Lighting V'GER by Chuck Barbee
It was April 1979 and Star Trek The Motion Picture (the first Star Trek feature) was due for a Christmas release. The principal live action photography had been completed for some time, but not the visual effects. Paramount decided that the miniatures, mattes and various optical and photographic effects done thus far were unsatisfactory and a new effects supervisor was called in.
Doug Trumbull knew the job was bigger than his effects facility could physically handle. His former protege John Dykstra, ASC, and John's sizable effects facility, Apogee, Inc., were looking for a project. An effects marriage made in heaven.
I was lucky to be hired as one of a number of camera operators who would be shooting the miniatures which Apogee would be cranking out. While we waited for motion control camera systems and miniatures to come on line, we busied ourselves shooting endless tests with Mitchell Standards and, newly liberated from the dust bins at Paramount, Mitchell Vista Vision butterfly and studio models. I was particularly amazed one day when I discovered that Mitchell Vista Vision No.2, the camera I was testing, had been used in DeMille's The Ten Commandments. Using this same camera I shot generic tests of laser light being shot through and bounced off of just about every surface imaginable.
At the time, controlling laser light was not especially new. Laserium had been doing some very sophisticated stuff with lasers bounced off of mirrors which were attached to multi-axis actuators. But our needs were simpler so Apogee was building whatever we needed. In the end, for V'GER, a simple type of rotating mirror scanner was used to create a sky or cloud cover.
It was the middle of June, 1979, when we moved to the warehouse space which would become the stage for the shooting of the V'ger model. This was to be an approximately 60' foot "miniature" of the 1000 kilometer long, mutated Voyager Spacecraft. In order to make a model that size look so extraordinarily large you don't want to see the whole length of the thing in one shot. You want aerial perspective. That means smoke or vapor or an "atmosphere" of some sort. So we began to convert the warehouse to a stage which could contain the atmosphere we needed. At first we installed a water atomizing system so we wouldn't have to breathe smoke. Unfortunately it didn't work for a couple of reasons. The most important one was that at the high summer temperatures we were experiencing, we couldn't get the density of vapor we needed. So we went to a smoke system with Mole smokers in plywood plenums, which distributed the smoke through flexible ducting all over the stage.
Since we would be doing multi-pass in-camera compositing for almost all of the V'ger shots, especially the "Flyover" sequence, and since we would be utilizing extremely long exposure times (up to several seconds per frame for some passes), we needed to be able to build up and maintain specific smoke densities for long periods of time. Not only did we have to be able to maintain a specific density of smoke, but it had to be completely "homogenized" so that there was no photographable shape or motion to the smoke. Otherwise the smoke would "animate " since we were shooting so slowly.
To quickly homogenize the smoke we used a dozen or so "E" fans which were controlled remotely from our smoke-free control room. Of course, we also needed to be able to quantify the density of the smoke to exact standards, repeatably, over and over again.
So we developed a rather crude but effective system. From our control room window we measured out into the stage ten feet. At that point we mounted a light box with a 100 watt bulb behind some frosted glass. Using a digital spot meter we read the brightness of the light with no smoke on the stage and that became our calibrated standard. Then we could build the smoke density until it was attenuating the light by whatever amount we determined. Through endless empirical tests we determined what densities of smoke "atmosphere" were appropriate for which shots. After much trial and error in testing, we found that we could do a good job of maintaining a precise level of density over several hours at a time. This ability proved essential when some of our shots spanned six or eight hours or more for just one pass. Some of the shots required as many as ten passes on the same piece of film.
The first shots I did which actually ended up in the movie are the Photon Torpedoes. For this effect I photographed laser light shot through a rotating, irregular shaped crystal "egg." Using stepping motors to rotate the crystal and randomly scan the laser up and down along the vertical axis of the crystal, we caused a beam or beams of laser light to be refracted in completely random directions outward from the crystal. I shot this with a wide angle lens during 30' long dolly moves to or away from the crystal and did multiple passes to multiply the effect of the rays of energy shooting out from the center. With this simple technique, I got the great effect of a white-hot packet of light energy hurling through space, throwing random shafts of energy in every direction. This was the prototype photon torpedo for Star Trek feature films.
These first shots were done with a Vista Vision Butterfly on an old modified gear head mounted on a pipe-rig dolly. Eventually this rig would grow into a full blown Dykstraflex rig with seven axis of motion, (roll, pan, tilt, swing/ boom, traverse, track), separate lens focus, motor drive and shutter control. But even the early rig (dolly, pan, tilt, camera motor) was motion-controlled. This gave me three axis of motion plus the camera drive. I don't think I even had control over the shutter. It was just single frame animation with a Vista Vision camera. But the moves were repeatable! The camera was modified to mount Nikon lenses and I shot with something like a 20mm lens with which, in a 30' long move in a screen time of one second or less, I could make that crystal appear to traverse a very great distance. Since I shot it using an Argon (green) laser, with no filters on the lens, the first Photon Torpedo was a boring monotone green. So the shots, as seen in the movie, have also been enhanced optically with color filtration. But the essence of the effect is a "single pass, in camera effect."
By the middle of July we had most of the V'ger model assembled on our stage and were beginning to shoot endless lighting and exposure tests of the model, and all of its elements, in a smoke atmosphere. But we still didn't have the final camera system in place, so we couldn't yet program camera moves.
Finally, at the end of August, we got the final components of the full blown "Dykstraflex" rig. Seven axis of motion and a new Apple Computer which we were using for the first time in conjunction with the solid state memory banks. This was hot stuff then. First, we would program a move on one axis, feed the memorized move into the computer, look at the move as a graph, smooth the acceleration and deceleration curves or otherwise manipulate the curves, feed the move back into the memory bank and then run it. This was repeated for each of the seven axis for any given shot. We could, of course, also save the moves on floppy disks, for backup or for later use.
Then we were ready to begin shooting V'ger in earnest, and that's where the complex motion control rig came into serious play. There were several levels of lighting on V'ger model, each of which required a separate photographic pass because each required a different exposure time. But all of the passes had to be at the same, small lens aperture, for maximum depth of field. Since the lighting levels are fixed, the only thing that can change, to accommodate the differences in brightness between various elements, is the exposure time. Thus, some exposure times were, as I've said, several seconds.
Starting at the "Propulsion" end of the ship there were the translucent blue and amber panels which we were able to backlight with conventional tungsten units such as inkies and midgets and lots of tough spun, with blue and amber gel. Due to the large internal space in the model and the fact that the bottom half was completely open, heat dissipation from these units was not a problem.
For the surface of V'ger, we again lit normally with conventional units hung on the stage. Babies and juniors served well here, with heavy blue gel, to compliment the already eerie, blue violet surface color. Lighting this surface became an exercise in finding the right angle for the lights, what I call the "glare" angle, so that what we were really photographing was the more "specular" light reflected from the surface texture, surrounded by lots of deep, dark shadows.
The next level of light was the very low-level fiber optic lighting which was used throughout the model to give the seemingly zillions of little pinpoints of light appearing to come from various tiny openings all over the surface. The model makers terminated the fiber optic runs in bundles at various places in the model. We clamped these bundles in front of various sources, depending on the need. But they were mostly small, tungsten units.
About one third of the way down V'ger's length were several cavernous openings which seemed to lead into the very heart of V'ger. From the depths of these openings came the light of a thousand suns, seen reflected from the walls of the openings. But as we peered into the depths we saw, at the bottoms of the pits, only the blackness of space, filled with billions of stars. The source of the energy, the flame of the mighty power which drives V'ger, remained hidden. To do this, the golden-colored walls of the caverns were lit with babies with straw gel and over-exposed a bit. In contrast with the dark blue tones and deep shadows of V'ger's surface, it seemed blinding. In addition, front and back lit, black and white matte passes were shot for this section, so that a starfield could be printed into the bottoms of the pits.
Further along, in an area that resembles a valley, with towering rock-like formations on both sides, we saw other cavernous openings; caldera full of electrical activity with lightning bolts discharging freely in every direction. In this case we wanted to see the source, the jagged bolts of lightning, and we wanted to see the interactive effect, the flickering of that blinding light on the surrounding terrain and in the atmosphere.
To accomplish this, we placed about a dozen strobe lights under the model, shooting up through the openings. We smoked the stage to a level pre-determined by tests and shot multiple passes which gave us the interactive element. Then we placed custom fitted rear projection screen panels in each opening, rear projected images of lightning bolts and shot those passes, which gave us our "source ".
The next section of V'ger is a quieter, planes-like area. Parts of it appeared to be solid surface, punctuated by random, scattered clusters of light, like tiny villages on some vast plane, seen at night from high above. Other parts seemed to be pools of calmer, blue-green energy. From this point, we began to make out another energy source of some kind, evidenced by the emerald-green to white-hot glow just below the distant horizon.
Both the scattered clusters of light and the pools of blue-green energy were created by using fluorescent and neon tubes, without color correction, to edge and back light panels of clear plastic. The plastic panels were sand blasted, to diffuse the lighting, and they were also etched and painted with intricate patterns to create lots of small detail, to further enhance the sense that V'ger was very large.
The final element of light for the intricate V'ger composite was the eerie cloud cover, or sky element. We did this by scanning a 20 watt Argon (green) laser, in a conical shape, around the length of V'ger. Then by injecting controlled amounts of smoke into the wall of the cone formed by the laser, we created bright green cumulus-looking clouds. With multiple photographic passes, the cloud cover was built up to the point where it looked quite good.
So, all in all, there were seven major lighting levels or elements in the photography of V'ger. The Propulsion Section, Surface, Fiber Optics Lighting, First Cavernous Openings, Second Cavernous Openings, Plains Area, and Laser Clouds. Three of these elements (both sets of Cavernous Openings and the Laser Clouds), required multiple passes to build up the effect.
When it was all said and done, some of the V'ger shots in the movie are ten-pass, in-camera composites. Thus, light levels had to be measured precisely, to 1/10 stop increments in some cases. This we could easily do, because of the then new digital autospot meter. The problem, though, was blown takes because of "glitches" in a stepping motor program or a shutter. More than once we had to start a shot over again because of those types of problems. But it was deemed "worth the effort" because of the tight schedule, the lack of sufficient optical printer time for all the shots that had to be done and because when it worked, it worked very, very well.
Copyright 1999 Charles L. Barbee