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Sunday, April 26, 2009

An Interview with Star Trek legend Rick Sternbach, Part I

By Joe Munoz

Rick Sternbach, the artist who, along with a handful of others, shaped the look of the 24th century for Star Trek, found his inspiration four centuries earlier.

“I grew up in the 1950s when nothing was in orbit,” says Sternbach, Senior Illustrator for ST:TNG, Voyager, Deep Space 9 and illustrator for three Trek films.

“Every chance I had I’d go to the school library and head right for the space books. I read about how we would fly in space long before it happened. I looked at paintings by Chesley Bonestell, Mel Hunter and Jack Coggins every chance I had.”

The books spun tales of adrenaline-laced, rocket propelled adventures. The paintings were of spacesuited astronauts hiking across the craggy surface of the moon; or of a single sleek rocket ship resting on four fins, nose pointed spaceward, positioned for take off from a strange planet.
For a kid in the '50s, that fueled the imagination. “Those paintings and books like ‘The Conquest of Space’, that was it for me,” he says.

In the 1960s he joined a rocket club founded and run by an actual rocket scientist, G. Harry Stine. “He also wrote science fiction and is the reason I understand space technology; liquid rocket propellant engines, how to make airframes,” says Sternbach.

Combine that with an imagination and work ethic that surprised even his Trek bosses (Bob Justman once asked if he stayed up all night thinking of new creations), mix in amazing artistic skills Sternbach inherited from his architect father, and you can see how he was destined to design the starships, weapons, communicators, even Ferengi funerary containers, that Trek fans love.

Rick recently took some time to speak with StarTrekProps.com’s Joe Munoz.

First off, thanks for taking time to speak with us. What do you think of the passion fans have for Star Trek more than 40 years after it hit the small screen?
It doesn’t surprise so much as simply impress me. It confirms the fact that Star Trek is an enduring story that draws people in. That success was the result of a lot of different elements coming together. Gene Roddenberry wanting to tell that kind of story, “Wagon Train” in space. There were interesting characters, stories that were relevant to events happening at the time, interesting space hardware. It was a new take on things we’d actually seen since the '30s. In one respect Star Trek is really no different than the space operas of the 1930’s like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.

Your designs, whether as complicated as a Federation starship or as “simple” as a Vulcan razor, are always crisp, clear, unambiguous, as if you’ve drawn something that sat right in front of you. I understand you attribute this gift to your father.
My dad was an architect back in Connecticut. I got all my drawing skills from him. I got a lot of my early knowledge about machines from him. We started with steam locomotives, how to build structures. If you know how a steam locomotive works, you can pretty much figure out...how other machines work.

It’s a long way from steam trains to starships…
I grew up at a time when space flight was just starting to happen. We didn’t have shuttles going up every other month. My elementary school class saw Alan Shepard become the first American in space. We watched John Glenn on a big black and white TV. We were sending up one person at time, very tentatively. It was an exciting time. I heard about the plan to get us to the moon and in July of 1969 I ended up at the Cape. I got out of high school got on a plane and went to Florida. I was 12 miles away from the launch pad. You could see the thing go up. I went back the next year for Apollo 13 and I went back for Apollo 17.

How did you become part of the Trek Universe?
I got to work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture partly due to a meeting with Gene Roddenberry four years earlier. He came to Yale University, which was 10 minutes away from where I lived. I called his office when I heard he was coming to town with a screening of The Cage and I asked if we could meet up. By that time I’d done a lot of illustrations for science fiction and astronomy magazines so I had some professional chops already. He invited me back to where he was staying and we talked for two hours. He really wanted to get into a second series or a feature film but it wasn’t happening.

Didn’t Stars Wars make it easier for ST:TMP to become a reality?
When Star Wars hit the screen no one really understood the impact it would have. It sparked this boom in science fiction films. Star Wars had a direct effect on Paramount deciding to make Star Trek: The Motion Picture. They realized it could be a moneymaker.

As Senior Illustrator for ST: TMP you (along with Graphic Designer Lee Cole) created, among other things, the control panels we see throughout the film. How much planning went into that?
Background stuff is usually business for the actors to keep busy, but as we know now, primarily because of what Mike Okuda has done with that art form, the control panels and the display of technical information have become a big deal. It is an art form; it is an ergonomics thing. It becomes central to what humans do to interact with their spacecraft.
On the first film there was a particular set of stylistic decisions that went into making control panel art. That’s something Lee Cole started. She worked on the B-1 bomber on very similar aspects. She understood, being from the technical side of things, what would go into the control panels.
But we also had to make certain adaptations for a Hollywood production. If we simply put a lot of very tiny complicated data displays on a screen that nobody could see, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense.

You were tapped for Star Trek: The Next Generation after your work on ST:TMP. Was it a bit intimidating since TNG was the first to follow the original Star Trek?
When we got to Next Gen, we were cast with re-inventing a lot of what the original series had done. It was such a time jump into the future that those of us in the art department had to come up with more advanced looking sets, more advanced props and more advanced ship hardware. We saw it as a fun challenge.
Okuda and I had countless little get-togethers for pizza, for noodles. We sat down and just babbled all the stuff we could think of regarding displays, regarding technologies. How does warp drive really work? They hinted at it in the original series. Yes, they got lectures from NASA in the 60’s but they didn’t delve into it. Where does the power get generated? Does it go anywhere? How do warp nacelles actually make things move? They never got into it in that kind of detail. We did. But, we also understood, writers don’t have to know all this. We would teach them enough of it that their stories would make sense. If we got into a technological jam in the episode we could help them fix it by the end of the last act.

Elements like the Structural Integrity Field and Inertial Dampers apparently came out of those techno-talkfests.
Not only did those add a little technological buzzwords, but behind the buzzwords were very plausible, rational concepts dealing with structures in space. We looked at the possible science behind this stuff. Can you warp the space around a ship using a strange new alloy juiced by a plasma fire? Can you stiffen up the structure of a ship by juicing it with some other flavor of energy? Can you put up any kind of a field around a ship? A lot of it is grounded in real science.

Using “real science” as a basis must have drawn in some sharp fans who understood the principals behind the fiction you created.
We’ve had any number of people who have come up and said things like “I got into high energy physics because of Star Trek” and that makes me feel real good.

What was your biggest challenge on TNG?
Coming up with designs that fit the requirements of Star Trek plausibility, plus a cool factor that guided me on any new ship, any new piece of hardware. It was a challenge to come up with all the crew equipment, all the ships, but at the same time, it was a heck of a lot of fun. Looking back we were reinventing, reexamining and making a bit more possible a lot of the stuff we have in our shirt pockets now. Apple computers has nothing on me with this “touch pad” thing. We came up with that first!

But Next Gen can’t take all the credit. A lot of that stuff was already visible in a more primitive form in the original series. The communicator was a definite influence on Motorola’s mobile phone. That is an established fact. As for PADDs, Kirk would sign off on an electronic tablet, those things were there.
Also, on Next Generation real life developments were getting close to us and we were working hard to stay ahead.
In the design cycles we went through a lot of sketches. Producers would look at them, prop makers would say ‘we could make this one pretty easily, this other one would cost a lot more.’ The sketches went back and forth, the little notes from producers went back and forth and we hit upon an established set of designs that stayed pretty much through the end of Voyager.

Did any of your favorite pieces not come to fruition?
If there was any design I wish I could have done more with, there was one version of Voyager that was a little chunkier, a bit more militaristic. I think it would have made a perfectly good Voyager, but producers wanted a little curvier space ship, which was fine by me. When I put them side-by-side, they both make decent ships.

Was the choice guided by the fact this was the first starship captained by a woman?
Probably not, though the curvier design was requested by producer Jeri Taylor in a direct conversation with me. It's likely that the more smoothed-over hull was discussed among all the producers and chosen over the more angular version.


Were there challenges in Voyager you didn’t deal with in TNG?
I can't say the design challenges were much different. Voyager was something of a continuation of the TNG experience in that we had all the same basic items that needed designs, like ships, props, sets, and so on. If anything made me scratch my head, it could have been how to evolve the designs in interesting ways. Most of the newer shapes and colors seemed to come in the last couple of seasons.

In Deep Space 9 your creative skills were put to the test pretty quickly.
It was getting the station itself conceptually together and working for everybody. The initial design of the station was more akin to an offshore oil platform. A lot of the descriptions coming from the early writers were somewhat vague. We weren’t sure if the station was an ancient construct taken over by the Cardassians or if they’d built it. Some of the early descriptions were all over the map. It was alien looking but they couldn’t exactly tell us how it looked. That was up to us. We went a few months of sketches and doodles and cardboard models and just trying to hit upon some solid object that would say “this is Cardassian and it’s this big station”.

How did the final design come about?
For all the slight head butting I’ve done with Rick Berman over 15 years, he was absolutely correct in saying, ‘look this has to be a shape every kid in the country can draw with a couple of lines’. So I said ‘a hub will work, lets put a ring around the outside, lets put some pylons in’, and slowly it started to come together. Some intermediate designs were just…terrible! Berman said, break the hoops. As soon as the full hula-hoop shapes were broken, we’re like ‘Oh My God, that’s alien!’ Everything else fell into place after that.
I went to a meeting on the East Coast and I was doodling on the plane non-stop, doodling windows, fusion generators, plasma conduits, antennas. All this stuff had to look like Starfleet never touched it. It had to have a totally different aesthetic.

Part 2 to come shortly.

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