The invitation came in a blizzard. A severe snowstorm had suffocated the East Coast, halted all public transit and, incidentally, closed Starlog’s Manhattan offices. Stranded home in New Jersey that January 1996 day, I edited magazine articles while watching the apocalyptic TV news coverage. Shortly, there was a siren call (via phone) beckoning me to another shore. Paramount Pictures was willing to fly me to the set of one of their films shooting in Australia—where it was currently "Summertime!"—as in Not Snowing. Could I be ready for that trek in a week?
Jet-lagged, I stayed in LA with Terry J. Erdmann (unit publicist of Star Trek V) and Paula M. Block (my primary Paramount Licensing liaison on our official Trek publications), my friends long before either got those Starfleet service jobs and had to work with me (poor devils!). They’ve also collaborated on several fine Trek reference books (including one of my all-time favorites, the Deep Space Nine Companion). My four-day LA stayover allowed me to dine with Starlog writers and pals as well as tour the Walt Disney Studios’ new Animation Building. More to the point, Erdmann and I headed to Paramount Studios for a Monday field trip.
That 1997 chiller was shooting interior scenes at Paramount; Erdmann’s future daughter-in-law was on its costume crew. Its unit publicist welcomed us in for a quick stop-by to greet Erdmann’s new relative as well as to watch Penelope Ann Miller hiding from a marauding monster in the museum. Accustomed while in Australia to answering the "Where are you from?" query with the simplistic "New York," that’s what I replied when Relic director Peter Hyams asked (instead of the more accurate "Pennsylvania but I live in New Jersey and work in New York"). But when NYC native Hyams further inquired, "East Side or West Side?" I had to admit to "an apartment in Joisey." I could feel his utter disdain. Ooops!
We also encountered people I hadn’t met before (though Starlog had interviewed them)—namely DS9 story editor-producer Robert Hewitt Wolfe, who scripted Next Gen’s "A Fistful of Datas" and wrote/co-wrote countless DS9 episodes ("Little Green Men," etc.). Years later, he served as the creative mastermind steering Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda (and long after that, The Dresden Files).
Hesitantly, we ventured upstairs into Westmore’s second floor Trek workshop alone (no makeup staffer on hand to supervise us). Here were walls covered with plastercast life masks, gleaming rubber latex visages of past creations and the master molds used to make more aliens. This was where magic really happened! Westmore’s Makeup Department—a regular work area graced by alien trophy heads—was far more haunting to me than The Relic’s intricate, made-up museum sets where just one movie monster lurked in the shadows.
Here and there throughout the sets, Okuda showed us where his "Okudagrams" were placed. As you know, these were intricately complex prop signs and iconic art he (and others) designed; their lettering remains illegible to the camera but they’re filled with hidden in-jokes to amuse anybody who gets up close. Okudagrams name TV crew members as Starfleet personnel, provide instructions in alien languages and make countless references to other fanboy-favorite genre sagas (like my beloved The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai). "No matter where you go, there you are."
The only things missing from our stop at Quark’s Bar were alien extras imbibing too much, the ever-present Morn (Cheers’ Norm in space) and Quark himself. With our tour now over (thanks again, Mike Okuda), we departed the surreality of those worlds of Star Trek and exited out from the Paramount soundstages into the California sunlight. And we ran right into Quark.
It may seem anti-climactic after that incredible, incident-heavy Monday at Paramount, but Erdmann and I still had a special FX-filled Away Mission scheduled for the next day. So, thanks to Curry’s invitation, we trekked to Image G, a small, independent facility not far from the Paramount lot, where Trek effects footage was often produced. There, for an hour, we watched Curry, visual FX supervisor Glenn Neufeld and team do some effects filming.
Now, I’ve been lucky enough to visit Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic thrice in my life (at three different ILM locations in 1987, 2001 and 2007), but I’ve never before (or since) actually got to watch special effects shoot anywhere. It’s, as you might expect, breathtaking—and also, for witnesses like me, less stressful. There’s no need for breathless silence (whereas on a live-action set a microphone might pick up stray talk or an inopportune sneeze from bystanders ) and no fear that an actor will keep mangling his lines or break a one-of-a-kind prop (I’ve been on hand for both; it isn’t pretty).
Curry, Neufeld and associates shot a background Mars plate to be used in Voyager’s "Lifesigns" and a Defiant approach to Deep Space Nine. That relatively immense space station "miniature," exhaustively detailed, was a truly impressive sight. It was a privilege to see an FX shoot (thanks again, Dan Curry) because, for one thing, filming this kind of footage with miniatures and models is, in 2015, (mostly) ancient history. The bulk of today’s special FX footage is computer-generated. Models are still sometimes built, I think, for scanning and planning purposes, but they’re not exactly state-of-the-art now. Filmmaking has moved on. And so must I.
And then to pause with Mike Okuda, Terry Erdmann and Thom Parham, there on the real Promenade of Deep Space Nine. That’s where we sat, while its Ferengi owner actually lurked nearby, just as if we were drinking Happy Hour away and celebrating further Starfleet service, one afternoon at Quark’s Bar.
David McDonnell, "the maitre’d of the science fiction universe," has dished up coverage of pop culture for more than three decades. Beginning his professional career in 1975 with the weekly "Media Report" news column in The Comic Buyers’ Guide, he joined Jim Steranko’s Mediascene Prevue in 1980. After 31 months as Starlog’s Managing Editor (beginning in October 1982), he became that pioneering SF magazine’s longtime Editor (1985-2009). He also served as Editor of its sister publications Comics Scene, Fangoria and Fantasy Worlds. At the same time, he edited numerous licensed movie one-shots (Star Trek and James Bond films, Aliens, Willow, etc.) and three ongoing official magazine series devoted to Trek TV sagas (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager). He apparently still holds this galaxy’s record for editing more magazine pieces about Star Trek in total than any other individual, human or alien.
© 2015 David McDonnell