In part two of our Exclusive Interview with Richard Taylor — Visual Effects Designer on 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Taylor continues to share his experiences on making the film — including some of the political challenges he faced, bringing the ominous and elaborate V’Ger to life, and his final reflections. We’ve also included more behind the scenes photos — many which have never been seen before or published! Click ahead to read part two of our interview. And Click HERE at Warp Speed to revisit part one if you missed it. Engage!
Jay West: How many people were working in your department?
Richard Taylor: We would have, at one point working on Star Trek, over a 100 people, maybe 120 people that we geared up to in the art department and we were drawing the blueprints for the models that Magicam’s modelshop was building. Extra model builders were hired there, including Mark Stetson. That was his first gig in the business. So I was supervising the building of the models over there but at the same time, we were storyboarding the movie over and over again and my main storyboarding artist was Ed Verreaux who, as you may know, has gone on to become a major production designer on movies like Contact and G.I. Joe and who storyboarded all of the Indiana Jones movies. So this was his first feature – as this was my first feature, it was the Abel Studio’s first feature, so we had a lot of gearing up to do: we built an art department, a separate part of the studio there, and started hiring some guys from the art center — Chris Ross, Andy Probert, and some other people to work with me on the designs of the models, and then I would draw the blueprints myself for certain ones.
Bob Abel kept getting us involved with more and more parts of the film and I think that, unfortunately, that was kind of the downfall of which led to Abel Studios eventually not being further involved on the picture. Because we got involved in sets, designing sets, helping get those built, trying to come up with ways to shoot the live action. Yet there was friction, I will tell you, always between the Abel Studio and the Paramount Art Department, the people who were building the sets and making all of the real, physical set pieces for all the action. They were old-school guys and they really didn’t — first of all, for me to come in and say, “None of this is going to work.” They didn’t want to hear that. So I had to do all sorts of drawings and illustrations, bring them and then they say, “What the hell? How come you want to do that?” I’d say, “Well, because it looks good and it’s modern,” you know, “where design is going.” They fought it the whole way, and since they were on the lot and had the ear of the directors they would always be bitching about it.
So anyway, Bob got us involved in doing a lot more parts of the film than I think we should have. I really think we should have just done the miniature work, not really have gotten involved in the set designs per se other than the bridge, and really been more clear about the parts of the film that we were going to do.
Jay: How long had you been working on the movie before Robert Wise was brought on to direct?
Richard: I can’t remember exactly. I know we were there for quite awhile before Wise came on, and I don’t remember who was directing before that.
Jay: So Gene Roddenberry was overseeing things at that time and handling the meetings?
Richard: Yes — and there were some people from the budget department that were there. I would come in with 15 drawings of alien spacecraft and I knew that if I put up there first what I really wanted, it would never be accepted because it turned into a debate about every object I would show them, with 12, 15 people, all with their idea about it. You can’t design a film by democracy.
There were people from the art department and art director’s department who were building sets and anything that had to coordinate with any of the models. There was a cross section of people from the film, maybe sometimes wardrobe. But it would really end up being this open conversation, and I knew that whatever I wanted to have accepted I had to bury it deep in the pile of things so the second-to-last thing that came up was the one I really wanted and they’d go, “Oh, that’s a good one!”
Jay: Having your front line soldiers and then pulling out the big guns…
Richard: Exactly. I knew that if I went into it with, “This is what I want. This is the one I really like,” that they’d tend to shoot it down. That was what everybody was there to do, was voice their opinion. Gene would occasionally bring in an astronaut, and the astronaut would always agree with my point-of-view but Roddenberry would literally tell astronauts, “No, no, no, that’s not what’s going to happen in space in the future. This is what’s going to happen.”
Incidentally, the whole star field phenomenon that’s in all of these science fiction movies is totally, totally not what happens if you go at incredible speeds through space. What happens is not like flying through a snowstorm. You don’t have objects going by you like that. The stars literally go away from you. As you go faster, they go left or right or up or down but the distance between stars is so great that they never are clustered like that. It’s not like going through a snowstorm like in Star Wars or — the only film that’s true to what would happen, and they aren’t showing light speed, is 2001. But the stars, if you accelerate in space at light speed, occasionally a star would come by, a star. But the others are millions of light years separated from each other so they literally just shoot off left and right. They don’t come by you. Well, that’s not very entertaining. People have gone with the Star Wars concept because it always looks interesting and it gives you a sense of speed.
When the Enterprise jumps to light speed, it goes through that spectral kind of rip. I had gotten imagery from MIT where they had tried to simulate it in some way, what a star or an object would look like if you were approaching it at light speed or if it moved, if anything, moved off toward light speed. It becomes stretched and spectral — and they did this simulated film that I showed to everybody. I said, “This is from MIT, this is what they say it’s going to look like when things go to light speed.”
But I showed this film from MIT and Roddenberry and said, “Well we should do something like that when the Enterprise jumps to light speed. It should have this streak with colors off of it and all that.” He said, “No, no, no. That’s not what happens when things go to light speed.” “Oh I see. So MIT’s wrong and you’ve been to light speed yourself so many times…“ and everybody would just sit there and roll their eyes. So there was a lot of that that went on, but overall, we did get some pretty cool models and the Enterprise — most people like it. It held up for years and of course was used in the following show and then they, eventually, after Roddenberry passed away, started moving the look of the Enterprise forward, although this last J.J. Abrams film, they pushed it back again to the saucer, the struts and the nacelles, the different shapes and things, but it went back to that configuration more.
Jay: What were the differences between the cameras created for shooting models for Star Wars — and what your crew did with the cameras you’d built for Star Trek?
Richard: They were very similar. We were building camera systems that duplicated those, in fact. It was motion control with variable shutters so we could shoot individual passes of the models with different amounts of streaks or exposures. The models were built. The Enterprise had something like 20 different light circuits in it. The light systems to light the exterior, the windows, the running lights, the thrusters, all those were separate lighting elements that would have been shot at different passes. So it was just another version of motion control. The Abel Studios had motion control. That’s how we did all that streak. So it’s scan photography. So we have computers, but we really didn’t have a model camera, one that had an arm that could animate. We had been shooting stuff on linear tracks with different heads that moved in different ways, and artwork that was animated in different ways, but we weren’t shooting models, especially models the scale of the Enterprise or the other models that were being built. So we were building a motion control camera from scratch. It was just coming together.
They were getting antsy and they brought in Doug Trumball to take an objective look as to whether or not the Abel Studios could pull this whole thing together… were we really going to be able to pull this off. We could have and we would have.
One of the things that was happening was that it keep being re-written — and when you change a script in a special effects film, it changes everything. You have to go back and re-board all the scenes. We re-boarded the movie at least four times from beginning to end, in a row. We drew the Enterprise I don’t know how many times but the Enterprise, just drawing the Enterprise in a storyboard is really difficult. It’s a very difficult object to draw, from all different angles. Just try it sometime. It’s really hard.
We re-boarded the movie and therefore re-budgeted the number of shots, how we were going to do the shots, what parts we were going to do, four times in less than six months. That’s crazy. You can’t get a show in control until you have those boards and break those boards down into elements: “How many hours to shoot this?” “How many hours of opticals to get that shot done?” They just kept changing the playing field. Then they would get upset when the budget would go up. We’d say, “You just added a whole sequence that wasn’t there.” The original budget, I believe, was — they came to our studio with was 12 million for the effects, something like that. Initially, what the script was, we probably could have fit it into that, but they kept changing stuff and the budget kept going up and we finally were up to 16 million or 17 and they’re going, “Well you guys are out of control!” – and we’re going: “Well you’re the one who’s changing the script. You can’t shoot these shots without people, without models.”
Ultimately, there are shots in the film that we did. The whole wormhole sequence was done by Abel Studios with the wavy streak stuff — it’s one of the best sequences in the whole film – we did that piece.
Jay: That’s a great sequence – and often referenced amongst fans.
Richard: One of the most amazing inventions that we created that never ended up being the sequence it could have been is the energy probe that came onto the bridge.
Jay: V’ger’s probe that abducts Ilia.
Richard: Right. It was designed and built by Stewart Ziff — he was a technician that we would bring on to Abel to build specific pieces of equipment. He helped build the real-time repeatable movable camera system we used to do the Levi’s “walking the dog” commercial, and later built the go-mo system for Dragonslayer for moving the miniature dragons about. So he was a very, very brilliant guy, and he helped us design an energy probe that was literally a strobe tube that was roughly 5 feet long, and had this incredibly powerful strobe in it that was powered by capacitors.
We built it into a plastic tube with rounded ends on it, a mount that held it to a steady cab rig so that a person could walk with this thing and move it up and down and sort of slowly move it around. The person who was carrying this was dressed in black and was behind the tube. The tube had an umbilical that went to it that went — so we had computer control over the way the strobe tube would pulse so it could “da da da da, da da da da” or “da daaa da daaa da daaa” or do sin waves of exposure. This strobe tube — if you don’t know, the square of the light falls off by the distance — so every time you double the distance the exposure light drops off by half — so to overexpose that whole tube had to be blazing, blazing hot or bright.
There was a semi truck out in the alley that was the capacitor. The entire back of this semi truck was filled with capacitors to be able to run the voltage to this thing to have this thing animate like that. We shot all that footage on the bridge. We had shot all of that with that strobe tube in there, that’s how that place is lit up like that.
Jay: I recall seeing some of the movie’s making-of footage where it shows a crew on the bridge moving that light around.
Richard: Yep. We invented that thing.
Jay: That’s fantastic.
Richard: It’s an incredible design. What we were going to do, then, was come back and lay the animation of what the energy probe looked like in over that optically. The way that image was going to be made — because I had made these wire armatures that were white that were like a curved wire shape that would spin and then we’d project light on those and shoot time exposures of those and nest those together. I had done tests. It was the most beautiful looking thing you had ever seen, and that was going to be image-edited rotoed to track the move and laid in over all of that exposure. It would have been gorgeous. As it ended up, they broke the shots up as Douglas Trumbull took over the visual effects of the film. That sequence went to John Dykstra and the guys out there at Apogee, and they used a trick of projecting on Mylar and stretching it. They just had to come up with something that worked in a very short period of time.
Jay: When Trumbull came onto the film, he basically utilized the models you’d built, correct?
Richard: Yes. The only thing he did on the Enterprise is that he added little, rectangular pieces that stuck off its saucer near the bridge a bit to make it to not quite so round – adding little rectilinear shapes. Another notable, new element was the look of the Enterprise’s paneling created by using different textures of paint. It was basically my concept — the only thing you could do subtle enough to make this really look like this is a huge craft is have all these body panels with the different thickness of paint and the difference in reflectivity. We found this pearlescent paint made by Crescent Metal — and cut friskets for all these different patterns, so maybe one fourth of those panels are one particular paint, and then another eighth of them are another paint. So there are just slight differences in the reflectivity and the coloration to create that incredible texture over the whole model. It’s beautiful.
Jay: Yes — it definitely has a great visual dynamic.
Richard: Then the windows that you see there — if you flew by them with the camera, those windows are actually made of plexiglass that was either a quarter of an inch of eighth of an inch, depending on the window, that’s polished and they’re plugged in there and there’s neon tubing in there, a piece of plastic, and then there’s transparencies. So if the camera went by those windows, you actually see detail in there that’s changing perspective.
In all of the windows on the Enterprise, if the cameras got close to them, there’s information in those windows of all the transparencies that I shot of sets, different parts and things that we then mounted inside the model so they’re backlit. There are also pictures of Mickey Mouse.
Jay: That’s great — another “hidden Mickey” — just like you later had in the original Tron.
Richard: Yes! Everything inside of those windows are color transparencies that are mounted. Just think of the inside of those windows as a light box — I wanted to make sure that when you got close to that thing and went by that there was detail in those windows.
Well now we can pull an exposure of that – and that would be a separate pass – every light on the Enterprise. One of the things I did that Douglas Trumbull followed through with that was cool was I built lights into the Enterprise that lights itself. There are lights on the back near the entrance to the cargo port and different places on the saucers where lights shine off onto the Enterprise and light it up, just like the tails of jets when they land at LAX.
Their tails are lit up, right? Those are purely decorative lights that light up those tails. Those aren’t functional, they aren’t the running lights or the landing lights. So just like on any kind of commercial aircraft or ship or something, there are lights that are built into them that light the surface to make it look good. So that’s one of the things that the Enterprise has that’s kind of cool. There are lights that light up the nacelles and things when it’s just sitting there in the dry dock. And when it’s moving off into space when it’s first pulls out of dry dock, there are lights that are lighting the surface of itself.
So there was a lot of work put into the Enterprise, into the models, and I think that is something we could be proud of that Abel did. Also, the fact that we storyboarded a lot of it. There are many things about the design of the movie that were not really under our control in a sense. I had ideas but in the end Roddenberry had very specific ideas about what certain things should be.
Jay: Let’s talk about the origin of the ominous alien ship: “V’Ger” – what went into the creation of it?
Our V’Ger design versus what ended up being made was totally different — we hadn’t really started building that model yet when Douglas Trumbull later took over the visual effects for the picture, so the final design of V’Ger was a combination of designs that Syd Mead was brought in to come up with — and it was also done at several different studios with a different concept, although they had all of our initial illustration designs and paintings: including the Voyager site at the middle of the craft at the end of the movie for the bonding between Persis Khambatta (Ilia) and Stephen Collins where they become one.
I basically said that V’Ger was not a totally solid object; it was made of bits, if you wish. Think of it as little spheres that can cluster together and become a solid object, and then that object can totally break into those pieces. All of those pieces fly over there and reassemble to be another part of it. So it was basically a living machine and everything that it did with the Enterprise was always analyzing Enterprise, so when the Enterprise finally comes into contact with V’Ger and flew over it, the surface would be reacting to the Enterprise flying over it.
I would come up with these techniques of making photo-edged metal panels, really detailed, that were levels deep and then I had a way of covering those with this material that was heat-sensitive that would change color in iridescence when heat was put on it — so when the camera flew over it was going to basically have these hair-dryer type of little phantoms that are blowing hot air on it.
When it went across the surface, it was changing color and reacting to the point-of-view and then the Enterprise would have been matted in over that. Then you’d go inside – and it’s a voyage down through V’Ger finally until you got to the V’Ger altar. Again, all of this was pre-digital. This was all analog era stuff that we did on Star Trek. There was no CGI in the movie.
Jay: Incidentally, what are your thoughts about the 2001 Director’s Edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which had some of the visual effects and imagery of the original ’79 film revised?
Richard: I haven’t actually seen it. I haven’t sat down and watched it. I’d like to do that. In your words, what are the differences?
Jay: There were some CGI shots incorporated, and enhanced matte shots. Yet overall, it wasn’t changed drastically. Some revisions were nice, and some I prefer the original elements of.
Richard: I was told they built a whole CG (computer generated) Enterprise and stuff for the Director’s version, and that they’d added scenes — I’ve just never seen it so I can’t make an objective call on that.
Jay: What were the sequences or elements that resonated the most with you in the original version?
Richard: Well, I think the introduction of the Enterprise, the photography and all that was really well done. That is an iconic thing. The development of all of the fonts and looks for both the Klingons and Starfleet were something that I was really proud of. Just the alphabet that I came up with for the Klingons alone was pretty cool, so all the graphic stuff I thought was done well. The photography of the introduction of the Enterprise, I thought, was well done. The thing that stands out to me, that I remember more than anything about working on the film was that it was a film being made as a reaction to another film, and the film really was being made by a committee for a long time — and it was the first feature that I had worked on, and I learned everything about how not to make a feature by working on the film so that when I put together my crew of people to do Tron and even the crew of people I used to do Looker — I made it really clear, the structure of what everybody’s jobs were and what the chain-of-command was and I worked very hard to be organized. After I left Star Trek — well, after we got pulled off show — I just decided to leave Abel after that because I felt that Bob had mishandled our communications and had drug us into stuff that he shouldn’t have, and he was partially responsible for why we lost the whole piece. I kept shooting until they came in and unplugged my camera. I refused to believe that we were not going to be doing this movie after all that we had put into it.
Jay: How long had you been on the film up until that point?
Richard: We had been on it 6, 8 months, something like that. I watched a movie being made by committee and that’s not the way to make a movie. It was a bath of fire. It ended up costing a lot more than it should of because of all the politics and the way it was handled. So it was a learning experience for me. The most important part of it was I learned for the first time through the inside track, the steps of making a full feature like that and doing the effects, and the good and bad aspects of how that can be done. I learned a lot from working on that movie. All of a sudden, I’m in outer space: I’m not at Abel’s, I don’t have a crew of a hundred-and-something people. I’m going, “Oh my God, my career’s over.” A couple of days later the phone rings and it’s Terry Malick and he asked if I’m free, and I worked with him for almost a year on the film which has now, finally, ended up being The Tree of Life, but I worked with him and it was night and day. Working for Terry Malick was entirely 180 degrees to anything — he’s secretive, he’s a decision-maker. Just his demeanor and everything about him was entirely different. I learned a whole other aspect about making film and then, of course, went on to do Looker and Tron and then commercials for years.
So one of the best things that came from Star Trek — I learned a lot about the whole process and, again, it was the analog era and just a few years later, the whole digital era started to evolve and that changed everything. It changed everything. So there were good and bad parts about working on Star Trek. Most of it I don’t remember with a lot of fondness.
We’d like to thank Jay West for conducting the interview. West has worked in the film industry for studios such as Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon — and has written for various movie related publications and websites: including the LA Times — regarding film, pop culture, and movie memorabilia collecting — West himself being a collector over 35 years.
Click here to visit Richard Taylor’s website
Live Long and Prosper!