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How ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ Finally, After 43 Years, Got Completed

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a movie that I, like a lot of people, want to love. But, unlike the films in the series that would follow, it keeps a viewer at arms length. (I wrote about this last year when the original theatrical cut was released on 4K.) In the early 2000s a Director’s Cut overseen by director Robert Wise and producer David Fein was released on DVD that significantly tightened the film and was met with much praise, but then kind of faded into obscurity because, well, it was only available on DVD and on today’s televisions no longer looked that great. And the problem was the effects for the Director’s Cut were done in standard definition, meaning to upgrade them to Blu-ray or 4K would need another massive overhaul of the film.

Well, that’s exactly what David Fein did. (Robert Wise passed away in 2005.) This is literally his life’s work: finally releasing Star Trek: The Motion Picture the way it was always meant to be seen. And the new 4K disc is a gorgeous, stunning creation that is literally one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. (If you think I’m being hyperbolic, here’s where I’ll remind you that the effects were done by Douglas Trumbull, who of course also did 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

As Fein explains ahead, the problem with the theatrical cut was, simply, it wasn’t done. It feels long and slow because the movie hadn’t been edited properly. Scenes that may only last two or three seconds too long, or literally one frame, add up over the course of a movie to make it feel long. Now, after 1500 or so edits, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a film that finally feels properly paced, looks stunning, and, after long last, no longer keeps the viewer at arm’s length. Ahead, David Fein tells us just how he got this accomplished.

There’s not a lot of extra footage in the Director’s Cut or anything like that, but it just feels like a better-flowing movie. Why is that? It’s hard to pinpoint.

Well anytime you do a film, the first thing that you do is a quick assembly of what the picture’s going to be from beginning to end. You put everything in and that’s when they say, well, we have the five-hour cut, or whatever it was. Those are incredibly dull when you just get whatever it is from beginning to end assembled. The problem here was, they had to fine-tune that the best they could, those little pieces. But, because of the problem with the visual effects – and the fact that they had a required 130-minute running time – they didn’t know when the effects were coming in. So they just strung out the film and then put the effects in completely as from first frame to last frame and then were intending to go through and fine-tune and cut it.

What you are seeing (in the theatrical cut) is one long piece of assembled material that they never had the chance to fine-tune it to get the flow down and make that work. So, now it’s a matter of similar work, but there are 1500 edits in this project. In order to cut out single frames every now and then. Why would there be a single frame? The visual effects would come in and there’d be multiple ships in the shot, and some of the ships hadn’t even started moving yet because they just put first to last frame because they knew they would tighten it.

So what you’re seeing now is something that has just been tightened. And, as a lot of people have said, when they’re doing artistic sculpting where you’re just chipping away a little bit at the time, you have to fine-tune a picture to make sure that it works. Robert Wise always had a preview screening. This was a film, before his premiere, he didn’t have a preview screening – and then went on to have 20 years of preview screening.

So the preview screening was literally the premiere.

Yeah. There’s a comment where somebody says, “Well I had the film wet.”

Right, when a film is finished literally right before it hits theaters.

Right, but the catch here is that Robert Wise literally had the last reel of the film literally dripping with chemicals. And he personally flew it to Washington D.C. for the premiere and slept with the film under his bed that night and then brought it into the theater and they premiered it. And we have stories in the feature ads of the editor just talking about watching this and just shrinking down in his seat because the littlest things that you knew you needed to fix, that you just knew, “Okay, we’ll fix that as soon as we get to that section,” but they never got a chance to do it. It is absolutely a testament to the talent of talented people that were there and Robert Wise’s brilliance as a filmmaker that was able to take all of this and make it into a coherent movie that worked. And it was very successful anyway! Even though what you saw was basically this assembly of stuff that implied what was going to go on. But it didn’t even have Spock crying, which was one of the points of the film, was to have that moment in the film. They even had scenes that they took out that they had intended to put back in when they fine-tuned it.

I’m glad you mentioned Spock crying, his whole arc in this movie is much more clear in this version. In the theatrical, he just seems cold. In this it’s very clear he finds emotions to understand the difference between machines and humanity.

And as unemotional as he’s trying to be in the film, that’s that evolution for him. And he’s trying to be focused on being unemotional. But that character has evolved just like V’Ger, they’re connected. V’Ger and Spock, it’s going along together, so it’s radical. It’s important that they be together.

I’ve always thought this movie was pretty, but this version in 4K, I was just blown away by how gorgeous it looks. You’ve made one of the most gorgeous movies I’ve ever seen.

And you know what’s exciting about that? Is you just said, “You made one of the most gorgeous films you’ve ever seen,” that you’ve been watching for 40 years. They were so rushed they took four days, just four days, in order to get the film color graded and it had to be even and consistent in order to let whatever they were putting in work without causing more time. And that four-day rushed color was what they stayed with as, “Oh, that must be the finished film.” Up until now.

So we didn’t have the opportunity back then to give it the proper color grading that it required. Plus HDR today, the amazing ability to pull so much more color and quality in the image, including unbelievable brightness and darkness from levels that were never possible before. Using the tools today to do it properly gave us that beautiful film and every single shot now has your tension focused. Look shot for shot, it’s where is your focus going to be? And that’s where your eyes are drawn to, which was never had that much attention given to it before, which is what you do in the good movie today.

So in ’79, if the movie’s obviously not quite finished, why did it have to come out when it did? Is it because The Empire Strikes Back was coming in a few months? Was that a concern? Why did it have to come out when it did?

It was a business decision that you have to give them credit for. I mean, Star Wars came out and it changed the world and even in merchandising and marketing and everything else.

And because of that, this was changed from the Phase 2 television series to a full movie.

Right. But knowing that it was such a phenomenon and so much of a media creation, Paramount had created so many licensees from Star Trek the franchise that there were McDonald’s tie-ins, there were book tie-ins, there were tie-ins everywhere. Plus there were agreements that they made with the theaters that you’re going to have it on this date for that holiday season and everybody cleared their schedule, that it came down to the point where it became necessary because of all the promises that were made that the film had to come out. It was amazing that the film was so successful and we’re blessed for that. People saw what it was to be. And Doug Drexler [VFX artist] was at our Director’s Cut premiere and I still remember his comment, it’s one of my favorite comments I’ve heard today, which is, “The Motion Picture today is the movie we always wished it would be.”

So how do you go to Paramount and basically say, “Hey, you know how we needed money to make the Director’s Cut in the early 2000s for DVD? Well, we have to update all the effects for 4K disc.” How do you convince anyone to let you do that?

Well, it’s simple. Well, it’s not simple. We have the 40th anniversary coming out, so I re-approached them again, but there’s been a lot of evolutionary changes in technology that made me realize that we could do it effectively and with the quality that we wanted to and not have it be a crazy film. Just have it be what it needed to be. But the fact of the matter is, is that it’s 4K that came around and the new evolutions of technology that made me finally want to come back and do it. And I said to them from the start, I’ll come back, but the focus is, I want to create a new negative. It needs to be a new negative. We can’t have any other version exist as the movie. This has to be finished now in negative form or at least the digital equivalent – where we have digital negatives now – so that it has a chance to be the film from now till eternity. So with a theatrical Dolby Atmos mix…

I was going to say, this movie also sounds incredible.

The blaster beam, that’s the boom sound, is V’ger’s voice essentially. It goes right over your head, in top speakers in front in Atmos. I also promised Robert Wise years ago – he had me come into his house and we often talk at the little breakfast nook that we were at – and he had me promise that, no matter what, I would continue to work forever until we made sure that the film had its negative. That had the same chance as any other film in Paramount’s archive or the crown jewel of the company. So that was what I came back to the studio with and said, “If we do that, we know we also can do it for revivals and have it be that same film quality because now we’re finishing the film.” So they’ve been many times on and off with the studio that we’d gone back and forth, things never aligned. But this time I knew the time was right, and I had great support from the studio as well. It took us about two and a half to three years just to work out the details this time around, and in that time the archive just did an amazing job locating all that material.

What one shot, for you, went from, “I don’t like this,” to, “Okay now this is good”?

Well, on a side note the signature shot is the reflection of Kirk with the Enterprise. That’s the signature Director’s Edition shot to me. But the one thing you’re talking about is a whole sequence and that’s the probe on the bridge. The probe on the bridge always felt to me like the quality difference was so dramatic that I felt like the movie practically stopped and something else went in there that didn’t match the rest of the film. And we spent a month going in and focused on doing everything we can just make it look like the probe actually showed up on the bridge. And a whole goal, from the beginning, was to smooth out the film. To take away anything that’s distracting. Well, when you had a probe going across the screen going, “boing!,” it completely takes you out of the movie. So these were stabilized. Everything was stabilized, enhanced, cleaned up. The grain that was all over the place was stabilized and smoothed out. Uniforms were there, the sound mix is so much better working on it. Now … it works. And it’s a high point that helped us get to a point where you’re exhilarated at the end of it like you should be. Whereas, you need that time to recover from that high point. So it’s roughly the same edit as the 2001, but it feels differently. Because it now has the highs and lows of any a good story.

Seriously, congratulations on this. I know this has been your life’s work…

I’m very touched by that, to make sure everybody knows that, the film is out now. It has never been before. I did it for you guys.

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