STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS: A Visit to Bad Robot Studios

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Late last year I got to visit Bad Robot studios, a company founded in 1998 by J.J. Abrams, the prolific writer/director/producer that previously made Lost, Fringe, Alcatraz, Cloverfield, (named after a street near the studio), Mission: ImpossibleSuper 8 and, of course, Star Trek.  The reboot of the Star Trek series, which was able to respect the legacy and create room for a whole new generation, will keep telling its story in Star Trek Into Darkness—I went to Los Angeles to find out more about the movie.

My tour of the studio began at the department of special effects where we were shown some footage of an action scene that reminded me of the freefall from the first movie.  Without getting into too much detail, it’s safe to say that Abrams has done it again: the tension of Into Darkness is intense, but leaves room for the sharp dialogue that is the trademark of the franchise.  Hit the jump for more on the special effects, costumes and props, the soundtrack, IMAX, the creatures, and so much more.

Star Trek – Beyond the Special Effects

star-trek-into-darkness-chris-pine-zachary-quintoAfter watching the exciting footage, Roger Guyett, who was responsible for visual effects and second unit directing, showed me some of the most challenging things of the new movie for his department—like the development of the water and fire effects on a large scale.  For Guyett, everything is very exciting:

“Now we’re still on known ground, so we get to revisit the sets, which is super fun because we get to add some new characteristics and work with the available technology. And we get to do it all in bigger scale.”

That scale can be seen in space (the “final frontier”) and on Earth, where we get to see futuristic versions of other cities besides San Francisco.  Guyett elaborated:

“To create London, for example, we kept some of the landmarks, like the Eye, and historical monuments.  We tried to imagine how the buildings surrounding them would start to look.”

star-trek-into-darkness-chris-pine-benedict-cumberbatchGuyett also said that every scene that shows the cast outside, either on Earth or on another planet, was actually shot outside because he and Abrams would rather use natural light:

“The natural light makes the movie look more real, something that is nearly impossible to obtain inside a studio, even after we add special effects.”

He then showed footage of the actors before (in little sets built outside the studio) and after the addition of the effects (enlarging the radius and the scenario).

Like The Dark Knight Rises, the new Star Trek is going to have some ratio variation if watched in IMAX.  Guyett, who’s been working on this movie for almost 20 months, said:

“We have about 40 minutes of footage in IMAX, the rest is conventional ratio, so there will be widening of the screen.  At first, I thought it could be weird, but if you do it right, the transition is almost unnoticeable.  You want to challenge yourself at each movie you make, and working with J.J. Abrams is one of the biggest challenges in the world, but it also is very satisfactory because he brings a perfect fusion between art, fantasy and adventure. You can really create beautiful things without leaving out the entertainment part.”

Star Trek – Beyond the Costumes and Props

star-trek-into-darkness-posterOur tour continued with the costume designer Ann Foley and Andy Seagal, who are responsible for the props.  They showed us many of the movie’s costumes, as well as important scenic objects.  Some were improved versions from the first Star Trek while others were completely new.  Foley explained:

“Material research is one of the most difficult parts of the job.  The objects need to look futuristic but, at the same time, be functional and cool.”

For that, there’s a company in New York that researches and develops new material that may or may not be used in the film industry for years to come.

The design, however, is based purely on simplicity.  If compared to the first movie, the design of some iconic objects, like the tricorders or the phasers, are now cleaner and more technological—”an Apple approach to the Federation.”  In the meantime, the cost for hero props went through the roof.  Each gun costs about $10,000 because of an electronic movement that used to be added in post-production.  Seagal described their perfectionism:

“Everything needs to be perfect.  With the IMAX, all the clothes and equipment will appear ten times bigger on the screen.  What seems to be a tiny defect to the naked eye ends up being a gigantic defect on the big screen – even worse if it’s in closeup.  That’s our biggest challenge: creating objects that look perfect, but at the same time perform well and seem cool.”

zachary-quinto-star-trek-into-darknessOne of the biggest challenges for the crew was Spock’s volcanic exploration suit, according to Seagal:

“When you need to create something that appears to do something nearly impossible to do in real life, like protecting its user from the extremely high temperature at the center of a volcano, that poses as a big problem.  The final outfit, which had some metallic scales made of an alien material, was super heavy but looked awesome. You really do believe that it can do what the movie says it does.  The same can be applied to the bomb Spock carries around in a briefcase – we made about 20 designs before the final one.  The easiest things to make were the rustic fabrics, the ones Kirk and McCoy wear on the planet filled with native people in the beginning of the movie.  They’re very raw and heavy, matching the technology level of that civilization.  We added a bit of color to their clothes so that it would be easier to tell them apart from the other ones.”

They also explained that whenever they get a chance to create something new, they use the original series as a reference.  The Klingons of Star Trek Into Darkness, for example, were based on the ones that already existed, but got some new characteristics and detailing.  “Everything Klingon is influenced by savagery, like their blades, armors and weaponry,” said Seagal, while showing us mannequins of warriors holding really heavy guns that looked like a mixture of a shotgun and a halberd and wearing helmets (there are going to be some Klingons with their faces uncovered and a lot of metallic piercings).

The get-go really is the legacy, but the new timeline does allows some changes.

Star Trek – Beyond the Creatures

star-trek-into-darknessDavid Anderson, the head of makeup, presented the penultimate segment of my visit to the Bad Robot studios: the department where the creatures are made without the help of visual effects.

On the shelves, we could see many heads of different sizes and colors—a small sample of the very diverse universe that is Star Trek.  One of the most recognizable was among them: the Vulcan face of Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto).  With its pointy ears designed to fit exactly on the actor’s head, Anderson’s biggest challenge is adjusting the eyebrows.  It takes a few minutes for Quinto himself to pluck extra hair off—he does that with the help of a mold that shows exactly what needs to come off.  After that, for 45 minutes, Anderson glues hair by hair the extra ones that will form the upper edge of the eyebrow.

The process to transform an actor into an entire race of aliens known as Niburans is just as interesting.  Born with a protuberant forehead and very distinct traces, an actor served as a cast for the creation of the natives from the planet where Into Darkness begins.  He plays a Niburan Elder as well as all of the aliens in the foreground and all of the actors in the background are wearing masks to look like him.  To play all the characters, he was totally shaved, painted and wore a prosthetic makeup on his face that added a pair of nostrils.

Anderson also showed us the new Klingons of Star Trek Into Darkness.  The main antagonists of the original series are now played by big, corpulent men who have their faces covered in silicon makeup to give them the characteristics of the race.  Also, they’re now covered in metallic piercings, giving them a more threatening look.  Each actor endures six hours of makeup before shooting, meaning that whenever there are Klingons on the scene, Anderson’s team starts working at 2 a.m.

Star Trek – Beyond the Soundtrack

star-trek-into-darkness-zoe-saldanaOur tour through Bad Robot ended in Michael Giacchino’s studio.  He composed the score for the first Star Trak and comes back for Into Darkness.

Giacchino has an Oscar for Up‘s soundtrack and was also nominated for another Pixar movie, Ratatouille.  He’s a frequent collaborator of Abrams, having scored all of his movies and TV shows like Lost and Fringe.  We were presented with a panel about music in movies by the composer, basically teaching an entire class on the matter.

He showed us the same scene, Kirk and McCoy’s escape from the beginning of the movie, in three different variants: with just the sound effects, only the music and with both, pointing out how each one of them is flawed—until they’re put together.  Giacchino explained:

“Music is an emotional guide to the storyline.  It needs to be in sync with the plot the entire time.”

It really gives a different interpretation of the scene watching it with and without the score.

Giacchino also mentioned that part of the fun in the new Star Trek was developing new and specific themes for each element, the USS Enterprise in particular, along with its variations.

“The main purpose of the score is telling the public what to feel, something the script doesn’t do,” he said, while standing in between a piano, some mixers, various instruments and numerous screens in the lightly lit room, with a big window that showed the studio on one of the walls.

In addition to learning all about the movie, I was able to speak with the cast and filmmakers.  Look for our exclusive video interviews in the coming weeks and months.

Click here for all our Star Trek Into Darkness coverage.  And if you read Portuguese, check Omelete’s coverage of Além da Escuridão Star Trek here.

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