The Real Miracle Workers Behind Star Trek The Motion Picture

By Chris Snellgrove | Updated

Star Trek the motion picture special effects

In the fictional world of Star Trek, Scotty quickly established a reputation as a “miracle worker” who could accomplish the most amazing tasks in a fraction of the time they should take. In the real world, the genuine miracle workers behind Star Trek: The Motion Picture were the special effects duo of Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra. When they were brought to the film, they had to do something even Scotty would have found daunting: completing two years worth of work in only six months.

A Tight Deadline

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Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a film facing a firm deadline, and that deadline was what these special effects gurus were racing. On March 28, 1978, then-Paramount President Michael Eisner held a splashy press conference to announce details about the film. Then he dropped the bombshell announcement that the movie would come out in June 1979.

Trying For Their Own Star Wars

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If you know much about the movie in question, you know that Paramount missed this somewhat arbitrary deadline (presumably, the studio wanted their own summer blockbuster like Star Wars).

Star Trek: The Motion Picture would ultimately come out December 6, 1979, but it wasn’t merely making the whiz-bang special effects that held things up. Instead, the movie was delayed due to script issues (something made worse by the fact that Nimoy had negotiated final script approval).

In Over Their Heads

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It was an open secret that Paramount wanted Star Trek: The Motion Picture to have the same quality of effects that Star Wars had two years earlier.

Those effects came courtesy of John Dykstra, and Paramount was interested in hiring him as well as the Close Encounters of the Third Kind effects maestro Douglas Trumbull. When they weren’t available, however, Paramount hired the effects services of a company called Robert Abel and Associates.

In short, the young company wasn’t really up to the task, and after working on the Star Trek: The Motion Picture special effects for a year, they didn’t have much to show for it. This put the studio in a terrible bind because movie theaters had paid $30 million in advances to Paramount expecting the film to come out by its new date of December 7. 

It Cost Paramount

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The studio eventually convinced Trumbull to do the effects, and he offered Paramount both a promise and a warning. “I’ll do the special effects, and I’ll deliver them on time,” he said. “But it’s going to cost you.”

That may sound like haughty words from the Star Trek: The Motion Picture special effects lead, but he was simply very aware of the insane task that Paramount had given him. He estimated that the film would have more effects than both Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Worse, he was going to have to effectively do two years of effects work in only six months in order to help the film hit its release date.

The Miracle Work Was Finished

Fortunately, Star Trek: The Motion Picture had all of its special effects finished on time, as Trumbull had promised. He had some help doing this, with his former protege and Star Wars effects master John Dykstra joining him (a real “I was once the learner” situation).

These two FX geniuses brought the film to life, and even the haters who think it is wildly boring agree that the film looks gorgeous, which is exactly why it received an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects.

Certainly, Trumbull and Dykstra didn’t join Star Trek: The Motion Picture to flex their special effects chops, but that’s exactly what happened. They casually rolled in and spent only half a year creating two years’ worth of killer effects to bring this big-screen “human adventure” to life.

With respect to James Doohan, Scotty needs to move over–these are Star Trek’s real miracle workers, and fans should be forever grateful for their excellent work.

Source: Den of Geek

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