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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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'Star Trek Into Darkness'
'Star Trek Into Darkness'

However, there were some low-tech choices, such as shooting the opening Bond-style chase on the red planet Nibiru on a small Marina del Rey set with CG enhancement rather than doing it all virtually. It's another testament to Abrams' embrace of the old and the new in his staging of the jungle action (which looks like a cross between "War of the Worlds" with the red foliage and "Apocalypse Now" with the white faced tribesmen). Even so, ILM was able to use simulation for the jungle with built in calculations to add motion to the trees to help them look real.

But the tense moment inside the erupting volcano, with Zachary Quinto's Spock willing to sacrifice himself to save the planet, featured ILM's latest advancement in simulation. "To make the shots possible, we constructed a small patch of rock for Quinto to stand on while the surrounding areas were layered and mapped with pools of magma," Guyett explains. "The lava contains a lot more level of sophistication in the way it deals with viscosity changes in temperature. And when lava cools down, it forms a crust. We built all this information into the simulation. And then we rendered hundreds of elements that included smoke and debris and embers that went into such a visceral texture."

Meanwhile, ILM was able to leverage the water technology it developed for "Battleship" in pulling the Enterprise more believably out of the water. The change in rendering pipeline, using the Arnold ray tracing system, provides a more scientifically correct and photoreal way of bouncing light. "You don't have to cheat the bouncing with simulation as we did in the previous movie," adds Guyett.

Again, it's all about Abrams trying to squeeze every ounce of humanity into the shot to make "Into Darkness" more relatable.

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.