Star Trek: The Motion Picture – Director’s Edition’s Producer Talks Polishing Up a Legend

Star Trek: The Motion Picture – Director’s Edition’s Producer Talks Polishing Up a Legend
The Enterprise has never looked better. (Image: Paramount)

This week, Star Trek returns to one of its most important moments: the series’ fictional date for First Contact between humankind and the Vulcans. Paramount is celebrating with one hell of an overhaul — venturing once again to the original Star Trek movie to deliver a brand new overhaul for The Motion Picture – Director’s Edition. It was a labour of love for producer David C. Fein, one of the film’s longest advocates.

The new remaster of Star Trek: The Motion Picture’s directors cut, streaming on Paramount+ tomorrow, isn’t Fein’s first rodeo with the movie that changed Star Trek forever in 1979. Twenty-two years ago, he played an extensive hand with the film’s director Robert Wise to create the Director’s Edition cut of the film, an expanded and reworked version of the infamously rushed original film to deliver a stronger version of the movie. Forming the basis for this latest overhaul — alongside the work of preservationist Mike Matessino, visual effects supervisor Daren Dochterman, and more — that version of the movie has now been enhanced with a 4K remaster, HDR lighting, and even the addition of new scenes and updated CG effects not previously included.

To learn more from Fein about how he felt re-returning to a fundamental piece of Star Trek history, Gizmodo recently spoke to the producer over video chat to learn more about the process of restoring Director’s Edition, his relationship with Wise, and why The Motion Picture still stands as a defining piece of Star Trek. Check out our interview, condensed and edited for flow.

Image: ParamountImage: Paramount

James Whitbrook, Gizmodo: Tell me a little bit about when you first decided to return to The Motion Picture for this restoration. Why was now the right time for this deep, comprehensive dive back into the movie?

David Fein: Did I ever leave it? Sometimes it feels that way, like I’ve never left it to begin with. I’d always looked at where we were, number one, with technology, because there’s a lot to be done with this film. And there was always a lot to be done. There were things we wanted to achieve further than what we did before. And having the freedom — it’s like the dream of every filmmaker — having the freedom, and having the film right in front of you so that you know any change you make is going to be the finished modification, or the finished version, was incredibly important to me. While I had returned to [Paramount] multiple times over the HD years, the goal was always to finish The Motion Picture on film, or film equivalent.

That’s why we did the Director’s Edition, because it was unfinished business and people needed to know there was a good film in there. [Robert Wise] said to me, “no matter what happens, I want you to promise me you’ll always pursue this. I want to make sure it’s done on film and that we get it right, and that it’s the best story, the best film, it can possibly be. I know you’ll do it. But I want your promise so I know it’ll happen.” And I said, “I don’t care if it takes the rest of my life, I’ll do it.” I knew that there were cost limitations that came in [making the movie], as well as practical limitations on the technology that could do the job. So when we did it in 2001, originally, we did it in Standard Definition. Now we’re talking about 4K — we can bypass HD all together. And it’s basically talking about taking a postage stamp and fitting it to an IMAX screen. It’s a completely different experience.

Even with Bob, we talked multiple times about where it could be, and the focus was making the story the most amazing, compelling, and engaging story possible — not just polishing what we had before. So the film evolved this time. There are many things that are far more than ever before because now, every aspect, the sound, the effects, the edit which is basically the edit with one or two extra shots put it — just about every frame in the film has been touched in some way. Plus, we were blessed with Paramount+ putting up the money for it. They’re fantastic and I love them!

Image: ParamountImage: Paramount

Gizmodo: As we started to see comparisons of the movie with the 2009 Blu-ray release, one of the starkest contrasts was seeing the effect HDR had on it… the warming of the colors and the overall tone was such a fantastic, stark contrast. Can you speak more about the colour grading process?

Fein: I’ve gotta tell you — first off, “There is no comparison,” that’s the film’s slogan! But here’s the thing, we never talked about this… you know The Motion Picture was rushed in 1979… well, the colour grading done in ‘79 was rushed too. They had four days, to colour grade the whole film and get it out the door. They had effects shots still coming in. So, what they needed to do [back then] was come up with a basic, flat grade for the movie, so that everything that came in would fit and look ok. The goal in ‘79 was to put a coherent film in the theatres. Not a great film. Not a fine-tuned film. But a film, in theatres. They did, and it’s amazing that it’s so wonderful, and that people embraced it, but then every single video transfer until 2001 when we did the Director’s Edition was matching those four days of colour grading.

When we did the Director’s Edition, we did some of the adjustments to get the colour better, but even at that time when you’re working in NTSC — even in Hi-Def, you do the colour grading before you do your work. This time around, I created a new digital negative of the movie. The [4K release] is a new digital negative, with a theatrical Dolby Atmos track in addition to the others, because the goal was not to put Bob in that same position — wherever he is — of not seeing the finished film. But, going back to doing colour grading… colour grading happens when you go back to doing work on the film, as you would originally. This is a film that never had a proper colour grading to begin with. Now it does! There’s many people who might say, “but I love the way that it was…” — great. You’ll have the theatrical cut out there and you still will. That is what you remember, what was finished, and it will be there. But this is the first time based upon the focus of telling the best story in the world, for this film, that we have this properly graded. The grading interacts with the story.

Image: ParamountImage: Paramount

For example, the Klingon ships aren’t clean and bright — they’re dark and moody. They shouldn’t look like they’re on bridge of a [Federation] starship. They should look like they’re on the bridge of a Klingon ship. And thanks to HDR, the colour can be pulled out. And that’s the thing, the film was very colourful, but the grading was all blue — from beginning to end, blue. Yet there was so much colour in the film that was always intended. Look at the poster! You have the spectrum there, it was intended to have that rich colour. So, this time around it was shot-for-shot, scene-for-scene bringing it back to what the colours should be, as it participates in telling the story. Because even on the Enterprise bridge, the lighting changes based upon the sequence that we’re into. It’s an active participant in the story, and that’s what was so important about it. You have to understand — this movie was made as a 2022 movie. It wasn’t polishing, really, that would be a restoration. We don’t know a good term to use for all the work we put in, but that’s why I’m excited.

The sound mix is also so involving, more than ever before. It surrounds you, like a wormhole, it moves with you, you feel it and experience it, and it’s powerful, to make every aspect of storytelling hit. And there’s many new things to it — while the edit hasn’t changed that much, just about every frame has been touched in some way. There’s places I even call dream sequences: you’re watching the same thing, but you may not even notice that it’s been changed. That’s the aspect that’s so important. The goal from the start was to tell the best story possible, and there’s so much in there now. There’s places throughout the whole film where there are improvements that may have been taking you out of the whole film aren’t there.

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It’s all about… you know, it’s the film that I wanted as a kid. Something to fall in love with, and just be carried out on an adventure. It’s amazing I’m saying these words about that film, you know what I mean? Even with the Director’s Edition, people are like, “ehh, not it’s amazing.” I only wish everyone had the chance to see it on the equivalent of a giant screen, It doesn’t matter where you see it as long as it’s huge for your eyes. That’s the experience. It’s an epic film. And your eyes need more time when it’s bigger. And there are places where you’re going over something and on the big screen you’re just going, “Wow!” When you’re in awe of something, you want to look at everything. I think that’s why people had some issues with certain scenes in the past. And there are still some places where we let you see it, but there’s so much more to it now — those dream sequences. So much subtlety is added to shots that you won’t notice, because our job is to take you away into the film, and not show off.

Gizmodo: I wanted to ask, was there anything that still surprises you about The Motion Picture? While you were putting it together, was there something that made you think, “I’ve never thought about this shot, or this sequence that way before…”

Fein: There was a moment I fell off my chair. I just couldn’t believe it. And it’s something that I didn’t know [about The Motion Picture]. I just assumed that all the visual effects shots were composited for the film were done at ILM — the best of everything. They lined up everything, everything’s beautiful. But I didn’t realise in the mad rush to get the film finished, that it probably cut 30% of the quality [of those VFX shots]. When we started getting first generation scans of the Enterprise in drydock, there’s a shot — it’s amazing, it’s the shot that had me fall off my chair, but sadly it didn’t make it back into the film. It was a rear-projection of Kirk and Scotty inside the travel pod, as they come up over the Enterprise saucer up the front.

The reason we couldn’t do it is we didn’t have… that’s the problem, a lot of things [from the original movie that] weren’t available. They just disappeared, with the rush, they didn’t get packed up. Whatever we could find, we used, and we had so much. But this was a case where we didn’t have the foreground element of Scotty and Kirk to put over [that shot], so we had to leave it the way it was. And because we didn’t have that element, all the available shots of the rear had to be what was in the film already. What’s wonderful is, over the 20 years, I’ve studied every tool available and discovered there were ones where I could really increase the quality of what was there to make them match the recomposite material. So hopefully, you might not know where we did new ones and where we didn’t, but where we did have it new, we didn’t lower the quality — we kept them as preeminently as they were. But the shot I was looking for was before digital compositing — so it was just that Enterprise element, which was as-shot by the camera. Gorgeous. Amazing. And the other shots were that amazing, but, it was just that it was the first one, because it was what Doug Trumbull shot in 65mm, and we had an 8K scan of it.

I just looked at this and said, “I want to die. It’s beautiful.” It was absolutely beautiful, stunning, and fantastic. I am working to make sure people see that shot, somewhere in the future.

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Gizmodo: A lot of your relationship with this movie is tied to your relationship with Robert Wise, who sadly passed a few years after the first Director’s Edition re-release. What was it like returning to The Motion Picture without him?

Fein: He was my mentor… I learned so much from him, just to be a free-thinker, to not be held back by the status quo. Let things be what they need to be so long as they’re possible. And even when it’s not, try to go further. It was what he taught me, combined with my own New Yorker, “I’ll do anything, there are no rules” sentiment — which has been the story of everything I pursued. It was great [coming back], because not only did I know his teaching and sensibilities, but there were times when I’d stop and smile because I could hear him getting excited for something we were doing, saying, “We’ve got to push it further.” I could hear that enthusiasm. It was almost like he was there.

It was always nice, because even originally, Bob was a very brilliant man, and one of the most brilliant things he knew to do was get the right people. And me and my team, we collaborated with Bob, originally. We helped bring more of Star Trek into the story [with Director’s Edition]. We presented different ideas, and helped guide it into what it is, and that’s precious to me. This time, it was working with the team that continued to do it — Mike Matessino, Daren Dochterman — that brought it to the restoration level. What I did was work with Mike on the sound to make sure the sound was “more,” that the mix was going to be current and engaging, and bring you further into the picture. That was where I made it go further to what many of my conversations with Robert Wise were about The Motion Picture. His insistence about every film, having it be the best thing it could be. We also talked about Star Trek in every way, embracing the evolution of where we are, to use those tools [Bob] didn’t know existed at the time. It was a unique opportunity — if the film were finished, I would have focused on it being the best that it was, not the best that it can be. And that’s where we are with it. So, that was powerful.

Image: ParamountImage: Paramount

Gizmodo: The Motion Picture has had such a wild journey in its reputation over the years. What is it about film itself that speaks to you, all these years later?

Fein: It’s optimistic. It’s so optimistic. It’s all about us, and so perfectly timed to today. Forty-two years ago, it was talking about technology and how it affected human beings — we were not surrounded by technology. Everybody has technology around them now, and this film was about how technology is there, but it’s nothing without being human. The whole film was about the human adventure. What other experience ends on the up note, “The human adventure is just beginning?” There’s so many people fighting with each other right now. It doesn’t matter: we’re all human, and that adventure is still out there.

Even then, it played upon the way people need each other, even if they don’t talk about it. V’ger could be the whole experience, minus humanity, but it needed the humanity to evolve. There’s so much subtext going on in the film, you could think about it for years — I know I have — about the coldness and the mechanical nature that Kirk has when it’s starting… it’s almost nervousness, he’s alone. McCoy comes on board and he gets a little more balanced. And when he jumps up and sees Spock for the first time on the bridge, it’s like, you suddenly get, “Oh yes, our team is complete!” That’s what we do as people, we complete each other. It resonates so much more now than it ever has in history. The time is right for it, and the movie is fantastic. I want everybody to see it and take those messages away with them. That’s what I feel is wonderful, and important about it, I could go on for hours about it. The optimism is fantastic.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture – Director’s Edition’s 4K restoration will begin streaming on Paramount+ from April 5, with a Blu-ray release planned for later this year.