How ILM came up with the new Enterprise for J.J. Abrams' Trek

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Artists at Industrial Light & Magic, who worked with Star Trek director J.J. Abrams to come up with the new design for the iconic starship Enterprise, said that Abrams' directive was simple.

"He wanted a hot-rod type of vehicle, but they also wanted to preserve the Enterprise kind of look," model maker John Goodson said in a presentation at ILM's San Francisco headquarters earlier this month.

"J.J. Abrams kept saying, 'Make it a bigger movie. Make it a bigger shot,'" creative director David Nakabayashi added. "I think that's one thing you see in this film, at least: The stuff I've seen is just everything is big."

Following is an edited version of the designers' talk. Star Trek opens May 8.

Goodson: It was really interesting working with J.J. for this ship. They gave us a lot of latitude to kind of play with it. They had some specific ideas of what they wanted. He wanted a hot-rod type of vehicle, but they also wanted to preserve the Enterprise kind of look. They gave ILM a tremendous amount of leeway in terms of the design. ... It's got this sweeping line that's kind of giving it this real hot-rod kind of car feel. It's ILM's job to sort of take this and start to flesh this thing out and make it more real and convey the scale and all those things that you need, so it's just a leaping-off point for us. ...

How updated is the Enterprise?

Roger Guyett, visual effects supervisor: When I was a kid—when I bought toys or when I built things—I always wanted stuff to move. And one thing that frustrated me about the original Enterprise was that nothing moves on it. It was just a very static thing. ...

I don't know how familiar you are with all of the terminology of the Enterprise, but there is a main hull, which is the big disk. There is a secondary hull, which is a tube, and then you have two engines. And at the front of the bottom sort of cylinder there is this thing called the "collection plate" [aka the navigational deflector, in Trek parlance]. We made ours move, so it actually sort of comes out, and it grows, and you can move it around. We just made the whole thing much more contemporary.

And also when the ship goes into warp—of course, we had to create our version of warp, too, but you'll see the fins actually split apart slightly. So it goes into kind of like a warp mode, and from my perspective, all of those things add a level of interest and ... design to the whole process and make it so much more fun to work on every aspect of the process of the Star Trek world.

When you are on the Enterprise, you got to see a lot of the Enterprise. You can set different moments in the movie and different places— ... the engineering room or corridor or medical bay—so that you feel the enormous extent of the Enterprise. ...

Goodson: On the original TV show Enterprise, there were some patterns that were on the bottom. There's a rectangle and a circle and a T shape, and there's these big geometric forms, and I always try to sneak them in when I can, and I got to put them on this ship, too. It kind of connects us back to the original TV series a little bit. It's a subtle thing, but it does actually bridge those two ships together. ...

The pattern on the saucer is what we've always referred to as "aztec," which is what it's always been called, and that dates back to Star Trek: The Next Generation, and we wanted to pull that in on this ship and make it very subtle.

One of the things about the [Star Trek: The] Motion Picture Enterprise that was really cool for a practical model is they used the type of paint called "interference paint." This paint has little tiny [mica] prisms in it, and when you look at it from one angle, it would be red, but if you walked across the room to look at it from the other side, it appears green. There's gold and blue. There are a variety of colors you can get from this paint, and they painted the Motion Picture Enterprise with this paint. In the beginning of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, they've got, like, 20 minutes of the camera scrolling over the ship looking at all the stuff, and you see these very subtle iridescent effects.

We wanted to put that into this ship [for 2009], so we played around with some of the shaders and created, in the [digital] paint, these colored maps that look like Wonder Bread wrappers almost. Where one map would have red, the other map would have green in exactly the same spot. Where it would be blue on one map, it would be gold on the other map. What this would do, as the model moved through the virtual light, depending on where the light hit it, would affect the color. So we would get that same kind of effect that they had on the practical model in the digital model ...

Even though this technology is all fictitious, we spend a lot of time talking about it and trying to make sense out it so that when you're doing something on the ship, like putting a door in or something like that, it sort of makes sense. We'll spend a lot of time going around and around looking at it and trying to work out what you would expect to see. Even though it's all fictitious, what would you really want to see?

Did something in particular inspire you to create the newest Enterprise?

Goodson: A lot of it was going back to the older ships and drawing inspiration from those to kind of bridge the gap for continuity, because it's a whole new vision of Star Trek, but at the same time you want to bring some of those older elements into it, because Star Trek's been around for over 40 years now. You just want to preserve some of that look integrated in with the new thing. I think that was the driving thing for me, was just being able to pull the old stuff in with the new and connect them together.