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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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Director J.J. Abrams, pictured working with cast members, made the crucial decision to shoot Star Trek in anamorphic 35mm to visually honor previous Star Trek films, but not directly emulate their look or design.

Director J.J. Abrams, pictured working with cast members, made the crucial decision to shoot Star Trek in anamorphic 35mm to visually honor previous Star Trek films, but not directly emulate their look or design.
Photo: Zade Rosenthal. © 2008 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Big and organic

The next step for Abrams was to decide how to shoot the movie. Abrams is a well-known aficionado of the Star Wars universe, he was working closely with ILM on huge digital- effects sequences, and he had the opportunity to speak directly with George Lucas about his filmmaking theories. So early on, there was talk of shooting the piece digitally.

Eventually, however, Abrams and Mindel decided the movie should be shot in the 35mm anamorphic 2.35:1 film format. Both men say that was the best way for them to end up with both an ultra-big-screen feel and the realistic, organic look they wanted for the Trek universe.

“In my mind, it was a film project from the get-go, but there were some heavy hitters who had made space movies suggesting we shoot HD,” Mindel says. “I pleaded for the anamorphic format and showed J.J. some tests that convinced him this would be the most photographically pleasing way to shoot the movie. I showed him how I was intending to use the anamorphic approach for interior sets by using the lack of depth of field with the [anamorphic] lenses—how we could cover some sets discreetly, very easily, as opposed to trying to do that in post, digitally, later. It was very important to have that big-screen feel. I think the 2.35:1 format with real anamorphic lenses is how classic movies have been shot for years, so I argued in favor of anamorphic lenses, because they have the highest image-gathering quality available.” Abrams wasn’t hard to convince. While he admits to having “an extremely interesting discussion with George Lucas about the advocacy of digital, and [how] there are many places where digital is obviously a brilliant tool,” he says he felt it was not the right tool for this particular piece.

“I wanted this movie to feel real,” Abrams says. “I’m not saying you can’t be real with digital. But with film, for me, there was such a familiarity and comfort to it, a real warmth. We wanted to avoid coldness and any unnatural sense of perfection. [Mindel] is such a brilliant DP, I’m sure we could have achieved this look either way, but we felt it would take longer if we shot digital. Given our desire to avoid greenscreen as much as possible, to have the movie look as real as possible, and given that we would already have a large portion of it created digitally anyway [more than 1,000 visual-effects shots], I just felt we would be better balanced shooting on film and embracing that familiarity—that beautiful imperfection that comes with film. I know anamorphic lenses on a 35mm film camera real well. I know what that looks like, and I’m in love with that.”

As they ramped up for production, Abrams and his team also did extensive research into the world of Star Trek and space movies generally, as they fought to strike that balance between honoring the imagery that came before, while updating the franchise. Guyett brought to the table essentially a highlight reel of what he says were “interesting visual effects” from previous Star Trek movies to help inform the film¬makers’ overall mindset, rather than to specifically mimic.

“I watched all the Star Trek movies,” Guyett says. “I decided to edit a reel I thought was interesting to help us understand how [legendary director of the original 1979 Star Trek film] Robert Wise revealed the Enterprise. It was a big moment when he revealed the ship, and J.J. and I discussed that and made sure it was a big moment in this movie, as well. I was also looking at lighting in space. Many space movies make specific decisions about how to light ships, and I thought, in particular, 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968] and [2007’s] Sunshine did a great and dramatic job of lighting spaceships.

“Those kinds of movies use darkness as an analogy for the unknown and light comes out of the darkness, and that was good for what we were doing because [Star Trek] is about exploration and there is some degree of trepidation involved there. We also learned to use color to express geography as we created different environments in the movie—moving out of black to specific colors if they are near Vulcan or other planets. I looked at all those movies, and so did J.J., and Dan Mindel and I watched 2001 on a big screen. Those things gave us great reference and were visually inspiring—a library of ideas we could draw from.”

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