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Art Director Kit Stølen — a veteran of such shows as For All Mankind, The Orville, and Westworld — lended an artistic perspective to Star Trek: Picard. He was one of multiple art directors who worked on the series, under the supervision of Production Designer Dave Blass. In a recent exclusive interview with Warp Factor Trek, Stølen (whose surname derives from his partial Norwegian heritage) divulged the secrets of the show.

First Contact with Star Trek

Asked if he watched Star Trek in his youth, Kit Stølen affirmatively declares, “Absolutely, obsessively.” He elaborates, “When I was a little kid, The Animated Series was on. I remember watching that. I remember the ’60s series in rotation too. I even remember when Next Generation was announced, and I was probably quite young. There was advertisements for it with weird sci-fi stuff in the borders and I remember looking at it and going, ‘Ugh! What is this? That’s gonna be terrible.’ So clearly, you know, lifelong science fiction fan! Next Gen was on when I was in grammar school, and as I was going away to college, Deep Space Nine and Voyager were on, and I remember working on a summer opera festival and being really excited about Enterprise coming out and what they were going to do with that.

Space station Deep Space 9

Regarding his top Star Trek show nowadays, Stølen points the way to DS9, remarking, “I’d probably consider Deep Space Nine to be my favorite of the Trek series. I had difficulty with it at first, because I wasn’t used to it not being on a starship, or at least having a traditional-looking starship around. I liked it because it was the underside to TNG’s rock. It was all the dirty, messy things that were under the surface, and it challenged the characters to push their high moral beliefs to their limits. The protagonist race were also terrorists; it was a place where speeches and high ideals couldn’t fix things. People are messy and it’s easier to be a saint in paradise. You got to see more of what life was like in this universe for people who weren’t in Starfleet or serving in some alien military. I tend to think of TNG and DS9 as linked more than any of the others, since they were more interconnected.

Stølen has a xenological interest in Star Trek. “The aliens and the cultures and all the languages and also what normal life on Earth might be like — those were always the things that really fascinated me,” he says. “I’m not as much of a ship fanatic, so I’m not personally obsessive over where the phasers are in an Akira-class or something like that, so it’s always been more of the cultures and the worlds for me.

An Akira-class starship firing phasers

Although his interests may lie outwith the technology of the Star Trek universe, he is aware that the logic of how it works has implications for the designers of the franchise. “In Star Trek, ideally if you’re designing all this stuff, you have an understanding of the theories behind the technology, but a lot of the technology is magic,” Stølen explains. He cites artificial gravity as one such example. “Obviously, everything has a little technobabble and a foundation in what it actually means and how it might work. And so, I think ideally Star Trek works better if you treat it that way and don’t treat things like they’re magic.

Seeing the return of Star Trek from 2017 onwards was interesting for Stølen, given that he was meanwhile working on the highly Trek-like show The Orville. “So, we had a strange parallel thing going on, and obviously there was a lot of crossover in production crew. As a result, we were talking to a lot of people on various Trek shows. Some people would go off to do Discovery or come back and do other things and we’re like, ‘Oh, they’re doing this.’ So, we were always interested in having our ear to the ground for gossip and stuff like that. It’s interesting working from the inside and seeing the shows happen, wanting to be part of these shows.

Assessing Picard

Sir Patrick Stewart announcing Star Trek: Picard at the Star Trek: Las Vegas convention in 2018

When Star Trek: Picard was first announced, Kit Stølen was cautiously optimistic. “I mean, you’re always hesitant. You’re like, Are they going to do a good job? Is this going to feel right? There have obviously been a lot of series revivals and people’s responses have been fifty/fifty on a lot of them. These characters have existed so long with everyone who’s been a long-time fan of the show, so you have certain expectations. It’s very tricky territory. But obviously, I was absolutely excited for the show to come back and interested to see their take on it.

Looking back, Stølen regards Star Trek: Picard as essentially a movie project. “Picard exists as a form of the final Next Generation film. It’s following the threads post-Nemesis and then exploring that pattern. So, I’d consider the Picard series to be a long-form movie that is sort of, at least at the moment, potentially the final Next Generation movie, that closes the chapter on a number of things. Not, obviously, everything in that universe, but it’s just revisiting where they are and another final bookend and then a final end to the Borg themselves — or at least that iteration of the Borg that we saw through Next Gen, through Voyager, finally killed off.

The Borg Queen’s demise in the show’s final episode, “The Last Generation”

Stølen finds it difficult to select his favourite scenes from Star Trek: Picard, conceding, “It’s a hard thing to pick from a cornucopia of stuff.” Some of his favourite moments ended up as deleted scenes from the second season. “They probably would have been cut for runtime anyways, but there were weird scenes with Q acting normal in society. There’s a weird conversation over cold gazpacho soup that results in existential crisis of one of the waiters. There were weird things like that that I was a little disappointed ended up being gone from the second season, as I thought that they added a lot of interesting life to some of the characters, even though they weren’t specifically science fiction elements.

Working on Picard

Kit Stølen arrived to work on Star Trek: Picard at the end of the show’s second season. “I came in late, so there was already an established look,” he recalls. “Preproduction for Season 3 started while Season 2 was being completed. They were busily finishing the Stargazer that would become the Titan, so that was an environment that I was already walking into.

The door to Kit Stølen’s office

Each draft of the show’s scripts would be sent to Stølen. Explaining why this was, he states, “We had to have a long lead time on planning this stuff. We needed to design and budget it.

Stølen didn’t have much involvement in designing props for Star Trek: Picard, only when they interacted with the set. There were various Picard sets he was involved in designing, for which he was essentially given carte blanche. “I didn’t end up doing much in the starship sets themselves, so most of the sets I did, I got to do as aesthetics that we set, as opposed to carrying out the general look of the ship.

For Stølen’s workload on Picard and the other efforts of the show’s art department, Dave Blass proposed a philosophical guideline. “Dave had a mandate for us that we were to treat it more like you would treat a historical than you would traditionally a science fiction project. So, we had a research department, where people were actually referencing, ‘What are the different kinds of gagh that we’ve seen? What is the language here that we see?’ We did treat it very much like we would do if it was something in, I don’t know, 1910 Spain or whatever.” This was because the art department was “trying to honor a vast universe that already exists.

The bridges of the Stargazer, Titan-A and Enterprise-G all used one heavily recycled set — slightly modified for each reuse — and incorporated see-through OLED TV screens that Stølen considers “the coolest, most advanced tech.” Considering the majority of Star Trek: Picard’s sets, however, he says, “The making of Picard felt a lot more traditional than some of the sci-fi shows I’ve worked on. By ‘traditional,’ I tend to mean ‘in camera,’ whereas a lot of modern sets can be partial sets in blue- or green-screen environments, or Volume wall. In Picard, some of the holograms were actually direct projections into physical scrim, which is a kind of mesh that you see through and project onto. We had a huge budget cut, so there wasn’t a lot of visual effects; there wasn’t a lot of holograms, things like that. So, we went back to more traditional filmaking for the show, which I think helps the look of the Picard show in particular, at least being a pairing for Next Gen.

The Continuing Voyages…

When asked what his favourite aspect of working on Star Trek was, Stølen remarks, “Well, I got to work on Star Trek for one, and managed to not do a fan moment every time I was in the same room with Patrick Stewart. I’d worked with Frakes before actually, on The Orville, but it was nice to work more heavily with him as a director. I mean, just being there, trying to suppress the feeling of excitement the entire time, and just trying to do the whole thing and not screw up.” Much of Season 3 stands out in Stølen’s memory as his favourite moments from the series. “Obviously, I’m biased, because I’m far more attached to Season 3, since I worked on it,” he acknowledges.

Stølen is aware of the recent news story that Sir Patrick Stewart has mentioned an in-development movie script featuring Jean-Luc Picard. “I don’t have any inside intel on that,” the veteran art director admits. “I don’t know if any of the Picard people are involved or even what stage the script is at. I would be excited to see it, though.

Rather than keep returning to the same characters, Stølen would prefer to see the Star Trek universe explore other narratives. “I would like to see the universe continue to move forward eventually, at some point. Staying with these characters, they’re great, but I would like to see continuing new adventures with new characters that expand the universe. Maybe revisit people that are still around in the universe, but I would definitely prefer to see more stories pushing forward experimenting, taking new sets of characters into different parts of the galaxy. That’s what I would be most excited to see, continuing forward into Trek, and obviously I love all the returning stuff as well. But in terms of a series,” he concludes, “I always want to see it evolve and grow and continue to tell different types of stories.

Next time: Kit Stølen comments on the sets of Star Trek: Picard.

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