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Back on Trek

Apr 20, 2009 12:00 PM, By Michael Goldman

How J.J. Abrams led the Star Trek revival.

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J.J. Abrams talks about the new 2009 Star Trek movie

Photos: Industrial Light and Magic. TM and © 2009 by Paramount Pictures. Star Trek and Related Marks and Logos are Trademarks of CBS Studios, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

When J.J. Abrams was handed the keys to the Star Trek kingdom, he boldly went where no Star Trek filmmaker had gone before: into prequel land. The decision to tell the story of how the legendary characters of the famous TV-and-film franchise got together originally meant the project would require both story and visual connections to the original 1960s-era Star Trek TV series.

Some of the challenges of this approach are obvious, particularly the casting of new actors to take over the classic roles. More vexing, however, was the visual challenge—how, exactly, to design, frame, shoot, color, and exhibit the piece in a way that evokes what was originally a low-budget, low-tech TV series from several decades ago, while still updating the visuals for the big screen in 2009.

“The decision was to take inspiration from what was created by Gene Roddenberry 40-some years ago and treat it in a new visual style, giving it relevance today that would not involve doing a campy throwback look,” Abrams says. “We wanted to make what he created vital in today’s context. Doing a Xerox of what you had seen before would have undermined that attempt. We certainly legitimized things like the colors of the uniforms, phasers, the basic design of the ship, etc. There is no one particular look for the movie. It takes place in a number of different settings, and it was important to make sure the scope and scale was large and diverse. But there were a couple of visual systems that we committed to early on to make it seem realistic, including the use of lens flares—something that we became ridiculously obsessed with.”

First, Abrams asked key team members who helped him make his first feature film—Mission: Impossible III (2006)—to return for Star Trek. As this is only his second feature directorial effort, Abrams felt it was important to maintain his core team. Thus, Mission: Impossible III (M:i:III) DP Dan Mindel, Visual Effects Supervisor/Second Unit Director Roger Guyett of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey, Production Designer Scott Chambliss, Set Decorator Karen Manthey, Colorist Stefan Sonnenfeld, and others all returned to help Abrams update Star Trek.

Guyett says it’s now clear to him that Abrams, so respected as a TV producer, is a natural filmmaker—much more comfortable in the director’s chair than even three years ago, when they first worked together on Mission: Impossible III.

“He’s become very familiar with the mechanics of making a movie, and on M:i:III, he was already a quick study,” Guyett says of Abrams. “On Star Trek, J.J. had a movie under his belt, and it shows. He was more confident and more familiar with the process and very clear on what he wanted to do, and he can see shots in his head. What he was very clear on was that we had to constantly expand the movie’s scope. This picture has a scope that earlier [Star Trek] movies never had.”

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