Friday, May 29, 2009

Star Trek: 2009's top film at the box office...

For all the naysayers who kept insisting the new Star Trek film would be a critical and commercial disaster suck on this!!! Star Trek has not only become the best reviewed film of the year, with the highest positive review percentage of the year at Rotten Tomatoes (with nearly a perfect score), but this week the film has gone on to become the highest grossing picture of the year at the U.S. box office. Even better news is the fact that the film is still playing in 4,053 screens domestically with an impressive per screen average every week. The film has proven to have great legs and will continue to do solid business throughout the entire summer movie season.
More great news has come in from IMAX which has been cutting down on their screenings of Night at the Museum 2 in order to add more showings of Star Trek, which brought in the best receipts ever in the history of IMAX during its two week engagement.

And let's not forget international receipts, as well as TV and future home media sales for which the film has already made news with the purchase of the cable broadcast rights to the film by the FX Network for the sum of 24 million dollars in a deal that doesn't even grant the network the exclusive rights to the picture. Which means Paramount can make more sales simultaneously to both basic and premium cable networks, as well as broadcast networks.

Also think of all the money Paramount has collected so far on ancillary rights and tie-ins from their multi-million dollar, high profile partnerships with such companies as Burger King, Verizon, and Playmates Toys just to name a few. All these companies have paid millions of dollars to utilize the Star Trek brand and launch their products and ad campaigns utilizing elements from the new film.

I'm definitively seeing the film again this weekend. Here in Hollywood, even with all the big movies that have been coming out they still decided to keep it at the Cinerama Dome, which is the most coveted screen in town. By next weekend the film will have been playing at that venue for a month, quite a record these days when movies come and go in a matter of days.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Captain Kirk saves the galaxy one more time...

Even though Kirk sacrificed himself in order to stop Soran from destroying all life on Veridian 4 in Star Trek Generations, the good Captain did manage to make one more screen appearance a couple of years after his death was committed to film.

Not many fans are aware of this but William Shatner reprised his role of Kirk in 1997 for the ending of the computer game Starfleet Academy.

The game not only gives player a chance to participate in training scenarios at Starfleet Academy, including the Kobayashi Maru, but it also has a storyline that deals with a terrorist group operating inside Starfleet and known as the Vanguard. Their goal is to overthrow the Federation government and bring down the Klingons once and for all. Part of their plan includes installing Kirk as a despot to lead them in their cause.

If you play your cards right throughout the game you are treated to an ending featuring a video clip where Kirk comes in and saves the day once more by stopping the Vanguard.

For those of you who've never played the game here's your chance to take a look at Captain Kirk's last screen appearance.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Dan Mindel: Capturing the Final Frontier on film...

With the rise in HD capture technology I was pretty scared that the new Trek film would end up being shot on High Definition video instead of the classic 35mm Anamorphic format utilized for the previous films. Most big effects heavy films these days opt to shoot HD since the acquisition of images digitally helps out immensely in the digital effects heavy post production work flow. By shooting on film the filmmakers need to scan the negative in order to have digital files for the non linear editing systems and CG visual effects composites. I was very relieved to hear that Dan Mindel was a big advocate for not only shooting on film, but for also utilizing the anamorphic format which gives the filmmakers the highest canvas to work on, as well as a very detailed negative which when scanned at 4k resolution gives us even better images than HD originated content. Spielberg stuck to the format for his last Indy film, even though executive producer George Lucas tried to convince him to shoot on HD as he himself had done for the 3 Star Wars prequels. I was very glad when Abrams and his production team announced their shooting format for Star Trek would be 35mm.

In a recent interview for the International Cinematographers Guild, director of photography Dan Mindel had the following to say regarding his approach to the film's cinematography and his decision to shoot anamorphic: “The first thing I did was try to convince everyone we should shoot in anamorphic. There’s a big surge of people who feel it’s an antiquated work flow, and yet, technically, it’s still the highest method of image gathering we’ve got that works in a corporate-friendly way. Studios and younger producers and some directors have really forgotten these facts.”

One of the most compelling uses of 35mm optics in the film happens on the Enterprise sets with the now infamous lens flares which add a great deal of realism to the scenes, as they feel raw and captured more than orchestrated. Mindel went on to explain his idea behind this approach and how the 35mm lenses made it all possible: “Literally, at every opportunity, we tried to allow the lenses to physically do what they wanted to do without interfering,” the DP explains. “We also introduced flares manually by shining lights at the lenses to take away from the sterile feel that often arises when you shoot on sets and with green screens. We could add atmosphere and kinetic energy to what was happening by physically flaring the lens. After some time, we came up with two Xenon flashlights, and had an operator mirror the flashlight with the camera’s movement. We’d also hide focus racks by flaring at specific points. Often huge focus racks can be visually disturbing, but if you put a flare in at the right time, before you know it, focus is where it’s supposed to be.”

JJ Abrams also chimed in on the technique: “Flares gave the images another layer, another level of interest,” Abrams says. “I’d seen different processes that work well with film, different silver levels, etc. That’s great and cool, but I was going for something beyond the usual kinds of color correction and contrast levels. And lens flares actually made certain moments in images with levels of depth have a distinctly analog and unexpected quality. “Flares are, by nature, unpredictable and a result, obviously, of light and glass. What’s so fantastic is that you can never quite know what you’re going to get. In a massively CG- and effects-heavy film, having another layer of pure, unpredictable, analog, tactile optics was important to keep the feel looking real, special, grounded. It created a sense not just of the future, but it alluded to other things happening not within frame.”

“Dan is a wonderful collaborator,” Abrams says. “He’s wonderfully opinionated and more wonderfully flexible in seizing an opportunity to try something cool even if it might not work. Often, the result is terrific and thrilling.”

Mindel believes the work of a cinematographer is only as good as the work of those on his camera team: “I have an incredible crew. The unwritten language and communication that takes place when you know someone very well allow us to deliver quickly and efficiently whatever the director needs. And the best thing about working with J.J. is that he’s completely open to suggestions. I’m incredibly proud of this movie for a number of reasons, but mostly the technical aspects that my colleagues and I managed to execute.”

For more on Dan Mindel's work on Star Trek, including his use of Previs and the challenges of shooting some of the most complex sequences in the film such as the orbital skydive and Kirk's run in with the Ice Planet creature pick up this month's issue of ICG magazine, now available at film, and production equipment rental houses as well as select newsstands.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Star Trek profiled in latest issue of Make-up Artist...

The new issue of Make-Up Artist Magazine has a very informative, in-depth article on the creatures created for the new Star Trek film by prosthetic designer Barney Burman, and his team at Proteus FX. The article gives us a detailed look at the design process and the reason behind some of the choices made for the new look of such Trek classic species as the Romulans and Klingons. The later got cut out of the film but the article tells us more about how they were utilized in the new film before the scenes got cut.

We also get some more info regarding the events that lead to Nero's ear damage and scarring, as well as details on how the make-up team was able to design and apply the prosthetics and tatoos for the new lead villain and his crew.

Burman started out as a make-up effects lab technician in his father's shop during production of Star Trek 3. He also played an alien creature in the film during a scene taking place at a bar, but the scene was cut from the finished film. Years later he also did some uncredited work at the make-up shop for Star Trek 6.

Burman and his team also created a "Salt Sucker" alien for the new film as an homage to the M-113 creature from "The Man Trap". The creature was part of a scene that got cut from the film, but fortunately a picture of the creature has now surfaced courtesy of Barney Burman himself.

Issue 78 of Make-Up Artist Magazine is on newsstands now.

Meet Keenser...

I know a lot of hardcore Trek fans are going to hate me for this, but I really love Keenser.
I'm glad the writers of the new movie created this character and introduce him alongside "Scotty". The two of them make a really good comedic duo without it ever becoming over the top. Keenser is the type of character that should help out in getting the attention of the younger kids who will be showing up to see the film with their parents, and hopefully turning them into the next generation of Trek fans. I can't wait to get my hands on a Keenser action figure. Playmates: make it happen! I'm surprised he wasn't included more in the film's merchandising strategy. A Keenser figure would've been perfect for the Burger King line of kid's meal toys as well.

Actor Deep Roy in the make-up trailer during production of Star Trek.

Here's what we know so far about Keenser:
He was assigned to the Starfleet outpost on Delta Vega along with Montgomery Scott. He and a tribble were "Scotty's" only companions for months until the arrival of James T. Kirk and Prime Spock during the events depicted in the new film. After Spock helps "Scotty" develop transwarp technology a few years before he normally would've. Kirk and "Scotty" beam up to the Enterprise, as a saddened Keenser stays behind with Spock. After the Enterprise crew defeats Nero, Keenser and Spock are rescued from Delta Vega. As the new movie comes to a close we find Keenser aboard the Enterprise working for his pal "Scotty" in engineering. He even gets his own starfleet uniform. Keenser was portrayed in the film by actor Deep Roy, who protrayed all 165 Oompa-loompas in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He has also appeared in numerous other films and television shows including Doctor Who, The X-Files, Planet of the Apes (Tim Burton Remake), and Return of the Jedi.
Keenser's make-up was designed and supervised by make-up artist Barney Burman.

Even before the film's release the character had already made an appearance in the Esurance tie-in game "Meltdown on the Ice Planet". The game features Erin Esurance as a Starfleet special agent sent to rescue Keenser from Delta Vega after contact is lost with the outpost. For some strange reason the game takes place years after the events in the new film. Hopefully Keenser gets to stay aboard the Enterprise for a long time so we can see him again in the next film.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Star Trek Lives!

The moment we've all been waiting for has finally arrived. After years in limbo Star Trek is back and better than ever. I had the opportunity to see the new film on Thursday evening at one of the first showings at the historic Hollywood Cinerama Dome with a group of 800 rabid fans and it was a mind-blowing experience. The movie delivers on its promise, and succeeds in giving the Star Trek franchise a new lease on life without ignoring everything that has come before. Never before has there been a Trek film depicting a story with such a sense of urgency and with so much at stake. I will have a full review of the film in the coming days but right now all I can say is you need to run to your nearest movie theater and check this movie out.

The film opens with what is probably one of the most exhilarating and emotional sequences of any film in recent history. Right off the bat we are thrust into a tale were we get all the thrills of recent big action adventure films without ever loosing sight of the characters and emotions that make it all worthwhile. There's a moment in these first minutes of the film were people had tears in their eyes. The crowd at the dome was going nuts throughout the entire film, especially every time we get to see one of our beloved characters for the first time on screen.

The theater has set up a great display with some of the props and costumes utilized in the film as well as some of the Enterprise models from the Enterprise art project which have been painted by local Los Angeles artists.

Paramount had a great treat for everyone at the Dome. We all got a bag with an awesome Star Trek T-shirt featuring the Enterprise art that has been used at the recent Star Trek dance parties in L.A. and New York, as well as an Iphone cover featuring the new Enterprise from the film, and Promo cards from the Rittenhouse Archives line of trading cards.

Star Trek Iphone cover.

Star Trek promo cards.

Funky Enterprise T-Shirt.

It was an amazing experience to see the film with such a great crowd, and as we all left the theater it was pretty clear the film had succeeded in satisfying every fan in the house. I must say the film does have some controversial moments, but it all comes out of the Star Trek we have grown to love. The cause for everything is something that happens in the 24th Century years after the events of Star Trek Nemesis. The filmmakers were able to bring back a sense of mystery and risk to Star Trek and they had the guts to stick to their convictions and not end the movie with a typical pressing of the reset button. The film perfectly sets the stage for what could be one of the most exciting periods in the history of the franchise. Industry insiders including the folks at Daily Variety are predicting an opening weekend between 70-100 million dollars. Please do your part and see the film this weekend, and bring as many friends as possible. I got to see it a second time at the IMAX last night and highly recommend seeing it in this format. I will be seeing it a third time before the end of the weekend too. I'll be back with my in depth review next week. In the meantime do yourself a favor and go see Star Trek -- the best reviewed film of the year!

Star Trek invades Toys R Us...

Last weekend Toys R Us put up their new Star Trek section at the front of all their stores. They have been running a great sale on most of the Playmates toys and accessories. The sale ends today so if you still haven't picked up the new toys you still have a chance to get them at the best possible price.

The "Star Trek boutique" at Toys R Us will be up all summer long with new merchandise coming in over the entire run of the film including some exclusives like the Nero, Pike, and Sulu 12 inch figures. The store is not just concentrating its efforts on the Playmates line, you'll also find a wide variety of items such as bobble heads from Funco, model kits, comic books and magazines (even the Star Trek Manga trade paperbacks), die cast ships from Hot Wheels, board games from Mattel, radio controlled ships from Tyco RC, DVDs from CBS Home Entertainment, and even the higher end figures and ships from DST/Art Asylum.

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!
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