Star Trek Guide

To Boldly Go: An Interview with the Visual Effects Team of Star Trek: Picard

Alec Frazier chats with the VFX team behind Star Trek: Picard…

Star Trek: Picard on CBS All Access is a long-awaited fan fantasy come true. Amongst the most stunning aspects of the show are the superb and widely varied visual effects. We sat down with Tim LeDoux, a co-founder of Crafty Apes who was a VFX Supervisor on Picard, and Ante Dekovic, another VFX Supervisor who works through CBS and chatted with them about the excellent visual effects on this wonderful show…

On June 4th this year at NavyCon, United States Navy brass revealed that it is actually a quite smart idea to have taskforces consisting completely of the same kind of ship. However, Starfleet has always been known for a diverse ship compliment; why was the choice made to have the final Federation fleet consist of the same exact class? We are aware that initially, three or four classes of ships were prepared for the show. What happened? We are very well aware that homogenous fleets are not a new thing to Star Trek; for example, the same thing often happened in the Dominion War in Deep Space 9.

Ante: It’s funny as this is probably the one thing fans keep arguing about. Even after a US Naval Academy Professor explains, why it is possible, people still don’t want to accept it. We definitively had variations but it was a fleet of similar ships. I probably have people reach out on social media weekly about it and some people have the wildest theories. All I can say is that we all love Star Trek and are fans ourselves. Everybody worked really hard to do the best we can to honor Picard and Star Trek, unfortunately you can’t make everybody happy.

What effects were done to either age or de-age Picard throughout the season? Sometimes his age was showing in the way he speaks and looks. Was that intentional? Were any particular facts done when he was put into his new body at the season’s end?

Ante: Patrick doesn’t age, so for the most part it was all make up. There was only one scene where we had to apply a slight blur filter to his face, but to be honest I don’t even think it shows unless you look really close. At the end when he was put in the new body, story wise, he was not supposed to look and feel any different, so we did not have to enhance anything.

Can you also explain the effects that went into the appearance of Data? It looks like the de-aging for Data evolved between the first trailers and the final episodes. We are curious to hear more about your process.

Ante: It was a combination between Makeup FX and VFX. We met with Brent, James MacKinnon and his Makeup FX team early on to see what they can achieve and what we would have to take over. It was important that anything done practically wouldn’t prevent Brent to give his Data performance. So no restrictions to his face movement. We then talked to Crafty Apes, who did something similar for us on a different show. We send them the test footage, we shot with Brent, they did some digital tests, we showed them to our EP’s and Brent and after few versions, once everybody was happy with the result we rolled it into the show.

Tim: At Crafty Apes we wanted to use a light touch in combination with makeup FX whenever possible. From the trailers to the final episodes visual effects played a slightly stronger hand to help bring back some of his original look including refining his hairline, eye shape, and color. We refer to this type of work as being 2.5D as we never go so far as to create a purely digitally modeled Data.

Were there any significant updates to how you portrayed the Borg Cube over its last appearance in Star Trek: Voyager?

Ante: I think the biggest update was that the Borg cube was entirely done in CG and not a miniature model. That gave us the flexibility to keep refining the 3d asset all the way till the end and focus on the certain areas more. One of our vendors worked 8 months on the model and even once handed off to other vendors they had to keep refining it according to their needs.

About how much of the set was practical and how much was digitally extended? Was it difficult to add digital scenes without making it obvious, such as at the vineyard or the android settlement?

Ante: Picard study interior as well as the part of the Borg cube and the La Sirena were practical sets with blue screen windows. Al the vineyard exterior scenes were shot on location. We also visited several other locations around L.A. The 2 sets that most people don’t know are digital are Commander Riker and Commander Oh’s bridge. They were entirely shot on Blue/green screen. We worked closely with Art department from the beginning to determine what they should build vs. what we should extend or build. Some were harder than others but overall we were fortunate to work with amazing vendors who did an incredible job hiding the transition.

Back in the days when practical effects were more common, model makers and set designers would hide pop culture references in plain sight. Do you folks still pull pranks like that in your own fashion, and would it be possible to make a blue police call box appear and disappear in the background somewhere in season two of Picard, just to freak people out? (We may just be kidding about the last part…!)

Ante: Haha, I think that would cause people to freak out. We all are huge Star Trek fans, especially TNG, so Picard is the perfect show to add a lot of Easter eggs and references to the ST Universe. I love reading fan theories about the one or the other thing and how creative the fans get. Also always blown away when some fans get it right. Their knowledge about Star Trek is so fascinating.

How did you manage camera tracking during the shots with projected green screens, such as the ship’s controls and all of the different computer displays?

Ante: Our VFX vendors and actors did an amazing job, combining the two. Especially with the La Sirena, once the cast got used to it, we didn’t have to do much about it on set. The most challenging was the scene in the final episode when Picard flies the la Sirena, there is so much going on the viewscreen and the graphics that it was hard to keep track. Patrick did an incredible job, which just shows even more what an amazing actor he is.

Tim: At Crafty Apes we used multiple 3D tracking softwares such as Syntheyes, 3D Equalizer, and Mocha. Still many shots had to be hand tracked and positioned to get the final result when tracking markers or  feature data was minimal. This happens often on close up or out of focus shots.

The Enterprise-D was re-created for a dream sequence in the first episode. Did you “build” it from scratch or did you have access to existing material resources? In addition, there were actually two physical models of the Enterprise-D used in The Next Generation. Which one did you go with?

Ante: We actually had a 3D model that our vendor DNEG revised so we didn’t have to start from scratch. We made sure to show it to John Eves for the approval as it was important that it looks authentic.

Have you been working with various merchandisers to build an expanded universe? For example, working with Eaglemoss to create models as part of their Starship line, and working with the publishing division on their fantastic in-universe reference books?

Ante: All the merchandise has been run by John Van Citters. We provide the 3D assets and him and his team take it from there. It is always exciting seeing the final physical Eaglemoss model based on the 3D asset.

The Star Trek universe is built upon inclusion and diversity. Arguably the last frontier is inclusion of individuals with disabilities. There are many, many disabled individuals looking for a break into show business, yet they often find themselves excluded. What advice would you give an individual with disabilities who is looking into getting into the visual effects business?

Ante: Basically if you are interested in VFX, friendly and easy going send us your resume.

Tim: Creating VFX requires a wide range of skill sets from the purely technical to the artistic, there is really something for everybody. Individuals looking to get into the industry need only enjoy the craft and problem solving, through this they will become engrossed in the process. With persistence opportunities will come. I recommend working on your own shots, or better yet a friend’s film to see if it is truly something you like to do.

Many thanks to Tim LeDoux, Crafty Apes, Ante Dekovic, and CBS All Access for this thoughtful interview.

Alec Frazier