Voyager’s Visual Effects: Creating the CG Voyager with Rob Bonchune

We're wrapping up Voyager Week with a very special behind-the-scenes article from former Star Trek: Voyager Senior CG Supervisor Rob Bonchune. Rob's tenure at the franchise led him to work on all three CG-heavy Trek shows: Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise, eventually becoming the Senior CG supervisor for the last seven years of the franchise's television run.

In this new column written exclusively for TrekCore, Rob discusses the history and challenges of creating a CG version of the U.S.S. Voyager.

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Voyager's Visual Effects: Creating a CG Voyager

Column by Rob Bonchune for TrekCore.com

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Hello to all you ship fans!

If you're like me, nothing beats some nice orthographic views of your favorite ships from all the cool sci-fi television shows and movies we love. I came across some CG renders of Voyager in the TrekCore image archives - I spent 5 solid years working on Star Trek: Voyager, even contributing to the practical miniatures for the pilot before moving on to the CG realm - and I felt they were truly unacceptable, and that they didn't reflect the quality of lighting and textures of the model I used in the show.

CG was coming into play more and more on television shows during the mid-1990's, as a way to get a faster turnaround for the money spent and to make redoing shots far easier without the high expense of repeating an entire motion control miniature shot.

Although a practical filming miniature of Voyager was built for the show, the producers - especially the VFX Producer that worked with me, Mitch Suskin (and of course Dan Curry) - were planning to move completely towards CG models by the last few years of the series, if the technology proved viable. Two versions of the CG Voyager were scanned from the physical model, and built before the series began - one was built in Lightwave by John Gross, Bruce Hall, and D. H. Jones from Amblin Imaging; the other was created by Santa Barbara Studios using "Dynamation," their in-house design software.

Dynamation was also used for the Son'a ships in Star Trek: Insurrection - but because of the software's incompatibility with Lightwave, it was virtually impossible to translate those digital models into a Lightwave-ready format.

voy_wireframe_thumbA wireframe view of the Amblin Imaging model; a final render, as seen in "Unity"

The opening title sequence for Star Trek: Voyager had six distinct segments - three used motion-control shots of the studio model (here, here, and here), and three were made with Amblin Imaging's Voyager model (here, here, and here). The segments done by Santa Barbara Studios where the ones that had volumetric-type effects, like the smokey nebula which Voyager passes through. At the time, Lightwave did not have these capabilities, although they would be added in a software update a few years later.

Amblin Imaging had access to the physical miniature, and took detailed shots of the model as closely as possible - to use the actual physical model's surfaces as textures on the Lightwave CG Voyager. It turned out to be a great idea, and for the most part, it worked very well.

I was working for Foundation Imaging when I was finally assigned to Voyager full time, and that's when I had the chance to examine the existing Voyager CG model we had to use every week. I really wanted to give the CG model a major facelift so being new to the show, I asked Mojo - who was my Supervisor at Foundation Imaging on Voyager - and Mitch Suskin who was his Mojo's supervisor from Paramount - if, even on my own time, I could implement some changes to more accurately match the filming model as I felt we could not use it as it existed at the time. (This was all new to me back then and little did I know what the future held!). Using both good, clear shots of the physical model, and looking at the maps that Amblin had created, I set about pinpointing the areas that needed most work... and I'm not sure how it happened, but those ship image maps were tinted purple!

Of course, if the ship was lit correctly and not used for close-up shots - which is how it was being utilized at first - you didn't really notice, but the purist in me couldn't allow the purple hue to remain in place. According to Rick Sternbach, the Voyager hull was really a "duck egg blue" color, and when you saw the physical model in person it couldn't be more obvious. I knew that we were probably never going to use the physical model for any additional shots going forward so there was no way a fanatical, nitpicking ship perfectionist like me was going to let that color discrepancy stand. I spent quite a few evenings correcting all of the image map colors to match the physical model's shade of blue.

voy_model_thumbMike Okuda working on the noticeably blue-tinted studio model

With the time I had, I did my best to change all colors and textures to match the filming miniature as closely as possible. I got most of it done - all the big surfaces and larger details made matching CG shots to stock miniature shots pretty much a non-issue with some basic lighting. Once that was complete, the "new and improved" CG Voyager - approved by the Mitch and Dan - was given to Digital Muse and EdenFX, so that we were all working with the same source.

Maybe I was nuts, or maybe I cared too much, but I know that I wasn't the only one. Every member of the Star Trek team at Foundation - even as the roster changed over the years - were always the type that would put in the time needed to do their absolute best, and to make something look as good as possible. Considering the late nights and weekends spent in front of monitors, I guess we were crazy - but damn, I couldn't use a purple Voyager when a few nights worth of work would make it far more realistic!

There was one thing I remember changing - one horrid thing that truly did NOT work on the CG Voyager at the time - that was the blue glow behind the deflector dish. It was originally just one luminous surface and one solid color with glow, whereas the physical model had variations in the brightness as angles changed because it was lit through frosted clear resin and had a single light source. I tried my best to reproduce that look using fade maps and other texturing procedures to duplicate the variations, so it wouldn't stand out as being obviously different.

Later, with Lightwave's newer materials/texture features, I could REALLY get it identical - but for the time, it was a lot closer, and most people couldn't tell if what they were looking at was the physical or CG model. A few years later, Lightwave acquired even more surface types - such as translucent surfaces - and I was actually able to truly imitate the real-world look by creating a "frosted glass" material and putting real lighting behind the panels.

voy_deflector_thumbTop: The studio model; the model in use on-screen
Bottom: Early CG in "Unity", more refined CG in "Thirty Days"

I redid the warp nacelles in the same fashion, and was finally able to add the proper dimensional copper striping that went across the blue nacelle surface. This was really only visible when the warp drive was off, but it was a pleasure to be able to match it to the physical filming miniature exactly.

Throughout the run of the show, we used three separate CG versions of Voyager. We had a very low-resolution, low-polygon "stand-in" model for use in quickly and easily blocking out shots; we usually did this for all the ships we built, since the modelers sometimes needed more than a week to complete a final model - but we couldn't wait that long to begin doing animatics or blocking out the ships' motions. On some occasions - totally by accident - the Voyager stand-in was left in the final version of the show for some some distant shots... and nobody caught it! It was mapped with the orthographic images of our "normal" CG model, so from very far away you just couldn't tell - but it was considerably less heavy in polygons, by a factor of 100!

For almost all the regular CG shots we created, the Voyager I "refitted" was used, but for those close-up, paint-scraping shots where the camera was maybe a few meters above from the hull - like the opening sequence in "Good Shephard" - we had a special up-rezzed Voyager. At first, we built just the section we needed to hold up to the camera's increased scrutiny, but after a few seasons of having to do many of these types of shots on nearly every part of the ship, we ended up with a much heavier high-resolution model that we could use for any occasions that called for it.

You may wonder why we didn't just use that high-resolution model all the time, but the memory allocation and processor speeds on the rendering computers were much smaller and slower compared to today's options, and we were trying to economize on memory usage all the time. The less we used, the more other things we could do - like adding two or three more ships in the shot, or rendering a planet with a high-resolution map. Then the model would render faster, so it was always a bit of win-win when optimizing each scene and model.

tokyo_drift timeless

So, for my friend Adam at TrekCore - and because I put so much care and time into bringing the CG Voyager up to par with the filming miniature - I hope you enjoy these new new high definition orthographic views of the USS Voyager used throughout the series, rendered EXCLUSIVELY for TrekCore.

Here are just a few of the upgrades I've put into the model:

  • Added the red brackets around the three docking ports on the saucer that are on the miniature, but were never included on the CG model
  • Added more texture detail to certain surfaces, and completely redid the sensor panels with all the nurnies (in terms of color, panel lines, and weathering); they were too dark previously
  • Added edges to the corners of all the surfaces within the deflector dish (and other panels across the ship); they were just impossibly-perfect square edges rather than including at least one slim 45 degree bevel for added realism
  • Replaced the silly light flares that represented the navigation and running lights with actual "glass" fixtures; no more little fuzzy pom-poms
  • Added docking port door paneling details and lighting panels that encircle the doors; cast a very dim light highlighting the doors for realism
  • Updated and lightened all the surfaces that were painted too dark, as compared to the filming miniature

For a lot of the actual shots from the series you see, especially the snow crash in "Timeless", none of the work could have happened without the help of the amazingly talented people I worked with, was taught by and had fun with! Of course, Ron Thornton - Owner of Foundation Imaging - who took a chance and hired me, John Allardice, Koji Kuramura, Brandon McDougal, Pierre Drolet, Kevin "Q" Quattro, PJ Foley, Chris Zappara, Emile Smith, Kyle Toucher, Lee Stringer, the great and wonderful John Teska, Sean Scott, Sean Jackson, Dave Morton and several guest CG Artists over all those years. I left the most infamous one for last: Mojo, who passed on the torch and taught me quite a bit, both with Lightwave and Hollywood politics!

Readers, let me know what you think!

-- Rob Bonchune, Senior CG Supervisor · Voyager, Deep Space Nine, Enterprise

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  • http://www.treklit.com/ Dan Gunther

    Wow, those renders are jaw-droppingly amazing! Gorgeous ship. Perhaps we’ll see Voyager released in HD someday soon?

    • trekcore

      I wish, Dan! CBS have their hands full with TNG still – there’s a lot to do before that wraps!

    • Allen Williams

      I would imagine it will be DS9 next. I’m hoping that next year will be TNG 6 & 7 followed by DS9 1. But that would put VGR 2 years after that. I just hope that DS9 sells well enough to justify VGR. I know that DS9 didn’t have the fans that TNG had and VGR had even less. Even though the blu-ray of ENT is pretty good, I’m hoping that will be done as well. (Yes I’m crazy because I’m one of the few people that loves ALL star trek series)

      • trekcore

        We would love to see Deep Space Nine remastered next by CBS, but the challenges are huge given the complexity of the show. We just have to cross our fingers and wait and see… and of course, continue enjoying the hell out of TNG-R!

        • spooky

          I would be happy if they did only one season per year for DS9. Just to make sure that it was handled with care!

        • MplsMike

          While I prefer DS9 to Voyager, I love both shows and I could handle having Voyager on Blu-Ray first if extra time is needed for Deep Space Nine.

      • spooky

        I agree, DS9 has to come out on Blu… it just has to. It would be insane for them not to do DS9 in blu.

        I don’t want to get my hopes up for that though!

        Since we are on the subject of DS9, there are a couple of things to pick at that I would like to see fixed.

        Like the views from the promenade with the station superstructures not being visible from viewing windows.

        Or the the reuse of some space battle footage… uggh drives me wild.

        Or the ugly looking mattes for the firecaves… those need to be epic looking. And its always the same static matte painting they used being zoomed into… please model that shit in Vue or Terragen.

        As for Voyager… I don’t expect it anytime soon… they really should proceed in the manner that the serieses’ were created.
        Kind of a kick to the nuts to the Enterprise fans.

        • Allen Williams

          Actually I was saying the other day it would be easy to recycle CGI footage without people realizing it these days. Just by moving the camera to a different position in the same battle scene, you get a different perspective. Unless you memorize the movements of all the ships you wouldn’t know its recycled. This is something that’s VERY easy to do and the only cost would be re-rendering it per episode instead of just once.

          • Matt_Cardiff_UK

            “Unless you memorize the movements of all the ships” – that’s the problem – I do! Could they really ‘move’ the camera?

          • Ghostface1701

            Not easily. Imagine doing the same with a live-action shot and you get an idea of the challenge. The lighting was set-up specifically for the original angle, so it needs to be changed completely. The action was choreographed for the original shot, that needs to be changed too. I’m not a CG artist, and I can only begin to imagine the difficulties. There has to be a reason why no-one recycles shots this way. It’s just easier to use the exact same shot or do it from scratch.

          • Matt_Cardiff_UK

            I didn’t think so. Not gonna happen then is it?

    • CantBanThis

      Considering Voyager barely scraped by, I doubt it. DS9, quite possibly.

  • Matt_Cardiff_UK

    What an excellent article – and some truly beautiful new renders to use on my desktop. Thank you
    Rob Bonchune and TrekCore for bringing this to the fans. I’ll say it again – bring on DS9-R and VOY-R!

  • Jeff O’Connor

    Gorgeous. Truly gorgeous. Thanks so much Rob and TrekCore. :)

  • Allen Williams

    I love it, but that last one I think the scale is a bit off.

  • breen

    Voyager looks great in HD.. We want Voyager & DS9 in HD!

    • CantBanThis

      No we don’t. Just DS9.

      • 8of12

        YES WE DO! Voyager in HD on BluRay!

      • pittrek

        Oh come on, I want EVERYTHING even remotely Star Trek related released in the best currently technologically possible way.

        I’m not a fan of Voyager, but if they do it in HD, I’m gonna buy it just like I bought TOS & TNG

        • Matt_Cardiff_UK

          Agreed – Trek is a vision of the future – and in many ways Trek future proofed itself too. That’s why it holds up so well and that’s why everything should be remastered to the stunning level of Season 1 of TNG. That for me is THE shining example of how it needs to be done.

    • Donny Pearson

      Quite, I agree.

  • archer9234

    Must get Voyager Bluray made lol.

  • spooky

    Groovey,

    Okay, sure the show had mostly blah episodes but it was fun and hip.
    I want to see Voyager on blu-ray with 1080p re-rendered effects. I would also like some revisionist work, maybe some battlescars on her surface. The ship was always way too pristine throughout the series run.

    And for the Voyager haters, give it up already. Its been how many years now and there is still this, ours is better than yours crap. For so-called fans of Trek, its ideals of being better or improving oneself has been wasted on you especially if you cannot get past accepting others taste in their Trek.
    I, personally love all of Trek, but still seeing this sand castle kicking even within the Trek fanbase is lame and tiresome.

    So, live and let live.

    I think both shows can exist in the same universe.

  • pittrek

    Many of the HD renders look amazing, but others still lack the necessary detail. Just like the original renders.

  • Justin Olson

    Fantastic article, Rob! Many thanks to both you and TrekCore for sharing this with us. Impeccable work!

  • atexp80

    Awesome. I have no doubt that this great work will pay off Rob!

    Anyone thinking CBS won’t remaster Voyager eventually is kidding themselves. Not future-proofing the remaining series limits their marketability in the future. Let’s face it – there have been umpteenth DVD re-issues, it’s on TV and it’s available for streaming. The market for the product they have is pretty much tapped out. The logical next move is a new product. Remastering will mean they can issue Blu-ray Disc releases, HD streaming, new masters for broadcast and even reissue on DVD again using the new master. It makes sense for the future viability of their largest franchise.

    I don’t believe it’s a matter of if it happens, but more of when. With TNG wrapping up mid next year I wouldn’t be surprised if we see an announcement for DS9 about this time next year.

    • MplsMike

      We know Season Five of TNG will come out later this year. It’s possible they will use the same aggressive release schedule they’re using for TNG this year to get the final two seasons out. I’d say it’s conceivable we’ll have a Seventh Season release by early second quarter 2014 with announcements for DS9 or Voyager before the final TNG release is released.

    • Tone

      I kind of think your right, but I also think that doing a complete back-to-the-negatives remaster job on later seasons of DS9 and all of Voyager are a different project, and one that will be much more time consuming, as well as being MUCH more expensive.

      I just have my doubts about those in charge of Star Trek actually wanting to shell out that kind of cash. They have always treated all forms of Star Trek as the bastard child, and see it only as a money making machine, not a machine they want to spend money on.

      The financial outlay for remastering TNG is really quite low, as they will make a nice profit with re-syndication rights, as well as streaming/Blu-Ray sales. But just how many fans will pick up all the Voyager box sets? I have to admit, I’m really not sure that I would buy them. And I’m a pretty hardcore Trek fan, I even loved Enterprise, but Voyager was really quite dire most of the time.

      CBS/Paramount know this too, and that’s what gives me doubts on the VOY remastering project.

  • Jason

    Really amazing, I could look at these pictures for hours

  • Landon

    Amazing work thanks for doing this!

  • Rob Parks

    THESE ARE AWESOME!!! Good job, Rob!!! Thank you, TrekCore for the Voyager week and on another episode of “How They Make Star Trek” Hope to see HD remastering someday.

  • Ghostface1701

    Beautiful renders, and I absolutely appreciate the effort that went in to them originally, and Rob’s latest upgrades. Having said that, the main error with this model still remains, which is the bend towards the front of the upper phaser array, and the same with the ‘ribs’ at the rear of the primary hull. These should be perfectly horizontal to align with the decks, as they are on the physical model. No matter how well rendered the CG model is, these curves are a dead giveaway. But, again, it’s still great work with a limited budget and time.

    • Chris915

      Also, the missing windows on Deck 2. :P

      • Ghostface1701

        Thanks for pointing that out, I’d never noticed.

        • Chris915

          Not sure why my comment is being marked down, since it is something that’s missing on the CG model, that’s on the studio model…

          • Ghostface1701

            I was going to say the same thing. Some people seem to think a slight criticism is a personal attack on all involved.

          • Chris915

            Yea, even the official Trek people I know, have admitted the missing deck 2 windows, lol.

    • Simon

      Keep in mind physical models aren’t “perfect” and they do make adjustments from time to time, especially with the opportunity to make a new CG model. From the top the “ribs” appear fine.
      The NCC-1701-E had huge changes when Digital Domain made their model. Greg Jein made several changes to the 1701-D 4-footer vs. the 6-footer.

      • Ghostface1701

        Well, the changes to the E were intentional, as were the differences on the 4-foot D. Both were made years after the original versions. The physical and CG Voyager models were made at the same time, so should be identical. Yes, the lines appear fine from the top, which is maybe how the errors crept in in the first place! It clearly doesn’t look right from the side-on though, look at the windows and lifeboat hatches in the same area – does it make sense that they’re spread over two decks? For comparison, take a look at the gallery at http://www.ex-astris-scientia.org/scans/intrepid1.htm

  • DangerousDac

    An awesome article, but Rob, there’s one thing about the CG model that still tells its the CG model…the phaser strips on the top of the primary hull. They still curve downward in the front view on the CG but on the physical they’re flat. Still an awesome mesh and I love the improvements, but, that still sticks out like a sore thumb :p

    • Ghostface1701

      What a good point, someone in this comment section should’ve made it sooner. Wait…

      • DangerousDac

        My bad, totally missed it. Sorry!

  • Tone

    Shame that after all these years, that model has never been finished. It looks a mess with all those mesh errors. But it’s fantastic that Rob is able to write a great article, and share some very nice renders with all of us.

    But Hats off to all at TrekCore, you are doing an incredible job, and it’s totally fascinating coming here and reading all these articles about Trek. They get better and more insightful every time!

  • leeandrew

    I cannot wait to get Voyager on Blu Ray, its my most favorite show. Also, I have been using Lightwave for 12 years, as a hobby and have made CG animation for various fan films like Star Trek Intrepid, I would love to get my hands on this model. :-) Awesome read too, always love the behind the scenes info!

  • BrokenDecks

    All that work, and yet still the decks on the port and starboard rear of the saucer aren’t on straight like they are on the studio model. (sigh) The wavy decks that were poorly textured onto the model have bugged me for 15 years but now it is clear that no one in the effects team noticed.

    • Tone

      I think that’s one of the hallmarks of Trek under Dan Curry… “It’s good enough” is an unfortunate mantra.

  • SFSeries&Movies

    Wow, this is truly amazing!

  • pafan

    Wow! Put a Christmas tree or two in that lost one and you have a great holiday card!

  • Tom

    Wow those look..horrible. I hope they get a modern VFX company to re-do the models if they remaster VOY.