Trevor Hogg chats with Scott Chambliss about collaborating with J.J. Abrams, making Star Trek Into Darkness and the art of production design….
“It’s a total machine,” remarks Scott Chambliss when discussing his time spent making TV productions. “Doing ambitious episodic television, like we were doing with Alias [ABC, 2001 to 2005], is the hardest job in town because of the pace you have to keep up continuously and the amount of balls you have to juggle with the resources that you have which are far more limited than feature films. It’s a steam engine and you don’t have a moment to pause and reconsider.” The small screen proved to be a great training ground for big screen projects. “Because we had to work with such speed and to have strong instincts to rely on that definitely helped us in those first films because we were able to move through issues at hand, J.J. and myself with a speed that others who have been doing movies forever couldn’t quite fathom. Ultimately, it has served the both of us well for the rest of our careers.”
A significant discussion during the course of making Star Trek Into Darkness was deciding much green screen was needed to digitally augment the physical sets. “It affects a lot of people because to come up with the answers to that we have to do an exhaustive amount of drawings and models, and look at different camera angles,” states Chambliss. “With J.J. the rule of thumb is to put as much real in front of the camera as you possibly can and that is what makes him happiest at this point. We try do that first and when we can’t in the case of the island sequence that you see with the red planet we went from an elaborate story there which would have required a lot of visual effects down to something that was relatively simple, and except for that jump virtually all of it is done in camera.” The IMAX and 3D formats had to be kept in consideration. “We always have to know that the images are going to be taller for IMAX for sure and with 3D it’s more of a technical challenge for the director and camera department. We weren’t shooting with 3D cameras; they did a transfer after the fact. Our physical worlds are in 3D to begin with so as long as we were conscious that the film experience was going to express that even more it isn’t a huge ordeal for the physical production design.”
Key production team members were cinematographer Dan Mindel (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Roger Guyett (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) from Industrial Light & Magic who served as the visual effects supervisor. “We’re all of the prime collaborators with J.J. to get the visual world up there,” states Scott Chambliss. “What we do in the Art Department is to provide the environments for the film. We’re designing what the worlds are not just the set components that we build but what the visual effects will look like after we’re done shooting and it goes into post-production. All of that design work is ideally in place and is being handed over as we’re going so it’s a complete visual world is developing while we’re shooting and continues after we’re finished. With Dan it is important how we design lighting into the sets especially on a spaceship. The lighting of the actors and environment has to be part of what appears to be actual running lights of the ship itself. Dan is a wonderful collaborator in terms of figuring out what special things we might want to do in there to make it unique to our story.”
As for whether he can image a future where the jobs of a production designer and visual effects supervisor merge into one, Scott Chambliss believes, “It can happen. That will happen more with films that are primarily digital, in terms of their created environments, and it is certainly happening in things like Avatar  which had two production designers, Robert Stromberg specifically did all of the visual effects work and got onto Alice in Wonderland  and Maleficent . And there will be the other films like Lincoln  or other ones that have a visual effects component but they’re also grounded in practical environments. I don’t think that the two roles can blend into one until movie genres are distinctly one or the other. They may well go that way soon but there will still be the two different kinds of production designers and visual effects supervisors based on the kind of film they’re working on.”
Compared to its cinematic predecessor, the expectations of moviegoers are greater for the sequel. “There is definitely that,” admits Scott Chambliss. “It was the notion of it being a darker story and in some ways it is much bigger than the first Star Trek. The action sequences are bigger in scope and there seems to be more of them. The sets certainly grew in scale. It seems like it came from more, more and more.” When told that the opening sequence has been described as having a James Bond and Raiders of the Lost Ark influences, the production designer laughs, “I would say from the first days of Alias up to this very moment we have always being knocking those guys off one way or another!” The interior of iconic spaceship commanded by Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is explored more this time around. “It’s not that it is different looking. It’s just that you get to see new places in it. We were able to give it a larger scope with the help of location work and also ground it a kind of technical and scientific reality that we weren’t able to do on the last one and that’s going to be an exciting component this time around. Fans got so pissed off that part of our Enterprise engine room was shot at the Budweiser Beer plant.”
Eventually, a solution was uncovered for the planetary riddle. “What I wound up doing was many different design approaches,” states Scott Chambliss. “All different worlds of what it could be and what the language was and what was important and what wasn’t important. It seemed to go on to endless iterations until we were all exhausted and nothing was landing until the last second when I recalled one of the earlier iterations that I always felt should have been developed because there was a strong core idea and all of this time later it still felt like a strong core idea for us. I trotted it out and that is one in the film.” The look of the Klingons themselves was less troublesome. “That was done primarily in the make-up. The big visual cue we were wrestling with was the physical world itself. We discovered there was little that had been developed in the whole canon of the original series which is what we always base our material on.”