Doug Drexler is just about Star Trek’s biggest cheerleader. He eats and breathes everything Trek, and has done so for ages, since he was a child. His passion for Trek crisscrossed with his professional expertise and led him to several Trek-centric jobs: He compiled the USS Enterprise Officer’s Manual, penned two TOS comic books, and served as a TNG makeup artist, as a DS9 scenic artist, a Voyager visual effects artist and an Enterprise senior illustrator. He worked on the TNG features, wrote and/or illustrated additional manuals and he’s rendered the cover art for several Trek novels. Additionally, Drexler still spearheads the annual Ships of the Line calendar. And, for StarTrek.com, he writes and provides video for our semi-regular blog feature called The Drex Files.
We’ve wanted to conduct an actual interview with Drexler for a long while, but he’s been busy for the past several months with a television pilot, Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome. Drexler at long last wrapped that project and found some time to talk with us – before heading off to play a cowboy in an indie film western! -- for an extensive two-part interview. Today, in part one, he talks about Ships of the Line and how he made first contact with Star Trek. And be sure to check back tomorrow for part two, in which Drexler recaps his experiences on each Trek series and updates us in on his current projects.
Let’s start with the 2012 Ships of the Line Calendar. It’s out. It’s available. What’s new and exciting about it?
Drexler: Well, you know, we turned it in so long ago. I’m mostly thinking about 2013 at this point, which we just finished up. I can tell you a little about that one because it’s interesting, what’s going on. Rizzoli is the new publisher. Pocket Books is not continuing on. I don’t know exactly the reason. All I know is that their licensing agreement with CBS came up again and it didn’t survive through that. So, Rizzoli has picked it up. Their publishing schedule is totally different from Pocket Books’. If it was Pocket, we would have until March to finish the image. But Rizzoli just got the license and there wasn’t enough time. Their thought, was, “Let’s do a Best of….” issue.
Now, frankly, when you’re making a transition like that it’s really important how you look when you come out the other side. You can’t look like a retread. So I talked to my buddies who work on the calendar and I said, “Look, they want to do a rerun thing. Personally, I’m not going to do that; I’m going to create new art for the rerun price, and you guys are free to do that as well if you want. I hope you will.” And everyone just jumped in. We actually got the calendar together in about three weeks. I think it’s one of the best-looking calendars yet. So, sometimes extra-cool stuff comes out of adversity. I’m real excited about it.
OK, let’s dig deep into the past. You loved TOS as a kid growing up in Manhattan. You even opened a store devoted to Trek, before becoming a makeup artist. How did you first hook up with TNG?
Drexler: It goes back to before TNG was on the air. I was working in New York as a makeup artist when the show was being developed. It had Roddenberry and Justman spearheading it. That was my dream. One day I said, “What the heck?”, and I called the switchboard at Paramount (in Los Angeles) and I said, “I’d like to speak to Robert H. Justman.” They said, “One moment,” and they put me through, just like that, and I had Bob Justman on the line. That’s the kind of guy Bob is, a wonderful, open fellow, with a keen sense of humor. If you read Whitfield's The Making of Star Trek, you've read Bob's memos. Hilarious! We hit it off, and I visited the set a couple of times while they were still building the TNG sets. That’s how I got to know Bob.
He’s the one who suggested bringing you on board…
Drexler: He thought there might be a way, but there turned out to be a lot of union issues. Eventually, I ended up on Dick Tracy, with Warren Beatty. That changed everything. Warren carries a lot of weight, and they practically brought union cards to our shop and presented them to us. We still had to take our tests, but all of a sudden we were in the West Coast union. I knew what I was going to do as soon as Dick Tracy was finished. I was going to beat feet over to Paramount. I’d met Mike Westmore a couple of times before that, and we liked one another. So I went over and practically begged them to hire me. Mike’s attitude was, “But, why? You just did this big picture and you could be doing features.” And I said, “No man... Star Trek. That’s it. This is where I want to be. This is the place, right here. So, please, please hire me.” And he did. That was at the very beginning of the third season.
How did you make the move from TNG to DS9?
Drexler: I went through season three, four and five of TNG. When DS9 happened, Mike asked me if I’d be one of his point people, to oversee (the makeup on) the new show. But I had gotten to know Mike Okuda in the art department, and we hit it off there. After spending three years on stage, I was so taken by the set design and graphics that I asked Mike (Okuda) if there was any way I could slip in there. So I jumped directly from makeup to the art department. I think the last TNG episode I worked on was “Time's Arrow, Part I.” I did the Mark Twain makeup. That episode was a two-parter. I was in the makeup department for part one and the art department for part two. When the new season started up Mike Westmore went to Herman Zimmerman and said, “Can we have Doug for the day, so that he can show the new makeup artist how to do the Twain?” So there was this one day when I worked in both departments. In the morning I was doing makeup on “Time's Arrow Part II,” and after that I walked across Star Trek Boulevard to the art dept. I put my makeup kit under my new desk, and that’s where it stayed for the seven years I was on DS9.
It went on from there. The beauty of Star Trek was that it was such a family that, if you really had the mind to, you could slide sideways into other departments. And I did just that. After working on graphics design with Mike (Okuda) on DS9, I slid sideways over to visual effects on Voyager, up at Foundation Imaging, for a couple of years. When Enterprise came along, Herman Zimmerman called me and said, “Why don’t you bring your CG knowledge back to the art department, and we’ll design the ship right here in three dimensions?” I think it may have been one of the first times ever that CG was used a design tool to that extent, where we literally built the ship and were able to look at it from any angle. We could do animations and send them over to Rick Berman. Up until then, Rick was only able to see sketches, and sketches can be deceiving. A 3-D model that you can run by the camera, well, you’re really seeing what it’s going to look like on screen. There’s no guesswork involved. Anyway, Herman made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, you know?
From a creative standpoint, how smoothly did each of those transitions go for you? How naturally does makeup bleed into FX and FX bleed into design?
Drexler: Very naturally. They really are connected. Sculpting will affect your drawing. It all goes hand-in-hand. They’d all work together. Of course, whenever I made a career change, I was sh--ting my pants, which is always a good sign. If you’re not nervous, you’re not taking a big-enough chance. So the fact that I was nervous, even though it’s not a comfortable feeling, I knew I was doing the right thing. I was wetting my pants when I shifted to the art department. I was wetting my pants when I went to visual effects. There’s always a learning curve where you make a jump like that... how to work with everyone, etc. There are new things you have to learn, like working with the mill and the guys who build the sets, stuff like that. But, really, it was a pretty transparent shift through all those departments.