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    Interview: Veteran Illustrator Rick Sternbach Talks Romulan Redesign for NEMESIS and TREK Tech!

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    Posted: 07:13:18 on July 12 2002
    By: Steve Krutzler
    Dept: TrekWeb Features

    Written by Steve Krutzler

    One of the most challenging parts of bringing STAR TREK to the screen over the last two decades has always been the development of futuristic space ships and technology that push the limits of the imagination while trying to remain grounded in believeable technical theory. No one has had more of an impact on the designs, graphics, and science of the various STAR TREK series and movies than Rick Sternbach.

    Joining the franchise with its feature film debut in 1979, Sternbach served as Illustrator on STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, eventually designing one-third of all the Enterprise Refit's control consoles and shipboard graphic symbols. He contributed the backlit graphics of the historical Enterprise vessels, screen computer readouts for various stations, invented much of the film's 23rd century jargon, and even served as liaison with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory while working on the picture.

    From there he served as Illustrator on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION for all seven of its seasons before joining DEEP SPACE NINE and VOYAGER. Sternbach served not only as Illustrator but technical advisor to the producers, developing much of the scientific jaron affentionately termed "technobabble." During his tenure he contributed the designs of the U.S.S. Voyager, the Deep Space Nine station, Starfleet runabouts, the U.S.S. Dauntless, the Future Klingon Dreadnought (Neg'Var), the U.S.S. Prometheus, the Delta Flyer, and even the Galor Class Cardassian cruisers seen frequently in glamorous DS9 space battle sequences.

    Sternbach also contributed uncredited work to STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER as well as the first two TNG-era pictures, GENERATIONS -- for which he painted backgrounds for Stellar Cartography -- and FIRST CONTACT -- for which he blueprinted the ten foot Enterprise-E model for Industrial Light and Magic. Although sitting out the fifth series ENTERPRISE, Sternbach recently returned to the franchise for the fourth TNG pic, NEMESIS. The venerable designer contributed the revamped symbol of the Romulan Star Empire as Graphic Artist for the film in addition to several other elements featured prominently in the film.

    TrekWeb spoke with Sternbach about his newest work and the intricacies of inventing the future for this special Q&A.

    You redesigned the Romulan bird logo. Can you tell us why the producers decided they wanted a change and why you chose this particular, metallic, streamlined look?
    The new Romulan symbol hanging in the Senate setRS: The original warbird logo developed for TNG, while strange and spooky and alien, was also considered too indistinct as an identifying symbol of the Romulan Star Empire, and so I was asked to submit a new look. I began with some naturalistic sketches of the bird, as if it were a flesh and blood creature, holding two spheres in its talons.

    A number of mounting schemes were being discussed, from being bolted to a wall to hanging over the senate chamber (the method eventually chosen), but in any case the final sculpture of the bird would be more or less vertical. We gathered references of eagle, hawk, and condor photography, use of eagle symbols in German, Roman, and U.S. armed forces graphics, and even the underbody pattern from the TOS Romulan cruiser. I developed the chiseled, stylized look from a combination of 1930s German eagle political and advertising depictions, with a dash of the naturalistic alien structures, the feather shapes from the TOS cruiser, and what appeared as horns in the TNG logo to tie the new symbol to previous incarnations.

    Along the way, the producers requested changes to add to the menacing qualities of the bird, including a widening of the wingspan, the bending forward of the wings to give them more of an enveloping feel, and the hunching down of the head. Minor tweaks were made to the eye ridge and horns and new copies of the sketches were printed out. The staff shop at the studio, responsible for set pieces like columns, stone textures, and sculptures, set about to carve the bird out of blocks of rigid foam. The final shape is then usually given a hard gel coat sealant. I'm sure different surface treatments were discussed, since I saw the almost-finished piece on stage in jet black (which immediately made me think of the great Maltese Falcon) and a few shades of dark copper and green, but ultimately the producers settled upon the burnished silver foil you see in the film.

    Were there any other designs you worked up but ultimately didn't work, and was an entirely new logo ever considered?
    RS: There weren't any real unused designs, once the initial chiseled-look sketches appeared. One of the first graphic designs I produced was one of the last elements filmed, so there was plenty of time to make changes if they wanted a different look. It's pretty gratifying to see the big beast in the trailer and adapted for the advertising and website graphics, and from this point on, under absolutely no circumstances whatsoever and upon pain of torture will I say that I gave the producers the bird. :)

    Tell us which wall decorations you worked on. Did you do anything in the Romulan Senate set?
    RS: There are a few copies of a large wall decoration in the entryways to the senate chamber, designed on the computer and digitally routed and then assembled. These days, the variety of machines used to take designs and produce three dimensional objects is both astounding and welcome, because it makes our jobs as artists that much easier and more free to explore complex shapes. The wall decoration is deliberately reminiscent of the positive/negative spaces seen in works by Frank Lloyd Wright and, reproduced in smaller sizes, was also used around the bridge of the new Romulan Warbird.

    Whatabout the interior of the Scimitar?
    RS: I didn't have a lot to do with the Scimitar, but I did produce some of the control panel graphics and instrumentation for the Scorpion, the small Reman fighter. Once graphic artist Wendy Drapanas had devloped the Reman symbol set, I was able to adapt it for the control displays. One of those great new processes for making graphics involves a raised photosensitive polymer, so that artwork can be made into low relief dimensional surfaces and painted. This was used to make some of the Scorpion button panels.

    The Scorpion also required some hull markings, so those were designed on the computer to represent squadron emblems. Typically, signage elements are produced as either inkjet output on vinyl, silkscreen ink on white or colored or metallic vinyl, or vinyl shapes made by a computer-driven plotter with a cutting head. The latter can be seen today even in shopping malls, but the big industrial units can turn out small intricate shapes or tens of feet of cut vinyl with no sweat.

    We've seen maps in Star Trek before, but probably nothing as large as the one Shinzon stands on in the movie. Can you tell us in what set and what part of the movie this actually appears and what you aimed for particularly in this design?
    The galactic map on the floor of the Romulan SenateRS: John Logan's words provided the inspiration for the map, described as a divided circle with the Neutral Zone running through it. This simple concept becomes a powerful symbol for the entire film, and contains sets of smaller symbols that harken back to the original series. I'll say right off that the final execution of the design is not as complete as the artwork I provided, but there are probably any number of reasons as to why this is, from producer and production designer decisions to lack of time (it *was* a very large graphic), so I'll leave it at that. The map is the central floor of the senate chamber, and appears very early in the film. It's roughly twenty feet in diameter, with a large collection of cut vinyl, painted, and inkjet elements applied to the surface. The idea was to create a polished stone look bounded by brass or gold metallic lines.

    The map as conceived by SternbachI began with the basic circle and Neutral Zone, with a sprinkling of stars. Not unconsciously, I placed the Romulan home star and Federation symbol in their respective territories, arced the Neutral Zone in a slight S-curve and made one side a contrasting color to reinforce the yin-and-yang symbology. Triangular markers for the outposts were added along with Romulan names for the stars. A circular grid, centered on the Romulan star (of course) reinforced the idea of an expanding empire, along with copies of the bird symbol ringing the circle, suggesting the surrounding of potential planetary acquisitions. All of the elements had distinct relationships and purposes.

    I colored the map various shades in Photoshop, and the producers selected one with a dark blue and blue-green scheme. A large black and white scaled print of the map was output as a guide for the set painters and the sign shop; once the marble texture was painted and dry, the inkjet and metallic vinyls were stuck down.

    Tell us about your work on the new sci-fi film SOLARIS. Did your extensive STAR TREK work help you in getting this assignment and did Steve Soderbergh or the producers specifically want you to incorporate or deviate from your past sci-fi design work?
    RS: On SOLARIS, I was one of five graphic artists hired specifically to design and animate the video playback material. I got the assignment mainly due the the fact that the first two artists, Tom Mahoney and Monica Fedrick, recommended me to our video chief Todd Marks. Tom and Monica and I were all in the Nemesis graphics department, and Todd was head of playback on the feature, so it was almost a case of simply continuing on with a lot of the same crew. I won't say that anything I did prior to Nemesis had a huge effect on my being hired, but they all understood after a few weeks on Nemesis that I knew a thing or two about media SF, aerospace technology, and especially Unreal Tournament. We ended up playing some of the stage playback guys on Nemesis via a local network, and we whipped 'em but *good*. MEDIC!

    The general style of the SOLARIS graphics was very unlike Trek, and more like a combination of NASA instrumentation and Flash animation. Lots of stuff going on at once, and I think it works well within the context of the story and the overall visual look. I worked primarily with Todd Marks, with general direction and input tweaks from production designer Phil Messina. I gather that Steven Soderbergh generally liked what we've done, and any changes came through Phil to Todd to us. We generated a few different looks for the screen animations, depending on which set or spacecraft they played in; I mostly built style layouts and small animated clips. I stayed until the last week of shooting, along with former Voyager and Enterprise graphic artist Geoff Mandell. I must say that the change of style and overall change of job title and scenery were particularly refreshing. While I maintained a definite liking for the weekly paycheck for some fifteen years at Paramount, it's also been good for me as an artist to stretch.

    Would you ever return to the franchise to design a major new starship... say for another movie or television series?
    RS: If I were ever invited back to Trek, it would certainly have to be in the context of an artist position on a series or feature; in this business one does not simply come in to design a single ship. I rather doubt that's going to happen, unless Viacom decides it's good to split the franchise again into two concurrent TV shows or shorten the time between Trek films. I suspect that they'll stick to a single TV show and the occasional feature, though my guess right now is that they don't have a clue as to what the next feature will involve. So many variables enter into making a movie, not the least of which are actor contracts, signing a writer, picking a release date, all of which can wrench the content of a Trek film about drastically.

    What do you think of Doug Drexler's NX-01 design for ENTERPRISE?
    RS: As to the NX-01, with the approvals process and the marching orders Doug and John Eaves undoubtedly had to follow -- re: the identifiable Akira hull structures -- the result is a decent looking vehicle, just not for the show's time period. I could see the design as something to come *after* the TOS Enterprise, not before, despite the producers' high RPM spin about the updating of the look and feel for a hip new audience and the comments about the visual inspiration of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. The deflector hardware, the aztec hull plating, the rapid "upgrading" of weapons systems to almost Voyager levels of technology feels totally anachronistic, which is somewhat amusing given the temporal cold war thread of the series. Would that they had made something of an SF connection between the ship design and the storyline; *that* would have been original and clever.

    Which Starship Enterprise is your favorite?
    RS: I would have to say that my favorite Enterprise is really a toss-up between the 1701 refit from TMP and the 1701-C. I like both for different reasons; the refit for the clean lines and real movie spaceship feel, and the Ent-C for it's slightly beefier, possibly more solid appearance, something you could get a satisfying clang out of from a good whack with a spanner.

    Do you have any STAR TREK designs that you developed and were fond of but were never used on screen?
    RS: During the runs of TNG, DS9, or Voyager, only once did I ever get far enough to really flesh out (*and* get excited about) a design that was never used, and that was the early maquette-stage Voyager I built as a foamcore and bondo study model. Usually the design process pretty well insured that whatever preliminary sketches the producers picked, that was the direction I was going to go in. Most every ship design I contributed was approved, worked up as CG sketches or paper blueprints, and then modeled in plastic or in polygons. I enjoyed a relatively free hand in shaping the spacecraft, either Starfleet or alien, and if some minor detail didn't come out on screen exactly as I had proposed, well, I didn't sweat it. It's a show. Sure, I voiced a few alternate ideas or scratched my head out loud to our VFX supervisors if I saw a finished clip that looked odd to my aerospace tech eyes, but that's as far as it went. I recall that when Paris and Torres went racing in the Delta Flyer, the ejected "pancake" warp core didn't match my sketches. No biggie. I made my mark with Voyager, Prometheus, Dauntless, Stargazer, Klingon Attack Cruiser, Hirogen hunter ship, and a few hundred other ships and props.

    How do you feel about the sometimes obsessive nature of fans to learn everything they can about a ficticious starship design, and even ask individuals like yourself about engineering-like details that while potentially based in real science are mostly made-up?
    RS: I think it's great to exercise the brain cells in working up the details for a complete spaceship. Respectable rocket scientists do it every day, and future engineers have played in the Star Trek and general science fiction hardware realm while working toward their chosen fields. That's absolutely terrific. We build plastic models, make resin kits, draw blueprints, chat online, and do all of the fannish things that have kept Trek alive all this time. I correspond with aerospace grad students who do hypersonic airfoil analyses during the day and dream up shield strengths against Type X phasers at night. They do it for fun; they've got their heads screwed on straight, as do most of the fans I've come across. Do some go overboard? Sure; but you find that in every area of pop culture. Some can get a bit nasty and petulant about errors in the episodes and in publications like the technical manuals. They're in the minority and may simply need to get out more. I won't say "get a life," as that's become overused. I get emails asking for blueprints and photographs and how many shuttles do I think can fit in ships I didn't have a hand in designing. I politely tell them what I can and can't provide, and if I don't know anything about a certain topic, I say sorry, no idea, but try some of the fan websites or Google.

    I'm always intrigued by aerospace tech discussions with fans and non-fans. While on the show, I would try to suggest some new idea or great-sounding real term (*cascade failure*, a real term, was one of my offerings), without requiring a long on-screen explanation. Sometimes I'd write up slightly longish notes for the writers, but mainly to give them background info on the correct usage of a concept. That could be viewed as fannish, except that we operated under the production realities of a weekly television series. After filling in the most important (TECH) blanks in the script, I tried my best to offer only what I thought were clever and plausible SF ideas, within the context of whatever ship or bit of prop gear was being discussed. Antimatter-spiked fusion is a real idea, whereas a Frumium Drive is all BS, unless you take a couple of minutes out of watching WWF to try to work out at least some of the mechanisms. Did I have it all worked out in my head? Nah, but I had a better idea than anyone else, which is what happens when you live and breathe the stuff for fifteen years, more like thirty if you count the aerospace and astronomical projects I worked on before TNG began. I can't say I've discussed the tech in the Enterprise series, because so much of the science and engineering in the show has gone missing or strangely babelized to the point where even I can't decipher it. I don't envy the well-meaning tech fans who may attempt to make sense of the show.

    You've contributed to both the STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and DEEP SPACE NINE (co-author) technical manuals. How much of the science of the designs fell to you after creating them?
    RS: The first tech manual I worked on was the TNG version with Mike Okuda. We had written a small flood of memos to the writers and producers during the first season of the show, what we considered interesting suggestions for changes in terminology, procedures, or slight direction changes in the plot where it concerned a particular piece of hardware. The producers didn't have to listen to any of it, of course, but folks like Gene, Bob Justman, Eddie Milkis, David Gerrold, and Dorothy Fontana were gracious and attentive. Since Mike and I really *did* know a bit of 20th and 24th century rocket science and science fiction, eventually, they trusted us to fix just about every (TECH) question that might come up in a script.

    Early on, Bob Justman didn't really know us well, and once asked, "Do you guys dream about this stuff at night?" I replied, "Nah, we're pretty normal." Which told me fairly quickly that we knew the science and technology okay, it was a matter of making sure we had a balance of engineering and "cool."

    All of the collected memos from 1987 to roughly 1989 served as the basis of the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual, published by Pocket Books. A lot of pizza and noodles were consumed by Mike and me as we fleshed out the shields, phasers, warp core, photon torpedoes, and all the other parts a good starship should have. Back in the early days of TNG, licensing soon became big, and Pocket agreed that the TM would be a good thing. Mike and I wrote about half the book each, tackling topics we were particularly fond of; I dove into the propulsion and structural and weapons stuff, and Mike developed transporter, medical, procedures, and life support sections; those sorts of things. We each provided illustrations, either generated in Adobe Illustrator, or ink on mylar, and we had a few freelance artists help out with the diagrams, like the late Dan Gauthier,who understood real space hardware and was a damned good inker to boot. To date, I think the TM has sold maybe 750,000 copies, but I'd have to check. We certainly broke 500,000.

    The next major project I did with Pocket was the 1701-D Blueprints. It wasn't my first choice, since I really wanted to see an encyclopedic book of all the ships of Star Trek, but Pocket had other ideas. I agreed to do the Blueprints, not realizing it would bulk out to thirteen sheets and eighteen months of work, but I'm generally pleased with the results. Pocket had problems with the clamshell box, which was touted as cool and sturdy, but the shrink-wrapping crunched the seams on a good number of them. The sheets themselves were a fun challenge, incorporating a lot of what we knew about the ship and stage sets, and areas we never got to see, like the dolphin and whale habitats. I enlisted the help of Dan Gauthier, Todd Guenther (Ships of the Star Fleet), and Jeanne L. Rogers, whose day job involved ink drawings of real aircraft and missile systems. Like the TMs, the Blueprints aren't perfect, and they aren't complete, but they *are* a trigger, a foundation for discussions about the amazing and possible, one catalyst for imagining the future.

    Honestly, even if I get verbal abuse on the net for leaving out details or getting some hull measurement wrong, I'd *much* rather see fans sitting around looking for the Arboretum and arguing shield grids versus phasers than passing around the latest piece of musical poop gangsta rap mp3. Yes, the books and other publication projects are tie-ins to an entertainment property, but there's nothing to say one can't be a bit idealistic or altruistic or gads-- even technologically cool while supporting the marketing machine. Star Trek has given some of us an opportunity to present really amazing ideas, and even outside of Trek, it's going to continue.

    The latest and last book I did with Pocket was the DS9 TM, which was a bit of an unweidly volume to assemble, though I do like the final result, warts and all. I wrangled the project for Pocket, wrote all the text and tables, and Doug Drexler produced all of the illustrations, based in part on the graphic design work he was doing for the series.

    One of the first ideas I had with the DS9 book was to make it in the form of a technological puzzle, with Chief O'Brien providing a running narration and clues to a ticking-clock mystery (actually, it could make for a good video game). I was hoping to do something very different from the TNG TM, but the amount of structural framing for the story would have taken far too long to create, along with all of the tech info, so I retreated to the safety of a more normal TM. The big difference in the DS9 book is that we got to see more of the adversary hardware, especially the station itself, and that was a lot of fun inventing Cardassian equipment and procedures. I can't take too much of either the credit or the blame for the ship specs, since I was measuring off drawings given to me, and somewhere in the fray, some numerical data went south, so we get what we get. Even Mike left "tritanium" out of the first ST Encyclopedia. Over the three projects, I'd done what I could with the material and the time available, and most people have expressed their satisfaction with them.

    While I'm no longer doing books with Pocket (which means, unfortunately, that I won't be doing the Voyager TM), I am continuing a series of tech and design articles for the Star Trek Magazine, so I haven't totally left the franchise behind. Regardless of the strange and wonderously inscrutable ways of the producers, it's still a pretty neat universe to explore.

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