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Immersed in Movies: VFX Retrofitting for Abrams’ Hybrid Vision of Old and New in ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’

Immersed in Movies: VFX Retrofitting for Abrams' Hybrid Vision of Old and New in 'Star Trek Into Darkness'

Like “Skyfall,” “Star Trek Into Darkness” is a hybrid of the old and the new in completing its rite of passage reboot. Except that J.J. Abrams has the advantage of time travel, which he introduced in the first movie, for creating a parallel universe that allows him to break the rules of the beloved sci-fi franchise for the 21st century while still honoring its iconic spirit.

This hybrid vision rippled throughout the entire “Into Darkness” production, including VFX. Industrial Light & Magic was back on board, building on the foundation that it began in Abrams’ first “Star Trek,” with a harder and more believable space movie. But with half the movie shot in IMAX for the thrilling action sequences and the introduction of 3-D, the VFX obviously had to be grander and more immersive. The filmmakers got to go deeper into the tricked out Enterprise so that we could experience more with the ship’s crew while making the transporter and Warp Speed effects more dynamic; and the space battles, explosions, and planetary destruction were bigger and more epic.

But it began with the architectural design of futuristic London and San Francisco, which was a sleeker and more efficient retrofitting. The idea was to make these cities look advanced yet still familiar. There’s softer metal and higher vertical structures, but a warmth to the appearance.

“There’s the comfort of having established the world but wanting to take it further and expand it,” underscores Roger Guyett, the production VFX supervisor for ILM, who worked on the previous movie. “We built the architectural worlds that define those cities [in CG]. The ‘Star Trek’ universe has a level of accessibility and optimism. Landmarks such as Big Ben and St Paul’s Cathedral and The Golden Gate Bridge will still be there but modified. There are more flying vehicles in San Francisco but we still kept some trams. We try and shoot on location as much as we can within the range of our process but there’s a lot of augmentation and futurization. There’s functionality as well. At the same time, it’s a very human world, which is what J.J. wanted.”

With so much more shot with IMAX cameras, they had to think in terms of the format’s composition, focusing action in the center of the frame with greater head room. ILM shot tests and learned about basic framing rules. “The cameras are bigger and it’s hard to move them around,” Guyett continues. “At the same time, you want to be more restrained in motion to avoid strain. It’s a job that requires looking at absolutely every detail on the most microscopic scale, and there’s no cheating in 3-D.”

However, there were some low-tech choices, such as shooting the opening Bond-style chase on the red planet Nibiru on a small Marina del Rey set with CG enhancement rather than doing it all virtually. It’s another testament to Abrams’ embrace of the old and the new in his staging of the jungle action (which looks like a cross between “War of the Worlds” with the red foliage and “Apocalypse Now” with the white faced tribesmen). Even so, ILM was able to use simulation for the jungle with built in calculations to add motion to the trees to help them look real.

But the tense moment inside the erupting volcano, with Zachary Quinto’s Spock willing to sacrifice himself to save the planet, featured ILM’s latest advancement in simulation. “To make the shots possible, we constructed a small patch of rock for Quinto to stand on while the surrounding areas were layered and mapped with pools of magma,” Guyett explains. “The lava contains a lot more level of sophistication in the way it deals with viscosity changes in temperature. And when lava cools down, it forms a crust. We built all this information into the simulation. And then we rendered hundreds of elements that included smoke and debris and embers that went into such a visceral texture.”

Meanwhile, ILM was able to leverage the water technology it developed for “Battleship” in pulling the Enterprise more believably out of the water. The change in rendering pipeline, using the Arnold ray tracing system, provides a more scientifically correct and photoreal way of bouncing light. “You don’t have to cheat the bouncing with simulation as we did in the previous movie,” adds Guyett.

Again, it’s all about Abrams trying to squeeze every ounce of humanity into the shot to make “Into Darkness” more relatable.

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