Star Trek Remastered and the subtle art of CGI
|FEATURES - TV|
Celebrating the fact that Kirk still shoots first...
Back in 2006 when Paramount wanted to re-issue the original Star Trek for the new generation of high definition TVs, they faced a tricky dilemma. Should they put out the series that millions of fans had grown to love in all its original glory, or should they risk going all ‘George Lucas’ on it? Hard-core Trekkies may remember that The Motion Picture received a similar treatment (and when I say ‘hard-core’ I mean the only group of people who would be willing to sit through “The Slow-Motion Picture” twice in one lifetime), and of course, we all remember the Star Wars Special Editions and Blade Runner make-overs. Their success has led us to now expect the old cheesy special effects to have been replaced by new computer generated ones every time an old series or movie is re-released.
But there were still many doubters, both within the Star Trek family and outside, who were terrified that revising such a truly iconic series in a similar way could destroy it forever. In the minds of many of the fans, Star Trek was never about snazzy visuals; it was about stories and characters. The sparsely used VFX and blurry-but-colourful planets matched with the balsa-wood sets and polystyrene rocks, all of which had never stood in the way of the series’ success over the decades.
As with all corporate decisions though, everything came down to money, and it certainly made financial sense with the opportunity to give the Original Series another lease of life on TV and on the then-new HD-DVD format. (Initially the Remastered season 1 was released on the now abandoned HD disk format with the staggering price tag of £100). This in turn could generate more interest in the franchise and bring in a whole new fan base and with the new movie imminent, Paramount realised that a lot of these new fans might want to come back to ‘meet the parents’ and see the original Spock and Kirk when they were still sex symbols. So this was a situation that had all the makings of a complete disaster. There was no way the Original Star Trek could escape some kind of technical tinkering, and - based on previous attempts - there was every reason to fear the worst. Fortunately the man who was put in charge of the ‘remastering’ project right from the start was the very excellent Mike Okuda, who asked a very important question: not of “what should we do?”, but “how much should we do?”
This has to be the more crucial question, yet it’s the one so rarely asked when the studios are preparing to inject their old favourites with CGI Botox. In the case of the Star Wars facelift, George Lucas altered the older films by using the latest technology at his disposal with the intention of making them look consistent with the new trilogy. But if Paramount followed this model and replaced the old effects with ones the same as the new movie, it would have surely have been going too far.
"Douglas Adams knew that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would work better on radio than on television, simply because radio allowed him to write a scene with 1 million robots singing a song or the Earth exploding"
Okuda has worked on almost every Trek show from the 5th movie in the mid-80s, so visually he understands the franchise better than anyone: “Rather than trying to make something which looked ‘state of the art’, we’re trying to build upon the style of the 1960s.” So the guide became ‘What would they have done back in the 60s if they could have?’ At first glance, the most obvious difference is the newly rendered Enterprise, which replaces all of the model shots used in the Original Series. Every one of the fly-bys has been replaced and because the ‘models’ are CGI, the dynamic camera movements can show the ship from different angles and with specially rendered scenes for each episode rather than repeating the same generic stock footage like in the old days.
Other more subtle effects have also been added, including redone matte backgrounds of planets which now feature a little more movement and seem a bit more realistic, but without gushing over into Lucas’ “Tatooine” sequence. Most of the time though, the new effects aren’t even noticeable unless you already know about them. The blink in the Gorn’s eye and the replaced cityscape in ‘Arena’ really are so subtle you could swear they were in the original episode all along.
The image quality is also stunning and surpasses even the previous Digital remastering for the first DVD releases about 10 years ago. The production team actually resampled the original film stock and used advanced techniques to remove scratches and dirt. The high-definition rendering now shows up frayed edges on costumes and zippers on Alien suits and the increased contrast brings out the kind of colours that seem to have only ever existed in the 1960s. Star Trek Remastered is something totally unique. Could this be the first time anybody has used CGI with restraint? With each new advance in computer visual effects film producers and directors feel that ‘it has to be used’. It becomes part of the sales pitch, but it’s like telling an artist she has to use EVERY colour in the paint-box!
Could it be that, when it comes to special effects, less is more? As I heard Roger Ebert saying in an old Nightline review, “All movies are special effects - movies are not real”. Of course we all know this, and it sounds obvious but, if it’s properly done, we willingly suspend our disbelief. But the more special effects that are thrown at us, the harder it is to suspend this disbelief. This is certainly true with radio - where the pictures are always better. Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, knew that the series would work better on radio than on television, simply because radio allowed him to write a scene with 1 million robots singing a song or the Earth exploding, while on screen you actually had to show it. The same is true of books, surely the most basic story-telling device of all.
Comparing the original Star Trek now to modern TV shows, the sets and design seem incredibly sparse, like a performance of minimalist Japanese theatre. This wasn’t the result of any great artistic decision so much as a necessity of having almost no budget. They constantly had to re-use sets and this forced them to be inventive. The distinctive coloured lighting was simply a way of making the same set look like a different room or planet, but the final effect was to subtly create mood and concentrate your mind on the dialogue and characters.
As we see films like Avatar and Tron: Legacy with virtual actors and more and more damn 3D, could we be approaching a sort of event horizon, not of what can be done with effects, but of the limits of us poor over-stimulated humans trying to absorb it all into our brains? They say that the test of a good movie score is that you don’t notice it’s there; could the Remastered Star Trek be the final proof that the same is also true of special effects?
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