An Interview with Model Maker Kim Smith
I recently enjoyed interviewing Kim Smith, who has worked as a model maker on three of the thirteen Star Trek feature films. Among many other films in general, she has specifically worked — as a member of the visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) — on the models for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Star Trek Generations and Star Trek: First Contact. She has also played a fundamental role in restoring the eleven-foot USS Enterprise model from Star Trek: The Original Series.
What originally inspired your interest in models?
Oh, good question. I originally applied to Disney many years ago, to do sculpting, and they told me that they didn’t use women for sculpting, something they could never say now, of course. I did not get a job with them then. Later, they were in love with my drawing portfolio and I almost had a job with them and I moved to Northern California instead.
Anyway, what happened was I started working for a company called Landmark Entertainment in LA, and I figured there I’d be able to do some sculpting and building and so on… and I did get to do that. I got a pretty good portfolio of art directors’ models for theme parks and so on. And I did some sculpting specifically for some of these art directors’ models. They were really, really detailed models. So, I had a very good portfolio of miniatures by the time I moved to Northern California.
Of course, ILM was the place to be in Northern California, and I actually continued working for Landmark Entertainment up in Northern California for a couple of years, doing freelance stuff for them, going to Japan and working on models, and Saint Louis, some other places. In the meantime, ILM put out a call for needing people and I knew that they were going to actually be working on a Kurosawa movie, which I really wanted to work on. Believe it or not, I applied and got a job right away. It wasn’t on the Kurosawa movie. It was on a show called Body Wars, which was for Disney World. And that was how I got my start at ILM.
Always in my life, I worked on doing three-dimensional things — sculpture, building stuff. I always enjoyed that. I like hardware a lot, I enjoy machines, and a lot of my personal artwork is inspired by hardware. But I like animals a lot too, so I like sculpting animals. I’m pretty wide-ranging in my skills, which turned out to be an advantage at ILM.
I find it really interesting that you’re inspired by the natural world. How delicate are the models that you built?
Well, they usually had to withstand heavy duty manipulation on stage, which is really tough. I have to say that working on one of the motion control stages is one of the most dangerous places that you could probably work, other than a battleship.
That’s another story in itself, but yeah, it’s a very dangerous place to work. So, things get broken easily, so you have to build things in a very sturdy fashion.
A lot of times they have to ship as well. They might have to, for example, go back down to Paramount. The Star Trek models had to go back down to Paramount. And so, we did our best to pack them so they wouldn’t break en route, but it wasn’t always successful. Usually, they broke coming back to us, not the other way around.
Did the people working on the models need to be careful about where they stepped and stuff like that?
Well, often, yes, that would be true. I mean, on a motion control stage, which is often dark, people trip over the track all the time or step into the groove where there’s a track that runs in the groove. There’s kind of a belt that moves in a track next to the big track that helps move the boom and the camera and everything, and it’s really easy to step into that. I’ve almost broke my ankle twice doing that, but it is very dark. I mean, of course it has to be dark and it’s best not to move around a whole lot if you can. Lifting the models can be really heavy and they have to be reset on different pylons for different shots, so moving it in the different positions can be torture.
Of all the films you’ve worked on, do you have a favorite?
The first one that comes into mind is Pirates of the Caribbean, because it was very much fun to work on. In fact, all the movies that I worked on that were the most fun were often some of the best movies. Pirates of the Caribbean, number one, was really a lot of fun because we built miniature ships for that and very detailed [ones]. We hired a guy who is specialized in wooden boat building, Peter Bailey, to oversee the building of the ship miniatures. And of course, as one of my colleagues said, anything that’s an inch smaller than it’s supposed to be is a miniature. So, these ships were actually quite large and like twenty-eight feet, so we had room to do quite a bit of detail.
One of my favorite things about Pirates of the Caribbean was that we had a huge tank out on our back lot. And as I remember, it was something like 250,000 gallons. I hate to be quoted on that, but that just sticks in my head.
We had a scene that was first used for promotion for Pirates but then got used also in the movie and that was where we set up a boat called the Interceptor. It was actually on gimbals, on a track — it wasn’t actually floating. So, it could be moved along the track, manipulated with cables and cranks on the side of the tank. The idea was that it was going to be a really stormy night. It was going to be shot at night also, outside, so there were two or three airplane-propeller-type fans. We had wind machines; we had rainmakers; we had this huge globe that was lit from the inside that was supposed to provide the moonlight on the ship; we had water dumps, huge water dumps on the side. All the grips were manipulating the gimbals. And let’s see what else… There were cams removing the water too, and fog machines.
Anyway, it was really a scene because they had everything going at once. There was probably thirty-five of us easily in the crew out that night, and there were people standing outside the fence, looking in, standing on each other’s shoulders, on the tops of their cars, watching the spectacle. And it was the craziest and maybe one of the last versions of this kind of special effect that was ever really done. I’m sure it was extraordinarily expensive. Nowadays, they’ll do a lot of that stuff in CG or something. This was all in camera.
Somebody found them from across the Bay, because they thought there was a UFO landing in San Rafael. It was the huge globe that they had suspended over the tank to provide the light. There’s all kinds of interesting factors that night about our shoot, so it was a blast and I don’t know why we weren’t electrocuted. There were 10K lamps, lights all around the tank, and we were standing in water that was a couple inches deep. I have no idea why we were not electrocuted. So, that was one of my very favourite times that I ever remember working on a movie.
You mentioned the difference between practical studio models and computer-generated models. Do you wish there were more films using practical studio models than CGI?
Well, yeah. I mean, I’m a big proponent for using models. CGI has come a long way since we first started using it at ILM. It’s a lot more successful, in a lot of ways, than it used to be. But still to me, one of the things that really drives me crazy is CGI lighting. It never looks natural to me. I’m not a lighter, so I don’t know why. I went from making practical models into doing computer graphics and I wound up doing a number of different things. I was a texture painter and a look development person and also hair. I did hair and some modelling, but I never was a lighter, so I don’t know why lighting looks so computer-graphic to me. And sometimes even things that are made practically, they’re applying CGI lighting to it when it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t look real to me. It looks like a game.
Interesting. I recently saw the new Indiana Jones film, which Industrial Light and Magic worked on. I thought that was really good. I don’t know if you’ve seen the film, but they did quite a long extensive sequence at the start with Indiana Jones and I thought that de-aging was really effective. But yeah.
On Harrison Ford, I thought it was good, and they did use a lot of old footage that they had of him, in combination with the aging process. I’m not sure how exactly they did it. I’d say with Mads Mikkelsen it was far less effective. My partner John disagrees with me on both. He thought Mads looked good and that Harrison Ford was not 100%. Well, none of that stuff is really 100% anymore. But I said, “If you look at a young picture of Mads Mikkelsen, he doesn’t look like that.” But later in the film, he’s just himself, as he looks now. John thought that they aged him for the later [scenes]. I said, “I don’t think they aged him at all.” I think that that’s just how he looks now. But the de-aging on him, I thought, didn’t look right at all.
Okay. And so, jumping from the Indiana Jones franchise to the Star Trek franchise, what was your earliest memory of Star Trek?
Well, actually I don’t think I really saw it when it was originally on TV. I may have seen it a couple times and maybe I wasn’t, you know, that fascinated with it. Later on, I started looking at syndication and really loved it. I was in high school when that came on television to start with, and I was pretty busy anyway. And then for a while, like in college, I didn’t even have a TV. But later, in syndication, I did really enjoy it. I thought it was completely charming and fun.
I’m always so surprised by how many people seem to have found it in syndication.
Yeah, well, The Original Series wasn’t on that long, really, but you’re right. Maybe people weren’t ready for it yet or something. I don’t know. And it was early, in a certain era of sci-fi.
So, how did you get started working on the Star Trek feature films?
It kind of goes back to… When I was at ILM, I was hired originally to do creature work. The first couple movies that I worked on were where I did creature work for those movies. The first one was Body Wars and the second one was Last Crusade, doing makeup stuff. And then, they liked my work and they’d got the work on Hunt for Red October, and a lot of people were really busy and I was still kind of new there. And Ease Owyeung said, “Can you paint?” Because I hadn’t been painting; I’d been sculpting or doing other stuff prior to that. And I said, “Yeah, I can paint.” So he said, “Well, you know, we have this 911 on the subs which we inherited from Boss Films and they need to be completely resurfaced.“ We had to build another version of the Red October also, another miniature, and everything needed to be painted and resurfaced, and it had to read well in a dry-for-wet environment. So, my job was to resurface all those subs, so that they look good on film, and they were super happy with the results. The reason I’m telling you this story is because that’s a hard surface effort right there. And they thought, Well, she did pretty well with the submarines.
They needed somebody on Star Trek VI to help out with restoring the -A, the Bird-of-Prey and the Spacedock. And so, Bill George hired me to help out on that. They were really happy with those results as well.
It turned into a little crew that worked well together. That was John Goodson, Bill George, myself, Jon Foreman and a couple other people that we kind of went from one film to another, not just Star Trek, but anything that required hard surface models to be painted. I wound up with a reputation for doing hard surface models. Galaxy Quest, all kinds of, you know, all the stuff we did.
I was wondering how your job would have evolved over the span of the three films. And I remembered, well, your listing on IMDb for First Contact does list you as the chief model maker.
That was because I was lead on the painting and finishing. For the Enterprise-E, I was definitely sort of leading the charge on how it was done. I did a lot of the paint, but I had a lot of help too. But it was me who was the consistent person throughout on it. So yeah, I had a lot of responsibility on that, and I think it was because of somebody’s generosity that they gave me that label.
So, between those three Star Trek films, do you have a favorite effect sequence?
Not offhand, that I can think of. All I can say is the Enterprise-E was the one… Of course, we built it from scratch at ILM. We built other ones from scratch, but usually it was a, you know, restoration job or whatever. But the -E was a new model again, for me, and I had a big attachment to it. Creating it was a difficult project. It’s probably the model that I feel the most connected with of anything that I’ve done, because not only was I there in the beginning, I even helped make the pattern for it. And not only did I assist in making her as well as painting her, I was responsible for babysitting her throughout the months of the stage shoot. I also remember packing it up. It was like packing up a baby and sending it back to Paramount. It was a sad day. That ship is the closest thing to a child that I have.
So, I can’t think of a specific scene. I can just remember looking at the overall experience of doing it. I spent many, many hours with the Enterprise-E.
At one point, they were hoping to get a close-up of the surface of the -E, with people walking around on it. And they gave me that job — to try to make about ten-by-ten inches look great on the big screen and look scale. And when you’re looking at something like that, every piece of dust is a boulder — the camera sees it as a boulder. So, I spent, I think, seventeen hours with goggles on, trying to make it a perfect surface that would read scale to the camera. It wasn’t totally successful, but it was a great effort, and I think it showed up in the wiki on that, for the -E, because I don’t know why they ever thought that would work, but I guess it would save building a larger scale section of the -E for shooting. They worked it out.
Yeah. They did also make a larger section. I remember seeing blue screen footage they took on the stage. You know, on the set for the deflector dish.
Yeah, there was a larger section made, but I can’t remember how it all panned out. It was more complicated than that, I think. And I think they might have utilized some computer graphic, but then I’m not positive.
Okay. So, between the three Star Trek films, could you say what the most challenging achievements you’ve managed to overcome were?
Yeah, getting the Enterprise-E done in time, and we had problems with the nacelles because of how they were cast. They were cast imperfectly, so the surface was oily and trying to get paint to stick to it was a problem because, of course, we paint patterns on it.
You put down a base coat and then you tape it off, you mask it, and you put panels on it, do panelizing. I was using Post-Its for masking because Post-Its are very low tack, they gave you a very good edge, and it was a matter of convincing it to stay long enough so that we could shoot it.
But we didn’t have time to recast the nacelles properly. I think actually the mold was bad and so it was a coaxing operation to get that part done. So technically, for me, that’s the thing that I remember most about it.
The original pattern had problems that I was correcting. That’s why I wound up working on the pattern at all, was because I was correcting the symmetry of how the windows were distributed and so on. I had to do a lot of filling and recutting and stuff like that. I didn’t do the original one, but I noticed that it was completely asymmetrical. I think even now there’s a different number of windows on one side than the other. I think we had to kind of fudge it, but I’d have to look at it again and see.
I know the Enterprise-E, in the different films, was quoted as having different number of decks.
Okay. That could be; I’m not sure. If you looked at it from the top, it was supposed to be symmetrical, with windows and all that stuff. And I think we wound up with one less on one side or something, because there was no way we could correct it. The person who originally cut the pattern or was sculpting it wasn’t using blueprints or anything. He was just making it up.
What was it like to help restore the original USS Enterprise for the Smithsonian?
It was a super big honor. We were definitely the right people for the job. The Smithsonian had put a huge amount of effort into trying to make sure that this restoration was as correct as it could possibly be. And that model has gone through many, many restorations and some of them were horrendous. So, they actually rented or borrowed the x-ray machine that they used for elephants from the National Zoo to x-ray the Enterprise, because it’s actually a very large model — it’s eleven feet, two inches, I think. They did some core samples. There was a Doctor Buck, who’s a color and paint expert who did some core samples and some excavation to find out what the original colors were.
But it is an inexact science, because it’s been sanded so many times in places and repainted so many times. And also, paint oxidizes over time, so even the paint that was down below would have oxidized. So, the group wasn’t always in accord with what the correct color was, because there was actually no way of knowing or being positively sure what it was, and you could not get an exact paint sample. You have to actually decide also which era you’re going back to — what year are you going to use as the sample? Anyway, in the end, what happened was it was, you know, getting the right colors and the right values. The value is almost even more important than the color. Color is really important but because people were using just plain photography during that time, there are all kinds of, you know, flashes and so on. You can’t tell from photographs what the absolute correct color is. You can use it as reference, for example such-and-such a panel is lighter than the base color, so you get it in that, do your best guess and you put it on the model and see if the value reads properly and, if it doesn’t, you have to make it read properly. So, in a way, we couldn’t have perfect pitch because there just wasn’t enough information for that, and we had tons and tons of information, but no one would be able to tell you exactly the absolute perfect answer, so we wound up with relatively perfect pitch, in the end.
We had a lot of minds working on this. I don’t think we had anybody who had worked on the original. There are a lot of people that had worked on it originally who were gone. But people who knew Star Trek very well, had worked with Star Trek for zillions of years, like the Okudas and Rick Sternbach — a lot of people that were on the committee were extremely knowledgeable. And we pulled all of our knowledge and information to do this.
That’s really interesting. Thank you.
Have you had a chance to see the real thing? Have you seen it on display?
I haven’t been there. I’ve seen it in photographs and it being restored in photographs and it looks really interesting.
Yeah, it was. It looks really good.
Yeah. I think you did a wonderful job.
Thank you. We tried very, very hard. A lot of strong minds involved with that. It was a pretty fast job for our crew, which was John Goodson, Bill George and myself. We were only there for two weeks. So, the model had already been base-coated by the time we got there. And we had the information that Doctor Buck had come up with and some other information. And then we had tons of slides. The Smithsonian had put out a call for information, any slides that people had or photographs. And so, this huge nationwide international call for it and they got a lot of information. But anyway, it’s back on display again. It was in storage for a couple of years while they renovated Aerospace, but it’s back on display.
Brilliant. If a modern Star Trek television production called you tomorrow and expressed interest in hiring you, would you be interested? Or do you prefer to only work on movies?
Actually, I am now retired from visual effects. I retired in 2021. It’s possible. If somebody asked me to do something like restore The Original Series Enterprise, I would do it in a second. I am happily working in my studio now and I feel like I don’t need more stress. And I retired late anyway. You know, I retired at almost seventy, so I feel like I have a few good years working in my studio. So, I’m not opposed to doing certain things, but it would have to be something really, really special.
What do you like to get up to in your studio? Is it sculpture or something else?
I actually do painting, drawing, sculpture and printmaking. I do all of them. Right now, I’m currently mostly doing painting, and my painting is influenced a lot by working in the visual effects industry.
While I was sharing these complex tapings of the Enterprise-D for restoration, I was thinking about how I could use it in my own work. It was kind of a fascinating job. I mean, it could be tedious for most people. It’s a bit like knitting patterns, like Fair Isle or something like that. There’s a whole series that I’m doing right now where I have painted tape, meaning I have done watercolors that resemble tape patterns, and eventually I probably will use some real tape, but using real tape presents a lot of issues that I have not quite solved yet. So, I find tape really interesting. For the Enterprise-D, I’ve used miles and miles of it and I thought, you know, this would be really fascinating to use in some abstract work of my own. So, I have started on the series and I have posted some of them too, but the rest…
Some of the other series I’m doing is influenced a lot by having panelized so many spaceships and submarines and airplanes and so on and so forth. My mind is always going, even if I’m working for somebody else doing this. I start abstracting it in my head and saying how can I use this for myself, and it’s my own experience. It’s a pretty unique experience.
Excellent. Ultimately, what has Star Trek meant to you?
Star Trek has been the most consistent franchise in my film career. Those films, plus The Hunt for Red October, are the films for which I am best known. I did very significant work on Star Wars, Pirates, Galaxy Quest, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Transformers, Rocketeer, and dozens more from the Golden Era of Visual Effects, but I am flattered to be so closely associated with Star Trek.
Star Trek has its large place in my heart particularly because its cultural effect has been so important. It inspired scientists and engineers to enter their field, and many gadgets from the TV show have come to pass in one form or another. Equally important was its approach to diversity and human rights. It opened doors to actors of color and women.
What a brilliant response! I’d just like to close by saying thank you very much for this interview.
Thank you, Dan.
Editor of WarpFactorTrek, Dan is an avid Star Trek fan who lives in Aberdeen, Scotland. Dan has loved Star Trek ever since discovering it in his childhood. He worked as an administrator, for six years, on the encyclopedic Star Trek website Memory Alpha, which involved studying the making of the various series and films. He has been mentioned in the official Star Trek Magazine, has qualified from a Star Trek course taught at Glasgow Clyde College, and coordinates the SubSpace Chatter (formerly The Scotch Trekker) YouTube channel, which regularly features live interviews with the cast and crew of Star Trek.