People always say it pays to be in the right place at the right time. Matte painter Max Gabl can confirm that this is true. CBS Paramount’s visual effects group, CBS Digital, had been working on remastering the original Star Trek series for two months when they decided it was time to bring a matte painter onto the team. They posted an ad on a visual effects site, and Gabl, whose credits include Stealth, Flags Of Our Fathers, Racing Stripes, Underdog, Primeval, Pushing Daisies, Ugly Betty and Kings, saw it immediately. “I was the first guy to respond because they had literally posted the ad five minutes ago,” he recalls with a laugh. “I interviewed, and I got it.”
CBS Paramount decided to remaster the popular series, Gabl says, after realizing that plans to release it in HD weren’t going to work because the production value of the 1960s-era show just wouldn’t hold up in the high-definition format. Working closely with art directors Michael Okuda, best known for his work on Star Trek: The Next Generation; and Dave Rossi, a longtime Star Trek producer; as well as visual effects supervisor Neil Wray, Gabl did matte paintings for 54 episodes of the show (now known as TOS-R, The Original Series Remastered). Using MAXON’s CINEMA 4D as his main tool, he created 33 establishing shots and scene extensions, 49 planets and a handful of nebulas. “I figured out fast that the planets had to be 3D,” Gabl explains. Because of their perfect roundness, spheres with surface texture would take too long to paint by hand.
Gabl started this made-from-scratch matte painting for Star Trek’s “Dagger of the Mind” episode in CINEMA 4D. He used Photoshop and Painter to texture and paint the model.
While he did work occasionally with models built by other artists at CBS Digital, which he imported into CINEMA 4D to light, texture and render, Gabl created most of his matte paintings from scratch, taking them all the way from 3D to final paint concept to final render. He describes the experience as “a painter’s dream come true” because he was able to enjoy an unusual amount of creative freedom, particularly when creating establishing shots. “Some of the paintings were completely new shots added in front of a sequence to give the viewer an overview of the location they’re about to enter,” he explains. (See some of Gabl’s work at: http://www.maxgabl.com/Content/Matte_Paintings.html.)
In addition to the new establishing shots, Gabl, whose project files averaged around 350 megabytes, also made subtle changes to original shots by painting over them. He made buildings using CINEMA 4D, rendered them and painted over the renders in Photoshop and Painter before putting them into the shot. When some older matte paintings, which were originally painted on glass, needed extra detail, or had to be extended to fit HD format, Gabl took them directly into Photoshop and/or Painter and used a graphics tablet to paint them. (See a sample of one of his hand-painted set extensions at: http://www.maxgabl.com/NewArtwork/Rollovers/StarTrek_Destr_Outpost.html.)
This extended scene, for “The Menagerie” episode, was crafted around the original footage of the crew (pictured in the lower right-hand corner).
When making the planets, Gabl first talked with Okuda and Rossi about a basic concept, for example, “earthlike with large, dark mountain ranges, pink skies, poles, swirly clouds and about 30 percent ocean,” he explains. Concepts were usually based on shots in the episode where you could see at least some features of the planet, so the look needed to match. Gabl used a NASA template to start each planet, manipulating the textures until he had something he could work with. Next, he used a graphics tablet and pen to refine the texture until it was ready to be projected onto the 3D spheres he’d made in CINEMA4D.
Gabl used CINEMA 4D to create a panoramic establishing shot (a small section is shown here) for “The Man Trap” episode. Details were created in Photoshop.
The finished matte painting for “The Man Trap” episode was meant to look like the stage and props used in the scene rather than an actual landscape.
Gabl, who uses a Mac, also used Photoshop and MAXON’s BodyPaint 3D to create some of the planets’ textures before importing them into CINEMA 4D for texture mapping. “I liked using BodyPaint to put textures directly onto the planets because I could see how it was going to look right away rather than having to wait for them to render before I could use Photoshop,” he explains, adding that the planets rendered at 4000 x 4000 pixels. The ability to save time was one of the biggest reasons for buying BodyPaint 3D, says Gabl. “CINEMA 4D is made for visual artists like me,” he says. “It has a straightforward interface and I get the immediate results I need.”
The cityscape featured in the “Wink of an Eye” episode weighed in at 1,350,000 polygons. Gabl, along with a few other artists, collaborated on this, the largest 3D file in the project.
As he worked on the nearly two-year project, Gabl built an extensive library of textures that he could modify as needed, allowing him to turn a blue ocean green or vegetation from green to brown. To give the planets’ surfaces dimensionality, he used data gathered from geological Web sites for the displacement maps, to create mountains and other terrain. The clouds were made using textures with alpha channels that Gabl projected onto a second, slightly larger and half-transparent sphere, giving the illusion of cloud layer hovering over the planet.
When producers asked for a hint of tall buildings to be visible from space, Gabl had to consider what was possible that would still look realistic. “I had to think about how tall would a building have to be to be visible from space? One hundred miles tall, maybe?” Gabl recalls. On average, it took about two days to create each planet, but toward the end of the project, as deadlines loomed, he was able to crank out one a day and on a few occasions, two. “After we all got to know each other well, I knew exactly what they wanted and they knew how I worked, so we could go so much faster.”
Textures for this planet, used in the episode “For Whom Gods Destroy,” were created in Photoshop and mapped onto a 3-D sphere that Gabl made using CINEMA 4D.
While Gabl worked on planets and establishing shots, another team of modelers, animators and texture artists worked almost exclusively on all of the starship Enterprise shots, including a new CGI version of the venerable star ship. Once the various elements were finished, CBS Digital’s team of compositors inserted everything into the footage for the finished look. “Aside from specifications on the look that were asked for, I enjoyed almost absolute freedom on this project,” Gabl says, adding that he enjoyed working creatively, and even becoming friends with some of his teammates, while sharing the joys and miseries that went with working on a long-term project with tight deadlines. “Neil Wray contributed some excellent 3-D buildings and Mike Okuda is a great artist in his field, and he’s got the Star Trek look down to a science.”
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Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. Contact her at her website: www.slowdog.com
May 4, 2009
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