Vanishing Point

Dan Mindel, ASC and crew fire back up the U.S.S. Enterprise for J.J. Abrams long-anticipated new entry in the Star Trek franchise

It’s hard to enlarge outer space, but J.J. Abrams’ 2009 hit reboot of Star Trek went where few other features in the franchise had. That said, fans of the venerable sci-fi adventure, whose classic characters first flickered across American T.V. screens for a brief three seasons in the 1960s, have expectations that Abrams (who recently announced he would be captaining the next Star Wars) would go even bigger for the hotly-anticipated sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, which takes the Enterprise crew on a hunt for an enemy from within Starfleet who threatens mass destruction. The chase travels to new environments – from a revamped Enterprise set to a number of worlds, each with its own unique look and enormous scale, this time visible in expansive detail, courtesy of both IMAX and 3D. The project reunites the 2009 Trek camera team, led by Dan Mindel, ASC, who had to weather several format changes throughout the ambitious new film.

Mindel, who says Abrams “dabbled” with native 3D capture three years back, but decided the systems were “too unwieldy for the way we like to shoot,” met with prominent 3D vendors, including an entire day with PACE Fusion founders James Cameron and Vince Pace.  “My question to both of them,” Mindel recounts, was, “‘How is this going to help us tell the story better?’ I suggested to J.J. that we pick certain sequences to shoot in native 3D and shoot the rest in 2D on film.”

The concern was that the bulky 3D gear would hinder Abrams’ notorious love for a spontaneous creative process. “We did some pretty extensive 3D tests, using all of the major systems – PACE, 3Ality, HD versus film,” recalls A-camera 1st AC Serge Nofield. “But it was clear the rigs weren’t going to work with the way J.J. likes to shoot, which is handheld and Steadicam. Factoring in lens changes, it just took way too much time to get them set up for each different shot.”

Abrams suggested RED, while Mindel leaned toward ALEXA. A post pipeline was set up for the project for HD acquisition, though, as Mindel notes, “One week before we were going to start, we still hadn’t decided on a format!” Abrams consulted with some peers, including Christopher Nolan, and opted to shoot anamorphic on film, with a post 3D conversion (though even that would change).

“We had been shooting for weeks [in January 2012], and then they dropped a bomb on us,” Nofield laughs: “‘We’re starting up on IMAX in a few weeks.’”

As for the 3D conversion, Abrams and team met with Stereo D, who, Mindel recalls, pointed out limitations that Abrams should employ during acquisition to permit the post conversion.  “J.J.’s eyes rolled back and he started playing Words with Friends on his iPad. They were telling him he couldn’t shoot the movie the way he wanted, and that wasn’t going to work for him.” Adds A-camera operator Colin Anderson: “That was the last time we thought about 3D acquisition.”

Ultimately, Abrams and Mindel settled on shooting scenes on-board the Enterprise in 2.40:1 anamorphic, using Panaflex Millennium XL2s and Kodak Vision 3 5219 (500T) and 5213 (200T) stocks – while anything off the ship, particularly in strange new worlds, would be captured on a pair of IMAX MSM 9802 15-perf 65-mm cameras (commonly referred to simply as a “15/70”).

“You’re seeing 35-millimeter anamorphic for interiors that feel like a more personal space,” explains ILM visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett, who also directed 2nd Unit. “Then, as the film goes to a large action sequence, you suddenly open the movie up by changing the aspect ratio. It’s a sudden and immersive experience.”

Due to their size and weight, the IMAX cameras were mostly on Libra heads atop Technocranes. “We had to figure out how we could incorporate them into the movie and still give ourselves the freedom of movement we’re used to with 35-millimeter systems,” Mindel shares. “We wanted to throw them around and track with them and do everything everyone tells you you can’t do with an IMAX camera.”

The 15/70s, which run 65-mm film 15 perfs per frame horizontally through the camera, were not the only large-format cameras in the mix. They were accompanied by a pair of Iwerks MSM-870s (both standard and lightweight models), which use the same 65-mm stock but run it 8-perf, vertically.

“Large format was uncharted territory for our department,” says Nofield. “There were some limitations that IMAX had that the Iwerks didn’t have, and vice versa.”

Like the run time per 1000-ft mag for the 15/70 lasting only 3 1/2 minutes, while the Iwerks goes nearly twice as long. Depth of field is twice as shallow on the 15/70, as B-camera 1st AC Keith Davis experienced firsthand on a complex walk-and-talk shot following Kirk and his nemesis (Benedict Cumberbatch) around a large circular corridor on the Enterprise set.

“Phil’s [B-camera operator Philippe Carr-Forster’s] camera was up on a crane, whose base was set at the center of the circular set,” Davis outlines, “and we were following the two actors – who were surrounded by ten others – for about 270 degrees.” Unable to trust his Cinetape measurements to identify which cast members it was grabbing, Davis skillfully used points on the set’s architecture, resulting, says Carr-Forster in “Zen focus [pulling] by Keith. Remarkable.”

The 870, which allowed for the same length of lenses as those used on the 35-mm anamorphic system, was the system of choice for large-format Steadicam. “The 15-perf is just too heavy,” Anderson relates. “And it’s got a rapid weight change, as the mag transfers from one side to the other. I used the 870 ‘Lightweight’ for Steadicam. But that was also unwieldy [due to inertia], to throw it around like I need to. When you have such a heavy camera, you start to compromise what Steadicam can do.”

In fact, a special plate was made by 2nd Unit 1st AC Nino Neuboeck to enable Anderson to set the camera onto the Steadicam sled. The operator also utilized an extendable post to allow him to lower the much-taller 870 down to eye level, and he added more counterbalancing weight to the bottom of the rig.

Loading the cameras also presented a challenge. “I loved working with 65-millimeter cameras, but the mag is heavy and hard to guide,” Nofield states. “You have to feather it, guide it into the slot, or it won’t seat properly, or you have to eject and start over. You can’t see the pull-down claws or registration pins – you have to massage the claw into place. Then you hit the ‘run’ button, and it sounds like a machine gun, and there’s film flying everywhere! You have to pull the movement, clean it out, make sure no belts are damaged, and try again, with jams resulting in delays of anywhere from five to thirty minutes.”

Combining IMAX and 35 mm also required the operators to be careful how they would frame actors’ faces, particularly in close-ups. “In a 2.40 frame, you put the top of the head at the top of the frame,” says Anderson. “But if you do that with IMAX, you’re forcing the audience to have to tilt their heads back uncomfortably in the theater. It’s more head height than [an operator] feels comfortable with, so it took getting used to.”

The opening of Into Darkness finds the Enterprise crew exploring a “Red Planet” (as it was referred to in production) whose primitive inhabitants end up chasing Captain Kirk (Chris Pine reprising his 2009 role) and Bones (Karl Urban) off a cliff. The planet was an outdoor set designed by production designer Scott Chambliss and built indoors at Raleigh Studios Playa Vista under lock and key. Once it was moved outside to the studio’s parking lot on shoot days, it was expanded via green screen by ILM digital matte supervisor Barry Williams.

The cliff jump was filmed with multiple cameras, highlighted by Carr-Forster’s Technocrane tracking the running actors aboard a mobile grip vehicle set on a 6-foot platform. C-camera operator John Skotchdopole picked up the pair via a long lens, while Anderson was operating the Iwerks 870, which tracked them from above, via a programmable NavCam cable system.

“The 870 would swing like a pendulum when it would start and stop,” describes Anderson, making it difficult to keep the actors in frame. On the second day of shooting, the crew shortened the drop cable that suspended the camera, permitting less swing, which helped, though, as Anderson adds, “Next time, the thing to do will be to make a longer cable run, so the camera starts sooner,” allowing the swing to dampen out by the time it reaches the actors.

ILM’s Guyett says shots like the cliff jump – starting close on the characters and pulling up to reveal a jaw-dropping environment – typify the brilliance of Abrams’ direction. “When you start out, you’re tight on the characters – and the audience feels like they’re running with them,” Guyett describes. “Then there’s a big crane-up that reveals where they are, and it changes the whole experience. It goes from being subjective to objective – and he does it without cuts.”

The Red Planet also serves as a backdrop for a magnificent moment where Spock is lowered down into an about-to-erupt volcano in a fireproof suit. The set was truly ablaze with heat sources – enough to make it impractical to bring the IMAX cameras in alongside actor Zachary Quinto (Spock). But while the 15/70s were safely aboard their Technocranes, somebody had to pull focus when the cameras dropped down to Spock’s level.

“I had a fireproof suit left over from another job,” reveals Nofield. “The cameras were flying around, in and out for close-ups, and somebody needed to identify the distance to the film plane. So it was just me in my fireproof suit and Spock in his $200,000 fireproof suit,” he laughs.

Another key set was Kronos, a derelict planet with dilapidated cityscapes that backdrop a major confrontation between the Federation and Klingons, and tested the ingenuity of gaffer Chris Prampin and key grip Charley Gilleran.

“J.J. wanted a massive pulsing light at one end of the city,” Prampin says. Inspired by an exhibit Chambliss had seen at London’s Tate Modern, Gilleran and his team built a large semi-circular truss wall, on which Prampin mounted 1200 yellow PARcans.

“Our lighting console programmer, Josh Thatcher, operated the PARcans with his Catalyst Media Server, after selecting an image from the system’s library which was to Dan’s liking,” Prampin says of the complex light rig. “Josh used pixel mapping, where each PARcan represents one pixel in the image on the media server. The image then rolled through the lights and gave added life.”

Prampin and Gilleran also built two flying lighting rigs – manned and unmanned – to represent the down-lights of  several spaceships (there were seven other fixed rigs as well). The rigs featured “intelligent” movement software that was programmed to match the action on the stage below. Lights used included Clay Paky Sharpys, Luminys Lightning Strikes, smaller Paparazzi Flashes, and other instruments. “It was pretty wild seeing these things flying around,” Prampin notes. “We definitely didn’t have anything like this in the first film.”

As he did in 2009, Al DeMayo at LiteGear provided LED ribbon panels built into the Enterprise set’s control stations. “Al’s LEDs are flicker-free, whereas a lot of the lights and dimmers out there are not,” Prampin adds, “so you can shoot any speed without a problem.” But, as Mindel points out, no LEDs are, as yet, spike-free.

“They’re uncontrollable, so you get blue, green and magenta spikes,” he remarks. “The difference this time around is that we decided that the greenish look fit nicely with the look of a place like the Enterprise.” Prampin gelled green to other fixtures, such as Kino Flos to bring them in line with the output of the LEDs.

Of course, no J.J. Abrams movie would be complete without the director’s signature lens flares, which Prampin jokes, “seem to have taken on a life of their own.” Created using a Xenotech Xenon flashlight (popularly labeled “Best in Show” by the crew), they were mostly handled by Mindel himself shining the flashlights into the lens at key moments.

“J.J. loves in-camera effects,” Mindel grins. “The flares, of course, and also banging on the film magazine to get realistic shake to Dutching the camera.”

One such scene harkens back to the original TV series, with the Enterprise shifting wildly as the camera moves from actor to actor while in motion. The shot forced Nofield to practice capoeira-like moves to stay out of frame, while pulling focus for Anderson. Observes Carr-Forster, “The Dutching was particularly difficult for Colin on Steadicam.”

Other subtle in-camera touches include Carr-Forster having the art department place cut glass elements (sometimes backlit) at measured intervals as he tracked laterally on the Enterprise set.

“You can’t tell what the objects are, but they help give the shots an incredible sense of depth,” Carr-Forster explains.

One big advantage for the Trek camera team was viewing dailies at various IMAX theaters around L.A. “Being able to see any film dailies is a treat these days,” notes Nofield. “But we were probably watching some of the last 65-millimeter IMAX print dailies ever produced.”

Most importantly, from the audience’s perspective, Anderson points out, is the sheer amount of detail present in the large-format image. “It’s actually scary,” he laughs. “On the Red Planet set, we had plants that were painted red and we had to be aware of things like peeling paint.”

“What I could see in the print in the theater,” Mindel concludes, “was truly spectacular. “It gave us the opportunity to see how much detail we could bring to the film, in real terms. Like the reflections on the volcano set of the sparks and explosions in Spock’s visor. The levels of texture that exist in the [IMAX] negative bring a sense of reality and realism to the film that would have been impossible using a smaller format.”

By Matt Hurwitz. Photos by Zade Rosenthal