Star Trek: Picard Season 3 was a love letter to fans of The Next Generation. One of the most satisfying elements was seeing the characters and the ships we love, elevated with contemporary cinematography and special effects. Since the original series aired in 1966, Star Trek has always been on the cutting edge of visual effects and photography. The artists and technicians behind Star Trek’s signature look are always boldly pushing the frontier of what’s possible.
How do they do it? By hiring Cinematographers like Crescenzo G.P. Notarile who brings a lifetime of experience and a wonderfully passionate perspective to the franchise. I was fortunate enough to sit down with Crescenzo for Awards Radar to discuss his career and most recent work on Picard Season 3.
Known for darker and grittier shows like Gotham and Your Honor, Crescenzo may seem like an odd choice to visualize a series known for its optimistic vision of humanity. The answer is in Crescenzo’s past. He cut his teeth in the wild and expressive genre of music videos and live concert films, a genre known for experimentation and innovation.
Crescenzo: That was the fortunate thing about working in the music video genre because there was no right or wrong. At that time, it was very explorative. Creative. Adventuresome. We were thinking out of the expected box. We were experimenting all the time. It was all about the music and the lyrics and how ballsy we can become with our visual stamp on matters. We were trying new technologies, new equipment, new film stocks… We were hand cranking cameras, throwing them around, placing them in unconventional point of views, ie: on guitar frets, inside drum heads, body cams, cable cams across venues, probe lenses, etc… We’d go from Super-8 to Bolex to 16mm to 35mm, changing film stocks from positive stocks to negative stocks to B&W to color, along with changing the chemical process from negative into positive baths, etc… We were doing a lot of different crazy things. And it was glorious because we felt free. We weren’t pigeon holed into a structure where a lot of eyeballs were looking at you with a strict parameter with Account Executives per se on commercials or producers on feature films. We were gypsies, we were free to explore, to experiment, to let loose, to pioneer… And when you deal with one genre of music to the next – rock and roll to country to classical – I’ve done them all – it rounds you in all aspects. It really honed in my chops, and it made me think freely. And it kept me abreast of all the technologies and all the equipment.
To put into perspective the scope of Crescenzo’s early career, he worked with A-list musical artists like, U2, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, Nine Inch Nails, Billy Joel, Elton John, Mariah Cary, Billy Idol, Van Morrison, Weezer, Metallica, Soul Asylum, LL Cool J, Faith Hill, and so on, and, most impressively, the iconic Moonwalker music feature film performed by Michael Jackson.
But when Star Trek came calling, even experienced pros like Crescenzo feel the pressure.
Crescenzo: It was very daunting for me because I was not a Trekkie, per se. I knew the show, obviously. I followed it a bit, but not like the diehards that are out there. When I got involved with the crew of Star Trek Discovery, I gotta tell you, my stomach dropped, and my heart started to palpitate. I was having sweat spells at night, because every single person I was working with were geniuses. They were fantastic craftsmen, intelligent, they knew the world of Star Trek – inside and out. They lived Star Trek. So I had to learn really fast. So I did my homework. I saw a bunch of shows. I saw two Star Trek films that JJ Abrams did – it was shot by Dan Mindel, which I thought was fantastic, very visceral kinetic energy.
I had to just relax. I said to myself, well, they’re calling me and hiring me for a reason. So, I had to dig deep inside my creative heart and mind. You want to stay within the parameters of the ‘canon’ of the Star Trek legacy. The fan base is fanatical. You want to make sure you’re not raising any eyebrows, or that they hate what you’re doing, or if it’s so out of the box that they lost interest. So there’s a lot of protocol and earned respect. There’s a lot of methodologies that you want to maintain, honor, and adhere to.
After working on Star Trek: Discovery, Picard offered Crescenzo the opportunity to stretch his creative muscles, this time telling a story that was a little more intimate and character focused.
Crescenzo: My showrunner on season three, Terry Matalas, took a different approach from season two. Season three was more of a love letter to the TNG (Next Generation) cast. It was very personal. Designs of the ships became very, very important, because we were mostly inside of the ships. So our approach was to be more visceral, more emotional with the characters. There were more story arcs with season three. So my approach was to be different. I wanted to give them a piece of me. Since this was the last season, I wanted to maintain the protocol. Yeah, but I wanted to give them my personal thumbprint, my personal aesthetics. I was fortunate when I was given a couple of scripts on my last block, especially script 307, called Dominion, to give it more of a stamp of my visual peronality.
Me and the director, Deborah Kampmeier, looked at each other when finished reading the scripts for our block, and we smiled to each other, because we recognized that this was a very different block of scripts for us, and afforded us to be out of the box with our personal point of view… It was an actioned based ‘cat and mouse’ scenario – mental chess between these two captains: one captain of the Titan ship, one captain of the Shrike – and that Captain was played by Amanda Plummer. And of course, you know, we were all very, very excited to work with Amanda Plummer. We were so excited to see how she was carving her character. I was so infatuated with her and what she brought to the table with her experience and character as Vadic.
So it gave us the opportunity, ‘let’s have some beams of light, fingers of light, coming through the windows’. Kinetic energies of light, no rhyme or reason, per se, because it gave us that license that they were playing with each other. You’re in outer space… What motivates a beam of light coming into a ship? You can justify it by way of the technology that’s on the ship, by the technology that’s on the other ship that’s outside, coming through the windows. What kind of nebulas are outside of the screens? Are they swirling? Are they exploding, all the colors being very frenetic and frenzied? So you have to pay very, very close attention as to what’s going on out there. Obviously, when you have all these cadets sitting in their chairs, and there’s the big giant view screen in front of the spaceship, there’s a gigantic world of space out there. And you have to know what is happening out there. Because when you do the reverse shot, when you’re on their faces, you want to feel that organic newness of light that’s outside of those windows. And that’s what gives it that organic magic, that beautiful feature-like feel. That’s what makes the audience more involved in that world. And it doesn’t give that stiff visual effect plastic feel. We’re very organic.
To execute a show of this scale, mixed with special effects and practical sets, what’s the most important aspect of Crescenzo’s job?
Crescenzo: Probably the most important thing that we do, as cinematographers, is to prep our asses off in detail. You have to know your story. Know your script, know exactly what’s going on. Because once you get on set, and you look over your shoulder, there’s 200 people there, waiting for marching orders. There’s nine tractor trailers full of equipment, each wondering which direction are we going in, and you don’t want to flub, so that’s the prep part. But on set shooting, I’m one of those persons that I thrive on my heart. I’m not a technician, I go with my creative impulses.
I asked Crescenzo if there was any moment he felt he really put his stamp on? Where he felt like “yes, that’s a Crescenzo moment!”
Crescenzo: It’s different every single time because I have to feel it. And I have to make sure my senses, all my senses, all my synapses, my personality, my communication with the crew, is at top level, because I rely on that – not only from me, but I rely and expect that from my crew. If I’m in a bad mood, or having a lousy day, my synapses are not firing, my spontaneity is not firing the way I want it to be. So, I go in like a fighter, I have to make sure my mind is in a healthy and creative zone with my meditation before I walk on set, to make sure that set becomes my church and my ring. It takes mental discipline!
I thrive on the creative spontaneity, because once the actors come out, and once we start blocking, and once you start hearing the dialogue, it becomes, ‘oh, what about this – or, what about that, or, I think we should do this, or, well, I feel it should be more of this direction but more aggressive, and when you hear all this dialogue and collaboration, and you’re putting it all together in your skull, then you start to block the scene and everything starts to form and take shape and life begins… And then you start seeing those foundational blocks start to form, then all of a sudden, your mind starts to take a journey.
Like I said before, about the outside world coming in, you know, if there’s a nebula out there, or if there’s a ship out there that’s causing destruction, sometimes you want to move the ship, you don’t want to be just so static – and the ship just lays there without moving. I love rolling the camera when I’m on a Dutch head, or on a Techno Crane, imperceptibly rolling the third axis – I love rolling the camera – because internally, subconsciously, you feel you’re flying, you feel like you’re on a ship. So just that alone gives it that organic bonus.
If there’s an explosion outside the window, sometimes I would have a Camera Shaker on the camera where I would shake the camera violently for that quick moment of an explosion coming into the screen, and it makes the audience be more involved because they feel more. That’s the Crescenzo moment. I thrive on spontaneity. Sometimes you just can’t plan that plan that, but when you’re out there in the real element with all your actors, and the costumes and the production design, and then aligning starts to form and you dim all the lights down, and it becomes really dark and really dramatic – well, that’s the thrill – to be transported in to a different world – and that’s when you feel how to execute… And then you get a shaft of light coming in here – execute a pulsing of a flickering light in the background – then you hear the words and you have Sir Patrick Stewart and Amanda Plummer and Jonathan Frakes and Jerry Ryan and Michelle Hurd and Brent Spiner and LeVar Burton and Ed Speleers, and John DeLancie and all these fantastic actors acting and coming up with their emotion to their written words, well, your hairs on the back of your neck will start to stand up. And then in the back your head, you’re saying, I’m now part of Star Trek legacy. Now, I got to come up with the goods, I got to do my job, what can I bring to the table to this fantastic element? And that’s the spontaneity, that’s the creative impulse. You constantly have to grease those synapses firing, and I thrive on that aspect.
With the success of Star Trek: Picard Season 3, we’re likely to see more adventures of Star Fleet and our beloved characters. I asked Crescenzo how he felt about the challenges to come?
Crescenzo: We have elevated the craft so high right now, not just in the visual language. But technology has done that – the creative content is so high right now, I call it the ‘platinum age of television’. So it gives us that opportunity and creative challenge to really be clever on how far we can stretch and your limitation is just one’s own personal mind now, it’s not equipment. It’s not circumstance. Your mind and your imagination is truly your only limit.