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A Closer Look At An Extra-Special TNG Blu-ray Extra

A Closer Look At An Extra-Special TNG Blu-ray Extra

Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season One will arrive on Blu-ray on July 24 in the US and, in addition to a masterful high-definition transfer of all the episodes, fans will want to dive into the galaxy of extras, including new interviews with cast and crew, archival footage, a gag reel, and a detailed examination of the exhaustive effort to upgrade each and every second of every first-season episode of TNG. We’ve checked out an early copy of Season One, and it’s awesome. Watching it, there’s an extra within an extra that’s, well, extra-special, and we thought we’d clue you into it right now, with the help of Mike and Denise Okuda, longtime Trek graphic artists, technical and/or video supervisors, and consultants for CBS Home Entertainment on the Season One project.

So, what’s the extra-special extra – or VAM (value-added material)? It starts with something you’ve probably seen a million times before: the TNG main-title sequence, specifically the shot of the Enterprise, glimpsed from behind, just as it’s about to warp out of view. You can see the Observation Lounge in the saucer and, inside, it looks as if people are moving. That bit, the “people” moving inside, is what we’re talking about. They’re not actors filmed and cut into the shot. They’re not digitally created figures, either. Nope, they’re pencil drawings, simple animations that sufficiently fooled the eye. reached out to the Okudas, who kindly filled us in how that shot was rendered, how the animated footage was found while seeking out all the archived film elements required to realize Season One, and how, 25 years later, it remains as effective as ever. And when you get your hands on Season One later this month, the extra in question pops up in the middle of Stardate Revisited: The Origins of Star Trek: The Next Generation (HD), a special feature on disc six.

The anecdote in the VAM about the little animation sequence is one of our favorites on the entire six discs of the TNG season-one Blu-ray set. Take us through the story. This goes back to when the show originally aired, right?

Mike Okuda: Yes, the tiny people in the Observation Lounge window were there from the very first episode, back in 1987. The actual animation was done by Wes Takahashi at Industrial Light and Magic. John Knoll (also at ILM) did an amazing job of re-photographing the animation, shrinking it down to the proper size to fit in the windows, and programming the camera move to match the motion of the Enterprise. This was so the image would travel with the Enterprise so it could appear to be actually inside the ship. He used a gizmo called a pin-registered motion-control animation stand, which was quite a technical wonder at the time. Even so, it was not an easy shot to do.

Denise Okuda: The genius of these guys is that they have so much experience that they knew exactly how much detail is necessary in order to create a realistic image on film. That animation looks pretty crude when you just look at it by itself. But when it was composited into the windows, it looks absolutely realistic in the final shot. They knew exactly what the shot needed to fool the eye. Just brilliant.

Was the inclusion of that footage an inside joke by (producer) Robert Justman, or was there a practical decision made to depict signs of life in the Observation Lounge for that main-title sequence?

Mike: Definitely not an inside joke. I’m not sure if this was Bob’s idea or Gene Roddenberry’s or someone at ILM, but this was clearly something done to give the viewer a real impression of scale for the ship. Even if you only sense those people subliminally, it really helps the feeling that this is a real starship.

Denise: Way too much work for a gag. I know that it was really important to Gene that the viewer get a sense of just how enormous his starship really was.

Mike: Remember that except for the very first shot of the first episode of The Original Series, there hadn’t been a shot where you could see people in a window from the outside of the ship. Well, maybe in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but the Enterprise-D was supposedly twice as long as that ship, and this was a great way to help convey that size. This was a really difficult shot to do, and it was a really smart idea to do it for a shot in the main title, which you’d see every week.

When this Blu-ray upgrade project started, did you and Doug Drexler, etc., all immediately think of that animated sequence?

Mike: Well, to tell you the truth, my first thought was to wonder if that original footage still existed. I was pretty pessimistic, because it’s been so many years. I figured that it had probably been lost after it was first composited into the ship shot in 1987.

Denise: We figured that we’d have to recreate that element, maybe with CGI people, or by filming real people in Starfleet uniforms. The problem is that it would have been hard to make it look just right, because there are just so many variables. I was afraid that it was going to look noticeably different. Fortunately, we were both wrong. Thank goodness for the amazing archive work done by our colleagues at Paramount.

How amazed were you that CBS folks found the actual footage, and how thrilled are you to let audiences see it so fully now?

Denise: We were sitting in a screening room with David Grant and Ryan Adams at CBS several months ago, reviewing all sorts of odd film bits. It was a lot of different early film tests and stuff that we were looking at for the documentaries and such. Lots of lighting tests, makeup tests, things like that.

Mike: Then, suddenly, the pencil animation came on screen. We all went, “Huh?” Then, a second later, we realized what they had found. We both got really excited and started talking very quickly. Obviously, the first thing that happened was that Craig Weiss and his team at CBS Digital were able to use it to rebuild that iconic shot at the end of the main title.

Denise: Once the Powers That Be at CBS found out about it, everyone got excited. This bit of film has never, never been seen, except by the visual effects team, back in 1987.  Now, you’ll be able to see it in the rebuilt title, as well as in the behind-the-scenes documentary in the Blu-ray set.

So, if we watch the HD-remastered episodes now, will that still be there if we slow it down and blow it up? Or has the sequence, out of necessity, been upgraded because the crude animation would be too noticeable if scrutinized?

Mike: It will absolutely be in the HD remastered episodes, in the main title in every episode. Check it out. It looks exactly the same as before, just better, clearer, and more realistic. If you didn’t know, you would never guess that it’s not film of real people. It’s a testament to the artistry and technical prowess of the TNG visual effects team.

Denise: In the original standard-definition version of the show, those people in the window were there, but they were small and fuzzy. A lot of fans never noticed they were there, even after watching the show for seven years. But high definition is such a revelation, now you notice it immediately and it gives you a powerful sense of how big the starship really is.

Since we've got you, from the school of “Now it can be told...,” what are some of the other bits, bobs and anecdotes in the Season One VAM that you're particularly excited for people to see starting July 24?

Mike: During preproduction, Herman (Zimmerman, production designer), Andy (Probert, illustrator) and Rick (Sternbach, illustrator) were under the gun to come up with the design for Geordi’s visor. They came up with a lot of great designs – I’d see them as they were sketching up in the art department – but for some reason, Gene just wasn’t seeing what he wanted. He probably didn’t really know what he wanted. This wasn’t my area, but I could see that the pressure was building as the weeks passed. Anyway, at the time I hadn’t gotten an apartment yet, so I was staying with my friends Jeff and Kiku Annon. One morning, I noticed that Kiku had an interesting hair clip on her dresser. She let me borrow it, and I showed it to Herman. Now, Herman, like Gene, loved to look at things from unconventional angles, and he immediately fell in love with the pattern of the “teeth” in the hair clip. He ran downstairs, had it painted silver, then sent it over to Gene’s office. Very shortly after, we had an approved design for Geordi’s visor. LeVar (Burton) even liked it because it was relatively easy to see through, unlike some of the earlier prototypes. A few days later, Gene sent me a bottle of champagne to say “thank you.” Sadly, Kiku’s hair clip was lost in the mix, but I was able to sneak her and Jeff onto the Star Trek sets to get a sneak peek at the new Enterprise.

A couple of the first-season episodes, “Where No One Has Gone Before” and “Datalore,” will play in movie theaters as part of a Season One event on July 23. What made those two episodes ideal for the big-screen, in terms of overall quality and the HD upgrades?

Mike: We love “Where No One Has Gone Before” because it embodies the spirit of exploration and the sense of wonder that is at the heart of Star Trek. Also, it has a lot of really spectacular visual effects. These were originally done by Rob Legato and Gary Hutzel. I love their mysterious edge-of-the-universe vistas, which were shot in Rob’s basement! These guys were creating feature-quality visual effects, every week. On a television budget! Even all these years later, it still looks amazing.

Denise: “Datalore” is such a pivotal episode for Data because it establishes his back story. It’s the first time we meet his evil twin, Lore, and we learned about Data’s creator, Dr. Soong. Brent (Spiner) had such a great time with both roles. I think he’s underrated as a comic actor. He brings such a delightful edge to the evil Lore.

Mike: One of the great things about working with the TNG production team, back in the day, is that everyone – everyone – put in 110% because they all knew this was something very special. It really was an amazing family to be part of. We used to lament that it was too bad that this was being shown on television, because we really, really wanted to see our work on the movie screen.

Denise: And now you get your wish!

Some footage from the Season Two Blu-ray set will be teased at the TNG movie event. How far along are you guys on seasons two and beyond?

Denise: Season Two is well underway, and several episodes are already in the can. But right now, we’re focused on the release of the season-one Blu-ray set. If you couldn’t tell, we’re really excited for the fans to finally see the result of everyone’s hard work. It’s been months and months of blood, sweat, and tears for everyone on the CBS Star Trek team.

Mike: Well, maybe not tears, but it’s amazing how many different people at different departments have a hand in this. CBS is literally rebuilding these episodes from scratch. Even though they’re doing it with painstaking respect for the originals, the finished product is like seeing these episodes for the very first time.

Denise: I highly recommend it!

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