Jason Zimmerman is the Supervising Producer and VFX Supervisor at CBS for Star Trek: Discovery, having previously also made Star Trek: Picard. He has been working within the ‘Alex Kurtzman, Star Trek universe’ bringing to life the environments, ships, and character effects in some of the most popular visual rendering of the Trek universe seen in years. Kurtzman has been co-producer in the Star Trek franchise since 2009, co-writing the scripts of Star Trek (2009), Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), as well as the TV shows: Picard, Discovery, and the Star Trek: Short Treks. Zimmerman has worked closely now with Kurtzman and his production company Secret Hideout, for several years. “It’s kind of a big family on the show because we’ve been together for so long. And Alex is such a supportive executive for us, he loves visual effects.”, says Zimmerman.
Zimmerman’s team is the core CBS hub that both does in-house VFX and works with the suite of vendors who deliver the episodic effects at a level that rivals most film effects. The production shot primarily in Toronto, with part of the first two episodes shot in Iceland. The CBS VFX team is normally located on Wilshire Boulevard near the SAG building, on the 15.8 mile stretch of iconic LA road that runs from Santa Monica to Downtown, not that Zimmerman and the team could work together in this age of COVID. Discovery’s third season was all post-produced with the team working from home. “It’s been over a year since we started shooting Discovery (Season 3),” recalls Zimmerman. His team actually delivered the season final episode of Picard: Et in Arcadia Ego, and “we went into quarantine the very next day… So right after the Picard finale, we all started working remotely. It took us a couple of days to get the team all working with the right technology, but since then we’ve all been working remotely”.
The CBS team all use Teradici so the artists can log on to their machines remotely and the VFX editors have their own Avid setups at their homes and the team communicates via Zoom. “I think a big part of not being in an office, is that it forces you to create a system of checks and balances to check in with everybody,” he comments. “I think you take for granted when everybody’s in the same office. You just would normally have those conversations, but I think in a lot of ways it has been more efficient. We have team calls every day”. Zimmerman does weekly CineSync with all of the vendors “to just talk about shots”, and his team track the shots with Shotgun, “it is our lifeline to the vendors to keep track of the shots.”
VFX Team Vendors
Discovery uses a range of vendors from around the world, as did Picard. Companies such as Ghost VFX (Denmark), Mackevision (Germany), Crafty Apes, DNEG (London), The Mill (London), FX3X (Macedonia) and Pixomondo where Zimmerman used to work. When selecting vendors Zimmerman explains that they look specifically to the actual artists, “we look to find good people to partner with. People we know, people that we have worked with; teams with good artists that we think would be appropriate for the different sequences.”
Zimmerman is a supporter of the notion of having a very strong and tight in-house VFX team that “all speak the same language,” some of the CBS inner circle have worked with Zimmerman for years at multiple different companies. Similarly having worked himself so closely for so many episodes with the trek directors and producers, the team is about very efficiently and effectively handle vast numbers of visual effects problems and find both physical and creative solutions, which can then often be handed over to vendors to execute on a range of shots. “You could send something to 10 different vendors, you might get 10 different proposed methodologies as to how to approach something,” he explains. “A lot of times if I give it to our guys, – because they know us so well, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you want a 2d solution,- we’re going to do this in Nuke and it’s going to take about this long’, – because they just know that we’re after.” For the sequences where Zareh attacks the miners who are oppressed by his crime group, Crafty Apes provided the visual effects overlaid on physical prosthetics (above).
More than in previous seasons of Discovery, the VFX crew have had to do a lot of world-building and environment work. This ranged from complex hologram space markets to the lush forests of the Trill homeworld (below). For the space marketplace, the team was called upon to create a lot of complex hologram effects and set extensions. “There are obviously set extensions, raising the pods up and everything, but there’s a lot of holograms that went into that scene…they really helped fill out the frame,” comments Zimmerman. When the team was in pre-production on this sequence, they planned it out meticulously with the director and storyboarded everything in great detail. Holograms were featured heavily this season for many things but when there are screens seen in shot, most of the monitors in the show have actual graphics or animations playing back for the actors to work with live. Similarly, if an actor appears on the set of the bridge to talk to characters as a hologram, that actor is normally onset and the footage is treated in VFX, using clean plates, to give the illusion they are semi-transparent. The actors can then react to each other instead of being shot on a separate greenscreen.
On the Trill homeworld, Adira (Blu del Barrio) and Cmdr. Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) descent into the watery sacred Caves of Mak’ala, first seen on screen in the Deep Space 9 episode, Equilibrium. Unlike that original 1995 episode, In Discovery, to repair the connection between Adira and the Tal symbiont, a massive CGI dream-like environment was required to be created.
The team shot primarily on green-screen but also used digital doubles for the complex decent sequence. The visual effects and 3D animation tendrils were created by Mackevision in Germany.
“There’s definitely been more environmental work this year than in seasons past, which has been really nice. It’s always nice to sort of add something to your repertoire and try something new,” says Zimmerman.
The series started this season with some entertaining character animation work in the form of a Trance worm that the character Cleveland ‘Book” Booker (David Ajala) is trying to return to a sanctuary. The background plates were shot in Iceland and Ghost VFX animated the worm. The worm was nicknamed ‘Molly’ behind the scenes.
Molly was designed by the highly awarded creature and concept designer Neville Page, (who we interviewed for fxguide Tv #181).
Molly is actually one of the most successful VFX sequences and one Zimmerman is particularly proud of doing this season. “Being able to do that creature work with a design from Neville Page and being able to do that attack on the beach and that whole sequence was really, really fun and exciting for us to do. It was fun to do some creature work we hadn’t done on the show previously. We were very proud of that scene.”
In episode 2, USS Discovery crash-lands on a glacier. After trading dilithium for a quantity of ‘programmable matter’, Discovery is trapped by the glacier’s parasitic ice which encases the ship preventing it from take-off. The particle system was simulated and rendered by Pixomondo.
One of the challenges for this season of Discovery is that the crew is now over 900 years into their future. The VFX and design challenge is to produce modern impressive visual effects that both reflect the old and ultra-futuristic but all still seem of the same Star Trek universe. For example, take one of Star Trek’s signature fiction devices, the transporter. In all the Trek series, on all the Trek ships, a transporter is used to convert a person or object’s matter into energy, and then to beam that energy to a new location, and reassembles it into its original form. This visually appears as an energy pattern visual effect. Discovery’s own transporter is meant to be from a period in Star Trek Canon which is just before Kirk, Spock and the original Constitution USS Enterprise NCC-1701. Thus, its transporter visual effects need to be a ‘2020’ modernized depiction of the 1966 show’s visual transport effect often seen on the ‘transporter pad’. But in this season that crew and their ship are in the year 3188. This requires the transporter effect to be depicted as the same core thing, but with the advantage of 930 years of improvement. The new ‘3188 yr. point to point personal transporters’, still need to be visually linked to all the visual solutions VFX artists have used in the past, but be original and easily recognizable as a transporter to loyal audiences.
In Episode 5 of season 3 aboard the Tikov, a Barzan is caught in a freak transporter stasis accident. The visual effects for this malfunction of the new transporter visuals –in an old ship in the future – effects were produced by Ghost VFX.
For Zimmerman, the plot shift forward 900 years is “a double-edged sword because when in the first two seasons we were within canon, trying to replicate what had been done before because everybody’s expecting it to look a certain way. ” he explains. Now they are creating a new visual language a new canon for how the visual should look and “that’s something that the fans pay attention to on a weekly basis.” He says adding, ” if you check the blogs, they let you know what they like, and they let you know what didn’t work for them – It’s a big responsibility”.
For the transporter, there were discussions very early on with Alex Kurtzman and production to try and get a sense of how people thought it should look and how it would be in the future. “One of the thoughts was it should be a lot faster, really quick. So we knew we had to speed it up and we wanted to play with the dynamics of how it moved and how quickly it dissipated.”
Crafty Apes did look dev for the transporter effect and offered between 10 to 15 versions or interpretations for the filmmakers to discuss and ‘dial-in’ from there to the final version seen in this season.
Ships Glorious Ships
One of the season’s most impressive model builds so far was the arrival at a strange “displacement” bubble. The Trek VFX team benefits from having a clear plot outline of the whole season, this aids in making decisions about asset generation, they have a clear idea at the start of their work if the asset will appear just in this one episode or it needs to be built to be reused extensively, at different scales and especially if it is a ship or craft, it is key to know if it has to be broken apart or even if it will “come back together or transform in some way, because all those things have to be taken into consideration in how you build it, rig it and texture it,” Zimmerman points out. “The production and the writer’s room keep us involved in and let us know what’s coming.” The arrival sequence was produced by Pixomondo.
The show is not dogmatic, but it tends to favor an Autodesk Maya and Side Effects Houdini pipeline, with compositing in Foundry Nuke. Zimmerman is open to each vendor using whichever renderer their team likes, “so long as they can always make Discovery look the same”.
Full CG and those robots from the credits.
A lot of material is fully CG including the robot repair drones that are also featured in the title sequence. In these sequences, in particular, the VFX artists can add ideas “as long as it helps the story along, everyone is very open to suggestions,” explains Zimmerman. “We have a lot of opportunities to give that kind of feedback especially in the case of the drones. Those little drones are one of Alex’s (Kurtzman) favorite things. He loves those drones. Sometimes there’ll be a shot, and we’ll just do fun things, like at the back of the shot at a bar, we’ll add a robot serving a drink or something…fun things to make the frame more interesting and busy… we look for all sorts of opportunities and we’re always having those sorts of conversations, the production is very open to that.”
“There is a lot of experience and a lot of learning, we discover things all the time about how things can be better, how space battle can be choreographed, composition, and rendering of shots,” Zimmerman explains. For example, the space battle at the end of Discovery Season 2 ep 14 was very much informed from lessons the team learned creating the final battle at the end of Picard season1. At the time of this story, Episode 5 had aired, and the team was working on the VFX for Episode 10, – building to the final episode in the 13 ep season. Currently, each show has hundreds of effects shots, ranging from “a low of a hundred to a high of 723 shots in one episode, so that will mean somewhere between 3,500 to 5,000 this season”. By the time this season of Discovery finishes, along with the work on Picard, Zimmerman and the VFX team will have delivered about 13,000 to 15,000 shots.