This season of Star Trek: Picard earned lots of love from the fans and critics alike. The third and final season of the Paramount+ series not only continued the story of beloved Star Trek character Jean-Luc Picard, played by the much-respected and talented Patrick Stewart.
Led by showrunner Terry Matalas it was a very ambitious season which marked the return of the fan favorites cast Star Trek: The Next Generation, and also some of some very familiar aspects of the Star Trek universe, villains, species, and an entire fleet of ships that fans loved seeing back in service.
Star Trek: Picard VFX Supervisor Jason Zimmerman spoke with Awards Radar about the work he and his team put into bringing this awesome feat to the screen.
You have a long history working on Star Trek projects. Before joining the team who bring the Star Trek universe to life, what was your fan relationship with Star Trek? Just as a fan was there any aspect that you most enjoyed/got a kick out of?
I grew up with Trek. One of my closest friends and his brother would take me along to conventions and we’d watch TNG at their house, so I had a lot of exposure at a young age. Plus, I watched the movies and TOS with my parents, so it was a big part of my childhood. I’m a fan of the newer movies as well. When I started my career in VFX a lot of the more senior artists were coming off the last season of Enterprise and they were rockstars to me. I thought if I could ever just do a shot or two on a show like that I’d really be on top of the world. To have this level of involvement now is awesome.
Star Trek: Picard is known for its attention to detail and authenticity. How did you approach creating the visual effects for familiar technologies, such as the transporters, tricorders, and the USS Enterprise itself, to maintain the essence of the Star Trek universe while adding your own creative touch?
Research! We have such a wealth of content to dig through to make sure everything is accurate. Everything starts with canon. We also consult some of the more Trek savvy people we work with since so many of us are fans. We have a wealth of information at our fingertips due to the team we’ve assembled so we always have a good place to start. Speaking of which, I’d fail if I didn’t mention Brian Tatosky our other supervisor on Trek. There isn’t a better creative partner than BT and he is one of the many expert fans I consult all the time. I also have to credit Terry our showrunner with ensuring we paid proper homage to anything that we’d seen before. His passion for Trek is incredible and he kept us accountable in the best way.The Changelings have evolved and so have their visual transformations. Going from an almost golden slime to a more blood like colors and textures. Was this decision based on the idea of their evolution in the series? Or was it more of a decision based on the availability of new technology?
Story first. They’ve been experimented on, so the look needed to be a bit different to reflect that. New technology always comes into play, but if it takes away from the story or the legacy of Trek, we’re doing it wrong, so it always starts with story and then from there we will use all the different tools we have to make sure it’s as realistic as we can get it. For the textures and look we referenced things that were real world textures people would identify that would aid in the realism. Trek fans have a good understanding and eye for VFX so we have to make sure everything we are doing will hold up to that scrutiny.
The organic Borg is a terrifying new twist to the Star Trek Universe as well. What was the process like to reinvent the Borg into being more like demonic possession than cyborgs? Any earlier ideas that were scrapped for their new look in VFX?
The designs always start with SFX makeup to make sure we’re doing something that looks real. As far as designs there were different iterations for sure. They’d probably be better suited to comment on that, but we work very closely with them and production as the ideas are flowing to help inform what will look best from a VFX perspective. Terry had a great vision as to how this would be represented on screen.This season seemed to have more Easter Eggs than previous seasons. The scenes in Daystrom Institute alone were filled with them. Do you have any favorites that you worked on, or ones that you worked extra hard on to get just right?
Any time you work with canon it’s both exciting and daunting. On the one hand you’re playing with some of the most iconic ships, sets, and characters ever. On the other hand, it’s a legacy unlike any other on TV and it’s our job to continue that tradition. One shot that stands out is the opening shot of episode 10. We start with original VFX shot from TNG and then transition to our newer CG ship. Big time nostalgia.
The Fleet Museum was fan service of the best kind. As a fan yourself, what was it like presenting some of the best ships ever created in sc-fi?
Daunting but fun! We have to make sure we get them right, but being able to work with all the different ships all in one place was awesome. Usually in a season you might get one or two legacy ships to play with. Having them all in one place wasn’t something I thought we’d ever get the chance to do.
How much time is put into each of the stages of bringing this to life: concept and design, then modeling/building and finally rendering?
The design phase starts before we start shooting. Production designer Dave Blass and his team start to put together designs based on what the script calls for. After the approval process we get our hands on the models and it’s about a 3-month process minimum to make sure its camera ready. At the same time, we’re starting to previs any full cg shots. In our case for season 3 we had an in-house artist, our CG supervisor Eric Hance did interactive real time previs to make sure we could realize what was in the story boards and ultimately Terry’s vision. This gave us more flexibility to address notes and dial things in. Then when the model is ready and the previs has been approved we’d hand it off to any one of several very talented vendors we have to build the shot in final form, add all the little photographic elements that help make things look more realistic etc.
What is collaboration like on a project of this scale? You must work with the showrunner, production design, teams of artists and surely many others. Can you give us a glimpse at what your days/months were like?
Once we received a script, we’d do a breakdown of all the shots and assets. Then we have several meetings as a production and individually. Concept meetings with everyone to discuss the script, what everyone is going to handle, limitations, expectations etc. Dept specific meetings to discuss any overlap that there may be between us and any help we may need to provide. Once we’ve refined the shot list, most likely after we’ve received storyboards, we’re ready to shoot. We kick off any assets that need to be built and start previs so editorial has first versions of all the shots for their cut. Once we’re shooting, Brian was on set throughout the process making sure we shoot what we discussed, aid in any challenges that may arise, survey the sets, reference photography, camera data etc. We might scan an actor or two depending on what the scope of work is for the episode in case we need to create a digi double. While this is happening, the editors are starting to assemble the episode using the script, storyboards and shot list. Once the editors and director have a cut they like, it’s handed off to us to work through any budget concerns and send it out to our vendors to review and bid. Once the cut is locked and we’ve identified the vendors we send them the footage and work begins. We typically will meet with vendors at least once a week to discuss the shots in progress, answer any questions, work through creative challenges etc. We’re also reviewing shots with Terry and editorial to see things in context, get feedback and hopefully some finals. We do this for every episode of every show.
When you wrapped this project and saw the fan reaction it must have been rewarding. On our team alone there were several of us who cried. What was it like seeing that reaction?
Yes, it’s incredible. Seeing how much Trek has meant to people over the years is a humbling experience. It’s been there for people through some tough times, me included. To be able to contribute to something that has had that much impact; that impacts others like it did me as a kid growing up, it’s just so gratifying to know we might have made someone’s day a little brighter.
What was part of your work proud of / what will stay with you long after this?
My team. My VFX team is a collection of the greatest humans I’ve met throughout the years, and I think they’re the best there is. I get to do the interviews most of the time, but they deserve a lot of credit too. They all care deeply for the job. They love Trek. It’s a family and to be able to continue to do this with such great people is an honor and something I will never forget. So, the relationships Trek has helped to build. Working on Trek with my team and friends…there’s never a bad day. Beyond that, I do love to help craft a good space battle!
Which are your personal favorite ships?
Enterprise, Shenzhou, and probably the Klingon Sarcophagus or Cleave ship
Which Star Trek character (Picard or beyond) is your favorite?
As a captain, I love Picard. Being on set to witness the character was so cool. Michael Burnham is fantastic. I love Saru. And for even more legacy I’ll say Kahn. That’s my earliest memory of Trek and I’ve never forgotten that movie or the character.
See all of Jason Zimmerman’s amazing work on Star Trek: Picard season three, streaming on Paramount +.