A Journey into Bad Robot for a Look at J.J.'s 'Star Trek Into Darkness'
by Alex Billington
December 17, 2012
There are many times I consider myself truly lucky to have a job of running a movie blog, but this was one of those one-in-a-million opportunities I'm still geeking out about. A week ago, on a Monday afternoon in Santa Monica, I was invited to visit the offices of Bad Robot, J.J. Abrams' production company located just a few blocks from Cloverfield Blvd. It was part of a big press event for the 9-min IMAX exclusive prologue playing in front of select showings (see here) of The Hobbit in IMAX. Just the night before we were shown the full 9-min prologue at an actual IMAX theater (my video blog is here) but now we got to talk to all the people behind it, all the individuals responsible for creating this kick ass sequel to 2009's sci-fi Star Trek.
Being invited inside of Bad Robot is as rare an opportunity as visiting Pixar or ILM or Skywalker Ranch or any famous Hollywood production office. The building is virally identified already, not far from Cloverfield Blvd in Santa Monica it's labeled the "National Typewriter Company" on the outside. I couldn't even find the entrance when I got there, but the insides are what count, because it's a beautiful-meets-awesome office space. Talk about a dream to work there. They have it all, besides a classy two-story Christmas tree, props and collectibles from this movie and many others, a sound studio and screening room, there's even an "art studio" with a screen printer in the building. This is everything I imagined inside Bad Robot, and more.
As for the Star Trek Into Darkness experience, in honor of the prologue and first teaser trailer reveal, they re-arranged the entire office and created Trek-themed stations to focus on different creative areas: costume & props, make-up & creature effects, a t-shirt making station (woot!), visual effects breakdown and scoring with Michael Giacchino. It was speaking with Giacchino where I realized that was all a bit premature, as he explained he only made music for the first 9 minutes and hasn't even seen footage from the rest of the movie yet. "I have no idea what I'm going to do yet... because I haven't seen the whole film yet... Your guess is as good as mine." Nonetheless, all the teases we've seen so far look great, and I am excited to see this anyway.
Here's what we do know: J.J. Abrams likes to keep things very mysterious. There is a 9-minute opening prologue to Star Trek Into Darkness that introduces Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain "John Harrison", which was confirmed as the character's name by Cumberbatch himself at this press event. There's a new teaser trailer out today showing us more hints at what's to come in this sci-fi sequel. J.J. may have even shown us something we swore not to tell anyone about, which will remain a mystery, too. There are plenty of other things I can tell you about, including learning that there are Klingon's and tons of cool aliens, and Spock's eyebrows were specially applied individually hair-by-hair every time. All that attention-to-detail!
In the exclusive IMAX prologue, without spoiling too much of it, Spock goes down into a volcano wearing a special "heat-resistant" suit. There's a glimpse of it in some of the trailers, but you get to see it shiny and bright in the prologue. The suit was built by Film Illusions, Inc. for the production, and took roughly 4 months to build from scratch, using metal and leather, by hand. "With Spock's heat-resistant suit, we knew he had to go down into the volcano, we knew he had to be protected from the heat and the fire, but we also wanted something that aesthetically would be beautiful in there. J.J. wanted to see the flames reflecting off the suit, which you see as he's doing his work down there. Plus he had to be able to move." And it looks cool.
One thing was clear talking to everyone - this movie was an extremely collaborative effort. While we hear that a lot with most movies, this one is clearly more collaborative with J.J. at the helm at Bad Robot. The prop maker works closely with the costumer designers and builders and even the make-up guys. They need to work together with the designers and everyone. "It's a collaboration," prop master Andy Siegel said, "and it starts with J.J." We weren't allow to take any pictures ourselves and they won't let us show anything, but we did get to see the new insignia on the new Starfleet uniforms. "We wanted to really stay true to the previous film and to the series, but we just gave it a little update." It's a "streamline" update. They also had a bat'leth and Klingon rifle on display, and mentioned the Klingon homeworld Qo'noS a few times, meaning we will see it. "We had an eye on making it as brutal as possible," referring to designing Klingon weaponry.
Speaking of the Klingons, make-up artist David LeRoy Anderson was on hand showing off a few of his alien creations, including the Klingon updates. They have a certain feeling of old and new, mixing the classic bushy eyebrows and facial hair with a boney prosthetic over the head to complete the unique features we know. We saw some finished shots and the actual make-up pieces themselves, but no footage of them in action yet. Not even in the prologue. David also showed us a few of his wild alien characters and masks, plus the pieces he made to help him apply eyebrows to Zachary Quinto (45 minutes for each brow) to make his process of becoming Spock easier each time. Impressive work from a make-up artist who has been working in this industry for numerous generations. "Every make-up artist in L.A. has worked on Star Trek," he says.
It's here where LeRoy Anderson also tells us about two very unique alien characters in Into Darkness. One of them was called Gatt 5000, some sort of cybernetic or potentially-android-like character that had a display in the back of his head. They found an actor (I believe it was Joseph Gatt, hence the name) with a flat spot on the back of his head, attached a prosthetic to it, and shot the scenes. The circular piece looks like it's showing the insides of some positronic brain, so where did he get the image? From the ceiling of the Enterprise bridge set. He laid down on the floor and looked up, took a photo. A piece of the set nobody sees, but the blue spoke-like artwork became the computer imagery for this piece in the back of the guy's head.
The other character was actually portrayed by his wife - actress Heather Langenkamp. But she won't actually be seen, because she's playing some huge alien nicknamed Moto. It has some toad-like gullet that lights up and expands when she breathes, and they built a practical costume for her to wear while shooting. They call them "visitors", anything that's alien, so they don't have to use that more common term. So many cool teases and costume pieces I wish we could've taken photos of, but alas, you'll have to savor those experiences for the big screen for now. Nonetheless, everything we saw was impressive. This looks awesome.
One person who shed a lot of light on Star Trek Into Darkness and gave us a more thorough tease of what's going on in the prologue was composer Michael Giacchino. He was on hand at a small scoring studio to discuss composing the 9-minutes of music for the opening IMAX prologue, which is all the work he has done for this so far. "I have no idea what I'm going to do yet... because I haven't seen the whole film yet," he told us. But what he did create is exactly what Abrams instructed him to give us. "So as an audience are right there, following the story, every step of the way. Everything that J.J. wants you to feel and follow, I'm there to help kinda yank you through," Giacchino explains as he walks through scoring the prologue step-by-step.
Even Giacchino reiterates how much of a collaboration the entire Star Trek movie is, which reiterates why it's so important we speak to all of these creators behind-the-scenes. "Everyone is on board to do whatever is best for the film." Even "if a scene works better without music - I will literally be the first guy to raise his hand and say 'take the music out.' On many occasions I've offered up and scarified whole cues that I've spent days writing because it works better without, you know, you don't need it. For me, the film is the end game, not what I'm doing on the film. The film itself is the end game. So we tried to accommodate that idea... I think we have a really good team that works together and does understand that." That is unquestionable.
As for the opening prologue, since that is all Giacchino has seen or worked on, here's where he explains the concept behind it and why it's a bit confusing. Or perhaps confusing is the wrong word—mysterious, maybe, is more suitable. It sets up more questions than answers, and is more of an opening teaser than anything. That said, it is thrilling to see and it's great to have the Enterprise crew back together on another mission:
"The opening of the film is quite different from what you would expect from the opening, I think, of a Star Trek film. It starts off in the hospital and you're kind of like—wait, am I in the right theater? What is this? Where the heck am I? And that's intentional. We really wanted to give the audience a distance from the characters. Not speak too plainly about what it is that they're doing, what's going on, the music isn't commenting too much about what's happening. But the idea was to get across that — what you see in front of you, is what you see in front of you, but there's something much bigger going on behind the scenes. And what is that? I don't know yet. We don't know. But it's growing, and it's evolving, in a way in which Star Trek music really traditionally doesn't really do. It's a slightly different way to approach it."
Everything in Star Trek Into Darkness is getting a "2.0" update, as they explain. "What refinements can you make - much like 2.0, you get a new iPhone every year, you get a new tape recorder every year. We just did that - we took all the props, all the classic props: tricorders..." communicators (with the "mesh" back on) and everything else. It definitely looks and feels that way. We stopped by the visual effects department at the end to see a breakdown of the work on some of the scenes in the prologue and trailer. Bigger and better, it seems, in every way possible. From all the footage I've seen, this looks spectacular, a huge upgrade over Star Trek but still with a focus on characters first and foremost. We barely know some of them yet - though they did confirm Alice Eve is playing Dr. Carol Marcus, and we know Cumberbatch is "Harrison" but that's it.
If only all of you guys could have been there! This was an experience for true fans, and I wish it could be experienced by all. The Bad Robot offices were adorned with so much cool artwork, fun collectibles, even an complete art studio and print shop (with 3D printer and a screen printer). They made us our own t-shirts of a "wooden" Enterprise from the side (see third photo above), and just allowed us to do our own screen printing ourselves if we so desired. That is kind of awesome; just the amount of passion, enthusiasm for great cinema, and sheer geekery found inside of this place. It would be a dream to work here and even more amazing to actually be the guy making incredible films at a home like this. I didn't want to leave that night.
The event ended with a big rooftop reception including all of the cast and crew - from director J.J. Abrams to writers Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, to all the stars like Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, John Cho, Alice Eve and an appearance by Bruce Greenwood. A calm evening with a beautiful Santa Monica sunset to end an outstanding day touring one of the coolest production offices I've ever seen. What a place to work. Thankfully, Star Trek Into Darkness looks awesome, and the results of all this hard work are starting to pay off in the glimpses of early footage we've seen. The VFX guys have joked that they're making "space porn", and while that does seem like an obnoxious term, it does fit rather well.
For a full rundown of Trek 2 details, our friends at SlashFilm (also in attendance) wrote a 15 Things We Learned About The Sequel While Visiting Bad Robot recap which covers just about every little last detail for those looking to try and figure out the plot before they even see it. While they did invite us inside Bad Robot, they kept many of the bigger details beyond the prologue and teaser out of our sight. We only learned a few bits and pieces that we didn't know already, and the focus was kept mostly on how great all of this stuff looks so far. Which it does - you can catch my video blog for the prologue or the first teaser trailer.
I'm truly lucky to be invited to this event and honored to have been allowed inside the doors of Bad Robot for an early look at Star Trek Into Darkness. From the looks of it, 2013 is going to be a spectacular year for science fiction, and Into Darkness will be leading the way. Everything about this sequel looks massive, they're throwing all they can into making this "2.0" in bigger, better, darker, fresher, sleeker ways. It is opportunities like this, getting to step inside of a leading Hollywood production office as esteemed and yet geeky as this, that I live for. Getting to see the guts of the brilliant factory creating some of the best films around. Thanks for letting us explore inside your Typewriter Company, Mr. Abrams, I am forever grateful.