Star Trek: The Motion Picture VFX Director Describes Rebuilding the Enterprise for ‘That’ Iconic Scene

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

There’s more news today about Star Trek: The Motion Picture, as visual effects director Douglas Trumbull spoke to IGN about that dry dock scene and how he made it come to life.

The film was famously over-budget and at risk of failing to make its completion deadline when Trumbull came onto the production. IGN explains, “While Hollywood legend Robert Wise directed The Motion Picture, he also was aware that the production was in dire straits as it faced that impending release date. So Trumbull actually wound up directing several of the effects sequences himself, including the dry dock segment. ‘[Wise] totally trusted me,’ recalls Trumbull. ‘So he just said, “Doug, just do whatever you can.”’”

First, it was a job to rebuild the existing Enterprise model, which wasn’t translating well to a big screen format. As Trumbull recalled, “The shell of the model existed and it was just a big fiberglass model, and it didn't have much detail to it. [...] And whoever was designing the process of making the visual effects hadn't really thought about what I was thinking about, which was how do you see the Enterprise when it's in deep space, when it's not near the sun or a star or anything? What's the source of light? [...] How are you going to make this thing beautiful?” To get it up to snuff, Trumbull and his team resigned the rig’s lighting, including taking apart the model itself to build a lighting system inside the ship.

They also gave the ship a detailed paint job, in part to support shots in which the camera would be mere inches away from the surface of the model. “And that was really pivotally important,” Trumbull said, “to be able to get the camera very close. [...] And it had to hold up, you know, because we had no computer graphics. We had no way to tweak things in post-production. So it had to look good in camera.”

When it came to shooting the now-iconic sequence, Trumbull said he wanted to make the reveal of the ship “like one of the big epic reveals of cinema.” To do that, he used the dry dock itself to obscure the view for the first part of the sequence. And then the camera turns around to reveal the front of the ship, unobscured. Trumbull said, “That's what I call the big master reveal shot, with everything going on all at once, which is the Enterprise, the dry dock, the Earth, all kinds of little craft flying around, and the music.” He went on to describe the scoring session for that scene as “movie magic”: “They gave it to Jerry [Goldsmith] and then Jerry performed that score. And I was able to actually be at the scoring session, which was one of the most exciting moments in my life. If you've ever been to a scoring session, it's like one of the most exciting moments, when movie magic really takes off.”

The effects for the film weren’t all grand and epic though; Trumbull recalls building a special rig just for one shot of a stuntman as the Enterprise leaves dry dock: “We had to build a little harness for a stunt man that would grab him like a clamp, but it was mounted on a shaft on a rotating bearing. [...] So he could just stand there and push off and flip himself upside down, but rotate on a center of gravity. And we shot him on a green screen, I think, and it was really fun to do that.”

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is playing in theaters for just one more night, this Wednesday, September 18th. For tickets and showtimes, visit fathomevents.com.


This article was written for the podcast Daily Star Trek News.

Alison Pitt is the writer, producer, and host of Daily Star Trek News, on the Roddenberry Podcast Network. A veteran Star Trek podcaster, she started her career on the weekly show Priority One: A Roddenberry Star Trek Podcast in 2015. She has appeared on panels at Star Trek Las Vegas, WonderCon, and San Diego Comic Con.

Alison Pitt