I thought I'd share this with you guys. As I continue work on my book about the Star Trek films (visit jwbraun.com for details), I continue to cross paths with some interesting people.
Rick Sternbach is a space and science fiction artist who was senior illustrator for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek The Next Generation, Star Trek Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek Voyager. Over the course of his career, he developed hundreds of spaceships, props and set pieces. He has twice won the Hugo Award for best professional science fiction artist. Mr. Sternbach didn't want to discuss the Star Trek films he wasn't involved with, but he did answer my questions about the films he was.
Celedor: How did you become interested in illustration and design? And how did you gravitate towards science fiction?
Rick Sternbach: The art and illustration came early, as my father was an architect and exposed me to drawing as a very young kid. He also had an interest in mechanical things like cars, military hardware, airplanes, trains, and the like. That all rubbed off on me, and over time I gained a big appreciation for how those things were made and how they worked, along with a lot more general science and technology. I grew up in a time when there was nothing man-made in orbit, so I saw the entire evolution of high-altitude flight, like with the X-15, suborbital and orbital flights with Mercury, the Gemini and Apollo program that culminated with us landing on the moon, and now with the Shuttle and the International Space Station. Not to mention all of the planetary probes and rovers. We're still in a very exciting time, regardless of the roadmap difficulties that NASA seems to be experiencing. As all of the early activities were happening, there were science fiction books and movies, and I gobbled them up. It looked like we were really going to do what I saw on the big screen and in the printed words.
C: How did you become involved with Star Trek? Were you a fan of the original series (1966-1969)?
RS: I can't say that I was a fan of the original series in the usual sense; the stories were fun, the technology was cool and new for 1966, and I wondered if I might be able design things like the Enterprise. I was lucky enough to meet up with Gene Roddenberry at a showing of 'The Cage' at Yale University in Connecticut in 1974; by that point I was already a working SF and astronomical artist, so I brought some samples, since there had been at least preliminary plans to make a Star Trek film and I wondered about getting into the industry. We got to talking for a few hours after the screening, though it would be a few years until I would meet with the art department folks for the aborted [second Star Trek series] Phase II production in Los Angeles in 1977, and eventually got hired on for Star Trek: The Motion Picture early in 1978.
C: What was it like redesigning Star Trek for the big screen?
RS: The designs for the feature film grew out of the same sleek, slightly retro style of the first series, with nods to what was taking place in real space exploration, computer displays, material science, etc. There was an intermediate step that I was not a part of, which was the [aborted] second TV series set and prop design, though as soon as Paramount decided to upgrade Phase II into a full feature, a lot was reworked and improved, beginning with production designer Joe Jenning and transitioning to Harold Michelson, under whom I spent most of my time on the project. I learned a lot from both of them, and it would serve me well when TNG [Star Trek The Next Generation] came around.
C: I'm a fan of the first film (1979). I think it's a bit slow, and I understand why some people don't like it, but I think it has a beautiful story. What's your take on it?
RS: I thought the film was fine, especially the director's cut. This was the film that taught us how things worked at the studio (especially a noob like myself at the time), and how to fix crazy problems, how to get more efficient, and told us just how hard making a big-budget SF film can be. This isn't like a western or a cop drama; you can't rent most of the hardware or use stock walls. A lot of talented people put a lot of work into TMP [The Motion Picture], and sure, there were frustrating episodes with things like Robert Abel's effects work, but this was too cool a project not to see it through. Even with the difficult birthing process, I'm sure the studio saw that the franchise could succeed.
C: What was it like working on Star Trek V (1989) ten years later? (I imagine there was less deadline pressure than the television you were doing at the time.)
RS: By the time we did Star Trek V, I was already working on TNG, so the design tasks for the film weren't much different from what I had been doing. The deadlines weren't much different, because things on the movie still had to get drawn up, fabricated, painted, wired up, and put on the set in something akin to a TV schedule. That's just the way Paramount worked. Trek movies did not have the luxury of time afforded to some other features.
C: Star Trek: Generations (1994) is interesting to me because for the first and only time we got to see a Star Trek tv show go directly from the small screen to the big screen, with the same ship, costumes, and props. What did you think of it?
RS: Generations was fun to watch, and yes, it was nice to see the TNG crew and sets up on the big screen. I didn't have a lot to do on the film, since I was primarily attached to the television series, but I did contribute some astronomical art backgrounds for the Stellar Cartography set. Very nice to see the art blown up to fifty-something feet wide, and used as a stylistic model for some of the CGI animations.
C: What did you do for Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)?
RS: I changed gears slightly for Nemesis, since there wasn't any more Voyager being produced, and assisted with scenic art and some large prop design, like with the big bird of prey sculpture. The scenic art was actually very close to the work I did 24 years earlier on TMP, display screens and sign graphics.
C: Was working on the films different than working on the tv shows, or was it similiar?
RS: Work on the films and series was pretty much the same, inventing things that had never been thought of before, all part of a general creation process, and presenting them to both the hard-core fans and casual views. With any luck, both segments of the audience took away something to think about.
C: Can you share any interesting stories from your Trek days?
RS: Let's see, Jimmy Doohan told some wonderfully bawdy limericks between takes on TMP; before he was a true geek, Wil Wheaton gave one of our art department computers a virus, which we fixed, and forgave him; during filming of a tender scene in an Irish pub on the holodeck, Kate Mulgrew stopped and wondered aloud where the strange glug-glug noises were coming from a newly-filled water dispenser on stage.
C: What's your favorite Star Trek design?
RS: As far as general designs for the franchise go, I'd have to say that the NCC-1701 Refit [for Star Trek: The Motion Picture] was probably the best combination of technological plausibility Â¿in the future context Â¿and aesthetics. If limited to my own work, I'd say it's still a toss-up between Voyager and the Vor'Cha class Klingon Attack Cruiser. Both were fun projects for different reasons.
C: What's it like looking back at all your work on Star Trek?
RS: We've created something very cool that people can enjoy a long time from now, and that's very satisfying.