on an alligator that flips up on the bottom, to make them a little less human.”

To put Spock inside the volcano, Guyett filmed a stunt actor jumping on a rock at night. “Everything around him in the film is digital,” Guyett says. “We did an incredibly complicated lava simulation.”

Digital effects artist Daniel Pearson used Naiad, fluid simulation software once sold by Exotic Matter but no longer available (the technology has been acquired by Autodesk), to create the fiery lava flows in various resolutions.

“JJ [Abrams] wanted a sense that the volcano was getting hotter and more dangerous every time he cut back to Spock standing in the sea of lava,” Tubach says. “It’s easy to make lazy ocean waves, but we had to have the lava rise and the waves ratchet up in intensity. Dan spent a lot of time choreographing the scene. He had high-resolution splashes in the foreground that were like water sims with extra viscosity, and had different levels of resolution in the mid-ground and background. He started with broad strokes and worked in more detail as needed because a small change could put you days behind.”

As the lava rises closer to Spock, the camera moves outside where Kirk dumps the stolen scroll and jumps off a cliff into an ocean. The camera travels down through the water. “And there is the Enterprise, underwater,” Guyett says. “It’s a fantastic reveal. Spock is in the volcano about to die. Kirk is back on the ship, but they’re underwater. And then the ship emerges from the water. As the device explodes inside the volcano and freezes the molten rock, the Enterprise flies over and transports Spock out. That tees the whole movie up.”

At ILM, effects artists started with ideas and techniques they had used for fluid simulations in Battleship (see “Water World,” April/May 2012) to have water pour off the Enterprise as it rises from the sea. “The artists still spent a lot of time getting the simulations to look right,” Tubach says. “The thing JJ was most concerned about was that the audience understands this is the Enterprise. So as the ship rises, the water stays off the number 1701 on the nacelle.”

The Spock rescue sequence had a purpose beyond creating tension and excitement. It established a through-line for the film.

“The opening set up the concept of professional responsibility versus relationships with people,” Guyett says. “Making the right choices. To save Spock, Kirk broke the prime directive. The last film introduced the characters. This one tests their mettle. For the previous film, we created a world that fit well with that energy of the characters. So, we wanted to retain that feeling, but we couldn’t do what we did in the last film. We had to go further. We talked to JJ; asked him what else we could explore.”

One answer was to open up the ship and give audiences access to places inside they couldn’t see before.

“In the previous film, we did the Robert Wise moment, with the Enterprise pulling away from the dock,” Guyett says. “We kept the same feeling but concentrated on something different. You see the ship at the space dock in the classic shot. Then, we go inside and see how the hangar works, how the ship attaches to the space station. We invented those moments. We also show other parts of the ship to see how the crew lives their lives. I was excited about showing more of the world and going inside. It’s like someone saying you get free french fries with your hamburger.”

Externally, the Enterprise starts out in the film as the same ship that ILM artists created for the 2009 film. Then, it suffers damage. A lot of damage.

“We started asking early on which parts of the ship would get blown up,” Tubach says. “We knew where there would be battles, but we didn’t know exactly what would happen, so it was hard to answer, but JJ had a vision and clear goals. So, we created a map of the damage starting with the maximum and worked backwards.”

Enterprise Rising

TECHNIQUES developed for Battleship helped ILM artists flow digital water off the Enterprise.

Black is Black

The other thing that changed was the lighting. “We introduced the idea of contrasty lighting in the last film, using darkness, and the title of this movie is Into Darkness, so we played up that idea of space and single-point lighting,” Guyett says. “We’ve changed the pipeline from RenderMan to Arnold, a raytracer, and Katana, so that’s easier now. When a light hits the ship, it bounces. Of course, we still have lens flares.”

Lighting the Vengeance, a black stealth-like ship, in dark space was a particularly interesting challenge. “In the 2009 film, we kept the Enterprise dark because it looks cool to be moody about lighting, but in this film we have a black ship and a white ship,” Tubach says. “So we had to put more light on the Enterprise, the good ship.”

Digital Model Supervisor Bruce Holcomb and Viewpaint Supervisor Ron Woodall modeled and textured the two ships for this feature film, as they had for the previous film. “Bruce is a huge, huge Star Trek fan, so that really helped him build the Vengeance, which is a warship and also a stealth ship,” Tubach points out. “He had concept art, but he had to trick out the geometry, decide what each section of the ship is for, where the weapons are hidden, and how they are revealed. He put tremendous thought into the Vengeance; he created a functional Star Trek starship.”

For both ships, Woodall painted complicated spec maps, much as he had done previously for the Enterprise, to help with lighting. “The patterns run over the top of the ship in different angles,” Tubach says. “If we put a light at a grazing angle, we get a cool sheen over the top. Getting the black ship to show up was a tremendous challenge. Having those spec maps on top and painting layers of spec interest saved us. Of course, we would utilize an atmospheric glow that allowed us to get a silhouette, and we had the impulse engines and the red light on the back of the Enterprise dish, but we had to balance how many lights we could put on the ships. They aren’t carnival boats.”

Both ships appear in a major sequence that takes place within warp tunnels. Throughout the film, a more sophisticated-looking warp sends the Enterprise zipping through space, an effect designed, in part, to play well in stereo. “We added an extra level of elegance and complexity to make it more exciting for the audience,” Guyett says.   

Kirk has taken the Enterprise into warp, thinking he’ll be safe there. Not this time.

“The idea that you could have a battle in warp is such a spectacular idea,” Guyett says. “Star Trek law says you can’t be in warp with another ship, but we say, that’s what the stealth ship does. So, we have this great moment where the Enterprise is under attack in this blue-and-white warp trail with red fire. We took the idea and cranked it.”

The warp tunnel itself is a 2.5D background with 2D textures projected onto geometry, “sometimes multiple times,” Tubach says. “We explored having particles streaming off the ships, and there’s still a bit in there, but things got confusing in terms of seeing the battle progress. The black ship fires and hits the Enterprise, and debris flies off. So, we used the debris, flickering light, and streaking to show the speed. Every once in a while you see a pop where the color goes negative and everything sort of stretches out for a moment.”

The Enterprise comes out of the tunnel damaged and dragging some of the blue color from the warp, thanks to particle effects, and the battle continues. Finally, with one ship mortally wounded, two of the characters have to fly between the two ships to survive –through a massive minefield of debris.

“We did this using half live-action and half digital doubles,” Tubach says. “It’s all about the emotion of these guys, so we had quite a few close-up shots. We used the digital doubles where we needed to show the relationship between the characters and the debris. We tried to emphasize that these guys aren’t powered on their own like superhumans; they’re just trying to survive. Since every movement creates inertia, the question was how to keep them from looking like rag dolls. Sometimes we took the feet off the actors to make them move a little.”

As with other shots that take place in space, the filmmakers shot the sequence in IMAX. “We wanted to use film because it’s such a strong part of the look,” Guyett says. “We did many tests, and JJ [Abrams] and I felt strongly that the anamorphic lenses, depth of field, and colors were part of the signature look of the film. JJ was also excited about using IMAX for Star Trek. But, it’s dated technology, expensive, and things go wrong a lot. So we decided that every time we went into an exterior action sequence, we’d go into an IMAX world. It worked really well; you can feel the change. We used it for the opening prologue piece, the jump from ship to ship, the trip to Kronos that Pixomondo did, and the chase sequence through future San Francisco.”

Enterprise falling

MODELERS and painters created a pristine Enterprise and then beat it up, following a damage map the battered ship suffered through the film. Click for more images.

After the space jump, the ship completely loses power and falls to Earth. As it tumbles, ILM’s artists added trailing smoke and debris with particle effects, and blinking lights. “It was a fun, creative thing to come up with,” Tubach says. “Then we get into the crash sequence and have a ton of effects. Particles, rigid-body destruction . . . the whole kitchen sink as far as destruction goes.”

The ship lands in San Francisco Bay, causing a water simulation as well as other mayhem and destruction, and that leads to a chase through future San Francisco, an environment created at ILM in Singapore. “Everything is digital except the two actors,” Guyett says. “It’s not in-your-face visual effects like a crash sequence, but they did an amazing job creating a city that feels like it might have evolved into the future.”

In designing the future city, the artists considered which buildings might have survived from the present, whether the iconic cable cars would still run, and what other types of public transportation might evolve, as well as the design of futuristic buildings.

San Francisco

“Always the most fun thing about Star Trek is coming up with ideas that can move the franchise forward,” Tubach says. “The ships we create. What the future will look like. That’s my favorite part of working on a film like this. We thought a lot about everyday life. For street scenes in London, we didn’t want to do something obvious like put black taxicabs everywhere, but we wanted the audience to know where they were so we kept some historical buildings. San Francisco feels more futuristic, but we tried to ground it and make it feel like a living, working city. So we have the notion of a garbage collection station and characters that jump onto a garbage barge to fly through the city. We imagined that in the future, there might be gates these self-driving barges would fly through and use for navigation, and the gates gave us foreground objects that we could wipe across the frame to help in stereo. People won’t think about them, but the impression is there.”

San Francisco garbage barge

THIS futuristic version of San Francisco, complete with automated garbage barges and sky bridges, is entirely digital, created by artists at ILM Singapore.

To move the garbage barge through a future San Francisco, Patrick Roos led a team at ILM Singapore that grew to 75 artists who worked on the 192-shot chase sequence and helped the 131 artists at ILM in San Francisco who handled the other Star Trek shots.

On location, the two actors who fought on top of the garbage truck through the chase sequence performed while standing in a set built on a gimbal. “The set didn’t move forward, but they could rotate it and move the camera,” Roos says.

In the film, the vehicle travels 30 miles per hour through the digital city. “It’s like a dump truck in the future,” Roos says of the vehicle. “There’s no driver; it’s on a pre-programmed route. We never altered the actors’ performances, but sometimes we would rotate the world to give a bigger sense of the size of the city. And, we replaced the vehicle in about half the shots. We also sometimes removed the live-action smoke shot on set and added CG smoke. We used the plate when we could, but some shots are full-CG to create a sense of speed and wind that make it feel like they’re up high, or when the shots were wide or the vehicle is doing really big turns – things they couldn’t shoot on set.”

As the characters ride along, the audience has an open view of the future city. “Before we had the plates, we laid out a rough city based on how we thought the sequence would progress,” Roos says. “Then once we had the matchmove cameras, we dropped them into the rough city and explored what else we could do with it, almost like a post-vis. The idea was that they’d move through the business district at the start, do a few turns to see the water back toward the Golden Gate Bridge, and then toward the end, move into a wide shot. Once we had the rough flight path, we worked with cubes to show how high they were and what we could see of the horizon.”

To help determine the style and feel of the city, the modelers and texture artists worked with Yanick Dusseault and the artists in ILM’s art department in San Francisco.

“The art department would paint on top of frames from the shots, so we had a rough idea of the angles, the rough shapes, and some detail,” Roos says. “We started with 15 or 20 buildings, some high, some low, and we knew they wanted sky bridges crossing over the frames. We kept quite a bit of old San Francisco lower down, and futuristic buildings up higher. The detailing tied everything together. The paneling, the shapes of windows. The design language is coherent. The interesting thing was that normally you’d build a city, put a camera inside, and fly through it. This wasn’t like that. The action dictated how we built things.”

Working with various types of buildings, the team would create compositions around the footage shot on set to enhance the story points. “It was a very organic way of working,” Roos says. “We built the backgrounds on a per-shot basis, and we could do that because we approached it so methodically in the beginning. We had such a good base to start with, we could move buildings, but there were still enough elements to tie the shots together and sell the idea that we were always in the same city.”


Interspersed with the sequences created at ILM were those created at Pixomondo’s facilities in Los Angeles, Berlin, Shanghai, Beijing, London, Frankfurt, Munich, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Ben Grossmann led the work of 375 artists over the course of the film who delivered approximately 380 shots. The biggest sequences took place in and around the planet Kronos.

“Kirk has taken the Enterprise to Kronos to go after the bad guy,” Grossmann says. “He parks a distance away and then he, Spock, Ohura, and two other members of the crew dress in civilian clothing and fly to the planet in a Knormian trade ship. But, they’re intercepted by two, and then three, Klingon fighters. They chase through the ruins of a former industrial Klingon city, through full-CG clouds, and past full-CG buildings.”

Digital effects supervisor Adam Watkins led a Pixomondo team in Los Angeles that created the Klingon fighters, the Knormian trade ship, and the decaying buildings shrouded in stormy CG clouds and surrounded with CG waterfalls. To do so, the artists used a pipeline that includes Autodesk’s 3ds Max and Maya; The Foundry’s Mari, Nuke, and Ocula; Chaos’s V-Ray; 3ds Max plug-ins Sitni Sati’s FumeFX, Cebas’s Thinking Particles, Think Box’s Krakatoa, and Naiad; with Shotgun providing asset management and their Screening Room application, which includes Tweak’s RV, for reviews.

“The planet wasn’t in any of the previous films, so we had total freedom to come up with something massive and industrial,” Grossmann says. “We have towers that reach miles into the atmosphere, through several layers of clouds.”

The chase ends with the Starfleet crew forced to land, and they exit the trade ships into a practical set used for a ground battle, with CG extensions and digital doubles added by Pixomondo in post as the battle expands. “We have Klingons rappelling out of fighters, getting the best of the Starfleet guys,” Grossmann says, “and suddenly, we hear an evil sound. JJ said it is like God clearing his throat. It’s a massive gun. JJ got the idea for it while shooting on set. It turns on like a flashlight, but what it does is turn things off. We called it the Boolean gun. Every time this massive weapon fires, we vaporize whatever it hits.”

While the virtual fight with Klingons carried on in Pixomondo’s studio in Los Angeles, artists in Berlin and London helped create a night attack on Starfleet headquarters, and others in Frankfurt and London sent Captain Kirk into the warp core.

“In the conference room sequence, a ship attacks the 80th floor of a building,” Guyett says. “The primary light source is the ship itself. Pixomondo animated a ship, knowing its behavior, then we built a computer-controlled rig, put lights on the rig, and fed the 3D animation into the lighting rig.”

The animators at Pixomondo moved the lightweight model of the ship in Maya and exported the data to the Navcam motion-control system. “It’s a very complicated shot,” Grossmann says. “There’s a conference with Starfleet’s top brass going on, and suddenly, a bright light shines in from outside the window. A ship armed to the teeth rises up and starts mowing down people in the room. Starfleet’s air-defense teams try to shoot down the craft. We built CG ships, debris, the building, and all sorts of destruction.”

For the shots of Kirk in the warp core, Pixomondo’s artists extended a small set piece to create a large structure of catwalks built to make the sequence look especially dangerous. “It needed to be death-defying,” Grossmann says. “We had to feel the jeopardy and the drama in that moment.”

In Beijing, Pixomodo artists created a phaser battle on the bridge of the Vengeance; in Shanghai, they built and tossed CG interiors of the Enterprise as it tumbled in a fall through space. Munich artists put holograms and vistas of future San Francisco out bedroom windows and planted tails on two alien girls. In Frankfurt, the artists gave a live-action actor CG eyes on tiny stalks.

Enterprise in warp tunner

THE ENTERPRISE could run but it couldn’t hide inside a warp tunnel from the dark Vengeance, after all. Streaks of light and, eventually, debris help create the illusion of speed in these all-CG shots.

New Frontiers

Grossmann managed the work carried on around the globe through Shotgun pipeline tools, using that company’s Screening Room application to look at the work. “Normally, we do dailies,” Grossmann says. “The coordinators run presentations for the supervisors and all the artists sit there and wait for the review. I only did dailies twice. All the supervisors and I used Screening Room, and we ran ‘dailies’ all day long as material came up. I’d look at fresh work from artists in Berlin and Shanghai, and in the middle of that a shot might pop up from LA.”

With Screening Room, Grossmann could see a list of shots ready for review. He could send email to the artists with notes and drawings. When he wanted simultaneous conversations, he would organize a Cinesync session and talk to people through Skype.

 “Dailies can be a time suck,” Grossmann says. “By using Screening Room, we would look at work when it was ready. The artists didn’t have to show stuff at 10 for a daily when it wouldn’t be ready until 11. I could sit at my desk and see a constant flow of new material organized by sequence or by studio. I could ask for the last version I saw, the last version I sent to JJ, the current version. I could put them side by side and play them together. Stack them. Do wipes between and see what’s different. I kept thinking that at some point we’ll start doing dailies, and then the show was almost done and we hadn’t needed to.”

For Grossmann, the biggest challenge on the show was not the work itself, but the expectations of the fans. “You have to find a fine line that makes the film approachable to non-Star Trek fans and still give the impassioned fan base enough of a connection to see you’re faithful to the canon,” he says. “This is not a stand-alone movie where you can make stuff up and walk away from it. People make repair manuals for the ships you design. We had designed all the ships when production called us and asked us to turn the ships over to the game developers and the toy companies. We had to go in and make the ship work and function in detail, including how many people could sit in the cockpit, which door panels opened up, how the landing gear worked. Holy crap. We had to build a piston system.

“Every time a trailer came out, people analyzed every pixel, criticized ship designs, and we weren’t even done with the movie,” Grossmann continues. “It was a little intimidating. But JJ is such a fun director. We’d take our cues from him about how much credence to pay to the canon of Star Trek.”

The first film based on Roddenberry’s television series, director Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture received an Oscar nomination for its visual effects, which were, of course, optical and practical. But it was the 1982 film Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan that has gone down in computer graphics history. Ed Catmull and a stellar crew in Lucasfilm’s computer graphics group (who went on to found Pixar in 1986) created the 60-second “genesis effect” for that film, the first entirely computer-generated sequence.

Now, 32 years hence, hundreds of artists working hand in hand in 10 facilities around the globe have boldly sent the crew of the Enterprise into frontiers the filmmakers and computer graphics scientists who created Wrath of Khan could barely have imagined. As computer graphics have evolved, visual effects have become an integral and artful part of filmmaking, an art that filmmakers have only begun to fully appreciate.

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for CGW. She can be reached at