If you follow fan films at all, you probably recognize the name NEO f/x. It graces the credits of many of the Star Trek fan productions. Michael Struck heads NEO f/x and also wrote (along with Jack Trevino) the script for The Needs of the Many, which we reviewed a couple weeks ago.
Join us after the Jump for an interview with Michael.
Church H. Tucker: So, Michael, how did you get started doing effects?
Michael Struck: Well, the desire to do visual effects predates the technology to actually do it. I grew up in a time of Star Trek and Star Wars, where everything was practical models, and very little CGI (except for the original Tron) I wanted to do something like this myself, but I never had the ability to put practical models together very well. Anyway, I was a junior in high school when I saw a short blurb on the TV news about a computer system (the Amiga) that could 'render' the object that you created and animate them. This was very crude by today's standards, but I knew someday I would work with CGI. Fast forward a few years, and I began playing with various software application to learn 3D. I remember using the free version of Calgari 3D and within an hour had created a moving ship on the screen... that was pretty cool! Later, while skimming through a computer magazine I saw an ad for 'Lightwave 3D' with a fantastic picture from Babylon 5, the leading "3D TV show" of the day. This was the program that the TV news program had mentioned those many years prior, and if it could do visuals like Babylon 5, I was sold! That was in version 4.0, and the program has matured to version 10, and I have stuck with it all of the way. As I began to become proficient at 3D animation, I began showing my work to various folk. I found that 3D animation was not enough to get a lot of work, so I taught myself the art of doing compositing and visual effects. So now, I could take what I created in a 3D application, and combine that with live action 'plates' to create a full scene. This lead me to Starship Farragut, a up-and-coming fan-film based on the original Star Trek. They happen to need someone with broad visual effects skills, so it was a very good match. CHT: I coveted the Amiga, but they were already in decline when I got into computers. Have you followed the revival efforts at all?
MS: There have been a lot of false starts with the Amiga, but at the end of the day I really like the flexibility of the PC. I wrote an article once for a 3D magazine saying that, in actuality, that the comparison between PCs, Macs, Amigas, etc is a waste of time when it comes to creating art... it is all about the artist. It is like a painter complaining about the canvas he/she is working on...yes, it can make a difference in how the art is created, but a true artist can make art out of anything. Macs are easier to use, Amigas are nice, but for raw power per dollar, you can't beat a PC...and rendering 3D needs cheap, raw power.
CHT: How did NEO f/x come about? Was that created to work with Farragut, or was that from before?
MS: I started NEO f/x as well before being associated with Farragut. I began sending my demo tape out to companies in Hollywood along to fan films around the country, and needed a company name to seem more 'professional'. When you are first getting started, you don't have a whole lot of work to put on a demo reel, so I actually took the original episode of Space Seed, removed all of the special effects and replaced them with CGI. This was actually before CBS 'remastered' the episodes, so this was a new concept. NEO mean to 'make new' so the name NEO f/x seemed appropriate.
CHT: Is your version of Space Seed available anywhere?
MS: There are rumors that it is out there, but I hope not :) As with anything, as the work improved, the older stuff looks a bit 'amateurish' (if that is a word). Many of the models we used were updated for use in Farragut.
CHT: So, was Starship Farragut the first fan film you worked with? You seem to have become the go-to for a lot of Trek productions.
MS: Yes...Obviously, a person wants to get paid, and fan films typically are under restrictions (because of their content) NOT to make a profit. Some producers are kind and will give you a few hundred dollars for your time, but you REALLY have to love what you are doing to give up the time and energy to work on a fan production. As you can tell, I do enjoy Trek, and YES, we have become the Trek-visual house. We have worked on Farragut, Exeter, Lexington, Origins, and even did an opening tag for Cow Creek Films when they were associated with New Voyages.
CHT: It's certainly getting your name out there. I'm a fan especially of the Farragut Animated project. How did that get started? MS: After some live action episodes, I wanted to try to give Farragut something to set them apart in the fan community, so I began experimenting with 2D animation in the old 'Filmation' style. I even tracked down one of the original co-owners of Filmation, Lou Scheimer, to get his endorsement and guidance. After a couple episodes in both live action and 2D animation, we are up for our next challenge!
CHT: What kind of software are you using for the 2D animation?
MS: My goal on the animated episodes was to make them look as close to the original TAS episodes...even if it is campy and dated. For example, most character animation in TAS was actually paced at 12 frames per second on 24 frame per second video, so a mouth move from the O position to the M position would be something like this: O,O, M, M, so on....In some more typical, modern animations you might have a transition between O and M. Of course, this made it easy back in the 70 when they would place a cel on the background, take a picture or two, and then replace it. So, with this in mind, I wanted to keep the same concepts with the animation even while using digital formats. So I would have the artists provide me with Photoshop 'layers' with the different movements separated, and I would actually use After Effects to change the layers based on key frames and the actor's voice. I would then export each scene to a video file that would then go into my typical video editor. While there were probably easier ways to do this (and easier to use software), the end result is that every scene and movement was done by hand, giving it that Filmation look and feel.
CHT: How did you go from animating to writing an episode?
MS: Well, being associated with Farragut, I had some ideas for an episode that (as a fan) I would enjoy seeing. I wrote up a draft of what I was thinking and it ended up being a bit too aggressive for a live-action (no budget) film, so I shelved it. In the mean-time, I did some freelance work writing articles for a nationally published 3D magazine. So, as we started the animated project, I dusted off the original story outline and attempted to write the screenplay. What I found was that writing a magazine article does not make you a screen writer! Dialog and story structure are VERY important in film, and while I find it easy to make modifications to an already written story, coming up with it from scratch is rather difficult. Fortunately, I had an opportunity to correspond with Jack Trevino while working on Of Gods and Men. He also wrote a couple of episodes of Deep Space Nine, so he had the 'street credibility' to turn my story into reality. He and I worked together on it for a few months, and the result was The Needs of the Many, which I am rather proud of.
CHT: As you should be. Is your work on Of Gods and Men responsible for Tim Russ' appearance in that episode?
MS: That is correct... we had a small part for a Vulcan scientist that we originally had as a woman. I was speaking to Patricia Tallman (Babylon 5) about it, but when she passed I reached out to Tim and he had (ironically) been thinking about doing more voice-over work. Jack and I quickly consulted, and found it was rather easy to change the part to a male character. In fact, we have been asked if Tumar was a relative of Tuvok. I guess anything is possible... CHT: In the comments of my review of Power Source, a few people said they wanted to see a more modern style animated Trek. Do you have any desire to do something like that?
MS: As for doing a more modern animation, I counter with saying that with Farragut focusing on TOS (1960's) Trek, it seems natural to have it more like the original Filmation series. Of course, there are technical hurdles to doing it other ways. Filmation was all about 'reusing' actions and backgrounds, so we were able to start with a lot of existing backgrounds from TAS that we could use. In addition, if people would prefer 3D animation, that is also a lot of work to set up and work with. So, there is a bit of tribute perspective here, along with being able to put something out quickly.
CHT: So, what projects do you have on the burner, or at least the planning stages?
MS: Well, and I am not sure this is news to those Facebook friends, but we are planning another animated episode. Similar to what we did with the Farragut 'crew logs' these will be a less than 15 minute 'vignette' telling more character based stories. This one will be unique as a couple Exeter guest stars will be showing up. Outside of that, there is a live-action episode planned for filming on Farragut's new set later this year. We have a LOT of professionals on board, so it should take it up a notch with quality. Outside of science fiction, we are working on some visual effects here and there, and are slated to do a web-series for a Canadian-based production soon as well.
CHT: I don't have Facebook, so it's news to me. I'm excited to see an Exeter crossover. I believe that puts all of the major TOS era fan films in the same universe.
Is Farragut going to come out with another live-action episode?
MS: I am not sure when it will actually be released, but the Farragut folks will be filming the next live-action episodes in their new sets beginning in October. So, I would estimate well into 2012 something will be released.
CHT: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, and be sure to keep us posted.
MS: Thanks for the opportunity to tell you a little about ourselves and about the animated episodes. We are rather proud of them.
Have a fan film or web series you'd like to recommend? Hit up Church at email@example.com