This is by far the longest interview we've done - Rick Sternbach, Star Trek's senior illustrator / designer talks about his (Star Trek) career, design and Star Trek in general. He worked on ST for 14 continuous years, not including "The Motion Picture", first Star Trek film he has worked on. He created several starships such as the USS Voyager, USS Prometheus, runabouts, Deep Space Nine station… He also developed a lot of props like PADDs, tricorders, communicators… He's also co-author of two The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine Technical Manuals.
Favorite Star Trek Series? I'd have to say TNG; it was the closest thing we did to what I would consider literate media science fiction.
Favorite Star Trek movie? The Wrath of Khan is definitely my choice there. It had the right combination of characters, plot, science fiction elements, and unique Star Trek look.
Favorite episode? That's a tough one, because there are so many good ST episodes from the different series. Maybe "Yesterday's Enterprise" because of some of the reasons I just mentioned above. It had a good SF "hook" with the twisted timeline, good characters in a strange situation, and fun spaceship action.
Kirk or Picard? Hey! Not fair!
How did it feel when you first came on Star Trek? If I am not mistaken, you came into Star Trek world with "The Motion Picture". What was your role on the project?
Well, it was terrific to have been accepted into the ST: TMP art department the very morning that the feature film was being announced to the world. I had visited the studio months earlier, when the production was still a second Star Trek television series, but nothing much was happening and they had no work for me. That all changed, of course, when the studio decided to make the film. I was brought on as a senior-level illustrator, so I got to sketch up bits of the sets and props and control panels, though I didn't get the opportunity to work on any of the ships because those were being handled by the special effects facilities.
How long does it take to create a new starship from scratch to final model? How many people work on it?
It can take literally anywhere from a few minutes to a few months, depending on the level of importance of the ship. For an alien "ship of the week" on a series, a quick sketch can show the model makers (or more likely today, the computer generated imagery people) that a simple set of shapes can be cobbled together and detailed and given a few basic colors and insignia. Contrast that with a major vessel like Voyager or a major station like Deep Space 9, and you're looking at three to five months for all the shape drawings and changes and super-detailing. After all of the approvals of the detail sketches and scaled model blueprints (which I love doing), the physical model shop or CGI facility will put a crew to work to make it real. In the model shop case, you can see maybe five to ten people creating aluminum armatures, shaping hull parts for molding and casting, electronics specialists wiring up motors and lights, and painters airbrushing and applying decals. As we know, some effects facilities like ILM could add many more people to the job of making the model, and then even more people on top of that to film it. In making a CGI model of a ship, there's often a modeler who builds the shapes in polygons, another CG artist who creates the surface textures, another who lights the environment, and another who animates the scene. Sometimes a single person can do all those jobs, especially with the CG software available today.
Could you outline your usual design workflow for us? Where do you start, do you prefer digital tools or pen and paper?
We usually started the design process for both ships and props by reading over the script to get an idea of the bits that would be needed for use on stage and bits that could come later, like in post production. Hand props and large set pieces would get priority, of course, since they would have to play within a week to ten days from when we would first get the story to read. Some recurring props, like the tricorder, got designed back at the beginning of TNG, where we had a few months in 1987. to reinvent Trek technology. Ship sketches – could - be done early, and loose doodles were often done right there in production meetings, but more often I drew ships up as soon as the prop drawings went off for fabrication. I normally approached sketching with blank white paper and thin black marker, just to get the basic shapes. I then redrew the best of many pages of doodles in blue pencil, then hardline fine marker, with all the little details. With some ships, rough computer graphic shapes helped work out perspective drawings. For major ships like Voyager, I would draw construction blueprints in five orthographic views, usually full size for the physical models.
In what degree are the producers involved in creating a starship design? I.e. how much creative freedom do you have?
In my experience, not much more than dictating basic desires concerning size and type of ship. Occasionally they wanted something specific to be added to a ship because of a story point, like the big sensor pod on the DS9 runabout, but mostly they wanted to make sure that the shapes were distinctly Trekish, filled the requirements of the episode, and that they looked cool (not necessarily in that order). In retrospect, I probably had 85%-90% of my designs go through with no major changes.
You've been a part of Star Trek's art department for 14 years (23 including TMP)… How did the starship development process change during the years?
The most important change, really, was the increasing availability to CGI software and better, faster computers. It made the design process go faster, by letting us make models that were a few steps closer to the final on-screen product. A single sketch rarely gives the model makers or CGI techs a complete view, and even blueprints needed –some - interpretation in places where compound curves occurred. A CGI mesh, even a rough CGI model, could be rotated and vague areas better understood.
You've designed Voyager. On the bottom side of saucer section there's an auxiliary craft, AeroShuttle. Similar vessel was attached on Enterprise-D saucer section. We've never actually seen those on screen, how come?
Time and money, mostly. The producers determined that the Captain's Yacht on the Enterprise-D would have cost too much to construct, even if it were amortized over a number of episodes, so we used an "executive shuttle" instead. The AeroShuttle was a case of the producers not understanding that the particular shape was a real craft, despite the fact we handed out simplified tech "primers" at the beginning of the first season. When the Delta Flyer was called for, we pointed out the AeroShuttle again, but this time they didn't want to show it, since a Captain's Yacht was written into the Insurrection feature film. Ah well; we tried.
You've created a lot of futuristic props, gadgets and stuff. What's in your opinion most likely to became reality in near future?
I'd like to think that a lot of the medical scanning gear will come to pass, along with more general devices like the tricorder. You can take all of the gizmos mentioned in Star Trek and fractionate them out into possible, plausible but too advanced for now, and totally unobtainable (but sound soooo cool). Most of the possible ones are scanning and communications gear, energy weapons and supercomputers, I believe; the second category would include high-energy producing devices like fusion reactors, and really big space vehicles; and the third would include things like warp engines and star-busting weapons.
I know you weren't involved in designing Enterprise (NX-01), but I hope you won't mind me asking this one… Why was NX designed so similarly to Akira? Hypothetically, if you were making it, would you do anything similar?
As I've said in other forums, the story I heard was that after the designs submitted had encountered approval roadblocks, the Akira was given to the artists as a ship that hadn't been seen much, and that they should use it as a basis for the Enterprise but to make it older in appearance. It's easy after the fact to come up with a different look, but had I attempted to design the NX-01, I believe I would have taken the style back even further, a bit chunkier, but still with a sense of power and speed. Hard to do, but given enough time, who knows?
Where do you get (most of) your inspiration from?
A bottle of little pink speed-learning pills marked "Futuristic Design 101," with apologies to Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). Inspiration comes from everywhere; nature, mathematics, physics, architecture, industrial design, science fiction films (incestuous process), anime, you name it. I read a lot, watch a lot of television, movies, internet visuals, just pull it all in and process it into interesting designs. The more real looking spacecraft and astronomical art requires some discipline in actual vehicle engineering and planetary physics and so on; the science fiction vessels require a different set of rules and background material, not necessarily more relaxed than the real stuff, just different in terms of stylistic concerns and requirements for film or TV.
Which do you prefer working on, alien or Star Fleet vessels?
I like both, though the alien stuff can be more fun in that it can be much, much different from Starfleet. I did have a chance to evolve Starfleet hardware somewhat during the last few seasons of Voyager, but unfortunately this came too late to make any real difference in the way the ships looked.
When working on a starship, what is your primary focus? Do you give more weight to aesthetics or function?
Equal weight, I'd say. The two work together, even if as a designer I can't explain every single little fiddly detail to the viewer, I can at least come up with interesting shapes that suggest their functions. On the most basic level, starships (both alien and Starfleet) are amazingly easy to understand; you can tell which way they're pointed, you can usually see their engines, and you can see them fire weapons. More alien designs can confound us temporarily, and figuring them out is half the fun (I still don't know what V'Ger looks like as a total object).
What are your favorite starship and prop? On which one did you work longest?
Voyager is probably my favorite ship design, with the Klingon Attack Cruiser coming in a close second. Voyager took about five months total, with some starts and stops for approvals and changes. My favorite prop would have to be the TNG tricorder, modeled after the HP-41C programmable calculator, which had an amazing array of functions but was easy to learn and use, and fit in one hand. Since Gene Roddenberry asked us to shrink down a lot of the props for TNG, the two-handed tricorder was resized to be smaller and sleeker. Well, it still required two hands if you used the little round silver scanner.
How come you weren't part of Enterprise ("Series V") art department?
Star Trek Enterprise was already up and running with their own art department while we were finishing up Voyager, so they were fully staffed. Beyond that, you've have to ask the art directors.
I believe you've heard that eleventh movie is planned… Would you work on it if they called you? Have they called you already?
Sure, who wouldn't? I've sent over my résumé and a packet of visuals, and it's only a matter of time to see what happens.
Can you tell us what you're currently working on? Any particular plans or projects planned in the future?
I'm running a space education and hobby firm called Space Model Systems, Inc. (spacemodelsystems.com). We're providing physical astronomical models and art to various planetariums and collectors, as well as offering hobby decals for the kit builders out there. We're got a few original spacecraft kits in work, possibly ready by this winter. I'm continuing to do space art for original commissions and print sales, and recently finished up a few years as editor of PULSAR, the journal of the International Association of Astronomical Artists.
Thank you for this interview, on behalf of UFPCroatia team, I wish you best of luck in your future projects.
Thanks for asking. It's been fun, and good luck to you folks as well.
(images are property of www.ricksternbach.com)