Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

My Star Trek computer-graphics article — 30 years later

by Rob - June 30th, 2014.
Filed under: Nonfiction, Star Trek.

Thirty years ago today, on June 30, 1984, when I was 24, the following article by me appeared in The Toronto Star, Canada’s largest-circulation newspaper. As a young freelance writer just beginning my career, selling to The Star was a huge accomplishment (although this was actually my second piece for them). The article came about because I noticed the name “Omnibus” in the closing credits of the film Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and wondered if it referred to the Omnibus here in Toronto.

“Canadian Computers Search for Spock”
(Published as “Local graphics company beams over success on Spock mission” in The Toronto Star on Monday, June 30, 1984)

by Robert J. Sawyer

Tension reigns on the bridge. Admiral Kirk’s son stands over the shoulder of Saavik, a young Vulcan woman. They’re surveying Genesis, the volatile planet where Mr. Spock was laid to rest. On the computer monitor, colourful graphics indicate the various types of terrain on the planet spinning below. A black rectangle — Spock’s coffin — appears on the display and the word “life-form” flashes on the screen. The Search for Spock has begun.

In Star Trek III, William Shatner and the rest of the gallant Enterprise crew spend much of their time reacting to computer displays on the dozens of viewscreens scattered about the starship’s bridge. Many of these images — as well as those for the enemy Klingon bridge — were created here in Toronto by Omnibus Computer Graphics.

“Omnibus has really changed in the last year,” says Prof. Alain Fournier, University of Toronto’s expert on computer graphics. “Last year they went public, expanded their facilities, and hired some well-known programmers. Soon they will be on a par with the very best computer graphics firms in the States.”

Omnibus is a successful company in Canada: producing computer images for CTV and CBC station-identifications and for Carling, Avco, and Texaco commercials.

The Star Trek III contract was Omnibus’s first foray into the world of Hollywood motion pictures, according to Ron Rimer, account director. They were one of three companies hired to produce displays for the hundreds of computer screens and monitors seen in the film. All told, they did between thirty and forty clips for the film over an intensive six weeks, amounting to an hour’s worth of high-tech imagery.

Why a Canadian firm? Just like everyone else trying to break into Hollywood, Omnibus had a demo tape. “Ralph Winter (associate producer of Trek III) was very highly impressed” with Omnibus’s graphics, says Joe Martin, Vice President of Sales.

“They sent us tapes of the other two Star Trek films, cassettes of the type of thing done previously,” says technical director Dan Krech. “Personally, I didn’t think the things were done as well as we could do.” Omnibus, he felt, was capable of “higher quality, more easily understandable” graphics.

They created the orbital views of the Genesis planet showing that Spock’s coffin had landed safely. And they animated the sinister Klingon bird-of-prey ship becoming visible just before attacking the Enterprise.

They also did graphics of spaceships approaching the orbiting space dock and of the space dock’s doors closing to try to halt the escape of Admiral Kirk and the stolen Enterprise.

Surprisingly, only one person I spoke to at Omnibus had gone to see the finished film. “We can’t even be sure which stuff is ours,” says Rimer. “They might have had all three companies working on exactly the same things, then picked the versions they liked best.”

To make a computer graphic, you have to tell the computer what the object looks like, according to Krech. This process is called digitizing: feeding the co-ordinates of every point of the object into the machine. “It took a week to digitize the Klingon bird-of-prey,” says Krech. Once that’s done, “we can build form, adding texture, colour, and movement,” says Rimer.

The work for Star Trek III was done under a Klingon cloaking device of secrecy. “They supplied us with original numbered scripts, which we had to sign for,” says animator Dan Philips. “Everything was under tight security because they didn’t want the story to be given away.” There’s still an aura of hush-hush about the project at Omnibus. All blueprints and scripts were promptly shipped back to Hollywood at the conclusion of their work. Not even slides of the graphics were kept.

But did they know in advance whether Spock lived in Trek III? The official answer from Joe Martin, still security-conscious, is no. But Krech said that they did, though “we never did get a final script.”

“The storyboards essentially contained our keyframes,” says Krech. “We had a first and a last frame, and words describing the motion. As long as we started the way they wanted and ended up where they wanted us to be, we were working at our own discretion.”

Test frames were couriered to the Paramount studios for approval. “They loved everything we did,” says Krech. “Paramount would then give feedback, though. Usually it was a matter of individual taste. ‘The Klingon was too red’ or ‘we’ve already got too much blue in the scene. Can you make the graphic another colour?'”

Despite all the back and forth checking, some mistakes slipped by. Carolyn Clink, past secretary of the Ontario Science Fiction Club, noticed two gaffes, which the Omnibus people say must have been made by the other firms involved. One was a set of temperature readouts that spelt “Celsius” Celcius. The other was a graphic of the Enterprise, showing an intruder in Spock’s cabin. “That was a diagram of the old TV Enterprise, with tubular engines,” says Clink, “not the sleek movie version. I can’t believe somebody didn’t notice that in advance.”

Other things were intentional. “If you look at the Klingon writing on the monitors long enough, you’ll be able to read English words in it,” says Dan Philips. “I won’t tell you what it says, though; that’d spoil the fun.”

Do computer graphics add anything to the film? “Oh, yes,” says Tanya Huff, a staff member of Bakka, Toronto’s science fiction specialty shop. “They looked like they belonged on the bridge of a starship. They’re certainly an important part of the atmosphere.”

The project was a lot of fun for Omnibus, says Krech. A science fiction film is a particularly satisfying showcase for computer graphics. As Dan Philips says, “Everyone who works with computers has a sci-fi streak.”

As with the Star Trek characters, the adventure continues for Omnibus. The company is negotiating to provide graphics for five Hollywood films with $8-to-$10 million budgets. As for Star Trek IV, Martin says, “We did a good job” on Trek III. “It would follow suit to be considered for future films.”

Sadly, that was not to be: Omnibus went out of business three years later, in October 1987; its fate is detailed here.

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