How the Greatest Scene in Star Trek: The Motion Picture Was Made
I remember seeing Star Trek: The Motion Picture when it first came out. Yeah, that dates me. But I recall it so clearly. My dad, my sister and I went to see the film, and it was a special occasion because the old man didn’t takes us to the movies very often. But we knew the TV show. And now, Captain Kirk and Spock and the rest were back, only on the big screen. Exciting! And then we watched the actual movie…I still remember my dad just shaking his head as we exited the theater.
Of course, in the years since then, the critical appraisal of TMP has varied. Some say it’s an underappreciated gem while others say it’s bloated and overlong (I lean towards the former take). But wherever you land in that debate, it’s pretty universally acknowledged that the reintroduction of the USS Enterprise is among the most iconic moments in the Star Trek franchise — a five-minute, wordless sequence, amplified by Jerry Goldsmith’s classic “The Enterprise” theme… and the amazing effects work of Douglas Trumbull and his team.
Behind the scenes, the film had narrowly averted disaster prior to its release. The production’s original visual effects company had spent millions with virtually no usable footage to show for it, and so Trumbull, the visual effects legend who also worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner, was called in to save the sinking ship that was The Motion Picture. And he had to do it in under seven months in order to meet a do-or-die release date of December 7, 1979.
The end result is full of impressive visuals, but it’s the unveiling of the Enterprise that truly stands the test of time. Of course, back in 1979, we only knew the ship from the low-res 1960s TV show, but this was a completely redesigned model, built to stand up to the scrutiny of the big screen in a post-Star Wars world.
Rebuilding the Enterprise
“The shell of the model existed and it was just a big fiberglass model, and it didn’t have much detail to it,” recalls Trumbull of the state of the TMP Enterprise when he joined the project. “And whoever was designing the process of making the visual effects hadn’t really thought about what I was thinking about, which was how do you see the Enterprise when it’s in deep space, when it’s not near the sun or a star or anything? What’s the source of light? Where’s the key light? Where’s the fill light? How are you going to make this thing beautiful? And my thought about it was how to make it light itself up, kind of like the Titanic at night. And make it light itself up by having lights onboard the nacelles, shining on the fuselage, and from the fuselage shining up on the nacelles, and make it look like it’s self-illuminated. So I didn’t have to justify a key light, because there wouldn’t be one. And no one had ever thought of that.”
This meant that Trumbull’s team had to take the miniature entirely apart and rebuild a lighting system inside of it. They also gave it a highly detailed paint job.
“On the outside of it we had to do this amazing paint job to get all the detail and the kind of silver, phosphorescent, multicolored, shiny plate, metallic exterior, so it just didn’t look like a white fiberglass block,” he explains. “And that was really pivotally important to be able to get the camera very close. I mean, the camera’s sometimes only three inches away from that miniature. And it had to hold up, you know, because we had no computer graphics. We had no way to tweak things in post-production. So it had to look good in camera. And then, in order to get those angles, we had to build a special periscope lens in order to get the camera close enough. That had not been anticipated either.”
Trumbull describes the periscope lens as being about four inches in diameter and about three feet long, so the lens that’s looking at the Enterprise was three feet away from the camera. Trumbull had an optical engineer design this relay system that was “really almost NASA military spec optics,” all so that the camera could get extremely close to the Enterprise model from particularly difficult angles.
Kirk’s Long Ride Home
The dramatic crux of this sequence is that Admiral Kirk is finally returning to the Enterprise after making the mistake of taking a desk job at Starfleet Academy. The ship has been refitted and isn’t even fully functional yet, and Kirk — along with the viewer — takes a slow tour of the new and improved starship, observing it from virtually every angle as he chugs along with Scotty in a travel pod. While Hollywood legend Robert Wise directed The Motion Picture, he also was aware that the production was in dire straits as it faced that impending release date. So Trumbull actually wound up directing several of the effects sequences himself, including the dry dock segment.
“[Wise] totally trusted me,” recalls Trumbull. “So he just said, ‘Doug, just do whatever you can. And save my ass.’ … And the idea I came up with was to make this like one of the big epic reveals of cinema, and tease the audience for a while, before you do the reveal, and just have the dry dock obscuring your view of the Enterprise. So it’s in the foreground all the time and the camera’s outside the dry dock. And so they take a circuitous route around the dry dock and then make a 180-degree turn and turn back looking at the Enterprise in the dry dock. And then you have the sequence of beauty shots, of kind of a tour of the Enterprise from the bottom to the top, to over the top, around the back. And so you do a 360-degree circuitous tour of the Enterprise and then they dock with it.”
Trumbull had also been on set when the live-action portion of the sequence was filmed with director Robert Wise, William Shatner and James Doohan, which helped in terms of coordinating the lighting, reflections and shadows on the actors to reflect what Trumbull would shoot with the model.
“So that was kind of my idea, to tease the audience for a while, and I felt a big responsibility that the studio’s hiring of Bob Wise was an expectation that they were going to get some kind of epic, like The Sound of Music or West Side Story [both of which Wise also directed], which I think was appropriate, and that’s what they wanted,” he says. “They wanted to really raise the bar above what Star Trek had been. The limitations of an episodic television series are always money and time and spectacle you don’t get. And so this was unleashing the forces of this iconic Star Trek enterprise — what do you call it? A franchise. So that’s why it’s called Star Trek: The Motion Picture, because they wanted to differentiate from television. They didn’t want people to think, oh, this is a television show being run in a movie theater.”
Watch why we think Star Trek: The Motion Picture is so awesome in the video below:
That Upside-Down Floating Guy
Of course, who could forget the various dudes in spacesuits who are floating around the Enterprise, presumably working on the exterior of the spacecraft. But there’s one guy who’s slowly floating upside down as Kirk’s pod passes by the back of the ship — a true legend. And yep, Upside-Down Floating Guy was Trumbull’s idea as well.
“We had to build a little harness for a stunt man that would grab him like a clamp, but it was mounted on a shaft on a rotating bearing,” he recalls. A bit later in the film, when the Enterprise leaves the dry dock, the figure can be seen doing a space somersault. “So he could just stand there and push off and flip himself upside down, but rotate on a center of gravity. And we shot him on a green screen, I think, and it was really fun to do that. And then of course it was a special rig just for that one moment.”
For Trumbull, his favorite shot in the entire drydock sequence is the big reveal, when the travel pod turns around and we see the Enterprise fully for the first time in all of its splendor.
“That’s what I call the big master reveal shot, with everything going on all at once, which is the Enterprise, the dry dock, the Earth, all kinds of little craft flying around, and the music,” he says. “And so that was one of the other wonderful things that they were able to do, which was that Jerry Goldsmith came back and scored that scene specifically to picture. So we got the sequence cut together, and they gave it Jerry and then Jerry performed that score. And I was able to actually be at the scoring session, which was one of the most exciting moments in my life. If you’ve ever been to a scoring session, it’s like one of the most exciting moments, when movie magic really takes off.”
Takes off indeed. Watch the Enterprise reveal sequence from Star Trek: The Motion Picture right here:[embedded content]
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How the Greatest Scene in Star Trek: The Motion Picture Was Made