Michael and Denise Okuda and Star Trek go hand in hand. Mike and Denise are long married to each other -- and to the franchise. They’ve worked as graphic artists, technical and/or video supervisors/consultants and in other capacities on The Next Generation, the TNG features, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise, as well as on various video games and Star Trek Online; he also worked on Star Trek IV, V and VI. She co-authored The Star Trek Encyclopedia with Mike (and Debbie Mirek) and he co-authored the TNG Technical Manual and the Star Trek Chronology. They helped Christie’s organize their blockbuster Star Trek auction a few years back and, more recently, served as visual effects producers on the TOS Blu-ray set. Now they’re back in the Blu-ray game again, helping CBS Home Entertainment remaster TNG in HD for its long-awaited release on Blu-ray. First up, on January 3, will be Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Next Level, a sampler disc that will include the feature-length version of the pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint,” as well as the episodes “Sins of the Father” and “The Inner Light.” StarTrek.com recently caught up with the Okudas for a joint interview in which they talked about The Next Level, looked back at their long history with Star Trek, and filled us in on their other current projects. Below is part one of the conversation, and visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow to read part two.
You both worked on the TOS Blu-ray sets. How satisfied were you with how those turned out and how different a mission did you have on those Blu-rays editions versus what you’re doing for the TNG editions?
Denise: We were pleased. Given the parameters of the project, which were grueling, everyone did an amazing job. Everybody killed themselves. I don’t think folks out in the world have any idea what a miracle it was that that project got done on schedule. So we were really happy.
Mike: It was really fun to revisit TOS. Our marching orders on that were a little bit different on that. We got to play with the effects a little bit. We got to tweak them here and there. We got to add some matte paintings and freshen up those episodes a little bit. And that was a huge amount of fun.
The TOS Blu-rays came out in 2009. Between then and now, leading to the TNG Blu-rays, in what ways has the technology available evolved and advanced?
Mike: The technology has evolved, but more significantly, the marching orders are different this time. This time, our mission is to preserve the original as much as possible. For TOS, the visual effects material, the actual film elements, did not hold up to the transfer very well. They were leading-edge optical effects at the time, showing the spaceships and things. When you show them in standard definition, they look great. When you show them in high-def, not quite so much. So CBS wanted to just give it a little bit of a polish. Here, the original visual effects elements are available, for the most part. Most of the ships were shot on film and most of the pieces actually still exist. So it’s possible to rebuild the visual effects from the original components.
What exactly was your starting point on TNG?
Mike: Fortunately, Paramount did a fantastic job of archiving the material. So, when our friends from CBS actually went through the archives, went through the reels, they found virtually everything they were looking for. The scanning technology has certainly improved since 1987. They’re now scanning at full HD. And there’s a certain amount of dirt and scratch removal, which is pretty normal for the industry. Once that’s done, the pictures look gorgeous.
Denise: It’s really amazing, the quality. Really early on in the project, we were still working on “Farpoint,” and LeVar Burton and Marina Sirtis came in to visit. They sat down and looked at the difference, and they were blown away. So that was lots of fun. But we’re just ecstatic about the whole thing.
What are your jobs on this project?
Mike: We start it by examining, very closely, the actual original version of the episode, doing breakdowns, figuring out which shots were visual effects, that kind of thing. And then, on a weekly basis, we meet with our friends from CBS Digital. There are a lot of times when the original intent of the show may not be all that clear. So we want to make them sure that they know, “This is the narrative. This is the story point.”
Denise: We start watching the episodes, we do a breakdown and the artists are assigned different shots. We go in and we look at the footage and compare it. If things need to be tweaked and if we have time, they go back and they tweak them. Also, there may be questions about the episode, the context of the episode, because each individual artist, although they’ve seen the episode, they’re concentrating just on their piece. So we’re there to give an overall vision of that as well.
How helpful was it that both of you were actually there at the very beginning, back when these TNG episodes were shot on the stage?
Mike: In some ways, very helpful, because there are times when they can say, “Oh, what was this?” I can say, “Oddly enough, we were there when that was shot.” On the other hand, a lot of it is simply that we’re now trying to be the eyes and the ears of the original visual effects supervisors, the original producers, the original directors, the original cinematographers, and we’re simply trying to do whatever we can to preserve what they originally wanted to do.
What has it been like for the two of you to sit there and watch work you did 25 years ago, in essence, come back to life – both in little pieces and as entire episodes?
Mike: It’s absolutely amazing. As proud as we are to have been associated with the Star Trek productions, it’s done, you’re proud of it, you’ve worked so very hard on it… and then you move on. Now, to come back and go, “Oh, wow,” it’s amazing. Part of you goes, “Oh, I wish we could have done this” or “Wow, that holds up really well” or “That’s better-looking than I remember it being” or “That’s really elegant.” Whenever we review an episode, we find ourselves getting sucked into it again.
Denise: And tripping down Memory Lane as well. Memories are buried and then you see something, and it triggers a story or feeling or “I remember that day. This was going on.” So, for us personally, that’s a lot of fun. But, again, for us, working on Star Trek has been an amazing thing in our lives. We keep thinking, “Oh, this is the last Star Trek project we’re going to work on,” and yet things keep coming up, for which we are grateful, because working on Star Trek is a lot of fun.
Which episodes were you most eager to revisit?
Mike: You know, it’s a cliche, but every episode is special in its own way. “Farpoint” was the first. It was such a mountain to climb. We were breaking such new ground. It was the first we did everything: the first control panel, the first time you see the ship, the first time you’re going to be transported, the first time you’re on a new planet. It was all those things. To see that and bring it back again, it’s a delight to say, “Oh, yeah, that pretty much held up” or, “You might want to tweak this or that.” On the sampler disk we also have “Sins of the Father” and “The Inner Light.” To go through those again, it was just amazing to see and remember the dramatic depth and breadth and power that Star Trek: The Next Generation developed.
Denise: And, personally, I think “The Inner Light” is such a powerful episode. It crosses lines. It crosses lines between fans of Star Trek and then just the general public, because you can take somebody who’s never seen TNG and sit them down and have them watch that episode, and you get sucked in. It’s just such a beautifully written episode that I couldn’t wait for them to do that. And, fortunately, it’s one of the first we got to do.
Check back tomorrow for part two of our exclusive StarTrek.com interview with Michael and Denise Okuda. Star Trek: The Next Generation -- The Next Level will be released by CBS Home Entertainment on January 31. Click HERE to pre-order.