Probing the Ships of Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Probing the Ships of
Star Trek: the Motion Picture
Concept designer Andrew Probert discusses his career and work on the Enterprise Refit and Vulcan Shuttle
By Jamie Hood
Andrew Probert is one of the most revered designers in Star Trek's history. Besides Matt Jeffries, no designer has had such a wide ranging influence on the look of the Trek universe. From his work on Star Trek: the Motion Picture to Star Trek: the Next Generation, Andrew has been responsible for the look of two versions of the Enterprise, the 1701 Refit and the 1701D, as well as numerous other ships and designs throughout the production of the film and series. His work has also been seen in several other popular sci-fi film projects. Our discussion starts there...
An Engaging Career
Andrew, Thank you very much for taking the time to answer some questions for us. We're thrilled to be able to have you give us a little insight into your career and work on Star Trek the Motion Picture.
Thanks for asking.
Your body of work is quite impressive. Let's see, the Enterprise Refit, Vulcan Shuttle, Enterprise D, the Back To the Future time machine, Airwolf Helicopter, what have been some of your other high points?
Being the designer of the Cylon warriors for the original Battlestar: Galactica was my first Hollywood job while I was still in school,... a definite high point.
Wow, definitely. They are some of the most iconic villains in sci-fi. Did you have a hand in developing the look of any villains in Star Trek?
I designed the look of the Ferengi Race and their Marauder Starship followed by the Romulan Warbird ships for TNG but that was pretty much it.
What other iconic vehicles have you worked on?
I designed the Motorcycle known as Streethawk, for the TV show of the same name.
As a concept artist/production designer (is production designer your accurate job title?) what does that job entail?
I have not officially been a production designer... yet. Back in 1980 I was working in that capacity on the film: Starhunt, written by David Gerrold, but that project was canceled for some reason.
As a Concept Designer, my job is to provide conceptual visions of futuristic settings, props, or vehicles to help the crew start thinking about what everything might look like. Starting with a script and/or a description, I sketch up ideas of what the 'item' might look like and how it might be used. Having an education in Industrial Design gives me a bit of an edge in providing designs that look as if they could be real. Usually, my sketches visually reinforce what's written but can occasionally spark an idea that's actually added to the story.
At what point do you step away to let the set or modeling team do their thing?
Once my designs are approved they are pretty much out of my hands. Hollywood loves to boast that movie-making is a collaborative business but once a design leaves my desk that's where a designer's ability to collaborate usually ends.
To what extent do you get to supervise or review their work?
Never, unless I'm specifically put in charge of supervising the 'item' through to completion. That rarely ever happens but it did happen for me on Star Trek: the Motion Picture, during the time Robert Abel & Company was still creating the SFX.
So ST:TMP was a special circumstance where you worked beyond the design phase?
Trying to remember it, after all this time, it seems like Richard wanted me to spend time with the painters while the models were being finished, making sure the final results matched what we'd had in mind. I don't know if this had ever been done in previous miniature work to any great extent, but I went out and bought a whole bunch of decal sheets, mostly aircraft of various scales, and chose certain ones be applied to a couple of the larger models (most notably the travel pod). I then created a variety of custom decals of details like vent slots, graphics, and other small items in several sizes that were added all around with a great many of them ending up on the Vulcan Shuttle. Then, with all the various panels painted and "decaled", I began working with them in applying layers of 'weathering'... a scary thought to me now, but we took it slowly and tried to stop before it all became too heavy.
Who (or what) are your design influences?
Syd Mead and Luigi Colani are my strongest industrial designer influences but I can be influenced by anything I see, hear, or read,... sometimes unexpectedly. For instance, while I was sitting in an outer room, waiting to talk to Gene Roddenberry about something, an electrician walked through the room holding a piece of electrical conduit in his hand, forming a loop. At that moment, I was struggling with how I could join the Enterprise-D saucer with it's connecting dorsal that didn't look 'stuck on' when I looked up and saw that conduit-loop. Suddenly I saw how it represented the aft edge of my new dorsal as it elegantly blended into the saucer.
I've read that you have a sensible design theory that great space ship designs are those that have features or details that make us believe the ship can really fly. Please comment on your approach to spacecraft design.
I start by getting a description of the ship I'm asked to design. I approach it with the time-proven idea that "Form follows function" and find out as much as I can about what the ship is to do (in the story), how many crew it has, how big it is, how it's powered, does it have weapons, does it land or stay in space, does it carry auxiliary craft, what set interiors will be featured and how will they effect the exterior, and so on. Once I understand all that, I start sketching. Sometimes those sketches will start as a bubble diagram, indicating placement of the scripted sets while adding any additional spaces I think would be needed in a real ship. Other times, I simply start sketching exterior shapes while keeping in mind needs for visual continuity (such as in Star Trek) or uniqueness, not wanting to copy other designs. Once I have a couple of directions, I show them to my production designer, producer(s), or director... or everyone in a meeting. Once a design direction is established, I start solidifying the concept into the final design, adding any remaining details as needed.
Constituting a New Enterprise
When you were first assigned to work on the Enterprise Refit, some work had already been begun on the ship as part of Star Trek Phase II. What state was the ship in when you joined the project?
The Enterprise had been designed & pieced together along with the Phase II Drydock and Space Office Complex. Those miniatures, being built for a television pilot, were a bit on the small side and my art director, Richard Taylor, determined a grander scale would be needed to provide a successful level of believability for the large screen.
The ship was given a very distinctive surface quality often referred to as "Aztec" paneling. Did you have that planned or were those choices made by others later on?
Richard asked me to come up with an overall scheme of surface paneling to give the ship another level of detailing. I agreed that it would give the Enterprise more credibility as a manufactured spacecraft, even though panel lines wouldn't be visible at the scale distance needed to encompass the entire ship in a shot. Richard thought a subtle differencing of the paint scheme would accentuate those panels and that worked really well. For the saucer, I came up with "Aztec Pattern" panels providing a series of interlocking edges in order to reinforce the ship's surface tensile strength.
Besides the surface quality and a few shape changes here and there, the ship maintained a look reminiscent of the version from the television show. How concerned were you with staying close to the original Enterprise?
Gene always said the Enterprise is a definite 'character' in the show and it's look was well established on television (not to mention all the merchandising and advertising), so I was very concerned about keeping the character of what Gene had originally established.
I'd have to agree. Many of my favorite TOS episodes were the ones where the crew stayed on the ship. Was the Refit really intended to be the same underlying ship we had seen in the television series?
Richard asked me to start my concepts from Joe Jenning's / Matt Jefferies' Phase II Enterprise but then ours took on a more elegant look under Richard's influence, quickly evolving beyond the original series Enterprise with it's different proportions and lines... a visual upgrade, if you will. It looked like a "totally new ship", to quote Captain Decker, and I was thinking, for a while, that the script might further indicate that it was. To that end, I had tentatively referred to it as an Enterprise-Class ship with the designation of NCC-1800 but that idea dissolved pretty quickly.
In hindsight, the whole registry/name of the ship probably deserved a bit more consideration but who knew there would have been even more versions of the ship to come later on? I know that you and Rick Sternbach and others have taken the time to explain some of the mechanics of how the ships work.
Rick is much better at it than I am.
Okay, but how much thought goes into the mechanics of a ship design at the concept and modeling stage? (like figuring out how the impulse engines would get their power, etc?)
As indicated earlier, I'll either start sketching shapes, trying to come up with a unique look, or start laying out the interior, beginning with a bubble diagram dictated by how the script describes the way compartments are connected to each other. After those initial stages, I then start to look at where the engines might be placed along with their power source(s) and soon other details emerge such as weapon placements, lifeboats, hanger bays, docking ports, windows, and moving back into the interiors for the all-important bathrooms.
Well, of course. Even the captain of the Enterprise has to go, right? I mean we are talking five-year missions here...
How much of the design is really nailed down at the early stage versus going back to it and kind of finding an explanation for this detail or that?
Designs continue to evolve from the first sketch but obviously if set concepts are part of my job, those need to be nailed down right away, in order to start construction. When those are pretty much underway, I can get back to the exteriors.
That's basically what happened on Next Gen when I was originally asked to provide concepts for the main bridge. While working on those, I was also doodling out ideas I had for the Enterprise-D exterior, sticking them on the wall in front of me as I continued to work on the bridge. Writer David Gerrold was working on the show and would drop by every so often to see what was going on. One day he noticed my current Enterprise sketch and asked me if that was what the ship was going to look like. I told him I didn't know and he snatched it off the wall and walked out saying, "let's find out", or something to that effect. Maybe twenty minutes later he came back and slapped it down in front of me saying, "Yep, that's the new Enterprise". In answer to my astonished look & babbling he explained that he took it into a producers' meeting and they all agreed that was to be the new ship. Yeah, that really sent my head spinning. From that point (as I also continued to work on the bridge), it was a matter of refining the shapes and adding details.
Wow. It sounds like that design was chosen pretty quickly. What did you think about the design they chose?
I was happy with it. Putting it on the wall above my drawing table and living with it awhile, gave me some time to determine what refinements I thought it might need.
Did you agree that it was the best look?
It must have been or the producers wouldn't have all agreed on it so quickly. And, yes, I agreed with them.
Did you have enough of an opportunity to fully explore the possibilities? As a designer, I know what its like to submit a group of sketches and have my favorites right along designs that I think are "just okay"...
In my own design process, I'd only dwell on designs I felt were going in the right direction... with the "just okay" versions falling by the wayside. Looking at each 'latest version' for a while, helps me determine if I might quickly get tired of it, or discover if it could look like a cliché, or discover a refinement that wasn't immediately apparent. Besides, you never want to show decision-makers anything that is "just okay" because that might be the one they choose.
I know from experience... a designer's nightmare.
Touching back on the painted details of the Motion Picture Enterprise, some seem pretty specific to indicate a kind of mechanical marking such as showing the energy paths going from engineering up the dorsal towards the impulse engine and up the inboard side of the pylons to the nacelles. Can you comment on those?
Looking at contemporary jet fighters, I noticed that there were material differences sometimes around the tail sections and that started me thinking of ways to visually break up the surface expanse of white on white. I thought some sort of different materials might be used around the engineering spaces as some sort of radiation shielding or as structural materials less effected by what was going on inside... something like that. Anyway, that was the basis for those surface differences and I think that helped the believability-factor you asked about before. I think it just looked and felt like it belonged there.
What other marks can you comment on?
The original Enterprise had a set of red pinstripes running down the back of the saucer and engineering hull and I wanted to build on that idea of using various graphic markings on the hull. That idea evolved into a full pattern of red lines all over the hull becoming more of a visual enhancement beyond operational notations & section lines. We added a subtle blue-grey material to the leading edges of the dorsal, warp engines & pylons which created a subliminal kind of an 'all-American' Red White and Blue color scheme. The pin-striping encircled the saucer and various details, parts of the warp engines (still visible in some of my renderings), and other details. These were added by using custom decals, which were at their size, difficult to apply while keeping a smooth look. Consequently, when the ship's paint scheme was changed to a pearlescent finish, the modelers talked Trumbull (then in charge of SFX) into dropping the whole idea. A few of the red-striped details remained but are not nearly as prevalent.
Didn't the model have greenish paint on the engineering section when the model was originally filmed? Were the other areas that are blue also greenish at the time?
The leading edges of the warp engines & pylons were a gray-blue as was the leading edge of the dorsal. All engineering spaces were shielded with a green covering. Notice, however, that painted areas of the leading-edge blues as well as the engineering green have a flatter specularity than the pearlescent whites around them... contributing to more contrast at certain angles.
What was it like to be involved in designing the new version of one of the most iconic spacecraft in sci-fi history?
I'm pretty sure every Star Trek fan can imagine what they would feel like if they were asked to redesign the Enterprise... and get paid for it. Well, that was me.
And may I congratulate you? Somebody had to be the lucky guy I guess.
The design of the new movie Enterprise has stirred quite a debate among Star Trek fans. Do you recall a similar reaction to the appearance of the Refit in TMP?
No, because the TMP Enterprise made more sense visually I think... it was designed as a whole with each area relating to the next in a logical manner.
That's a great point. I'm not one who hates the new ship's design but there are a few quirky things about it here and there. This might be a hairy question but what are your feelings about the design of the Enterprise from the new film?
Even though the "new"-alternate Enterprise was designed by committee, it did manage to attain a level of visual continuity up until they got to the saucer which is way too close to the TMP saucer, presumably just stuck on to appease the Trek aficionados. I would have been much happier (since they simply HAD to change it anyway), if they would have extended the same pimping all the way into the saucer, providing a unified look to the whole ship.
I agree that the saucer was the part that was most reminiscent of an earlier version but I thought it took more cues from the Refit. I'm looking at the upper and lower domes and the surface detail and markings. I think if they had stuck to Ryan Church's surface quality and color, the ship may have been received a bit more openly having a skin more like the TOS version.
The exterior? JJ Abrams specifically did not want anyone on the production that was a Star Trek fan. Having said that, I would have been quite happy redesigning his alternate time-line Enterprise but instead it looks like they attempted to appease die-hard Trekkers by plopping a TMP saucer on a VERY different engineering section producing a visually awkward hybrid which just doesn't work.... for me.
A Little Vulcan Goes a Long Way
Besides the Refit, you designed the Vulcan Shuttle. The ship has relatively little screen time yet it has become a fan favorite. What was your thought process when working on the shuttle?
In the script, this was a shuttle with "long-range" capabilities. Gene wanted it to have (relatively) huge warp engines to indicate how it could reach the Enterprise quickly. Starting with the original TOS shuttlecraft design, I visually peeled it down to its basic cabin and then started updating that, adding (at first) large TOS-style warp engines. The problem I was fighting was how to hard-dock with the Enterprise (an unexplained requirement overriding the transporters) while keeping those large engines out of the way. Sketching extended warp engine pylons, to help solve that problem, it occurred to me that those extensions and warp engines could be detachable during the docking process and the idea of a separate Warp Sled soon came to mind. From that point, it was a matter of refining the details and, since this was to be a Vulcan Shuttle, many of those details were derived from the Vulcan society itself. I observed, in the TOS episode #30: Amok Time, a six-sided-diamond shape as part of their motif, especially in the ceremonial gong at the center of the featured arena. I applied this motif to various parts of the shuttle as well as using it as a cross section for the new warp engines.
The filming model features a rather complex mauve color. What was your reasoning for that choice?
At first I was thinking of various grays for the coloring but quickly realized how tired I was of gray ships... boring. Imagining what a gray ship would look like in the red atmosphere of Vulcan, I came up with a cross between red and gray, sort of a magenta, accented in mauves and purples.
Its onscreen appearance looked somewhat bronze or copper in color. Were you surprised at that?
More like shocked... and then angry at how supposedly "creative" people can be so un-creative at times.
Was it intentionally shot to shift the color that way?
These people can shoot every color there is, so, yes, it was intentionally compromised... providing another example of that Hollywood "collaboration" process.
I'm sorry to hear that someone in Hollywood didn't think much of your chosen color scheme but we were very happy to have you paint the ship in all of its glory for our re-release of the model kit
Happy to have been asked.
What was it like coming back to render the ship?
Revisiting an old friend... one of my all-time favorite personal designs.
One of the details clearly seen in the illustration is that there are windows on the sides of the ship. Some fans held the perception that the ship had no windows at all.
Interesting. It's true, there is only a heat shield on the front, but this shuttle has always had those side windows along with one on the back. The tall windows were designed that way in order for travelers of any eye-level height to see out. The same reasoning is behind the longer windows on the Enterprise-D, which followed years later.
What is the square shape on top of the front wedge? It lights up in the film. Is that another window?
Nope, it's just a light... kind of a formation light or location beacon corresponding to another one like it on the Warp Sled.
My understanding is that your original concept for the shuttle was that it was to be replacement for the Galileo style seen in the TV series.
When I was asked for ideas on the Enterprise cargo decks, part of those ideas included new hanger deck spaces where one would logically expect to see shuttlecraft. Since the larger long-range shuttle had already been designed, I thought it made sense to have the Enterprise shuttles look the same, although smaller, to fit the spaces below deck. Logically if we were updating the Enterprise, the shuttles should be updated as well. Someone disagreed with that, of course, providing us all with a totally empty area back there.
Plenty of space to keep Tribbles out of the way I guess.
Was the shuttle to be a Vulcan design used by the Federation?
The back-story in my mind at the time was that the shuttlecraft itself was a Starfleet design, while the warp sled would be contributed through the efforts of the Vulcan Space Authorities.
I notice the yellow corners are somewhat reminiscent of some of the details on the saucer of the Refit. Were those details meant to communicate that idea?
Those yellow details actually represent the (Starfleet) ship's RCS (Reaction Control System) emitter housings. They're coverings that shield surrounding surfaces from the heat/radiation of the emitters, used for low velocity maneuvering. Another name for them is Maneuvering Thrusters. As for the Enterprise, they are not only on the saucer, but can be found on the engineering hull for use when the two hulls (saucer & engineering) are maneuvering separately. That separate RCS arrangement is also on the shuttle and it's sled.
I know you are a regular contributor to the Star Trek Ships of the Line calendars; the newest one is now available. What else have you been working on?
I'm contributing ideas & layouts for the rebuilding of a local amusement park
and am involved in various artwork commissions. I'm also in the middle of a book titled: Probert Designs
which is taking way too long to finish.
A lot of fans will be looking forward to see that, myself included. Is there anything you would like to promote?
International tolerance & support of human rights, solar energy, and all-electric transportation.
Well, who wouldn't want that? ... Besides a Klingon...
Thanks again for your time Andrew. It has been a pleasure.
To see more of Andrew's work including more background on the Enterprise Refit, Vulcan Shuttle and many more of Andrew's creations, visit his website, www.probertdesigns.com.
Look out for the re-release of the Vulcan Shuttle and our NEW 1/1000 Enterprise Refit model kits coming this December. Buildup and photography by Jim Small. For excellence in model building, visit his website, www.smallartworks.ca
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