I’ve been a “Trekker” since I was a kid. And if you’re reading this, maybe you were too.
So it was a dream come true — thirty years ago today, back in Season Six of the show — to spend a full day on the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Prologue: September, 1992
As a recent transplant to the entertainment industry in L.A., I quickly find myself at various industry events, and networking with others also in the “The Biz.” That includes people who work on a number of different television shows. And sometimes, really cool television shows.
That’s just what happens when I strike up a conversation with someone who happens to work on my favorite show of the past five years.
Not long thereafter, we’ve made plans for me to spend a day on Stages 8 & 9 at Paramount Studios in Hollywood.
Monday, December 14, 1992
Things are still relatively quiet, this time of morning. And because of the early hour, I manage to avoid much of the traffic that’ll shortly beleaguer surface streets in & around Hollywood.
6:45am: 5555 Melrose Avenue, Hollywood
I pull in to the ornate “Melrose Gate” at Paramount Studios, and show my ID. And indeed, the arrangements have all been made — awaiting is a “drive-on” pass bearing my name.
The guard is helpful, and offers a studio map for finding my way around, then points me toward a unique section of the parking lot. It doubles as an outdoor water tank when needed (for filming ocean scenes, like the climax of Star Trek IV in 1986).
I park my car there, and walk over to Stages 8 and 9, home of the “standing” (recurring) sets used in the show.
And entering the soundstage, a large interior space — behold … there’s the Ten Forward set over on the left, and the Bridge and Ready Room over to the right.
The crew is already at work getting set up for the day’s first shot.
7am: Scene 31 — Int. Enterprise — Ready Room
One of the detachable walls of the Ready Room set, just to one side of Picard’s desk, has been removed to make room for the camera and crew:
Meanwhile, a small group is “blocking” (arranging) the modest scene. After a little while, everyone’s prepared, and the camera’s loaded with film, ready to go.
And it seems my visit to the set has the blessing of the episode’s director, Rick Kolbe:
“Feel free to get in there, as close as you like.”
He motions me toward the imposing Panavision 35mm film camera, set up where the captain’s office wall would normally be. And I observe the well-practiced ritual first-hand.
The scene is a meeting between Captain Picard and Lt. Commander Data.
The brief sound of a school bell rings out from elsewhere on the stage. The crew is calm, deliberate, professional.
They’ve clearly done this before.
Film production in the 1990s is an arcane, highly-mechanical process whose essence hasn’t changed very much since the early part of the century. And so, to keep things organized and in sync, there’s a series of incantations preceding this take, much like other scenes today.
- “Settle down, everybody … settling … thank you” …
- “OK, Roll Sound” … “Speeding” … “Production 40276–242” …
- “Roll Camera” … “Rolling” … “Slate” … “Scene 31 — Take 1” (clap) …
- “And … Action.”
On cue, and with furrowed brow, Patrick Stewart pretends to study the display on his “laptop,” as members of the crew slowly move, then swivel, the large movie camera.
Partway through the camera move … director Kolbe calls out: “Ding Dong!” (to mark the moment that’ll be replaced by the doorbell sound effect later, at Modern Sound in Hollywood).
Stewart, on-camera, instinctively responds: “Come” … and a crew member behind the set moves a steel cable, part of a pulley arrangement, opening the wooden doors. (Here in the twentieth century, as I’ll come to appreciate, things aren’t quite as automatic as they appear in the twenty-fourth.)
And Brent Spiner, in full “Data” makeup and wardrobe, enters through the Ready Room door.
The opening and closing door makes an obvious rolling, wooden sound — again, to be replaced later at Modern. So Spiner is careful not to say anything until after the wooden doors have fully closed. (A ritual all the cast have become intimately familiar with.)
This “master shot” of the scene includes both actors. And once Kolbe gets a couple of takes he’s satisfied with — acceptable combinations of camera move and actor performance …
“That’s good — print that.”
… the crew stops down, and repositions the camera to get “coverage,” first facing Data, and later facing Picard.
Single-Camera Film Production — Deconstructed
Try a little experiment, next time you watch a single-camera production like Next Gen. Turn down the sound first, then play a couple of scenes.
Now keep in mind that each time there’s a cut from one camera angle to another … you’re seeing a change in perspective not only from a different point in space, but at a different point in time. Cutting from one shot to the next means a completely different performance. It has to be — there’s only one camera!
Of course, this can be dizzying to think about while watching for any length of time. It’s far easier just to accept it as one continuous stream of action — part of a willing suspension of disbelief.
Executing this illusion convincingly requires discipline on everyone’s part, both in front of and behind the camera. But showing the action from multiple perspectives is essential to depicting a more “omniscient” point of view.
So far, this is all standard film production. But there’s also something I didn’t expect.
The Starfleet costumes are made of a heavy, synthetic fabric. And with the studio lights and long wait between camera setups, they can be uncomfortable to wear for extended periods of time.
So when someone’s not actively on camera, that cast member usually opts to take off the colored outer layer, leaving just a black t-shirt that’s underneath:
Meanwhile, back on the stage, the scene is proceeding smoothly, and most of it’s in the can now.
9am: Intruder Alert
During a break between shots, Michael Dorn has entered the sound stage. He’s halfway made up as Worf, wearing his Klingon forehead piece, fastened behind his natural hair via a velcro strap. The wig, the rest of the makeup, and the costume are yet to come. But no worries, he’s done this hundreds of times before.
And so, during a lull in the shooting — as we’re waiting for the crew to reset for another angle — the half-made-up Dorn casually walks up behind Stewart, still sitting in the Ready Room chair.
He lightly places his hands around Stewart’s neck … and reminiscent of a Vulcan nerve pinch, proceeds to playfully “choke” his captain, in slow motion. Stewart spontaneously plays the part, and “dies,” a bit melodramatically, with a last gasp of air, on cue.
Here are two people with an easy rapport, who clearly know each other well, feel very at ease with each other, and respect one another. It’s a nice moment of camaraderie to see.
9:45am: Captain’s Holiday
Turns out this is Patrick Stewart’s last day of shooting before returning to England for the holiday break.
And so, with his last scene now on film, there are farewells and well-wishes for the coming New Year. And Stewart starts to head out, surrounded by a small entourage.
As for me, I couldn’t resist the temptation to offer Captain Picard a small token of esteem. And so a week or so before, in an L.A. bookstore, I’d found what seemed like just the thing. So I reach into my knapsack, and pull out a little parcel.
And I walk up to Stewart, and introduce myself, offering this small gift wrapped in brown paper.
“Hello. What’s this?”
What strikes me most is Stewart’s natural voice. It’s different than Captain Picard’s. I can only describe it as mellifluous … effortless … suave. As is his manner.
Stewart and his entourage pause, and he opens the wrapping.
It’s a small paperback I thought might be unusual and fun … entitled “Bluff Your Way in Shakespeare.” (Yes, it’s true: one brief shining moment with the man himself … and I actually gave Patrick Stewart a gag gift. 🤷)
I say it’s meant to be humorous. Though now, with the reality of standing with the actual Captain Picard, on the actual set, in the actual studio in Hollywood, I suddenly feel self-conscious. The idea now seems a little silly. But he’s ever-gracious:
“Oh, something for the plane!”
He thanks me, shakes my hand, and continues off to the airport to enjoy a well-deserved vacation, far across the pond.
With the day’s first scene completed, the crew moves their gear over to the large Ten Forward set on the other side of Stage 8.
And I find myself lingering nearby on the Main Bridge for a few minutes … now, completely … alone.
And as that realization dawns, I suddenly feel a boyish rush of excitement:
I have the Bridge of the Enterprise … all to myself!
I’m nearly overcome with a powerful urge, to run around to the different stations … and press all the buttons I can … to see what this thing can do.
And just as quickly, a great irony intrudes upon my wishful thinking.
I knew it anyway, of course. The instrument panels are all smoked plexiglass — with “Okudagram”-style film transparencies laid in behind them. None of the “controls” are real … our Starfleet heroes have just been pretending all along … going through the motions … acting.
So there’s nothing to press after all … Dang it.
Oh, cruel fate — my one chance to fly a real starship … a dream come true from all the years since I was a kid — and everything’s fake!
Then just as quickly, my brain does a flip-flop, and I have the realization instead of being … on a real, life-size mock-up of the Bridge. This is what the bridge would look like if there were such a starship. But that’s not quite the same as the real bridge, is it?
Except, wait. No, it is the “real” bridge … I’m right here at the actual studio. The real-life cast is here, doing the real-life scenes for the actual real-life show. How could it be more real than that?
Another five years from now, in Las Vegas for a trade show, I’ll take a detour over to the Hilton hotel one afternoon and check out a new exhibition that’ll get a lot of attention — Star Trek: The Experience.
The exhibit has a life-size recreation of this very bridge, and other parts of the ship too. Except there, it all works! The main viewscreen is real. The panels light up with animated displays and controls. And the sound of phasers and warp drive permeate the ship so you can feel them.
And only then, thinking back, will I fully appreciate the dichotomy.
Here at the studio in Hollywood, in 1992, there are none of those impressions at all. With the crew across on a different part of the set … here on the bridge, it’s eerily quiet (an important consideration for sound recording anyway). It’ll be another month before the sonic effects we’ve come to expect are added in by Jim Wolvington and the crew at Modern Sound, less than a mile away, over on Sunset Blvd.
And thus, a twisted irony that only Hollywood could conjure up: What’s real is fake, and what’s fake is real. Perhaps a metaphor for film and television as a whole. It is an industry of Entertainment, after all.
11am: Wardrobe Department
After watching some filming in Ten Forward (a dialog scene with Data and Worf), I wander off to one side of the set, where there’s an entire clothing rack of official-looking Starfleet uniforms. And I strike up a conversation with the wardrobe assistant.
Though now, up close, the “comm badges” catch my attention. They seem different in person somehow.
On film, they look like metal, but actual metal would reflect light into the camera. They’d also be heavier to wear, especially in action sequences. So instead, the badges are made from a molded resin material, each hand-painted in a satin finish of silver, black and gold.
Like other details on the set, I find this (as they say in the Trekiverse) “fascinating.”
It won’t be my only education in filmic trickery today.
1pm: Which Way to the Replicator?
With filming on Ten Forward finishing up, it’s lunch time now, and the cast and crew each wander off to get a bite to eat.
I find myself on a bench just outside the soundstage entrance, sitting next to Cosmo Genovese — the script supervisor for the show.
“Cozzie” has a gentle demeanor, and it’s easy to see why everyone likes him. In fact, in a day which has included meeting a lot of nice people, Cozzie may be the nicest of all. Like the others, he makes me feel very much at home.
We chat for a bit about his work on the show. And finally, I ask where a good place to get lunch is.
He says there’s always the Paramount commissary, across the lot … though suggests the “roach coach” nearby instead, as an option to get something faster.
I thank him, and take his advice.
1:30pm: Chief of Security
After grabbing a sandwich, I’m back at the stage, with a break before filming resumes.
I find myself chatting with Elaina, who does security on the lot, standing guard outside the stage.
Earlier I’d noticed that part of her job is to hold up traffic outside whenever filming is in progress inside. She explains that the sound stages date from the era of Gloria Swanson(!) … and so aren’t quite as soundproof as they’d be ideally.
So the unglamorous precaution of minimizing noise from the twentieth century outside … is just one more element helping the believability inside of the twenty-fourth.
2pm: Scene 10 — Int. Enterprise — Bridge
It’s after lunch now, and the crew has moved over to the Bridge set.
And soon, Jon Frakes, Marina Sirtis and Michael Dorn are there, all in makeup and costume.
I’m standing just off the starboard side of the “viewscreen” — actually, a large oblong hole in the front of the set.
For the cast and crew, it’s the main entrance to the bridge. (When it needs to be seen on-camera, it’s draped off by a black velvet curtain with specks of reflective material to depict stars; or a blue curtain, for later chroma-keying of special effects or other inserts, as needed.)
After some time setting up the camera shot, adjusting some lights, and rehearsing … finally, the camera rolls.
In the scene, Worf is in an irritable mood: first startling Deanna, then berating Ensign Lopez (an extra, in a gold uniform).
Except the scene isn’t flowing.
Because “Lopez” is just an extra, and doesn’t have any dialog … there are long, awkward pauses between each of Worf’s lines.
So the filming stops, and there’s discussion of having Lopez respond to Worf, to make things flow more smoothly.
Getting some unexpected dialog is an opportunity any background actor would relish. Though it’d also mean paying him more, and that wasn’t budgeted for — so there’s hesitation to do that.
And the conversation becomes an extended one … going on past five minutes now. That surprises me — after all, there are several dozen crew members waiting, and presumably there’s a cost to holding up the filming itself.
And so, as the discussion continues, Michael wanders over by where I’m standing next to the viewscreen, near where I’d just been admiring the Enterprise dedication plaque nearby.
And then, an idea strikes me:
What if Worf is in such an irritable mood, that he won’t let Lopez get in a word edgewise … and so keeps cutting him off, so the ensign can never say anything at all? It’d underscore how upset Worf is, and solve the issue of Lopez needing his own lines.
And so I turn to Dorn and say hi … and quickly find out that even in the full Worf get-up, Michael Dorn is a super-nice guy, and a complete gentleman.
And the surreality of the situation starts to sink in: I’m standing here talking with Worf, in full makeup and costume, here on the actual Next Generation bridge … and tell him my idea.
Which he actually considers worthwhile … so, he calls over to the director, still deep in discussion … and I explain the idea to him in turn.
And, well — that’s just what they ended up doing.
So maybe by visiting today, I’ve actually paid my own way. :)
3pm: Art Department
While the crew continues work on the Bridge set, I wander over to the show’s art department office nearby.
I introduce myself to Rick, who’s generous enough to take a few minutes to chat (while fellow designer Michael is dutifully at work on a graphic for the show).
I’d just read their new ST:TNG Technical Manual, and was impressed with the high level of detail they were able to conjure up, to illuminate the technology that powers the Enterprise and the Next Gen universe.
However, I’d been perplexed by one small detail …
In explaining the capacity of the Enterprise’s information systems, the book makes multiple references to “kiloquads” of data.
But somehow, I’d missed the actual definition of what a kiloquad is. (Sometime between now and the 24th century, perhaps there’ll be another vast computer network to find such answers. Here in 1992, though, I savor the opportunity to get an answer directly from the source.)
Rick tells me:
I hadn’t missed anything at all … instead, they’d deliberately left that detail out.
With the rate of advancement in computing technology, they didn’t want to be tied to a specific definition, only to find it woefully inadequate sometime during later reruns of the show.
So instead, they invented the word, which as he explains, presumably means:
3:15pm: A Closer Look
Back on the stage, I wander around, and admire some of the Art Department’s signage in the corridors of the Enterprise. There’s type too small to be read on-camera.
Among them, crew accommodations for:
And fine-print labels on some of the Enterprise equipment:
➢ “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip.”
➢ “Three hundred thousand kilometers per second. It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law.”
➢ “We’ll never be caught. We’re on a mission from God.”
➢ “If it jams, force it. If it breaks, it needed replacing anyway.”
➢ “In the event of a water landing, this unit may be used as a flotation device.”
➢ “Caution: Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. A stitch in time saves nine. In space, no one can hear you scream.”
➢ “No user-serviceable parts inside. Remember, no matter where you go, there you are.”
3:30pm: In-Flight Refueling
Most people, in more typical jobs, would be starting to wind down their workday by now. Not so for a film crew like this, which still has hours to go. So it’s a welcome sight to see a caterer appear, setting out a special table of goodies for the cast and crew.
This is Craft Service — one of the staples of film and television production. It’s “fuel” for everyone on the stage … to power onward, to complete their long day … and a helpful morale boost each afternoon.
Someone’s been hard at work here, and it shows: There are trays of cakes and cookies and sweets. There’s coffee and tea and more.
Members of the crew start to gather around. It all looks very tempting. I take a couple of the sweets.
4pm: Beyond the Bridge
A little later, off past the other side of the Bridge set, I run across Brent Spiner, preoccupied in thought.
He’s still dressed as “Data.” And I’m struck by his yellow makeup and contact lenses — unusual in person, to say the least. The contacts in particular seem surreal … three-dimensional, somehow … almost as if levitating very slightly off the surface of his eyes. An optical illusion, presumably.
I say hello, and he graciously shakes my hand.
But Spiner seems distracted … and quickly, I realize I’ve interrupted him. He was practicing his lines (in relative peace) just away from the crew busily readying for the next scene, on the Bridge set.
Soon, I’m watching them shoot that dialog, with Data stationed at the Operations (ops) position. This is a short, straightforward scene — known in filmmaking as a “one-r” (a scene completely self-contained in one shot).
And another bit of movie-making magic:
Data is looking at his console … and to give the impression of an active computer display there, one of the crew has taped a small fluorescent light bulb to its surface. It gives a very slight, subliminal blue-ish hue to Data’s face, subtly reinforcing the illusion of some futuristic Enterprise technology, just out of our reach.
4:30pm: In-Flight Refueling (Pt. 2)
In the spherical aquarium in the captain’s ready room is an actual lion fish, named Livingston.
A crew member wanders in, casually reaches behind the wooden set piece, pulls out a shaker of fish food, and sprinkles some into the tank.
Livingston swims up, eagerly feeding on the welcome addition.
5pm: Stage 9
Wrapping up the day’s shooting on Stage 8, the company moves over to the adjoining sound stage, which contains the rest of the show’s standing sets.
And entering Stage 9 … on the left I see the Enterprise-D’s long curved corridor, transporter room, sickbay, Dr. Crusher’s office and lab, plus another crew quarters (which is regularly re-dressed to suit the individual character being depicted).
Taking up the right half of Stage 9 is the shuttle bay set. And there’s a full-size shuttlecraft parked squarely within. (If I were a character in the show, there’s even odds about this point in the episode, I might be taking it for an unauthorized joyride.)
But today’s shot is a simple one: an episode already in post-production needs a brief “pick-up” shot. In this case, it’s one of Riker, which wasn’t covered during shooting a few weeks back, but needed now for editing.
I hang out for a bit and watch, taking in the scale of the larger set, and strike up a conversation with Alan Bernard, the production sound mixer for the show. I’ve done a lot of sound work myself, so it’s a welcome chat with a distant colleague of sorts.
And again, I’m reminded of how nice everyone here is.
And with that last shot in the can now, the shooting finally winds down.
7pm: It’s a Wrap
It’s been a long day here on Stages 8 & 9.
The personnel are putting their equipment away now, to pick it up all over again, bright and early tomorrow.
And by this point, I’ve come to feel almost like an honorary member of the crew: an assistant handing out the call sheet for the next day’s shooting nonchalantly hands me a copy as well …
In one visit, I’ve come to appreciate this, one of my favorite shows, on a completely new level. It sounds cliché, but it does feel like one big family. Everyone has been very kind.
And I’ve begun to understand why:
They routinely spend 10 to 14 hours per day on the set — much more time with each other, in fact, than with their own families. With those exceedingly long hours … a full ten months out of the year … they almost have to get along well, in order to make it a bit nicer spending all those months together on the stage.
And so … a day on the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation?
For the crew, of course, it was just another workday, one of a thousand like it.
For me, it was a thrill … very different than I’d expected … a rare privilege to experience first-hand … and a day I’ll never forget.
Postscript: January, 1994
A year later, I find myself on the Paramount lot again — this time, for an evening film screening.
It’s Oscar® season, and common for the studios to host showings of their award-hopeful feature films. And they invite members of the industry to see them, frequently at the studio lots.
It’s always a pleasant experience, with state-of-the-art screening rooms adorned in red velvet … the highest-possible-quality projection and sound … and no commercials at all. At the appointed time, the curtain simply opens, and the film begins. It’s hard going back to the local cineplex after that.
Though tonight, I show up a bit early, and wander over to Stage 8. Here, it’s been another long day on the set of Next Gen. The red light is on outside, letting others know there’s a take in progress.
I ask for a couple of the people I’d met, a year back.
A few minutes later, the red light goes off. One of the crew comes out, and remembers me. After a bit of catching up, I ask if it’d be OK to step in and watch a little more.
“Normally, no problem.
But Marina’s dressed as an amphibian, and has been lying in a tank of water for a couple of hours now.
And, well … she’s getting a bit cranky at this point.”
At home about two months later, I’m watching the elaborate costume and makeup ordeal the cast had to endure in that very episode — possibly the creepiest of the series — and honestly … I can’t say I blame her at all. :)
I hadn’t realized it in 1992, but the filming I witnessed was from a special cross-over episode, introducing viewers to the new spinoff, Deep Space Nine. And in the thirty years since, there have been a number of other Trek series as well.
But even today, thirty years later, “Next Gen” is still one of my favorite shows — of Star Trek, or any other kind. I’ve purchased the series both as a download and on Blu-Ray, and it’s a recurring guilty pleasure to go back and revisit some of those characters and stories.
You might ask whether spending my proverbial “fifteen minutes” behind the scenes diminished the experience at all.
If anything, it’s given it an even fuller dimension. A first-hand understanding that a television series like this isn’t plucked out of some future century somewhere else in the galaxy — but is, in fact, the effort of a number of highly-talented, dedicated and hardworking people … right here on Earth. In a century far closer to our own.
And yes, it was a childhood dream come true. 🖖
Text © Copyright 2022, Ron Diamond. All rights reserved.
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