Creating the New “Enterprise”

Behind the "Star Trek" special effects

As a reporter covering the tech beat, there are companies to visit, and then there's ILM.  Industrial Light & Magic is, as its name suggests, something that surprises me every time I'm there.  The special effects talent oozes from the walls and cubicles, and the history (Star Wars through the new Star Trek) spans decades worth of jaw-dropping on-screen images.

Scott Budman at Industrial Light & Magic

With that in mind, I headed up to San Francisco's Presidio to check out the latest.  Typically, special effects-laden movies start with models - small-scale versions of what you see on screen.  The new Star Trek Enterprise?  No model, just 100 percent computer generated magic.  For the first time, this movie (which boasts more than a full hour's worth on-screen of effects) has no models to work from.  The CG maestros worked completely, start to finish, with computers.

The results, as many of you can attest, are awesome.  But I'll leave the reviews to others.  This is what it's like to see how it's done at ILM:  The hallway alone from one set of offices to the other is chock full of creatures, spaceships, and odd cars from decades worth of cool movies.  While FX masters like Roger Guyett (who worked with director JJ Abrams and supervised the on-screen details) talk about how each creature reminds them of a different job, I'm always taken back to what I was doing when that particular thingamajig jumped onto the screen:  A night at the movies with high school buddies, a date, or introducing my daughter to a movie I used to love.

For John Goodson, well, this is the guy responsible for the new Enterprise.  A model maker himself, he says that while computers are "liberating," and give him "endless opportunities for variation," he still misses the physical world, and the ability to touch what he's working with.  he actually bought a $12 "Enterprise" from Target (complete with cheesy missile sound effects) to keep on his desk, and still draws on the back of napkins at his local cafe every sunday.

Talking to the ILM employees always reminds me:  There's a cool job out there for everyone, if you're patient.  After all, these guys are accomplished, and of the age that, frankly, there really wasn't much of this stuff around when they were young.  They busied themselves with early computers, or models, while watching movies like "Star Wars" (or TV shows like "Star Trek"), and waiting for jobs like these to come around.  Now, they uses technology to literally put magic in front of us on the big screen.  Yes, they get to work in an awesome building with a breathtaking view of the Golden Gate Bridge, but they started out like many of us, digging movies, and wondering how they could someday make people see their own visions.

Thanks to them, I'll watch (and re-watch, and show my kids) the new "Star Trek" with an extra appreciation.  It's worth taking a second to consider how many months - heck, years -  goes into making these effects.  Whenever I see the credits roll by, I'm glad to see ILM get its due.  There are always a couple of fellow nerds in the theatre who applaud. 

And how's this for cool?  At John Goodson's local coffee shop, they politely ask for, and keep, all of his napkin drawings.  You never know where you might find one.

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