Warp Factor Trek

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The computer displays in Star Trek: Picard harnessed cutting-edge technology to boldly take the Star Trek franchise where no series had gone before. Thanks to these groundbreaking developments, Todd Marks and his team of playback engineers managed to accomplish more in terms of playback and projection work for Picard than when he worked on the film Star Trek Nemesis. What else have the playback team achieved on Star Trek: Picard, and how did Marks get involved in the project?

Picard Beginnings

Martin “Marty” Garner, who worked as a computer playback engineer for Todd Marks on Star Trek Nemesis, later worked as the computer playback supervisor on the first season of Picard, the same role Marks himself would fulfill for the show’s next two seasons. In another coincidence, Marks had worked with Picard Season 1 Production Designer Todd Cherniawsky many years before, on the film Nancy Drew.

During the first season of Picard, a majority of the show’s computer displays were “floating” holographic interfaces, featured prominently on the La Sirena. They were visual effects added in post-production.

The Change of Seasons

TV series often make changes between seasons and Star Trek: Picard was no exception, with a variety of production changes made between the first two seasons, including a new production designer. Before working on Picard, Marks had collaborated with Production Designer Dave Blass on several other shows. They were keeping in touch with each other to stay updated about new job opportunities when Blass mentioned that he was a contender for production designer on the second and third seasons of Picard. Immediately, Marks jumped at the chance to express his enthusiasm. “I was like, ‘Oh! Great! I would love to be on that,’’” Marks relates. “Since Dave was hired, he was allowed to build his own team to work with him.” One of the positions Blass needed to fill was playback supervisor. “And so, he was able to open the door for me to submit my resume and references, followed by a few phone interviews with the show’s higher-ups,“ Marks continues. “Within a few weeks, Dave let me know I got the job! A few days passed and I got ‘the call,’ which was from the UPM (Unit Production Manager) with the job offer. I was super excited, and thrilled.

The workload that Marks would have on Picard was initially understated to him. “They told me, ‘Yeah, there’ll be some computer playback, but it’s not going to be a ton,’ which I’ve heard so many times in my career. And then later on, once they started seeing what we were able to achieve, they’re like, ‘Oh! Well, then we can do this and this,’ you know? The amount of playback work grew exponentially!

Beginning Work on the Show

For Marks, the pandemic had an impact on what happened next. “I got hired in March 2020, right as all the Covid lockdowns were starting. So initially, all the design meetings and work were done via Zoom and email. Then, six weeks after getting hired, the show ‘paused’ until the union’s production safety and testing guidelines were in place. That ended up taking five months.

Marks controlling projection mapping software on Picard

As soon as they were back, Marks jumped back in, bringing his passion for innovation and his interest for doing heretofore post-production elements as practical playback, filmed live on set. He worked hand-in-hand with the art department. As Marks himself recalls, he “used his technical knowledge to work with the art directors, set designers, set decorators, and construction department to make sure that we incorporated some of the latest display technologies and pushed the boundaries of console display designs.

The team took their inspiration from a variety of sources. “We looked to the past, including all that was ‘canon’ from the legacy of Trek, encompassing of course TNG (and the various other TV series), the four associated feature films, and even the online Trek game. I mean, for the really deep fans of any of the shows or the movies, there were lots of little Easter eggs throughout. I don’t think anything from, like, the JJ Abrams era was referenced. But there were certainly design choices that were forward thinking and took inspiration from many futuristic-era designs.

Marks is cautiously optimistic about how AI might assist creativity in general, as long as it doesn’t eliminate human jobs, but is unsure how much it specifically impacted Picard. “Well, it really wasn’t that far along yet,” he says at first, before reconsidering. “I mean, there’s a few apps that we used that had some basic AI capabilities. It did help with certain graphics. Certain filters and plug-ins that were used in creating particles and motion elements are AI-enhanced. Certainly, those types of things are helpful. I don’t know how much our graphics animators used those particular items.

Mixing the Tech

Given the show’s futuristic setting, Marks wanted to make sure the computer displays in Picard looked “cool and sophisticated, yet felt like they belonged.” He notes, “We wanted to
elevate the look of the Federation ships, and also make them still feel familiar.

Marks and the playback graphics team at Twisted Media worked with the show’s art department, Michael Okuda (creator of the LCARS interface) as well as other skilled graphic designers, to establish and improve upon the design aesthetics for the ships’ consoles and display interfaces. They worked to “thread the needle” on mixing traditional and modern design elements. Marks explains, “Especially with the Federation starship displays, we updated the color pallets and incorporated LCARS interfaces. We meshed those with more complex and modern 3D animations and particle system graphics to create an elevated look and feel that took advantage of all the new display technologies. As a result, with all the starship stuff and the reliance on LCARS — which inherently is not supposed to be especially fancy, it’s simplistic in its design — you will see there is some 3D animation, but then you also have LCARS displays that are very kind of flat-ish. So, my animators and graphics designers kind of had to mesh the different styles but maintain the inherent LCARS kind of look, so that it feels very Trek.

As for the display screens, Marks chose various OLEDs by LG, which were used extensively throughout Star Trek: Picard. “The OLED technology gave us the ability to do these types of off-angle, beautifully vibrant shots,” Marks comments. “There’s a very minor color shift, but they’re far superior to an LCD — the OLED screens’ brightness, vibrancy, and black levels allowed us to do practically what used to be done as a backlit transparency, but in real time, with animation.

Producing Picard

Marks found the production of Picard interestingly sophisticated. He recalls, “Like many large complex productions, there were a lot of moving parts, and keeping track of it all kept everyone on their toes.

Picard was produced using the two-episode block system. Two episodes would be shooting while the next two were being prepped (and budgeted). There was a different director for each block. So, typically, one would be on set working while the director of the next block was prepping, going on tech scouts and having meetings. Marks remembers, “We had to keep track of everything happening on the active set that was being filmed, while simultaneously prepping things for that block, and while also attending meetings, doing budgeting and research for the next block. There were some very busy and complex times.

It wasn’t uncommon for some footage which had been filmed for one episode to ultimately turn up in another. “They were telling multiple intersecting stories, so there were situations where you had crossovers from episodes on a couple of sets where things kind of fell across blocks. We did twenty episodes over the two seasons, with no breaks other than for holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, things like that. But we never had a hiatus. We literally went from Season 2 to Season 3. It was like a day between. You know, you just went from one to the next, which made it very, very difficult to prepare for the third season.

That said, Marks and his team were ready for the time pressures. “Luckily, I had an excellent team, and considering how many different screens and cues we were managing, we had very few technical issues that delayed production, and never anything meaningful. There were very, very rare times that we caused more than a minute or two delay. I typically had four playback engineers on set, so we had enough people to make sure that things were well handled. And oftentimes, especially towards the end of the third season, I’d have two guys out prepping or striking a set while two others were running another set, or sometimes even just one guy and somebody’s over on the next stage setting up something else or pulling gear, and somebody’s down at the mill, maybe with another unit shooting inserts. So, sometimes we did get stretched a little thin. Occasionally, I’d have to bring in an extra one or two playback engineers, but most of the time — for the end of Season 2 and all of Season 3 — there were four regular engineers. Two, Ben Betts and Larry Markart, had both been longtime Star Trek tech guys, having done a ton of the movies and several of the TV series.

Marks with the rest of the Picard playback team: Larry Markart, Peter Macaluso, Ben Betts, Rick Khan, and Andrew Miller

Whereas the die-hard Star Trek fans in the production crew were striving to maintain canon accuracy in intricate aspects like the sets and prop details, many of the crew members who worked on Picard were not as familiar with such specifics, including Marks. “I didn’t know a lot of the intricate ‘Easter-egg’-like details that they were incorporating,” he notes. “I mean, I was a fan, but I was not fanatical about it, and I didn’t remember every fine detail. I’d watch Next Generation when it first was on but, you know, that was a long time ago. It’s not like I was still actively re-watching it.” Those who proved instrumental in maintaining canon accuracy included Dave Blass. Says Marks, “Dave was very good about trying to make sure that we kind of were true to whatever story we were telling and put in all these little extra things.” From his own team, Marks was also helped in this regard by Graphics Coordinator Casey Feldt and the lead playback graphic animator, Andrew Jarvis — both of whom were big fans of almost all things Trek. “They had watched TNG in syndication, because they are younger than I am, so it was much fresher to them.” Marks considered the variety of different perspectives to be beneficial to the show.

Doug Aarniokoski, who directed the first two episodes of the third season, was extremely detail-oriented, wanting to film coverage of the displays for nearly every single potential screen action, whereas the season’s other directors typically weren’t as insistent. “In a lot of cases, they just didn’t have time during the shooting day to get inserts of everything they wanted,” Marks admits. “Often there was a tremendous amount of specific story-related graphics referenced in the scripts. It was quite a lot to create and then try to get it all shot in the time allotted.

The script for Picard’s third season finale, and a detailed breakdown of the various displays it required

Both the second and third seasons of Picard were filmed during the COVID pandemic. “COVID safety, testing, and all the protocols played a part in adding to the complexity of shooting the series, especially one with a lead actor in their eighties. It was an ever-present cloud that lingered over the show. We were tested three times a week, if I’m not mistaken, and everybody had to wear masks on set.” Although his wife is a major Star Trek fan, the COVID-related restrictions meant she couldn’t visit the set as a guest, which severely disappointed her.

Though the Picard set included another Todd in the form of actor Todd Stashwick, telling the two Todds apart was essentially a non-issue. This was not only because they look completely different but also because Stashwick didn’t join the show’s cast until the third and final season.

Finalising the Show

The appearance of the warp effect between the Titan and the Enterprise-D varied. This was done not only to suggest that the two different ships might each employ a different type of engine but also because the Enterprise-D warp effect was entirely done in post-production as a visual effect whereas the Titan‘s warp effect occasionally was done as a real-time practical effect (when seen out the back of the ship’s observation lounge windows).

The Borg mindspace being set up

Of course, it wasn’t just the warp effect that combined a mix of practical and visual effects; another sequence that did was the one in which the temporarily assimilated Picard and Jack Crusher have a heart-to-heart in an illusory environment. Marks was personally responsible for helping create the practical effects used in that sequence. “That was something that our DP (Director of Photography), Jon Joffin, asked me about doing live, and I figured out how to do practically,” he notes. “We used a combination of rear projection (behind the actors), front projection (in the foreground, on a projection mesh), and side projection (on the actors to create the color spill on their faces).

Marks attended the Picard Season 3 premiere, which was held at the same venue where he saw The Motion PictureMann’s Chinese Theater (now renamed “Grauman’s Chinese Theater”). “That was kind of a cool cyclical experience of getting from just watching it to then being a participant many, many years later. Just this new iteration in the same place was just kind of a cool experience.

Liz Kloczowski, Denise and Michael Okuda with Marks at the premiere of Picard Season 3 (Image courtesy of Dave Blass)

Responses to Picard

Todd Marks is pleased to have read comments online about the show’s high degree of detailed consistency with other Star Trek canon. He has received mostly positive reactions to his involvement in Star Trek. “You start talking to people and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ and then other people are like, ‘Oh my God, that’s… Oh, that’s so cool!’”

Marks is currently enjoying working on the rebooted TV series Quantum Leap, a show that he notes has some similarities to Star Trek: Picard. “That’s another kind of series brought back from the ’90s and with time travel, more time travel,” he points out. “It’s certainly not as rewarding overall as Picard was, but it’s still got its fun times, and we get to do some fun stuff.

Marks is a lot happier with how Star Trek: Picard turned out than Nemesis. “By far, Picard is a more satisfying ending. It’s a much better story. It really explores what’s happened to each character over that time period and in a satisfying conclusion and isn’t cringy like a lot of the Nemesis stuff was. So yeah, it was a wonderful opportunity to correct the wrongs that had been done in the past and especially rewarding to be able to do both, because at the time it was really great to be able to do Nemesis, but then not being satisfied with what happened versus this, where we were able to take it to an entirely new level. Not that it was perfect. There’s some things in any series where you’re like, ‘Okay, that’s a little silly,’ or, ‘Why did they do that?’ But overall, it was a very, very satisfying conclusion in this and also a great kind of opportunity to further tell the story.

Posters for Nemesis and Picard Season 3

Marks also feels like Picard does a much better job than Nemesis did of portraying futuristic displays, since the real-world technology had progressed between the two productions. Regarding Picard, he reminisces, “This project really let me kind of combine a lot of the types of things that I like to do, which is to use cutting-edge display technologies in unique and creative ways. This was certainly one of the top jobs of my thirty-year career. Even as incredibly difficult and stressful as this job was at times, all that hard work, blood, sweat and tears paid off. The amount of beautiful work we created, as a team, will live on ‘forever’ as fans watch and rewatch the series. I am incredibly proud of what we accomplished.

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