Cinematographer Dan Mindel “beams up” the latest entry in the venerable Star Trek franchise
Start with an iconic franchise boasting the largest number of spin-offs of any television show in history, not to mention the 10 previous feature films that have come before this latest entry, aka Star Trek Zero, which retells the early years of Kirk, Spock, Bones and the gang before they became the Federation’s most prolific space explorers. Add in the expectation of kick-ass visual effects shot in HD, oh, and millions of loyal, many would say ridiculously obsessive fans. And that’s all before you get to the usual filmmaking challenges of multiple locations on tight schedules and even tighter budgets.
Can you handle a little pressure?
No sweat for Kauai-based Dan Mindel, cinematographer on the new Star Trek feature, who not only tackled the assignment with relish, but insisted on upping the ante. “The first thing I did was try to convince everyone we should shoot in anamorphic,” Mindel laughs. “There’s a big surge of people who feel it’s an antiquated workflow, and yet, technically, it’s still the highest method of image gathering we’ve got that works in a corporate-friendly way. Studios and younger producers and some directors have really forgotten these facts.”
But not one J.J. Abrams, who knows a few things about creating hit TV series (Alias, Felicity, Lost, Fringe) and directing massive studio action films (Mission: Impossible III, Cloverfield). He agreed with Mindel that the way to shoot Star Trek was to go old school. “A lot of people, even some incredibly well-known filmmakers, were trying to convince me to shoot Super 35,” Abrams shares. “But none held up for me because of the look of anamorphic and quality of the image. Plus, I knew I wanted to do a lot of lens flares. And there’s nothing better in the world than anamorphic lens flares.”
More on lens flares later.
So, much like one of those against-all-odds missions the U.S.S. Enterprise embarked on in some far-flung galaxy, Mindel and Abrams prevailed on the Federation, aka Paramount Pictures execs, and shot one of the most anticipated effects-laden movies of the year on film, and in 2.39:1 aspect ratio.
The cinematographer employed a standard anamorphic package from Panavision – Platinum and XL cameras – with anamorphic (AWZ and ATZ) zooms that he calls, “absolutely stupendous.”
“They have a 2-8 aperture and the optics allow them to be intercut with the Primos without any visual cue,” Mindel explains. “Nowadays most movies are shot with zooms and by having such high-quality tools with the finished product there’s zero work in rendering the looks and color temperatures.”
Beyond All Reasonable Parameters
Talk to anybody from the Star Trek camera department and the subject of lens flares will come up.
“Flares gave the images another layer, another level of interest,” Abrams says. “I’d seen different processes that work well with film, different silver levels, etc. That’s great and cool, but I was going for something beyond the usual kinds of color correction and contrast levels. And lens flares actually made certain moments in images with levels of depth have a distinctly analog and unexpected quality.
“Flares are, by nature, unpredictable and a result, obviously, of light and glass. What’s so fantastic is that you can never quite know what you’re going to get,” Abrams continues. “In a massively CG- and effects-heavy film, having another layer of pure, unpredictable, analog, tactile optics was important to keep the feel looking real, special, grounded. It created a sense not just of the future, but it alluded to other things happening not within frame.”
To create the effect, Mindel employed various techniques using anamorphic tension to generate a flare. “Literally, at every opportunity, we tried to allow the lenses to physically do what they wanted to do without interfering,” the DP explains. “We also introduced flares manually by shining lights at the lenses to take away from the sterile feel that often arises when you shoot on sets and with greenscreens. We could add atmosphere and kinetic energy to what was happening by physically flaring the lens. After some time, we came up with two Xenon flashlights, and had an operator mirror the flashlight with the camera’s movement.”
In some cases, flares were used to hide transitions from one shot or set to another. “This created a seamless pan that was actually broken up using a huge flare in the middle,” says camera operator Colin Anderson. “You don’t realize you’ve gone from one set to another. We’d also hide focus racks by flaring at specific points. Often huge focus racks can be visually disturbing, but if you put a flare in at the right time, before you know it, focus is where it’s supposed to be.”
Lighting also tested the crew, particularly on the three main spaceships: the early Kelvin, an evil enemy ship and, of course, the iconic Enterprise. The Enterprise was designed first so it would be visually spectacular. Then other ships were planned, each somewhat “less appealing” than the Enterprise. But they reversed the order when filming began. “By shooting the Kelvin first, we came across problems we’d have on the Enterprise, and since it hadn’t been completed yet, we could adjust,” the cinematographer notes.
Mindel wanted to move away from moody, contrasty lighting on the Enterprise. “We worked with the philosophy that we didn’t want to fly the soft wall anywhere, really. Since the Enterprise was designed with shiny sleek surfaces, we didn’t want to cut those up with our own movie lights. The Enterprise was lit by practical sources that were built into the set.”
That was achieved through a combination of traditional set lights, LiteRibbon LED lights (supplied by LiteGear), and theatrical moving lights like the Vari-Lite VL3500 Spot, Clay Paky Alpha Spot 1200 and High End SHOWGUN. “By working closely with the art department, we were able to incorporate a combination of LED, fluorescent and tungsten lights into the sets that allowed us to oftentimes shoot with just the light that was projected on the set,” says gaffer Chris Prampin, who’s worked with Mindel on four other films, besides Star Trek. “It was the LEDs’ small size, low heat and high output that allowed us to install them throughout various sets and essentially let the sets light themselves. [They] did have a bit more green spike to them, but we felt it fit the look of the movie so we chose not to correct them.”
The advance work paid off. “By the time we landed day one on the Enterprise we had designed and engineered basically all aspects of the lighting. That allowed us to move freely and shoot in any direction on the deck, even though we didn’t float the walls,” Mindel recalls.
As in many of Abrams’ television shows, the crew relied heavily on Steadicam and crane shots to achieve unique points of view and startling camera angles. The first and second units often worked side by side to get the coverage, particularly on “space” shots involving lots of wire work to simulate actors free falling and floating.
“I don’t think I’ve had a more challenging Steadicam film because no shot is really that easy with J.J.,” allows Anderson, who worked with Abrams and Mindel on Mission: Impossible III, and with Mindel on The Skeleton Key and Stuck on You. “There was a lot of rushing down through corridors and spinning around the bridge on the Kelvin.”
Another dicey situation: several shots where Abrams wanted the Steadicam to shake and stutter. To get the effect, the noted producer/director would stand behind Anderson and shake the magazine! “I’ve never experienced anything like it,” Anderson says. “It would take all my strength to keep actors in frame, much less worrying about composing the shot. It wasn’t easy on either of us, but the results were incredible.”
Hands-down the most demanding shot was the space jump in which Capt. Kirk [Chris Pine] and some of his colleagues jump out of a spacecraft and free fall onto an aerial platform. Initially, they tried hanging the actors upside down above the camera, but Abrams admits, “That wasn’t good for anyone.”
So it was onto Plan B. “There were no specific fallback plans,” Anderson laughs. “J.J.’s Plan B is being able to think on your feet.”
After looking at the set in frame, Abrams and Mindel determined they could shoot the scene from a raised platform looking down on the actors. “We placed the actors on top of these giant Mylar sheets that reflected the sky into the mirrors so the reflection was under their feet,” Mindel explains. They were still hanging and spinning, but head up this time. “That created the illusion that they were upside down when we flipped it. It worked incredibly well.”
But to get it, Anderson had to lean over a scaffold about 10 feet off the ground. “It wasn’t dangerous, but it was awkward,” he recalls. “And the whole time, J.J. is furiously shaking the camera to get the jittery effect he wanted. It was a brilliant example of making something tricky so simple.”
That’s one of several retro-style cheats the crew relied on. “There are a dozen or so shots achieved with little or no post work that were done with a classic old-school technique that came out of being on the set and trying things,” Abrams boasts.
But that’s not to say Star Trek doesn’t have its share of greenscreen scenes and other leading-edge digital effects. In fact, Mindel worked very closely with visual effects producer Roger Guyett, discussing in detail what Guyett needed to carry on the shot in the digital realm. “I tried to give him exactly what he was looking for, not to impose on him what I wanted,” Mindel relays. “We tried to meet half way and turn out the highest quality CGI work possible.”
Prampin says it’s challenging lighting for large visual effects and greenscreen shots that will be added in post. “We were always keeping in mind what the final look for scenes would be once the live action and visual effects were combined,” he says. That made previsualization critical, especially for scenes like the space jump, or the one in which actors are chased by a 20-foot-tall creature on the snow planet.
“We needed to know what was going to be practical, what was going to be greenscreen, and what was going to be built. Previs was invaluable because it allowed us to cut down sequences to their essential components. It probably saved us weeks of shooting by eliminating things in advance,” Abrams says.
“This is the primary function of what we do,” explains David Dozoretz, founder, director and senior previsualization supervisor at Persistence of Vision, the outfit that handled previs for the film. “It allowed J.J. the ability to get an advanced snapshot of what the film could be without having to wait weeks or months later after principal photography and the editorial process had taken place.”
The crew used previs to match the required speed and sophistication of each scene with the proper story arc. “Unified character rigs and blend-shape-capable digital characters allowed our previs artists … [to] alter the appearance of characters on the fly, and reduced the time necessary to build entirely new characters from scratch whenever the scene called for someone new,” explains Brian Pohl, POV’s CEO and senior previs supervisor. “Should Spock be performing an action that Abrams later wanted Kirk to be doing instead, one attribute change would alter Spock’s digital character into Kirk’s and there would be no need to copy animation curves over to an entirely different rig.”
From a technical perspective, previs was capable of determining specific spatial problems with the space jump sequence. “Camera and character placement were tied to a production-approved model of the set and this made shooting that sequence considerably easier,” Pohl says.
One would think that there would be plenty of glitches or derailments on a film with multiple locations, complicated sets and a mix of live action and CGI, but the entire crew from director on down credits Mindel’s easy-going style to making everything come off without a hitch.
“Dan is a wonderful collaborator,” Abrams says. “He’s wonderfully opinionated and more wonderfully flexible in seizing an opportunity to try something cool even if it might not work. Often, the result is terrific and thrilling.”
Others on the crew point to Mindel’s ability to allow a tremendous amount of leeway for everyone –from gaffer and best boy on through to ACs and camera operators — to provide their own input to the director.
“A lot of DPs will set up a shot, choose the lens, etc., with the director and then you, as the operator, are told to merely execute the shot. That feels mostly like a wheel turner,” Anderson notes. “Dan’s the opposite. He provides input, but you have freedom and creative choice. It’s so rewarding. With Dan, you’re not just panning, tilting and invoicing. That’s so valuable.”
For his part, Mindel defers most of the credit to his working peers. “I have an incredible crew. The unwritten language and communication that take place when you know someone very well allow us to deliver quickly and efficiently whatever the director needs,” Mindel notes. “And the best thing about working with J.J. is that he’s completely open to suggestions. I’m incredibly proud of this movie for a number of reasons, but mostly the technical aspects that my colleagues and I managed to execute.”
By Margot Carmichael Lester / photos by Zade Rosenthal