Doug Drexler: From Makeup To Design - Part II
In the second half of our interview with Doug Drexler, Star Trek’s Jack of All Trades recounts his experiences on TNG, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise. He also discusses his upcoming project, Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, as well his appearance in, of all things, a Western.
You spent so much time on Trek that there’s no way to get into fine detail about your experiences on each show. So, in broad strokes, what did you enjoy most about your time on TNG, DS9, the TNG features, Voyager and Enterprise?
Drexler: What runs through all of them are the friends you make. These people are still my friends, and I still work with many of them, too.
The thing that stands out for me is that TNG was a thoroughbred. Gene Roddenberry and Bob Justman were still in the mix. To be working on a show that Gene Roddenberry was on, that was a thrill. It was a dream come true. Then there was that cast. I’ve been in this business for 32 years, and I’ve never seen anything like the cast on TNG. You read about shows where they say it’s a big family and then you find out they really hated each other. Not on TNG. It was a genuine family and everyone had a ball. It was sheer fun, no matter how late you worked. Brent Spiner and Jonathan Frakes, the guys were wacky and totally loony. They didn’t take anything seriously until the camera was rolling. Honestly, I don’t think I ever saw a normal rehearsal. Every rehearsal had somebody trying to crack somebody else up. But once they called action, they were right on the money. If I could go back to a time, it would probably be to that show.
Drexler: DS9 was really a super-important show for me. It was the show where I made a transition from my first career and realized that Hollywood was my oyster. Anything I wanted to do, I could do if I put my mind to it. DS9 showed me that. But the most important thing that came out of Deep Space Nine was my friendship with Mike and Denise Okuda. Mike took a chance on me. He’d seen my drawings and stuff like that, but I’d never touched a computer before. He convinced Herman (Zimmerman) to let this makeup guy come in and work in the art department. I owe him much for that, but the friendship that we have, it’s something you can’t put any price on. So, that was my first foray into art direction. I went out the day Mike gave me the word and bought a computer. I had no idea how to use it. I had two weeks to get up to speed. I did all the illustrations for Mike and Denise, and the Star Trek Encyclopedia. I became the king of the starship cutaways. I think about it now and it’s still exciting to me.
You were on Voyager as well, but not in the art department…
Drexler: DS9 and Voyager overlapped. So, sometimes Richard James, the production designer, would bring me in during the design phase of the Voyager. I influenced the look of the ship, did the cutaways, and did some graphics. Then, by the time DS9 ended, I’d gotten to know the visual effects guys really well. So, about a year before DS9 ended I was thinking about what I was going to do (next). I knew that the visual effects department was using Lightwave, a CG program. Mike actually had a copy of Lightwave in his office for a couple of years, but he was so busy he never got to it. I'd look at that box every day and say, “Wow, this is really cool.” Finally, I said, “Hey Mike, you mind if I take this home?” He said, “Sure, help yourself.” So I took it home and ended up using it in the art department that last year of DS9. Guys like Gary Hutzel would come in -- we used to build physical models out of junk when they’d run out of budget -- and he saw me working with Lightwave. I saw the light bulb go off over his head. “Hey, how would you like to build a ship for me?” That’s how the visual effects thing kicked off, and when DS9 ended, I slid up to Foundation Imaging and worked in the Voyager CG department. The visual effects thing has been going ever since then.
Particularly with Hutzel…
Drexler: Exactly. When Enterprise ended, I was thinking, “Man, I was on Star Trek shows for 17 years! This could be the end of it! I’ll never work again! Who gets a streak of luck like that?” But when I get home, there’s a message from Gary on the answering machine. Lightning! Right away I knew he was going to ask me to come to Battlestar Galactica. I called him and he said, “I heard about Enterprise.” I said, “Yeah…” He said, “You know, Doug, every cloud has a silver lining.” And that was it, I was on the show. It was a fantastic experience. We had (former Trek writer-producer) Ron Moore there, and he has always been a cool, smart, creative guy. The latest Battlestar Galactica was a descendant of Star Trek, particularly TNG and DS9. A lot of us ended up there. The knowledge that we gained from Star Trek went into Galactica. And it affected the stories as well, because the stories Ron wanted to tell on TNG, that he really couldn’t because people get along in Starfleet, he could tell on BSG. Ron wanted to have people at each other’s throats, and that’s what he did. But Star Trek and BSG, they’re very, very related. There’s almost a distinct lineage from the golden age of Star Trek television to Battlestar Galactica.
You actually just hopped from Voyager to Battlestar Galactica. What about Enterprise?
Drexler: Oh man, heaven! Herman wanted me to come back as an illustrator this time. To go through that experience of designing the ship and working with the producers... Rick Berman is very, very involved. He guides where you’re going. Basically you’re acting as a lens to try to focus what he wants. Of course, you’re inserting yourself in there as well. That's the name of the game. It's all about the details. When I worked out the NX, if you look at that ship, every square inch, there’s nothing frivolous on it. It’s all based on Star Trek lore. Every little piece is something we’ve established on all of the shows, and (to do that) it takes someone who’s been on all the shows and knows all the shows intimately. Every panel has a purpose. Everything comes apart a certain way. We know where everything is, every airlock.
Doug, you’ve been talking about Trek this whole time pretty much in the presence tense. “Gene Roddenberry is… Robert Justman is… Rick Berman is… Every panel has…” Plus, you’re still involved doing Trek novel covers and the calendars and…
Drexler: It’s never in the past for me. I know, I speak about Gene and Bob that way. Star Trek is still very, very much a part of me every day. It’s not like it’s ever over.
Your current project is the pilot Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome. How did that go, and in what ways, technologically speaking, does it push the envelope?
Drexler: It's huge. I worked with Gary Hutzel, who once again is our visual effects supervisor. He is more fun than a barrel of monkeys. We had a blast. In one very important way it was different from anything else I’ve ever worked on. The entire show was green screen. There were no sets. This happened because of the shape of the economy. Building sets for a television show like TNG or the last Battlestar Galactica is just prohibitively expensive. No one wants to take that chance. Besides, the way the networks have been doing business lately, it’s kind of bizarre. They’ll cancel a show after one episode. If a show doesn’t perform right out of the gate, they cancel it. In the day when you thought a show would be kept on the air for a year, you might take a chance because you think it will develop an audience over time. With the current network mindset, there’s no chance of building an audience, when after one or two episodes, it's canceled. It’s just impossible. So, they want make a show as inexpensively as possible, so if it’s canceled after one or two episodes, no one gets their head chopped off.
That certainly upped the ante on Blood and Chrome and put a lot more responsibility on you…
Drexler: Oh, yeah. And we love it. That's where we live. The way things used to be, on DS9, Enterprise or Voyager, we’d get a shot list, and we'd stick strictly to the shot list. You’d do your job and they’d plug the VFX sequences in. Now, on Blood and Chrome, with the visual effects department building practically the entire show, we naturally have broader responsibilities. We’re not just creating a plug-in visual effect... a ship flying from left to right. We take an active part telling the story. We’re art-directing the show, and building the sets. It's very fluid and adaptable. We’re lighting and framing the shots as well. Every scene the actors are in, the DP on stage is lighting, but once we get it, we create the atmosphere and the visual direction. That all falls to us. We’re practically producers, because we’re responsible for so much.
What’s next on the Blood and Chrome front?
Drexler: We’ll see whether or not it goes to series. We’re hoping it does, and we should know in February. Decisions are never made over the holidays.
What else are you working on at the moment?
Drexler: Right now, I’m working on a cool project, but I can’t say what it is. I think most people know what’s going on, but we’ll talk about it when the time is right. I’m waiting on Blood and Chrome. Until then? I don’t know. It’s kind of a nomadic life, this business. Actually, I just worked a few days playing a gunman in Ben Alpi's indie western, Cowboy Creed. Ben had seen me practicing western-style gun handling on my blog and invited me to be a part of his film. Who would say no to that?