Saturday, May 2, 2009

Fan Film Focus: "Junior Star Trek"

We all know about the modern rise in popularity of fan films and the many current projects out there that have tried to bring back to life the Kirk and Spock era. For whatever reason I've always had a tough time getting into them. A few weeks ago I was reading Clive Young's book "Homemade Hollywood", which details the history of fan films. Among the sea of superhero and Star Wars movies featured in the book I found an intriguing mention of a fan film produced back in 1969 when Star Trek The Original Series was still in production, and to make this even more interesting the project had been made by a group of kids under the command of a ten year old by the name of Peter "Stoney" Emshwiller. This sounded great to me as it felt like something that could be both charming, and nostalgic, and not just a modern day effort to show off what home computers and effects software can do to outshine the look or effects of the original series. Unfortunately the book didn't provide too many details about this project which was appropriately titled "Junior Star Trek". Disappointed with the lack of info in the book I took it upon myself to do a little research and I ended up finding the actual short online as well as info on its creator. Turns out the Young filmmaker behind the camera grew up to become a science-fiction writer with various novels to his credit, one of which -- "The Host" has even been optioned by Jerry Bruckheimer with plans for turning it into a feature film.

After watching the short I was totally taken by it. It's a nostalgic portrait of simpler times and a lot of fun to watch for any Trek or film fan in general. The film was shot on 16mm film and in order to bring the story's visual effects sequences to life "Stoney" utilized the AMT Star Trek models, as well as multiple effects techniques that date back to the days of George Méliés. When you think about it it's pretty amazing. How many 10 year old kids these days can operate a film camera and figure out the necessary techniques to tell a story on film? Imagine how rare that must've been back in the late 60's way before the introduction and rise of prosumer video equipment. The film went on to win "Stoney" the "Young People's Film Contest" at the age of 12 and he even got to do an interview for PBS. My excitement over the film led me to contact Mr. Emshwiller and he was kind enough to agree to answer my questions regarding the making of his film. If you've never seen "Junior Star Trek" I recommend you view it now before reading the following interview.

Trek Nostalgia: How and when did you become a Star Trek fan?

Peter Emshwiller: I was born in 1959, so I was 7 thru 9 years old when the original series first ran. My next-door-neighbor in Levittown Long Island was a wonderful, warm, middle-aged woman named Barbara Griffith (who’s son, incidentally, grew up to be Bill Griffith, creator of “Zippy the Pinhead.” Small world, huh?) Barbara was almost a second mom to me. My own parents were artsy “hippies” and didn’t believe kids should be allowed to watch much of anything beyond educational TV. But Barbara would frequently babysit me, and she introduced me to this amazing new show that ran Thursday nights at 8:30 (and later Fridays at 8:30) on NBC. She was a huge fan of Star Trek and, even when it moved to 10pm for the last season, she’d let me secretly stay up past my bedtime to watch it with her (as long as I didn’t snitch to my folks).

I was hooked from the start. In fact I vividly remember the thrilling “Next Week on Star Trek” teasers they would play at the end of each episode. Wow. Often I could barely take the anticipation! How could I wait a whole, entire week??? Even then I knew there was something very special about the show. Half the time I didn’t fully understand what was going on in a given episode, but I knew it was all SUPER cool. And not JUST cool, but also smart and challenging and sometimes complex and, often, downright deep. While friends of mine were drawing race cars and football players in their grade school notebooks, I was painstakingly doodling super-accurate sketches of the Enterprise and Mister Spock all over my margins. I would even saunter around the schoolyard during recess, ignoring everyone around me as I either dodged phaser fire or pretended to talk to my ship with an (invisible) communicator.

Trek Nostalgia: How did you come up with the idea of making the film and how did you go about recruiting friends and / or relatives to help you make it?

Peter Emshwiller: From the second I started watching the show, I wanted to be a part of it. I ached to somehow be involved in that “world.” And since as far back as I can remember I had ambitions to be both and actor and an author (both of which, incidentally, I make my living at now!) creating my own Star Trek movie seemed the perfect answer. My pals all wanted to be firemen or baseball players and there I was (nerd alert!) wanting to be a performer and a writer. So the idea just came quite naturally. I could write a film, star in it, and direct it. Since my father was an experimental filmmaker at the time, I knew I could borrow all his 16-millimeter equipment (camera, tripod, lights, etc.). And it was easy to convince my school buddies to help me out with it. “Wanna help me make a TV show?”

I meticulously created all the props and costumes and “sets” for months in advance. On the big first day of “production” I tried to get the captain’s chair out of my room where I had slowly, carefully constructed it. It was too big now. It didn’t fit out through my bedroom door. I burst into tears and threw myself on the bed, almost giving up right then. “Mini-Kirk throws a tantrum.” Eventually I calmed down and took the chair half-way apart, slowly re-assembling it again in my living room where we’d be shooting. Whew!

Trek Nostalgia: Tells us about the actual production process.

Peter Emshwiller: For all the spaceship shots, I filmed upstairs in my father’s “studio.” My dad (Ed Emshwiller) had covered the unfinished walls of our tiny Levitt house’s attic with black seamless paper so he could use it as a “void” to shoot images for all his experimental films. This was perfect for my outer space stuff. I strung my model kits on black thread and went to town, mostly panning and zooming the camera instead of moving the models. It was a lot easier that way. For the “live action” stuff, we shot on a Saturday in my living room. I told my buddies to show up in black pants and shoes. I’d supply the rest.

Since there was only one decent-looking blank wall in the living room, I shot in that direction for everything. I’d “redress” that same darn wall as best I could to look like we were facing a different direction or in a different location.

Trek Nostalgia: Tell us about your experience utilizing the AMT models in creating the visual effects as well as the other techniques you used.

Peter Emshwiller: I must have put together five or six of those Enterprise kits over the years. So I not only had finished models, I also had a lot of “spare parts.” For the long shots I used a completed version, but at one point I rigged a loose spare saucer section to the front of the camera for a “bridge POV” shot. I even “re purposed” a left-over secondary hull section by covering it with electrical tape and using it as a phaser pistol. Speaking of phasers: the transporter, phaser, and force field effects were what took me the longest. I did those by scratching, frame-by-frame, on the actual finished film with a tiny exacto blade while squinting through a magnifying glass. It took days and days. And when I was done scratching I colored these effects in, also frame-by-frame, with fine-point magic markers. (Yes, I was one obsessed 10-year-old!)

Trek Nostalgia: Do you still remember what it was like seeing your film on TV after winning the PBS award?

Peter Emshwiller: Sadly, I never got to sit home and watch my 8 minute “epic” broadcast on national TV. The “Young People’s Film Contest” was presented as a live show, and I was interviewed on live TV on a PBS soundstage in New York City on the evening it aired. After talking to some of the older winners, they interviewed me (at this point I was 12), then they played most of my film, and then interviewed me a bit more about it afterward. It all flashed by super quickly in an exciting blur of very bright lights, a loud studio audience, TV monitors displaying my movie, thunderous applause and laughter, and an ever-shifting array of massive television cameras pointed my way.

I wish I could find someone who had a copy of the footage. My mom watched the show from home and, believe it or not, she took some black & white Polaroid photos off the TV screen as I was interviewed. (These were the days before VCRs.) I still have a few of those faded, blurry, dim Polaroid shots taken of me appearing on our old RCA television set.

What’s sweetly ironic to me looking back is that, though I find the movie cute and charming and silly now, I certainly didn’t intend it to be taken that way when I made it. I took the project VERY seriously. I wanted to make a REAL Star Trek episode, dammit! Not some goofy, amusing, “adorable” little kid’s movie! (In fact, it secretly drove me crazy that people found it funny.)

Peter "Stoney" Emshwiller

Trek Nostalgia: How much of a Star Trek fan are you these days? Did you ever make any other fan films?

Peter Emshwiller: As soon as I finished that first Star Trek movie I started working all-out on a sequel. I collected anything — from packing material to broken toys to car parts -- that looked futuristic and “space-age.” I scoured the gutters of my neighborhood for colorful bottle caps to use as buttons, switches, and knobs on my control panels. I whittled amazingly realistic phasers and communicators out of balsa wood. I made far superior looking Spock ears out of liquid latex and tissue paper. I constructed tricorders out of cardboard and black gaffer’s tape and old leather belts. All this stuff actually came out pretty darned cool. (Only thing that didn’t work out was my Vulcan harp, which I carved from a huge piece of Styrofoam. Then I tried to spray paint it black. Oops. It dissolved in a cloud of nasty-smelling gas.)

I wrote many drafts of my sequel’s “screenplay” until it was just right. It would be around the same length as the original “Junior Trek,” but much more ambitious. There’d be location “alien planet” shots, better special effects, and much more realistic sets.. I even talked my parents into letting me turn our carport/garage into the bridge for the duration of filming.

Sadly, at some point just before I actually began shooting, nature took over. Pow. I went through puberty. Suddenly I was WAY more interested in girls than in Star Trek, so the project was never completed. In fact I then went through a very long period from my mid teens through late twenties where I was embarrassed to have ever been into Star Trek at all. “What, THAT corny old show??” I tossed out all those great props I’d built (Damn!!!) and feigned complete disinterest in all things Trek. (Boy to I wish I’d saved at least some of that cool, homemade stuff.)

Years later I became Managing Editor of Twilight Zone Magazine, an SF short-story & media monthly. While working there I met my future wife, who was a HUGE, unabashed Trek fan. (She got hooked by watching reruns when she was in college during the mid-eighties). Anyway, she helped me re-connect with my “inner Trekkie/Trekker.” It was great to finally come home. (In fact, a few years later I had two science fiction novels published by Bantam books. One of them is sprinkled throughout with dozens of inside jokes and references to TOS just for other Star Trek fans.)

So sadly, I never made another ST fan film after “Junior Trek.” (I did, back in college, work with a classmate on a Bond take-off movie called “Thunderfinger,” where — you guessed it — I played James Bond myself. But that project was also never completed.)

But, to answer your question: Yes, I am still a big fan today. Last year I visited “Star Trek: The Tour” when it was out here in California. I’m embarrassed to admit how much of a massive thrill it was to have my photo taken on the full-size mockup of bridge from the original Enterprise they had on display. I literally got goosebumps as I stepped through the turbo lift doors, walked around the familiar red railing, and settled slowly into the captain’s chair. What a thrill. I remember actually muttering to myself under my breath: “I’ve waited 40 years for this....”

And, yes, both me and my inner 10-year-old are very thrilled, excited, and maybe a teensy bit worried about the new ST movie opening next week. I’ve got my fingers crossed..

- I want to thank Mr. Emshwiller for taking time out to answer my questions. He mentioned the version of the film currently available online is a copy of an old VHS transfer and he promises to go back and do an adequate transfer of his original negative at some point in the future. Hope we can see it soon!


  1. Hi-
    Clive Young here, the guy who wrote "Homemade Hollywood." I'm really excited you found this movie online and managed to snag that interview. When I was researching the book, I only came across a few scant references to it, and the film wasn't online (looking at that youtube page, it went on about 2 months after the book text was finalized). Great interview; I'm going to blog about this on my daily fan film news blog, Congrats!

  2. Clive,
    Thanks for stopping by and reading the blog. Congrats on your book. Its a great read. I'll definitively be checking out your blog too!

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