Forensic Cinematography on Star Trek's "MIND SIFTER" episode

“Forensic Cinematography” is the term I coined for the type of work we did on the a recent STAR TREK: NEW VOYAGES episode: MIND SIFTER [which was nominated in the BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY category of the International Academy of Web Television!]

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 Star Trek: New Voyages is a different sort of production from the ones I do in my day to day employ…this is a total 100% fan based project that is basically a continuation of the original 1960’s TV series, into its never-to-be 4th season run. This production is made for fans and by fans and is distributed exclusively on the web.

When we shot this episode in 2014, Paramount Pictures and the CBS network [who now own the Star Trek franchise] were OK with fans producing fan based and fan made Star Trek projects…as long as there is no profit made off of the ventures. Thus this MIND SIFTER episode was an entirely volunteer production.

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Based in the upstate historic town of Ticonderoga, New York, and in a large former grocery store building, is an exact replica of the 1967 Desilu stage 9: the interior sets for Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise! Let me tell you, this is an incredible recreation of the original TV series sets, built with the original studio blueprints, with exact details right down to the exact same type of carpet, paint colors, resin cast pushbuttons and wild set walls. The mad genius behind this incredible endeavor is James Cawley, a life long Trek fan who worked on the Star Trek: Next Generation series wardrobe department and worked alongside many of the original departments heads of the 60’s original TV series.

My introduction to this webseries was through a director friend of mine, the late Mark Burchett, who had directed several episodes of ST: P2 and always told me about his wonderful experiences with this show. I have been a huge fan of the original series, but as a freelance DP, the thought of traveling myself some 600 miles and working for absolutely free for two weeks and covering all my own living expenses just did not sit right with myself nor my wife. I’m sure many folks in this biz can feel my dilemma.

After putting my friend off for a couple of years, I found myself experiencing a very “banner” year work wise, and I found out that the script to be shot this year was based upon the short story MIND SIFTER, which is a hugely popular Trek story written in the early 70’s and incorporating many of the best aspects of the original series. I became excited about the prospects of actually photographing a recreation of this 60’s TV classic and I decided to accept as much work as I could to tide me over for the lost 2 weeks I would experience. Everything seemed to fall into place.

In my interview with James Cawley and the director: Mark Edward Lewis, I expressed my desire to shoot this episode ONLY if I could incorporate the techniques and style of the original TV series DP: Gerry Finnerman, ASC.

Both the producer and director said they would want nothing less! Music to my ears…plus they were very interested in the 1966 look of the first season of Star Trek, this was when Gerry Finnerman’s first hire as a DP and the visual style of that season was very film noir yet with rich colors.

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First, let me give you a little back-story on Star Trek’s DPs.

Star Trek was one of the few TV series to jump through the hoops of producing two pilots, ordered by NBC.

“THE CAGE” was the original pilot, photographed by Ernest Haller, ASC.

This did not test well but the network had some interest and ordered a second TV pilot: “WHERE NO MAN HAS GONE BEFORE”, photographed by William E. Snyder, ASC.

When the series was finally green lighted, Trek’s producers sought out Harry Stradling, Sr, ASC to helm the camera department.

Mr. Stradling told the Trek producers that he was too busy to do this show, but thought that his operator, a young 32 year old Jerry Finnerman would be a great choice. Jerry Finnerman had worked as camera operator on several of Harry Stradling’s movies including his Oscar winning MY FAIR LADY.

Thus Jerry Finnerman became the youngest DP to shoot a TV series at the time.

Jerry’s approached to Star Trek was film noir yet in color. He lit the sets with heavy shadows, cuts in the lights across the actors as well as the backgrounds and sets. He insisted they paint as much of the sets in neutral gray so that he could paint the colors on with gels, to reflect the emotion and tone of the scene. Several times during his first year photographing the series, he was pulled into network executive offices and warned that he was going too far with his contrast and shadows…that the look he was creating would not transfer well on the new [and primitive] color TV sets that were just beginning to flood the market.

The producers of Star Trek respectively supported him and backed him up all the way. Star Trek producer Gene Roddenberry said not to worry; he liked what he saw and did not want it to change.

Jerry Finnerman went on to photograph the majority of this show and only left near the end when Paramount Pictures had acquired Desilu and had substantially cut the show’s budget, this was in the late 3rd and final season. Jerry’s gaffer George Merhoff and key grip George Rader stayed the course to the end, maintaining the look of the show. The bulk of these last episodes were photographed by Al Francis, ASC who had been Finnerman’s camera operator on TREK, thus Finnerman “paid it forward” and let his operator step-up to the DP position, much like Harry Stradling, Sr did a few years back.

As a young lad and cinema fan, I loved the world of Star Trek that I watched on reruns in the early 70’s. The look of the show, the gadgets, the hot women in short skirts all hit the right mental processes and actually convinced me that this was the avenue for my future employment. I studied the cinematography of Star Trek and other movies/TV shows. Especially delighting in the hard look of the film noir pictures.

I had the luck of running into Jerry Finnerman, ASC in 1997 when attended an IATSE 600 Camera Guild annual meeting at the Paramount Theater. I introduced myself and we spoke of Star Trek and his approach to make a color noir show, of his choice of colored gels to reflect the mental state of the characters and the situations, of the cuckoloris cuts he placed on the characters and sets, of the directional angle of his choice of light placement, etc… We had some drinks and stayed in contact until his death in 2011.

The thing that I wanted to do on this web series was to utilize the techniques and information that Jerry had shared with me, I wanted to recreate to the best of my ability, what Jerry would have done if he was given the chance to do so again.

Trek fans are pretty hard-core, and they KNOW when something is not correct or ‘cannon’.

I found myself humbled while on set by the many others who really “knew” the show..details like which colors were in Spock’s quarters [a redress of the only crew cabin ever constructed: Kirk’s quarters], what colors were in Kirk’s quarters in the first season, when they changed to another color in season 2, etc…

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A vast wealth of information can be had online on TrekCore, which has frame grabs of each shot of each episode in order of broadcast. I found this a treasury of visual information when I needed to place a color or flag or cookie pattern over any wall or corridor….which type of lens to use, etc.

Of course the original TV series was shot on Kodak 35mm 5251 [ASA 50] color stock, swapped out to 5254 [ASA 100] in 1968, on Mitchell BNC’s [and the occasional Arri 2C for hand held work]. I actually own a Paramount Mitchell BNC camera that was used on other Paramount 60’s series MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE [also sometimes photographed by Jerry Finnerman], and quite possibly this Mitchell could have been used as a second camera on Trek. But in this day and age, we shot on digital. For this project, I chose to use my Epic-Dragon camera. But, I insisted on shooting with my vintage Cooke/Van Dieman Series 2 and 3 Speed Panchros to give it a vintage feel. We also used a set of antique Mitchell diffusions on the women, matching the exact diffused look that Jerry gave the women back in the day.

In staying true to the original look, we shot at standard 1:1.33 aspect ratio [4:3] and stayed on a dolly, mainly as a means to maneuver the camera from set up to set up, few and far between actual camera moves, as per the original show.

We also tried to never use a focal length wider that a 25mm, to match the original set of Super Baltar lenses that were the standard issue of that era [note: in a very few incidents did Finnerman use a lens wider than a 25mm..He used a Kinoptic 9.8mm when photographing wild and distorted POV shots where someone was under the influence of an exotic drug or had lost their mind]. Trek did occasionally use a zoom for a wild effect and we did incorporated this into a couple of shots, but again, we maintained a dogma to stay true to the 1960’s and pulled ourselves back to prevent any visual penalties.

Lighting was really the most fun! I know that the original series was heavy into 10Ks, 5Ks and a million 2Ks to get the exposure needed to maintain a T4 exposure [or close to it] whilst rolling ASA 50 stock. We had a camera that is natively ASA 800, plus a much smaller crew and meager lighting budget. Yet we maintained a look that I feel humbly replicate of the original series.

We had a couple of 5Ks and 2K, but lit mostly with 1Ks. I stuck to my guns and made sure we stayed true to the 60’s era by not using any Kino’s, nor HMI’s nor any modern technology. We keyed with hard lights, back lit and top lit with hard lights, and we even filled with hard lights, making sure our shadows replicated the original show’s look. I kept the ratios of key to fill the same as Jerry did and made sure that the back grounds and sets were always at least one stop down from the actor’s key. Jerry told me that with all the blinking lights and other background distractions, he had to work out a method of separating the actors from the complicated backgrounds, especially situations like the Bridge set of the Enterprise which actually is much smaller than one would think and not really a situation where distance and shallow depth of field will help you out.

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One particular item I had noticed years before, and something that I brought up to Jerry in one of our conversations, was his continued use of a certain cuckoloris [aka: cookie, which is a device usually cut from thin plywood, painted black, that has an interesting shape…these are placed in front of the lights to make various shadow patterns on walls or any surface] . I had always thought it appeared to be a wagon wheel of some sort, and I always marveled that the future’s 23rd century star ship had an 19th century wagon wheel shadow pattern on many many backgrounds! Jerry told me that this was a cookie that he was particularly fond of, his mentor Harry Stradling Sr. had invented this pattern and it was called the “Stradling Wheel”. Jerry actually had two of these and he used this particular pattern to break up light on flat walls both on the Enterprise, on other space ships as well as on walls of alien planets. Jerry told me that at one time, these 2 cookie patterns were used as props in one of the Trek episodes where they were recreating a television studio of the 60’s on some planet. Of course, being the nerd fan that I am, I knew exactly which episode he was referring to, even if he could not remember [episode: BREAD AND CIRCUSES]. Jerry sketched out the wheel pattern and gave me the approximate size, I knew that one day I would use this knowledge.

So, on this episode that I was to shoot, I knew I had to recreate this Stradling Wheel cookie to create the shadow patterns that Jerry had achieved some 50 years ago.

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STRADLING WHEEL cookie

The STRADLING WHEEL in action [this is a smaller onto be used with smaller fresnel lamps. Still photographs courtesy of Garth Gullekson [unit stills photographer]

The STRADLING WHEEL in action [this is a smaller onto be used with smaller fresnel lamps.

Still photographs courtesy of Garth Gullekson [unit stills photographer]

 

I took his original drawing and compared it to the frame grabs from the episode he had mentioned, and I scaled down the pattern from its original 5K light source to a 2K source, and I created a new cookie. Now one has to factor in the shape and softness that a pattern cast from a cookie that is lit by a 5K fresnel to a similar pattern cast by a 2K Fresnel, and we found that once on set, we had to use Hampshire diffusion to perfect the subtle softness that a larger fresnel creates.

Another technique Jerry imparted to me was what he called the “Kirk light”. Basically this is the lighting cuts he used on William Shatner to enhance his eyes and downplay his hairpiece. This was originally a necessity but later became a signature lighting style that highlighted the TV series and became a famous look.

Of course, this lighting style is very fragile in the sense that the actor playing Kirk absolutely MUST hit his mark and eye line direction, if even off by a fraction of an inch, the illusion becomes a very apparent mistake. Brian Gross, our Kirk, was incredibly gifted in hitting his marks each and every time, he really enjoyed being lit by his “Kirk Light”.

Last, the colors were very important. Like I previously mentioned, the Trek fans that watch this web series are very very very versed in the Star Trek universe and can quickly spot any imperfections, like the wrong uniform, set piece, hand prop, wall color, etc… We happen to have an on set fellow named Jamie “Fez” Sanchez who apparently has a photographic memory and was the go-to-guy to ask any question regarding Trek. If we were shooting an angle toward Kirk’s quarter’s door, and I did not know if the door should have a color gel applied to it, and if so, was there a cookie pattern on said door, I could walk up to “Fez” and ask what episode [and which season that particular episode was filmed…which allowed me to find the appropriate frame grab on TrekCoore.com] had a good shot of said door…he would stop for a second or two and then blurt out an episode name and where in that episode the needed reference shot was located, then he would pull out his laptop and bring up that particular frame…absolutely astounding!

As I previously mentioned, the entire crew was populated by fans, not seasoned production crew. This made me a bit unsettled at first, but I quickly found that these folks had experience in shooting a half dozen previous episodes and knew their way around a c-stand. Whatever they were missing in experience they made up in enthusiasm. These folks were from all walks of life, from a car salesman to a NASA scientist, all planning their 2-week yearly vacation around these productions. My hat is off to this very dedicated group who worked very long hours in a true labor of love!

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Frame Grabs from the Red Epic Dragon footage.

Frame Grabs from the Red Epic Dragon footage.