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Effects Legend Douglas Trumbull Came To Toronto To Talk About The Star Trek Movie That Almost Didn’t Get Finished

Star Trek: The Motion Picture—the movie that nearly sent the Starship Enterprise where it had never gone before… right into a trash can. (Boldly, of course.)

As part their ‘50 Years of Star Trek’ programming, TIFF invited effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull (the guy who built an entire city worth miniatures for Blade Runner, made us believe in UFOs with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and worked alongside Stanley Kubrick on the Oscar-winning effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey) to talk about how he saved the very first Star Trek movie from being scrapped by the studio.

Paramount isn’t fully to blame for the fiasco—they wanted to hire Trumbull to supervise the special effects from the start. The problem was that he’d already committed to working on Spielberg’s Close Encounters. So the studio hired another firm and spent $5 million and 18 months on effects work they didn’t like and couldn’t use. That’s when Trumbull returned, getting carte blanche from Paramount to do what he could to get the movie into theatres on time. Money was no object, but Trumbull and his team had just nine months to finish the work—a movie that featured more shots than Close Encounters and Star Wars combined.

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“A meeting was scheduled at Paramount,” said Trumbull, returning to what he calls one of the most stressful periods of his career. “The head of the studio says to us ‘We are going to finish Star Trek: The Motion Picture on time. Period. I don’t care what it takes, I don’t care what it costs, I don’t even care if it’s any good… And I’m asking Doug to do the visual effects.’ And then he left the room. So I said, ‘I can finish this movie as long as I’m a free man afterwards… and I want a lot of money.’ So that was the story behind the making of this movie.”

Exactly how bad was this thing before Trumbull stepped in? “He [director Robert Wise] had shot hours of footage that was completely unusable. They had done it in very conventional ways—there were these ridiculous looking shots of Nimoy and Shatner on wires floating through a hideous set and it was not going to look good. [And] the movie was going to be three or four hours long,” he joked.

“So I rewrote parts of the script, I redesigned whole sequences, and we did get the movie finished on time—with a few hours to spare. It was really a close call. I ended up in a hospital for two weeks afterwards with every kind of stress-related illness.”

Despite devoting nine round-the-clock months of his life to Star Trek, Trumbull isn’t completely satisfied with the end result: “There are some really good shots in this movie and there are some really bad shots in this movie.” He says he prefers to let fans decide which is which.

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