Monday, October 5, 2015

And speaking of those Star Trek: The Motion Picture (TMP) sets: One of the big criticisms of Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) was that the control panels were just a bunch of colored lights winking on and off. While that sufficed in the 1960s (kind of), it wasn't going to work in 1979. Director Robert Wise hired Harold Michelson to be the production designer. Michelson was a veteran illustrator and storyboard artist. He created the iconic "North Carolina backwoods" look of both The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle, USMC. As an art director and production designer, he'd worked on a handful of small films: Johnny Got Your Gun, The Outside Man, and Pretty Poison. He'd worked on two major films as art director: 1974's Mame (with Lucille Ball) and 1970's Catch-22.

The sole reason why Robert Wise hired him appears to be that Michelson worked with Wise on the 1973 film Two People -- a small-budget character-driven film about a man (Peter Fonda) and woman (Lindsay Wagner) who meet and then fall in love in 36 hours.

In no way had Michelson ever shown that he could have a big-budget production, much less an effects-heavy, science-driven film like TMP.

And, in fact, Michelson showed he couldn't handle it. Instead of colored lights winking on and off on the control panels........... we got gold lights winking on and off on the control panels. Instead of static images of nebulae and stars on the monitors.............. we got looping images of electronic wave-forms. (Michelson initially had these hand-animated. But the loops proved so short that it was blatantly obivious they were looping. So they filmed ocilloscopes and radar screens and other displays of electronic wave-forms and looped those. It's still obvious that they loop.)

Wise and his director of photography, Richard Kline, appear to also have been influenced both by Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas. Both directors used direct lighting -- where harsh, bright light is cast directly onto the actors and sets. This light was "cold", in that the color temperature of the light (the amount of energy, measured in Kelvins, that the photons of light impart) was very high. This created a bluish light, one which washed out colors and left everything blue-tinged.

So audiences got a "cold set": Stark, cool lighting. Washed out colors. Everything blue-tinged and steel-grey. A seeming lack of illumination in corners and side areas.

This only worsened Wise's problems with color. Wise didn't want bright primary colors, because he felt they were too garish for cinema. So the entire set is washed-out beige, grey, cream, beige-white, and dull steel-grey blues. Not a single color in sight. (Too far in the other direction....)

Compare Wise/Michelson's choices with the choices made in any number of sci fi films: 2010, 2001, Star Trek (2009), Supernova, Gravity, Star Trek: First Contact, etc. These films use primary colors. True, they are not the over-saturated primaries of TOS, but they are colors. Blues and whites "pop" on the screen. Colors are warm, not cold. Sets are well-lit, even brilliantly so in some cases.

Wise/Michelson could have -- should have! -- done better with TMP.

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