Star Trek: Boldly Going To Strange New Worlds With DGC Ontario Creatives

For the DGC Ontario Members who consider themselves true Trekkies, working on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds was nothing short of a career milestone! We sit down with some of the Directors and Art Directors who navigated this latest instalment in the Star Trek universe as seasoned fans, using cutting-edge motion graphics and Virtual Production technology while paying homage to a nostalgic aesthetic. Read our interview with Strange New Worlds Directors Christopher Byrne and Amanda Row, Art Director Jody Clement, Motion Graphics Art Director Timothy Peel, and Executive Producer/President & CEO of Whizbang Films, Frank Siracusa.

Everything was a miracle. It was against all odds: the shortage of materials, the shortage of people, the inability to get too many people together in a room because of social distancing, the constant shutdowns – it was unreal. That we pulled off season one was just remarkable, and there’s not one weak episode. I think the fans are gonna go nuts.

Motion Graphics Art Director Tim Peel

How did you first get pulled aboard Star Trek: Strange New Worlds?

Art Director Jody Clement: I was working with Production Designer Tamara Deverell on The Strain and Tamara was contacted by the Discovery Producers to take over for the Production Designer, who had to leave due to scheduling issues. She accepted the job offer and said, “You know, I need to bring Jody with me.” I was very involved as an Art Director on all things Star Trek throughout the years, including the shorts. So when they decided to do Strange New Worlds, I met with the Production Designer they hired, Jonathan Lee, and we connected right away. I said goodbye to Discovery, and hello to Strange New Worlds.

Executive Producer/President & CEO of Whizbang Films Frank Siracusa: CBS had approached John Weber and I to ask where in the world they could produce a Star Trek franchise. We created a point system, giving one point for critical elements like tax rebates, exchange rates, crew expertise, and available stage space that would be big enough to build a Starship. Our assessment included all the major film and TV centres and Toronto won out with the most points, so they chose Ontario to produce both Star Trek series: Discovery and Strange New Worlds

Director Amanda Row: I was in Vancouver working as a Producing Director on Nancy Drew. Larry Teng, the original Producing Director on Nancy Drew, is really good friends with Chris Fisher from Strange New Worlds. Chris called Larry, and asked, “Do you know any cool Directors?” Larry knew that I was a massive Trekkie, so he was like, “Oh, you gotta hire Amanda. She’s awesome. You won’t regret it.” It all happened very quickly.

Motion Graphics Art Director Tim Peel: As I was sort of emerging as one of the most experienced Motion Graphic Designers in town, Discovery came looking. Production Designer Mark Worthington, an amazing Designer who’s been around forever, pulled me in as an advisor initially, and then brought me back for Discovery. As a lifelong Star Trek fan it was an incredible opportunity. We did the shorts with Anson Mount as Captain Pike, and at that time we didn’t have any sense that he would be the dominant character on Strange New Worlds yet. But much to our delight, Anson Mount was just made for this role. The synergy between him and Ethan Peck (as Spock) and Rebecca Romijn (as Number One) was really something special. I’ve been in this business almost 30 years now, and no matter how much talent and money and resources and time you put together, what takes something from good to great is having a cast that gels.

So after we did those Pike-related shorts, Jody Clement said, “you’ve got to come on board for this new production.” And so we all came on board and it was just nuts! We built this show in the middle of the pandemic. I don’t even know how we got a crew together. I was already very deep into Discovery, and all the while I’m starting to manage Motion Graphics on Strange New Worlds as well. It was this lovely mess to start with. Everything was a miracle. It was against all odds: the shortage of materials, the shortage of people, the inability to get too many people together in a room because of social distancing, the constant shutdowns – it was unreal. That we pulled off season one was just remarkable, and there’s not one weak episode. I think the fans are gonna go nuts.

Director Chris Byrne: I feel like the luckiest Canadian Director there is, because I worked on Star Trek: Discovery too. I was working with the original Discovery showrunner, Brian Fuller, on his series Hannibal and American Gods. We had created a visual language together to weave into modern episodic TV that people responded really well to, so we started taking those ideas and putting them into the next project, which was Star Trek: Discovery. I was secretly exploding inside, like, “are you serious?” Brian ended up moving on, and I was left on this dream project, meeting a whole new universe of people and new friends, like Creator and Writer Alex Kurtzman, Executive Producer Aaron Baiers, Strange New Worlds Producing Director Chris Fisher, and all of the cast and crew. We got to reintroduce TV audiences to Star Trek, because there hadn’t been a Star Trek series in a long time. We had the jumping-off point of the J.J. Abrams film franchise to start our storytelling, but nothing in the TV space for decades. The great thing about Star Trek is that you have a big history to draw upon, and everything looks a little different. Star Trek: The Motion Picture looks different than Wrath of Khan, but it’s the base philosophy that stays the same, so you have to ability to add your own flavour and nuance to the world. As long as you play within the rules that are Star Trek and it’s very positive and inclusive worldview.

Were you a big Trekkie before you joined this production?

Director Chris Byrne: I don’t want to give anything away from my episode (Episode 9), but in 1979, I dressed up as a character from Star Trek for Halloween. My parents were not so thrilled with my TV addiction or my interest in creating paper mache things and wearing them outside the house. But the character I dressed up as in 1979 is the one that my episode revolves around. I have referenced this character over and over again in my life…

The circumstances surrounding this particular character were also applicable to my work. So I was doubly honoured, because they literally could have chosen anyone for this, but the Producers chose me to direct it. 

Art Director Jody Clement: It was a dream come true for me! I’ve been a Trekkie since the 80s and 90s, way back with The Next Generation, and it was the thrill of a lifetime to get to work with my number one Will Riker aka Jonathan Frakes.

Motion Graphics Art Director Tim Peel: Because I’ve been a fan my whole life, I have this encyclopedia in my head. You just have to know all this stuff and be into it. I can’t transfer it to my team, they need to ask me details about the canon all the time. Discovery was built to be pre- Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Wrath of Khan and that whole era, and Strange New Worlds takes place even before that, and so there’s a sort of a look that I’ve maintained. I talk very frequently with (original series Graphic Designer) Michael Okuda and John Van Citters of CBS. I’m in touch with all the old luminaries. It’s kind of shocking that I am essentially the new Michael Okuda. I’m their guy, and this is someone I was a fan of as a graphic designer in the 90s when I was watching Star Trek. I was like, Jesus Christ! That is a dream job. I fucking lucked out. Here I am. And I’m trying my best to honour him and what he did. 

Director Amanda Row: I’ve never really wanted to win an Oscar or anything. I don’t have those kinds of aspirations for my career. I just want to tell great stories. But I always had this one little dream: “Maybe one day I could direct on Star Trek.” So actually getting to do it was so surreal, and still is the most surreal, mind-blowing privilege. On one of my very first days on set, I was shooting on the Bridge, and I went up to Anson Mount, who plays Captain Pike, to start giving him my blocking. I couldn’t help it but I just choked up, and almost cried. Anson puts his hand on my shoulder, and he’s just like, “I understand.” For many people, Star Trek is home. It’s such an important canon and franchise, and it’s an incredible, amazing thing to be able to contribute to it.

I’ve never really wanted to win an Oscar or anything. I don’t have those kinds of aspirations for my career. I just want to tell great stories. But I always had this one little dream: ‘Maybe one day I could direct on Star Trek.’”

Director Amanda Row

The original Star Trek was very progressive. How do you strike a balance between modernizing the original series while updating it for contemporary sensibilities?

Director Amanda Row: You’ll see as the season goes on that every episode has a standalone flavour. Each episode is like its own little movie. It asks you to embrace a different genre each time. I don’t want to spoil anything, but there’s a bunch of different styles of episodes, and we as Directors were very much encouraged to shoot the episode in the way that we thought the story deserved to be told. We were really given freedom to experiment with the camera, so that every episode feels unique and feels like a different planet, regardless of whether we’re actually going to a different planet. I love episodic television. The X-Files was my absolute favourite show as a kid, and I loved how I could just tune in, and I didn’t have to know what happened last week. 

Without speaking too much about it, I had a very, very unique episode that called back to a couple of specific episodes of both The Next Generation and The Original Series. Any opportunity I could, I’d give a wink or a nod to stories in the past. Our Writers are all big Star Trek nerds, and it feels like this is made by people who love Star Trek. And for me, this iteration of Star Trek feels like the essence of the series. It feels like the fun, exciting adventure it’s supposed to be. I will say that I came in with a very different vision for my episode than what was initially planned, and the Producers they were like, “Sure, go ahead.” I was allowed to do what I imagined and was encouraged and supported. It was awesome.

Director Chris Byrne: I think that (Creator and Head Writer) Akiva Goldsman is incredible. He’s been a member of the Star Trek family for 20 years, writing and producing various productions. He even appeared as an actor in two of the movies. Strange New Worlds relies on the basic storytelling that was so attractive with the original series. We have a group of characters, and you learn about them as the story goes on. Simple storytelling, where you don’t need to hit the audience over the head. It’s really just honing in and paying homage to the brilliance that was the original series. For me, it’s an escape. So much television is dark. The genre that I mostly work in is also dark, because there’s an intrigue there, and I like exploring that. But as a consumer of television, I also enjoy optimism that is interesting and engaging, and I think that’s the philosophy of Star Trek and Strange New Worlds at its core. There’s always an appetite for more Star Trek, but with a modern spin. With Strange New Worlds, we’re forward-thinking and bringing in some origin stories, playing on things that were alluded to, and expanding on bits and pieces of story that were scattered throughout the original series. 

Motion Graphics Art Tim Peel: The original series doesn’t have any real screens. It’s 1967-69, right? They did a couple of really complicated burn-ins, which are hilarious, and some fun backlit things, but there’s no screens. The fans are going to kill me for saying this, but I look at Star Trek as being completely rebooted from The Motion Picture. So the only examples that I could really build on are from the Star Trek: The Motion Picture to the Star Trek Generations era, which has all the screens that I could possibly look at. Everything else is just implied cardboard. 

The most amazing thing of all, I think, is that The Enterprise is a character. This is why Star Trek: The Next Generation was so successful: the ship itself is a character. On Discovery, though, a lot of the characters have been treated badly in their lives and don’t respect the military hierarchy, and as a result, the USS Discovery is a jumbled ship built by three different designers. It was formed in such fire. It’s dark, dimly lit, very metallic, kind of cold. It feels like a cold, icy ship. While USS Enterprise is a warm, comfortable place, it’s a ship that is a character unto itself, amongst the others. It’s part of the ensemble cast. And I think that element is going to be a real success with the fans.

Art Director Jody Clement: If you walked into the Art Department, you’d see that the walls were plastered with photo references that we gathered, divided up into, for example, what the transporter room or the shuttle looked like on the original series, on Enterprise, on Next Generation, and so on, but with a focus on what it looked like on the original series. Any time we had this reference, we would focus on what it looked like on the original series, but bringing it up to what we’re capable of in 2022. 

I was at the premiere of Strange New Worlds in New York City a couple of weeks ago, and Alex Kurtzman was talking about how it was the fans that brought Strange New Worlds to life. It was something that was always talked about amongst CBS and the Producers. But it was the fans who were so thrilled with Captain Pike in Discovery, and the characters, the costume design, the set design, and everything just resonated with them so much that they brought it to life in Strange New Worlds

“The great thing about Star Trek is that you have a big history to draw upon, and everything looks a little different. Star Trek: The Motion Picture looks different than Wrath of Khan, but the base philosophy stays the same. You have the ability to add your own flavour and nuance to the world, as long as you play within the rules of Star Trek.”

Director Chris Byrne

Talk to us about working with Virtual Production and Augmented Reality Technology. What were the challenges involved?

Executive Producer/President & CEO of Whizbang Films Frank Siracusa: The requirement to produce Strange New Worlds on an episodic schedule offered a unique challenge for us as producers. Augmented Reality Technology using Unreal Engine software provided big scope for these new worlds while remaining within the confines of episodic television.

Director Amanda Row: There are limitations, but you can trade the limitations for so much more opportunity in terms of what you can do and how you can shoot it. We had the Pixomondo crew there on set (the AR Wall used by Strange New Worlds and Discovery is located at Pixomondo’s and William F. White International’s virtual production stage in Toronto), who would answer any questions I had. I did a sequence where we had fire in front of the AR wall, and we had to consider, how does that fire interact with the AR? It very much felt like everyone was discovering the capabilities as we went along, and now in season two we’re testing and seeing what other crazy cool things can we do with it.

Art Director Jody Clement: When we were learning about this technology, I started off by reaching out to some of the people I knew who were working on The Mandalorian, to get their feedback. We all realized quite quickly that we needed to treat our digital asset creators just the same way that we handle the physical build sets with our construction and paint team. So in order to have a set built physically, we reverse-engineered it, and applied those same principles to the digital aspect of it. Believe it or not, it takes just as long to build that digital asset as it does to build the physical set. That was not a surprise to us, but it was a revelation that we needed to do our jobs as we normally would, we just have to realize that now it’s being created in a virtual world. 

Director Chris Byrne: With regards to the AR wall, I have been dreaming about this kind of production since I was an Assistant Director. The base platform where you create your environment, or what we call the asset, is predominantly created in a program called Unreal Engine, which is a video game platform. I saw early on that this could be an interesting opportunity for film and television. I used to be in charge of dream sequences when I was a full-time Second Unit Director. When I was on Twelve Monkeys, coincidentally Unreal Engine became open source, so anyone could do it. I work at an animation studio called Tendril Design & Animation. I direct live-action, consult and work with the artists there, and I’ve always been following along with Unreal Engine. I brought it to the Producers of Twelve Monkeys as a solution to building a red forest for a dream sequence. That was the very beginning of my version of the AR wall. When they built one for Star Trek: Discovery and Strange New Worlds, I was one of the first people to take a main unit into this massive arena. We were learning as we went along, and it was during COVID so we were all wearing masks and goggles, trying to talk to each other, and it was this incredible group effort to push this impossible thing into reality. Every time I go to infinity, that’s not infinity – infinity is six feet away. It’s the trick of the lens. The way that the background moves with the actors is a tricky thing to explore. You have to do a lot of R&D to understand it. All of the lessons from my early experiments with Unreal Engine were valuable, because they taught me that the more we stack up lenses and take attention away from the environment, the more real it is. We always have to reconcile where the floor meets the wall. The irony is, and this has happened many times on Star Trek, where you’re actually working in your own metaphor. I stumbled into a room on Star Trek: Discovery, lost in Pinewood Studios, with 20 3D printers. They’re all just replicators. Star Trek invented the replicator!

“I was at the premiere of Strange New Worlds in New York City a couple of weeks ago, and Alex Kurtzman was talking about how it was the fans that brought Strange New Worlds to life. It was something that was always talked about amongst CBS and the Producers. But it was the fans who were so thrilled with Captain Pike in Discovery, and the characters, the costume design, the set design, and everything just resonated with them so much that they brought it to life in Strange New Worlds.” 

Art Director Jody Clement

Tim, tell us about your experience designing Motion Graphics for Discovery and Strange New Worlds.

Motion Graphics Art Director Tim Peel: It’s a challenge for us because we do a lot of storytelling in Motion Graphics. One of the things I teach my new team members about Motion Graphics is that we are the aggregator of the story. We constantly gather the facts and do a quick summary, usually on a screen. Sometimes it’s a map, a ship being scanned, a location, or even internal organs. There’s a lot of exposition where we’re summarizing and aggregating the whole story and giving a foundation to the characters. We add a lot of depth to the story. I try to teach my team to reverse engineer solutions. I give them the Coles notes: “Here’s a standard Federation screen. Keep the vernacular as it is, please don’t alter any of that. Just make sure that you take the plot points that we need, give me your best guess at that, and I’ll refine it for you.” It just organically grows from that point on. They learn and become active participants, but I have to keep very tight control over Star Trek‘s look and its canon because fans are obsessing over the smallest detail. 

This is a team that really loves what we do, so it makes it easier for us. And I have a whole lot of fun working with that.

Jody, tell us about your process of integrating the physical and virtual elements of the Art Department.

Art Director Jody Clement: We needed to think of the volume wall as foreground pieces and not necessarily a set. Our Production Designer, our DPs (Magdalena Górka and Glen Keenan) and Directors, we all needed to figure out what was necessary to be built in the physical world on the stage, what was most important to have on those screens in the volume, and how to blend the real world and the digital world together seamlessly. It would be basically the same as if we had real construction pieces and a blue screen. 

One of the things that we needed to do was create set pieces that could easily get rolled into the stage and then rolled out quickly, and that was new to us. The moving parts for installing a set that is only going to be up for a day, or even half a day, is all choreographed. Typically, with a new set, a standard practice is to do a camera test to ensure the lighting is right. With the AR stage, it’s that much more important to have what we call a “blend day.” It’s not just a camera test, we actually have the lighting and the colour correction done in the virtual wall the day before we shoot it. There’s so much lighting integrated into every set piece that we build, so we have to get all of those pieces in, turn on the lights, colour correct the lights, and time the lights. There’s also the integration with the virtual scenery up on the LED wall. The volume wall is a horseshoe shape, with a ceiling piece on top that is technically never supposed to be seen because this ceiling exists only for reflections. For example, there might be some reflective qualities to our characters’ spacesuits, and the ceiling allows for those reflections to be more accurate.

Talk to us about how technology like the AR wall is transforming your creative process. How do you see this technology evolving in the next five to ten years?

Art Director Jody Clement: I think that we’re still going to need to go on location for many productions. Currently, there are two AR stages in town.  I wouldn’t be surprised if if every production or if every studio in Toronto had their own volume wall in in five to ten years. I feel like it’s going to be standard practice to say, “We need this, it’s going to be on the AR wall, and we’ll schedule it according to the availability of that particular stage.” I think that it will definitely become common in our business.

Director Chris Byrne: The integration of Virtual Production into film and television production is going through a learning curve. It’s a very complex thing, to build a universe. Imagine nine of the most powerful computers that exist, and each computer is responsible for one section of that wall. It’s driving one world, and the resolution needs to be optimized for that world, so that things move in the background as you move and as the camera moves. At some point, in any strategic endeavour, you have to say, “this is our team, this is our process” and at the end of that process, which is at the end of the first season of each show, there is a post mortem. How did that go? What can we do differently? What would be better? 

Motion Graphics Art Director Tim Peel: I was watching the Emmy Awards a few years ago and I was looking at Jon Favreau, as he was just looking around the room. Jon Favreau is very much in James Cameron’s position right now; he’s looking around the room and nobody in that room knows that he’s changed the way the film industry works completely. It was Favreau who pushed through the idea of using the latest technology on The Jungle Book in 2016. I’ve been in this business since ‘93, and this is one of the more fundamental sea changes in how things are being done.

My foot has always been a little bit in the visual effects world. But the AR wall is making things much more direct in a really interesting way. The ultimate dream would be Steadicam, through the Shuttlebay, over Pike’s shoulder, right into the shuttle. Then with the AR wall we lift up and go out the door while the Set Decorators are quickly changing the exterior, then fly down through the planet’s atmosphere, and then come back out to see the planet’s surface, all as a single take. That would be the AR Wall master shot. That’s sort of the dream that we’re not able to do yet. I think The Mandalorian tried a few shots that were close to that. And unlike The Mandalorian, we have two standing sets in the AR wall. The AR wall version of the Engineering Bay is really powerful and really works. It was such a brave and, we thought, insane idea. I thought, “Akiva, you’ve gone off the deep end. We can’t do it.” And it was tough, but it produces such an extraordinary effect that the Cafeteria and the Shuttlebay are really stunning. 

What did it mean to you to get to work on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds in Ontario?

Executive Producer/President & CEO of Whizbang Films Frank Siracusa: Given the resources to work with the finest craftspeople in Ontario and to deliver on-screen stories by Alex Kurtzman and Akiva Goldsman has been a fulfilling experience for me as a producer, who can proudly say that Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds are made in Canada!  

Director Amanda Row: As a television Director, sometimes you have moments of like, “What am I even contributing to the world? I’m just making television.” But working on something like this reminds you how powerful and important stories are, and how we can inspire people to picture a new future and see what humanity can do, which was the original intention behind Star Trek. So it gives you purpose, and it was very much needed. 

Like I said, I’m a huge Trekkie, even before I did the show, and there is this idea amongst certain fans that it’s gonna be “Woke Trek”, saying oh, it’s just gonna be a “woke” show or whatever. But that’s what Star Trek always was. It’s been that way since the very beginning. It’s using allegory to help us reflect on ourselves, so I think we’re doing exactly what we did back in the 60s. It’s just that now we have different issues and different questions, and 50 years of knowledge and growth that we’ve built on. So I just firmly disagree with anyone who is rolling their eyes at “Woke Trek”, because that is Star Trek, and it always has been. 

Director Chris Byrne: There’s two angles to Star Trek. One is technological idealism, all of the conveniences and incredible abilities that we can have in the future. And then there’s just the sheer enormity of the utopian ideals. There’s no money, no poverty, no sexism, or racism. Everything has a purpose and there’s a drive to be better, to explore, and to right wrongs. It’s an amazing world, and that’s what captured my attention as a kid, through the fuzzy, grainy, black and white television signals. It really was a window to another world. And now, I ride my bike as a Canadian, as a Torontonian, across the city down to the stage and I get to go to a space battle meeting. It’s an absolute dream come true. Not to be too nerdy about it, but it really is.

Watch Star Trek: Strange New Worlds on Paramount+ in the U.S., and on CTV Sci-Fi Channel and streaming on Crave in Canada.

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