Jason Zimmerman on the VFX of Star Trek Discovery & Strange New Worlds

 

Jason Zimmerman is the Visual Effects Supervisor of Star Trek Discovery and Strange New Worlds. What is remarkable about the last season of each of these Paramount+ shows is the range of different types of visual effects and different solutions Jason’s team has had to come up with: environments, characters, digital doubles, space battles, creature work and all of it in concert with the vast history of visual effects that is the world of Star Trek. Captain Michael Burnham and her Discovery missions take place in the 32nd century. Strange New World’s Captain Christopher Pike and the crew of the starship Enterprise are set in the 23rd century. This means one show has to look like nothing else and more futuristic than all other Trek, while the other needs to look fresh, but its visual effects have to be respectful of the era of Captain James T. Kirk and the canon of 2266–2269 with visual effects made in 1966.

“It’s always story-driven,” says Zimmerman. “And each show also has its own identity and its own set of sensibilities visually. And so all of those factors factor into how we approach things.” This translates into Discovery being a more visually complex, and “perhaps ambitious with its camera work and animation. Whereas Strange New World’s (SNW) is a little bit more rooted in the traditional The Original Series (TOS) timelines, and wanting to harken back to that show”. But SNW is anything but conservative, with this season having episodes with massive creature work and episodes where the cast is singing. Then there is that crossover episode with the cartoon characters from Star Trek: Below Decks.

Both shows this season used LED virtual production approaches. Both shows started around the same time, with some overlap. They both deployed large scale LED volumes to add prodcution value and depth to shots. “Everything is story-driven, so we look at the script holistically and see if there a place where we might use virtual production,” explains Zimmerman.  The teams both use the LED volumes as a giant fixed ‘matte painting’ and as a dynamic background changing dynamically by tracking the camera, depending on how close the objects on the screen are to the camera. Page count also influences the decision to use the LED volume in the script. “How much time you’re going to spend there really will dictate that,  because if you’re only there for a quarter of a page, a half a page, does it make sense to spend 3, 4, 5 months building this complex environment that you only see for five minutes, three minutes on stage or on screen?” Zimmerman points out, “Because if you’re just going to do something that’s a quarter page long, chances are you could probably do that more efficiently with green screen because you just don’t have to spend as much time going out and building the assets and bringing in Virtual Art Department (VAD) and all the other departments to get involved.”

When the crew shoot on the LED stage they aim to get final pixels in camera and not just use the walls for contact light and then roto the backgrounds later, as is done on some shows. This means that there is a very productive and close working relationship between the VFX and VAD teams. This happened in Discovery this season for the Breen ship. The story had many shots on the vast Breen ship over multiple episodes. “The Breen ship, I believe, is the largest asset we’ve ever built. It was about 10 kilometres of an actual digital environment that were built so we can travel through and also shoot practically in certain areas,” he recalls.  “It was a really massive ship both from the exterior but also from the interior. And it’s something that if you look at the details when you’re watching it on screen, there’s just so much depth, Digi doubles and ships – the detail is almost endless.”

Discovery also used it for the sand runner sequence earlier in the season. Unlike the Breen ship – which has no obvious significant directional light source, the sand runner sequence was much a tricky lighting condition, as it is outside in daylight, “Our DP (Director of Photography) did a phenomenal job of making it all make sense. You can lean a little into the fact that it’s an alien planet so that you can have an alien quality to the light, but it was broad daylight and we started with a real location that’s actually based on.”  Zimmerman sent a team to a desert in northeastern Brazil with sand dunes filled with water in between. “That became the template for the asset. Once that was surveyed, they brought it back and started to build it and layer in the different rock spires and the mountain that eventually exploded, causing the avalanche.” For the chase sequence, the actors were filmed on motion-controlled bucks in front of the LED screens, with a lot of additional lighting blanced in to get the daylight effect.

In Strange New World, the VFX team faced different challenges; a key plot this season involved the Gron. The Gorn were a ‘nasty’ warp-capable, bipedal reptilian species from the Beta Quadrant. The production had practical versions of gorn built, and those were available for close-ups. These could then be augmented with added eye blinks or drool.  “Credit goes to Legacy Effects for the design of the gorn,” comments Zimmerman.  The Academy Award-winning visual effects studio Legacy Effects was responsible for hatching the Gorn for principal photography using a clever synthesis of old-school puppetry, modern 3D fabrication, digital modelling, animatronics and a suited actor for practical effects.

Gorn the snarling, 7-foot-tall (2.1 meters) aliens in The finale episode: “Hegemony.

While there was a practical Gorn for other moments, such as the zero G sequences, the team relied on a CG solution, sometimes with a stunt actor doing choreography and fighting for eyelines and interactions.

The episode has a very deliberate homage to the Aliens franchise. “That was one of the first references that came up,” Zimmerman commented, referring to the script and their approach. “Because it was so successful, and it was done with nothing digital back in the day.  – So if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. And so we looked at that and went, that’s the template right there, and that’s where we started.”

In another time-jumping episode of Discovery, audiences were delighted to see Captain Michael Burnham fight herself. In Star Trek: Discovery season 5, episode 4, “Face the Strange,”  Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and her First Officer, Commander Rayner (Callum Keith Rennie), jump through the USS Discovery’s past and possible future. In the spirit of Trek episodes past, this ends up with Burnham fighting her younger self.

The sequence was done without motion control, but the sequence was a combination of all of the things a VFX artists could typically do in this type of scenarios: split screens, face replacement, body doubles etc. “There was a lot of creative directing and blocking that went into that,” Zimmerman recalls. “And it worked out pretty well…It was just sort of a really well-executed scene where the director knew what they wanted. We kept an eye on things and made sure it worked.” Zimmerman did not want to just do locks off and have simple two shots of them facing each other in profile. “But again, credit to the DPs because those are shots that need just the right lighting and you need to have a stand-in for eyeline etc. So much is just a lot of practical things you need to work out to make the sequence work.”

While Pixomondo handled the LED virtual production and some VFX, Ghost VFX Copenhagen was a major vendor. We use them on all the shows, and we have great; we’ve worked with them when I worked on Sleepy Hollow. So we have quite a good shorthand with them, and they know the aesthetic, ” says Zimmerman. Along with Storm VFX,  “They’re also very, very good and beautiful cg beautiful work”.  Crafty Apes, who had previously also done Star Trek Picard, and Cause and FX, who did the “Eternal Archives” environment featured in episode eight. They extended the physical location into an infinity architectural extension through a collaboration of 3D and 2D techniques.

The Eternal Archives from Ep8

To say Jason Zimmerman is experienced and influential in the history of Star Trek VFX is an understatement. Star Trek has been central to the evolution of digital visual effects for decades. The sheer volume of high-quality and varied work is remarkable. While it can vary between the shows, it is between 3,500 to 5,000 VFX shots per season. “I think I’m working on my 12th season of Star Trek, 12th to 13th plus Section 31. So it’s a lot of shots. It’s quite an undertaking for sure,” Zimmerman modestly comments.