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Immersed in Movies: VFX Retrofitting for Abrams' Hybrid Vision of Old and New in 'Star Trek Into Darkness'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood May 17, 2013 at 2:36PM

Like "Skyfall," "Star Trek Into Darkness" is a hybrid of the old and the new in completing its rite of passage reboot. Except J.J. Abrams has the advantage of time travel, which he introduced in the first movie, for creating a parallel universe that allows him to break the rules of the beloved sci-fi franchise for the 21st century while still honoring its iconic spirit.
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Zachary Quinto as Spock in 'Star Trek Into Darkness'
Zachary Quinto as Spock in 'Star Trek Into Darkness'

Like "Skyfall," "Star Trek Into Darkness" is a hybrid of the old and the new in completing its rite of passage reboot. Except that J.J. Abrams has the advantage of time travel, which he introduced in the first movie, for creating a parallel universe that allows him to break the rules of the beloved sci-fi franchise for the 21st century while still honoring its iconic spirit.

This hybrid vision rippled throughout the entire "Into Darkness" production, including VFX. Industrial Light & Magic was back on board, building on the foundation that it began in Abrams' first "Star Trek," with a harder and more believable space movie. But with half the movie shot in IMAX for the thrilling action sequences and the introduction of 3-D, the VFX obviously had to be grander and more immersive. The filmmakers got to go deeper into the tricked out Enterprise so that we could experience more with the ship's crew while making the transporter and Warp Speed effects more dynamic; and the space battles, explosions, and planetary destruction were bigger and more epic.

"Star Trek Into Darkness"
"Star Trek Into Darkness"

But it began with the architectural design of futuristic London and San Francisco, which was a sleeker and more efficient retrofitting. The idea was to make these cities look advanced yet still familiar. There's softer metal and higher vertical structures, but a warmth to the appearance.

"There's the comfort of having established the world but wanting to take it further and expand it," underscores Roger Guyett, the production VFX supervisor for ILM, who worked on the previous movie. "We built the architectural worlds that define those cities [in CG]. The 'Star Trek' universe has a level of accessibility and optimism. Landmarks such as Big Ben and St Paul's Cathedral and The Golden Gate Bridge will still be there but modified. There are more flying vehicles in San Francisco but we still kept some trams. We try and shoot on location as much as we can within the range of our process but there's a lot of augmentation and futurization. There's functionality as well. At the same time, it's a very human world, which is what J.J. wanted."

With so much more shot with IMAX cameras, they had to think in terms of the format's composition, focusing action in the center of the frame with greater head room. ILM shot tests and learned about basic framing rules. "The cameras are bigger and it's hard to move them around," Guyett continues. "At the same time, you want to be more restrained in motion to avoid strain. It's a job that requires looking at absolutely every detail on the most microscopic scale, and there's no cheating in 3-D."

This article is related to: Star Trek Into Darkness, Immersed In Movies, VFX, Features, J.J. Abrams


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.