Illustrator/Designer Rick Sternbach Recalls His Trek Days, Part 2

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Today at, we continue our conversation with Rick Sternbach, a long-time Star Trek illustrator, designer and technical consultant, not to mention co-author of several technical manuals. In part two of the interview, Sternbach muses about Okudagrams and working within the confines of “canon,” contemplates his role in the big Star Trek picture, and fills us in on what’s keeping him busy nowadays.

What would people be most surprised to learn you worked on, in terms of Star Trek?
Sternbach: I don’t think there’s a lot that would have surprised people, though there are probably some props and ships and set components that needed designing that simply became natural parts of the different episodes and films, and they don’t stand out like some of the major ones. I designed a lot of tote bags for Deep Space Nine, and various bottles and storage cases and little fiddly sensors and such.

Visitors to the sets of the various shows and films loved the Okudagrams, those little tags that were not fully visible on screen, but up close contained funny little sayings or observations. Did you write any of those? If so, which ones were you personally most amused to have come up with?
Sternbach: I contributed my share of normal technical controls and readouts, as well as a few well-placed in-jokes about various anime shows and science fiction movies. Undoubtedly, people will finally be able to catch high-definition glimpses of references to classics like Tonari no Totoro, Urusei Yatsura, Gall Force, and Macross. An entire robot probe launched from the Enterprise-D was modeled after the little helper-bot Nanmo from The Dirty Pair. It was a great way to have a little unobtrusive fun with the franchise, and give a tip o’ the hat to fans in other parts of the entertainment biz. As astronaut Wally Schirra said, “Levity is appropriate in a dangerous trade.”

People talk about canon all the time. You were there. You were one of the keepers of canon when it came to the technology and gadgets seen in the movies and on the shows. How hard did the writers try to adhere to canon? When/why were rules bent?
Sternbach: Well, yeah, I “kept canon” only in the sense of creating equipment that should work in certain ways or advising the writers on science and technology matters that made sense, whether present day or in the 24th century. We were pretty sure that the future science concepts in particular and numerical values would pass at least cursory inspection. Mike Okuda and I offered the writers our tech notes, and I suspect they did their best to keep all of that plus the drama straight in their heads, but we know that’s impossible. Errors creep into dialogue or character action, and then we move on. Visual effects violated a few rules, like with phasers shooting from the wrong places on the Enterprise-D, but you can probably chalk that up to miscommunication or guesswork during a tight schedule. I don’t think I was ever a slave to canon, though I did try to keep mistakes from happening during production. These days, I might offer the odd rationalization here and there to the fan forums for some perceived conflict, but I really try to tell them that Star Trek is what’s in your head and not just what’s up on the screen. Mentally play in the sandbox all you like; that’s how cool ideas are formed. I do it all the time.

How do you feel about the fact that so many of the props and ships, etc., you helped create/design for the assorted Trek shows and films are now selling for small fortunes in auctions?
Sternbach: I’m a little disappointed that much of the Star Trek universe has not ended up in the care of a major museum dedicated to film or even the subset of science fiction. However, I’m happy to see that major ships and props and set pieces have gone to good homes, as it were, to serious collectors who will protect them and maintain them. The auction bids have sometimes been astronomical, but I think that’s a secondary consideration.

These days, do people talk to you more about the shows and your work on them or about the books/tech manuals you co-wrote?
Sternbach: I think it’s about fifty-fifty. They’re two tightly linked parts of the overall creation of the franchise fiction, and they’re pretty similar, just different applications of the material. The original ideas, the invention and the detailing and the documenting are the truly interesting things to me.

At the end of the day, what would you like to think was your contribution to Star Trek as we know and love it?

Sternbach: I’d like to think that I gave the audiences some interesting, fun, plausible designs to think about, whether it be in the ships or prop hardware. I also hope that the tech manuals and notes to the writers made sense to people. Star Trek and real space exploration have practically grown up together over the last forty years, and there has been so much incredible science and technology that just begged to be worked in. I won’t take the blame for the perceived use of “technobabble” in Star Trek, but I will say that it’s only babble if it doesn’t make sense. What we wrote down made sense.

Aside from Star Trek, what were some of the shows and/or films you most enjoyed working on. We happen to be huge fans of The Last Starfighter.
Sternbach: The Last Starfighter was a ton of fun, working for the better part of a year with Ron Cobb. I learned a lot about creating art for 3-D digitizing, got to diagram a lot of spaceship moves for the CG animators, and painted a number of cylindrical projection maps for the planets. Prior to that, I think the most satisfying experience was working on the PBS mini-series COSMOS with Dr. Carl Sagan, almost a dozen of my astronomical art colleagues, and a number of visual effects facilities in Southern California. We created the universe in two and a half years, which is not a bad trick.

What are you working on these days?

Sternbach: I’ve recently finished up a year of work on a Star Trek project jointly produced by K. K. DeAgostini Japan and Midsummer Books U.K., which would have seen the creation of a large, very detailed, 28-inch-long model of the Enterprise-D, built over time with subscribers receiving a few hull parts and internal decks every week or so. Each issue of the subscription would have included blueprints and color pages related to missions, episodes, and technical briefings. The model project was cancelled, unfortunately, but some of the printed material - much of it brand new - may eventually see publication. I’m also creating the occasional digital astronomical landscape, and experiencing the familiar hurry-up-and-wait word on some future film and television projects.

To read part one of our interview with Rick Sternbach, click HERE.

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