Next Generation

CGSociety :: Production Focus

31 August 2012, by Scott Strohmaier



Star Trek fans are legendary for their attention to detail. So getting things right is a top priority for anyone working on anything related to the show in any of its incarnations. Max Gabl may just be one of the people who understands this need for accuracy best. Having served a couple of years back as the matte painter on CBS Digital’s TOS-R (Star Trek: The Original Series remastered), he recently completed work as the senior and lead matte artist for the just-released, remastered Blu-ray edition of Star Trek: The Next Generation Season One.



For the 10th Next Generation episode, “Hide and Q”, Gabl used C4D to recreate the planet based on the original sequence that included the Enterprise.


To create this and other planets for The Next Generation, Gabl used a mixture of hand-painted textures, as well as terrain maps he downloaded from NASA’s website. Using Maxon’s CINEMA 4D, Photoshop, After Effects and a bit of Trimble’s SketchUP, Gabl was able to bring to life celestial bodies and planetary environments that are at once incredibly gritty and detailed while remaining ethereal and breathtakingly artistic. A native of Switzerland, Gabl attended the School of Art and Design in Basel. After graduating, he refined his painting skills by copying old master paintings in the Prado museum in Madrid, Spain, and the Louvre in Paris. “My education and background in hyper- realistic painting helps me in creating elements and sceneries without depending much on reference material,” says Gabl, adding that this intense post-graduate education in art is what enables him to succeed at being a matte painter.

An award-winning artist, Gabl is a skilled and versatile illustrator, designer, scenic artist, concept artist, matte artist and art director. Over his vast and varied career, he has created backdrops and mattes for many films, such as: Flags of Our Fathers, Stealth, Tron: Legacy, Kill Bill: Vol. 2 and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. His numerous TV credits include: The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb, Mysterious Island, Supernova, Pushing Daisies, Kings, The Bronx Is Burning and the upcoming 1600 Penn.

As a child, Gabl watched Disney films almost all the time. "I focused more on the backgrounds than on the action in the foreground of a scene," he says. "I wanted to live in the backgrounds I saw in films like The Jungle Book, The Aristocats and Robin Hood. And this turned into a strong wish to be involved in the creation of these kinds of scenes."



To recreate the Angel One planet for the episode of the same name, Gabl started by referencing the original low-res version of the planet. His new version included the planet’s cloud layer hovering above the ground and atmosphere.


Gabl was able to build on what he learned working on the remastered version of The Original Series while working on this new project. "When The Next Generation project came along, it was natural that I should work on it because I had already done all of these planets and establishing shots on The Original Series. I knew how to do it, and I had figured out a fast workflow that allowed me to meet the super tight deadlines. By now, I have a big library of textures that I keep altering and reusing."

For the first season of The Original Series, Gabl worked on overall about 80 percent planets and 15 percent establishing shots like landscapes and scenery. "To a much lesser degree, I also worked on things like putting finishing touches and reflections on the Enterprise, creating artwork for the computer panels and doing other touch-ups and refinements. Right now I’m working on Season 3 of The Original Series, and after that we’ll move on to Season 5. Season 2 and Season 4 are being done by other visual effects vendors."

Gabl works a lot in 3D now and at least 60 percent of that work is created in CINEMA 4D. "I also use SketchUp sometimes to do things like create mockups of buildings and city blocks, which I finish in C4D. The other work I do is mostly in Photoshop, and I composite in After Effects, especially rendered layers created in 3D."



For 'The Inner Light' episode, Gabl modeled and rendered the city in CINEMA 4D, taking care to match the light and perspective in the original plate. The terrain was painted using Photoshop.


"In almost every episode there is at least one planet," Max Gabl explains. "We are always matching what was there in the original episode. And I am asked to make higher resolution images of planets and to create establishing shots based on what was originally shot for the series over twenty years ago. The goal is to draw the audience in with a believable planet and its terrain. It needs to look realistic and at the same time it has to match the original image. That’s not an easy task. I have to come up with detail that is missing in the original. There can be a lot of back and forth sometimes.

Strohmaier: How long does it take you to re-design or create a planet? And can you talk a little bit about what that process entails?

Gabl: When I first started on The Original Series remastered it took me three or four days to finish a planet. Now I can produce one to upwards of three planets in a day, depending on how complex they are. There are approximately three to four layers to every planet. First is the ground layer; this is the color layer containing the landmasses and the water. The second layer is where the clouds are. There could be one or two layers of clouds at different elevations. The third layer is something I call the atmospheric layer, and not all planets have this one. It compares to the layer of air surrounding the earth, as seen from space. When I redesign a planet, I start by painting the textures. I also download and modify terrain maps fro NASA’s website to give the ground realistic-looking surface elevation details such as mountains and riverbeds. I map the textures on, do test render after test render, tweak the textures, and then show what I have to Michael Okuda so I can get his feedback and requests for changes. He’ll say: ‘More clouds, less clouds, make this a little more blue or red, etc.’. After I make the changes and he approves everything, I animate the planets and render the sequences. And then it’s on to the next image.

Gabl also worked with Michael Okuda, the creative consultant for The Next Generation. "He knows more about Star Trek than anyone I know. He knows every episode, the planets, what the planets’ inhabitants are, what kind of atmosphere each planet has and so on. I get the detailed briefing and most of the feedback from him, and also from CBS Digital’s creative director, Craig Weiss.



Gabl created and rendered rocks and boulders in C4D to make the set extension needed for this scene in the episode “Hide and Q”. Photoshop was used for final touchups.


According to Gabl, there were some difference in his approach to a background versus a planet. The sceneries that were created as matte paintings were all locked shots where the camera doesn’t move. "So, I recreated them all as 2D images, meaning that most of that work happened in Photoshop with occasional 3D renders of architecture inserted. The planets, on the other hand, are all animated and rendered in CINEMA 4D.

There were also notable differences between the planets on The Next Generation and the planets on The Original Series. "For The Original Series, I usually created one high-resolution 2D image of every planet. We projected that 2D image onto a 3D sphere that was rotating, but only slightly, so as not to give away the fact that it was a 2D projection. For The Next Generation, you are looking at fully textured spheres that rotate quite a bit more, sometimes over 90 degrees, and that means much more surface has to be created."

 

 

For this scene in “Hide and Q”, Gabl modeled the rocks and foreground sand in Cinema 4D and then integrated rock textures cloned from the original footage (see original plate) into the render to match the look more closely.


Visual design back during production of the original series didn’t have the toolset and software that is available now. "They had to create practical elements such as painted spheres for the planets, shoot them and composite them on a very fast schedule," Gabl explains. "Also, the resolution of the older TV screens before HD was much lower, so they got away with more than we do today. At least with regard to detail."

On average, on Star Trek: Next Generation there were one or two planets shown per episode, and an occasional moon. "The goal was to get things done as fast as possible," Gabl adds. "If you can work ahead it’s better. You’re always fighting time, fighting the deadline to get everything done on schedule. Star Trek has a big community that’s waiting for the series to be released and you don’t want to disappoint them. BodyPaint 3D and all the tools for camera projection, texturing and rendering in Cinema were a tremendous help with getting things done quickly."



Scott Strohmaier is a writer living in Los Angeles living with his wife and son.