Captain Burnham and the crew are back on board the USS Discovery in a quest to rebuild the fractured United Federation of Planets
After a month-long mid-season break, Captain Burnham and the crew return to our screens for the remaining six episodes of season 4 of Star Trek: Discovery. The show, which has found critical acclaim over its previous three-season run, continues to follow those aboard the USS Discovery in their bid to rebuild the United Federation of Planets.
Outpost VFX were excited to support the show with a creatively challenging FX sequence featuring a long-standing Star Trek hallmark: programmable matter, as well as a complex, full-CG environment of a dead and hollow planet among other VFX work.
VFX Supervisor on the show, Chris Faczek says: “we were tasked with a range of shots that took place around a destroyed planet where two characters had fled to hide."
"The work was a mix of full-CG shots with the planet environment and various ships, as well as ship interior shots with HUD motion graphics, CG environment work for outside the ships’ windows and interesting FX work.”
Season 4 sees Captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), Saru (Doug Jones), Lieutenant Commander Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Slyvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and the rest of the crew face an unprecedented space anomaly that puts the entire galaxy in danger.
The elaborate environment work can be seen in both episodes 8 and 9. VFX Producer for the show, Melissa DeLong, highlights the work the team undertook: “we needed to create a very detailed interior environment of a dead planet for an intense scene in episode 9 involving three ships. The action the sequence followed allowed us to build on some of Discovery’s existing looks and take it to some interesting new places. We wanted to push it a bit further than simply repeating looks that have already been established.”
Faczek adds: “Designing the look of the dead planet was our largest creative challenge. We were given a pre-vis planet asset that gave us the basic shape and layout, but no textures or interior.
“We decided to attack this in two sections: for the exterior of the planet, we would use the provided asset with procedural texturing built by the FX team to give us a mix of lava styles – from glowing orange to dried pumice, to shiny obsidian. This worked great for our wider shots where we see ships flying around and through the planet’s caves. For the caves themselves, we decided to build some generic tunnels we could then populate with lava tubes, spires, stalactites and other cave goodness so we could give the illusion of having a large cave system out the windows without actually mapping and building it through the planet itself.”
For the internal shots in the ship in this episode, the team also enhanced and integrated the on-screen graphics. “The client supplied graphics for most of the screens and consoles,” explains Faczek, “but our team here had to take those and make them quickly editable for creative changes on the fly, adding or removing windows, rescaling or recolouring readouts and scans. By the end we had a small library of elements we used to create some of the bespoke scanning screens that we see on the Discovery viewscreen.”
Outpost was also tasked with finding the look for the cloaked ships. “A few of our larger shots take place looking at the Discovery which is cloaked the entire time,” Faczek recalls. “Going through the animation and layout phases where everything is grey shaded, you get this idea of what the shot will feel like with the camera movement, but it didn’t always translate when the ship was using the cloaking device. So we spent a lot of time trying to define how much you should see and when in an attempt to draw the eye towards the ship while not making them too visible and giving away the cloaking gag.”
Our FX work was focused on episode nine, where Captain Burnham attempts to secretly dock onto Book’s ship in an attempt to take control. Book’s ship then launches a defensive attack on the shuttle, and programmable matter starts working to consume it. Worried for their safety but unable to stop the programmable matter in its advances, Book uses an Electrical Magnetic Pulse to stop the attack in an attempt to get the crew out of danger.
Outpost were tasked with creating the programmable matter and Electrical Magnetic Pulse FX. While programmable matter has been a regular feature in the Star Trek series, never before has it been used as a weapon. “FX Artist Mike Zhou led the charge on this and did an awesome job of assimilating the various other instances of programmable matter from the series into something larger and more aggressive so that it could be thought of as a ‘security system’ for the ship,” says Faczek.
Outpost CG Supervisor Colton Miller worked alongside Zhou and began by looking at previous examples of programmable matter and spoke about its near limitless possibilities and behavioural properties. Zhou explains where the initial ideas for the programmable matter FX came from: “for me, I think of the attack as a virus from Book’s ship to Burnham’s shuttle that works slowly to try and take control, so this is where we started. I wanted to give the programmable matter a growth characteristic similar to poison so we started with this slow upward motion, consuming the shuttle.”
Meanwhile, FX Artist Dan Chamberlin focused on the Electrical Magnetic Pulse and how it would interact with the programmable matter in a way that communicated a battle between the two. Over many iterations, the team created a surge of energy that washes over the programmable matter, making it retreat before it continues to attack the shuttle.
Faczek concludes: “It was a fun body of work to be a part of with the team from Discovery basically saying, ‘hey we have this planet set piece, could you just go to town on it and make it look awesome?’ Who doesn’t love planning out the look and feel of a spaceship flying through a destroyed planet and crushing a shuttle? To do something like this on a series in the Star Trek universe is a VFX bucket list item for sure.
“The team here did an amazing job juggling the huge amount of client elements and internal set pieces. Many of them had to step a little out of their comfort zones to get stuff done, but everyone was always game to not only solve the problems but to really take the work to the next level.”
Watch the team’s collective effort on screen with Star Trek: Discovery, streaming now on Paramount+ and Amazon Prime.