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Robert Abel & Associates

Robert Abel & Associates, Inc., or RA&A for short, was the first visual effects (VFX) company that was ultimately contracted by Paramount Pictures at the start of 1978 to work on the visual photographic effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, directly after the television production Star Trek: Phase II, for which Magicam, Inc was to do the VFX, was upgraded to a movie project in October 1977. Selected by Phase II Post-Production Supervisor Paul Rabwin, contacts between the studio and RA&A had actually already been laid as early as that month. (Return to Tomorrow - The Filming of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, p. 42) Design and construction work for the company was headed by Visual Effects Designer/Art Director Richard Taylor. Ultimately, due to the very troubled production history, the company's work on the film is qualified by some as a "failed experiment" [1]; others in the industry have cited conflicts between the effects team and the Paramount's staff of producers. [2]

The founder of the firm, Visual Effects Director Robert Abel, was considered a pioneer in motion control photography, 2D and 3D VFX. [3] It was on the strength of the work they had done on the groundbreaking VFX of period commercials, that they were hired, though they, "(...) really had no more feature film experience than Magicam.", as Model Painter Paul Olsen pointed out later, rather mildly, as feature experience amounted to none whatsoever for both companies. (Star Trek: Creating the Enterprise, p. 46) Almost from the start, problems were brewing when Abel, having secured the commission originally with a bid of $1.6 million for a television production, upped to $4 million once it became clear that the visuals were intended for a full-fledged theatrical motion picture production, then continuously requested additional funding, such as the $750,000 and $220,700 in May and July 1978 respectively. (The Making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, pp. 202-205) As it turned out, these early budget upgrade requests corresponded with the difference between Abel's bid and the amount he actually needed to do the effects. When Abel was approached in December 1977, his company was in financial troubles due to the fact that his acclaimed Levi's commercial had run hugely overcost (tendered at $190,000 the commercial ended up costing $330,000) and he needed the Paramount commission for his company's survival. His then Executive Producer Sherry McKenna revealed that, presented with an early script draft, an internal analysis for the effects production already revealed that the production of these could not be accomplished for less than $5.5-$6 million, but Abel, fearing that this amount was too high for Paramount (indicating his lack of experience with major feature productions), decided to take a gamble with his bid as not to lose the account. Incidentally, McKenna left RA&A in late December 1977 when negations entered into the final stages, as she did not want to become party to the deception. (New West magazine, 26 March 1979, pp. 59-60)

The by Olsen mentioned shortcomings came to the fore when conflicts, aside from the ones involving over-budget expenditures, with Paramount fully erupted near the end of December 1978 about the shooting of the studio models, resulting that Abel & Associates were unable to deliver effects footage acceptable to the film's producers. To aggravate matters, it was discovered on that occasion that RA&A had, in the studio's time and at their expense by using both the studio's equipment and money, continued to produce commercials (for Home Box Office, Perrier and Hitachi, totaling around $750,000), as was conceded by RA&A's own executive producer for commercials, Jeffry Altshuler. Irate, the studio demanded that the company ceased any and all side projects and be given a final budget figure for the effects, which at that point in time stood a $14 million. Abel retorted that he needed $16 million, and a desperate studio did reset the budget at that amount. The company was entirely pulled from the studio model photography, from here on end completely denied access to them, and which for the time being was reverted to Paramount's own cinematographer Bill Millar while Douglas Trumbull was concurrently appointed as an unpaid technical consultant in a last ditch effort to smooth over the increasing problems and conflicts. Trumbull, who was also at loggerheads with the studio, only agreed to do so as a courtesy to his old friend, the movie's director Robert Wise. Yet, over the next two months Abel and Trumbull were locked in vicious combat with each other and Trumbull was ultimately not able to get Abel back on track and the situation proved to be unsalvageable by February. Two of RA&A's effects artists were quoted at the time as conceding, "He[Abel]'s been bluffing, telling Paramount what he can provide. He has not completed a single final effect to date." and, "He worked to set himself up with the most fantastic special effects facility in town. There was a lot of theorizing, deadlines, flow charts and memos, but no action." (New West magazine, 26 March 1979, pp. 60, 62; The Special Effects of Trek, pp. 29, 31)

Former employee Richard Edlund has, years later, shed some more light on the issue in regard to the latter artist's comment; Edlund explained that Abel at the time was spending far too much of the studio's time and money designing and building a massive, interlinked and centrally-controlled camera and optical printer combo unit, while trying to re-invent the process as he did so, running massively over budget and over time in the process. Edlund, who by that time was not working for RA&A anymore, repeatedly tried to make his former employer aware of this, "I admonished him to keep it as simple as possible, because when the release date's breathing down your neck something's going to happen – it always does – and the more complex the system the more difficult it's going to be to fix and keep shooting. I don't know if Bob misinterpreted my meaning, but the end result was so overcomplicated it couldn't respond to changes without two days of re-programming, even though the problem might be something as simple as the magazine on the camera needing more clearance to avoid hitting the spacedock model." [4] Studio liaison Trumbull, whose own VFX company Future General Corporation (FGC) had actually been offered the commission initially, only having to decline at the time due to other obligations, further confirmed, "I was under contract at Paramount, who began closing down Future General in order to provide my cameras to Bob Abel's company. At the same time, Bob was already a year into the production, trying to implement a radically new computerized and computer graphics driven process." [5] Edlund's admonishments fell on deaf ears though.

When the studio executives, director and producers came sizing up the situation on 20 February 1979, Abel had reportedly only a single completed VFX shot to show for all the time and money spent, already millions of dollars over-budget, or as Robert Wise had put it years later, "We had a huge crush on our special effects. We had almost finished shooting when I realized that we hadn't yet received any footage from our effects house, Abel and Associates, so I said I have to see at LEAST some test footage. When it came in, I knew immediately that we had a big problem. The stuff was not good. They'd had months to play with this stuff, and the results were of poor quality. They just weren't good enough for all the money we'd poured in...close to five million dollars [note: Wise, when making the statement had an earlier, July 1978, memo in mind]. So now we were all panicking that we wouldn't be able to make our Christmas [1979] release date." (Star Trek Movie Memories, 1994, pp. 119-120) Abel was fired two days later and his company released, effective immediately. The extent of the damage for the studio, in terms of money actually spent, was only revealed in 2000 by then former studio head Barry Diller, the chief financial overseer on the movie, who stated, "The studio poured $11 million into effects, and none of it worked.", nearly three times Abel's original bid. (The Keys to the Kingdom, 2000, Chapter 6) Having become known among his employees as "Black Thursday", Abel informed his staff the same day opening with a I Ching quotation, "Darkness has pushed out the light", and citing "personality clashes" as reasons for Paramount to fire the company. His staff, which now numbered over a hundred people, was let go on the spot with one week's severance pay. Informed that Abel had sold off some by Paramount paid equipment, auditors started a criminal investigation, whether or not this was the case. (New West magazine, 26 March 1979, p. 63) The litigation however, was settled out of court a few months later, amicably according to Studio Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. (Return to Tomorrow - The Filming of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, p. 350)

Though reviled ever since in Star Trek-lore, reinforced not in the least due to the utter and complete lack of any mentioning or acknowledgment in by Paramount officially endorsed post-production (print) publications, several contemporary RA&A collaborators did try to make an after–the–fact case for RA&A, by spreading the blame more evenly. Prop, and studio model maker Brick Price of Brick Price Movie Miniatures, subcontracted by Magicam to do the studio models for the Phase II-project and subsequently by RA&A for the props, has stated, "Abel wanted to do a good film. Bob was constantly having battles with Magicam and Paramount and ultimately with Doug Trumbull. Trumbull was working for Paramount and far as I knew, Bob was working with them and they were moving onward. That business about a minute and a half worth of film being all they [Abel] had is ludicrous because I saw that much the first day of rushes. The first day I started working on the film I saw more than that amount of footage. But the thing was, Paramount would see something they wouldn't like, such as the spacewalk, and want to reshoot." (Enterprise Incidents; special edition on the technical side, pp. 38, 42; The Making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, pp. 202-205) In the 2013 interview given to Paul Olsen for the second edition of his autobiography, former RA&A Art Director Richard Taylor took it up a notch when he, still a bit riled after all these decades, stated,

"Well, what I found was fascinating was, that why Robert Abel Studios, which was really doing graphics and television advertising and so forth, was asked to do the effects for this film, because there was no track record for there. (...) So, to this day I'd love to know who has made the decision at Paramount to come to us, and say, "We want you to do the effects on this film". (...) Our original budget was 12 million dollars. But as they were changing the script, adding scenes, the budget kept rising. (...) There was conflict from the very beginning. And Bob Abel, who was one of the top sales men in the history of film, would go in there, and we'd get involved in more things than we should have ever been. We were initially there to do the models and the model photography, but we got involved with the sets, we got involved with the costumes, and all these other things, we never should have been, and that was a real problem. (...) They kept changing the script, not realizing how much changing the writing of the script affects the budget of it."

That RA&A became involved with set construction backfired on the company, when the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) became aware that RA&A started to employ non-union set constructors, and started procedures against the company. (New West magazine, 26 March 1979, p. 60) It added to the growing friction between the studio and RA&A, as Production Illustrator Andrew Probert noticed when he recalled the toll it took on his art director, "I remember how utterly exasperated he was, every time he returned from meetings at Paramount...mostly with the late Hal Michelson (Production Designer), an absolutely brilliant Art Director who was out of his element, on this, his first Science Fiction production." [6] Elaborating a bit further, Taylor has added on another occasion,

"One of the things that was happening was that it keep being re-written — and when you change a script in a special effects film, it changes everything. You have to go back and re-board all the scenes. We re-boarded the movie at least four times from beginning to end, in a row. We drew the Enterprise I don't know how many times but the Enterprise, just drawing the Enterprise in a storyboard is really difficult. It's a very difficult object to draw, from all different angles. Just try it sometime. It's really hard. We re-boarded the movie and therefore re-budgeted the number of shots, how we were going to do the shots, what parts we were going to do, four times in less than six months. That's crazy. You can't get a show in control until you have those boards and break those boards down into elements: "How many hours to shoot this?" "How many hours of opticals to get that shot done?" They just kept changing the playing field. Then they would get upset when the budget would go up. We'd say, "You just added a whole sequence that wasn't there." The original budget, I believe, was — they came to our studio with was 12 million for the effects, something like that. Initially, what the script was, we probably could have fit it into that, but they kept changing stuff and the budget kept going up and we finally were up to 16 million or 17 and they’re going, "Well you guys are out of control!" – and we're going: "Well you're the one who's changing the script. You can't shoot these shots without people, without models."

This situation was not lost on RA&A's staff, who began to refer among themselves to Paramount as "Paranoid", and labels with the imprint "Paramount Is a Klingon Conspiracy" started to be worn. Taylor was right in assessment about the continuous script changes, for which Producer Gene Roddenberry was mainly responsible, causing the amount of VFX shots to rise from the initially planned and budgeted 140 to over 350. (New West magazine, 26 March 1979, pp. 60-61) On the last occasion, Taylor also divulged that, contrary to popular belief, "(...)there are shots in the film that we did. The whole wormhole sequence was done by Abel Studios with the wavy streak stuff — it’s one of the best sequences in the whole film – we did that piece." [7] This went not by entirely unnoticed, as the company did receive a slightly diminutive "Certain Special Visual Effects Conceived and Designed by" credit, albeit near the bottom of the end credits roll, as did Taylor.

Douglas Trumbull's company, FGC, was subsequently given responsibility for the effects work in March 1979, in the process getting back the equipment he was initially forced to surrender to RA&A. (The Making of Star Trek The Motion Picture) Several key staffers, initially employed at Abel's and its Astra subsidiary, were rehired by that company, among others Robert Swarthe, Scott Farrar, Mark Stetson and Andrew Probert, whereas Richard Taylor stayed with the company, only to leave later that year. Most ironically, many of the rehired staffers had, prior to becoming employed by Abel, been employees of FGC in the first place, but were forced to let go by Trumbull earlier, when Paramount was in the process of shutting down that company. Ironically, it had been Trumbull who had suggested RA&A to Rabwin in the first place, back in October 1977. (Return to Tomorrow - The Filming of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, p. 42)

Astra Image Corporation

Astra Image Corporation logo.jpg

During their involvement with The Motion Picture, RA&A operated its own art department and physical VFX production company, at the time located on Seward St, Los Angeles, under the name Astra Image Corporation, especially created for the Star Trek production and also headed by Abel, it closely cooperating with Paramount's studio model shop, Magicam – legally sub-contracted by ASTRA for the build of the studio models – conveniently located nearby on North Las Palmas Avenue. [8] The location was concurrently to serve as the site on which the effects footage of the studio models were to be filmed. Aside from his VFX duties, Richard Taylor also served as the subsidiary's art director. Although the company is usually referenced to as "RA&A" in common usage in most print publications, it was therefore Astra that was legally the official production company for the Star Trek production, as far as designs, the above-mentioned set design/construction and physical VFX assets were concerned. All production art for example, was stamped with the Astra logo. RA&A bore the legal responsibility for the other effects cinematography only.

As art department, the subsidiary was to serve on par in conjuncture with Paramount's own art department, headed by Art Director Joe Jennings. However, from the start there was, due to confusing situations with hugely overlapping responsibilities, intense strive and conflict between the two art departments as Astra was perceived, particularly by Jennings and Production Illustrator Michael Minor, as performing a power-grab by aggressively trying to assert total creative control. Minor elaborated, "It wasn't long before the Abel group started doing their own designs for what they thought the whole feature should look like. Not just the special effects, mind you; they wanted to upgrade everything. They wanted to control the design of the costumes, the sets, effects, everything. They were like an octopus. And it was not a fair ball game, in my opinion. They would spend long hours closeted with Paramount brass, and yet the art department – would get maybe 30 minutes to show off what we were trying to do. So, we knew something was in the works." Four years later, Jennings, still thoroughly chagrined, added, "We made a camel. It started out to be a horse, but a committee got hold of it. Everyone got into the act on that movie. There was creative pulling back and forth, fumbling around, coming and going of people ad infinitum and ad nauseam. Everyone who worked on the art direction provided too much input to be ignored, so we all got credit, and Hal Michelson, brought in as art director, ended up getting credit as production designer." The situation finally came to a head in early March 1978, when Jennings, fed up with Astra, either decided to leave the production or was let go, as related by Unit Production Manager Phil Rawlins, "Joe Jennings was still with the project when I came on. Joe is a good Hollywood art director, and the reason he left the picture is because Bob Abel and Richard Taylor wanted complete creative control of the look of the picture. They just kept co,plaining about the sets and complaining about the sets until Joe had to leave the movie." Jennings' close co-worker Minor, was even more vehement in his appraisal of the situation, which was co-responsible for the production of the movie becoming fraud with delays, confusion and difficulties, "It was one of the most soiled and shabby chapters of Hollywood history, in terms of how people were treated. The trouble, as always, was that the wrong people were in charge. We're in a business in which the people at the top, who make the decisions, really don't know a damn thing about making pictures. I think we all knew then that we were associated with a bomb. It's too bad the movie happened at all." (Return to Tomorrow - The Filming of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, pp. 71-72; Cinefantastique, Vol 12 #5/6, p. 58)

After RA&A was pulled from the project, the Astra site was closed down by the studio upon retrieval of some of its filming equipment. "Astra", according to Olsen, was an acronym for "A Star Trek Robert Abel". (Star Trek: Creating the Enterprise, p. 46), also being the Latin word for "stars" (plural).

General history

Founded in 1971 by Abel, together with his friend Con Pederson, RA&A was a pioneering company that employed the newest techniques in creating VFX, including slit-scan photography, a technique Trumbull employed on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and the earliest computer generated imagery (CGI). Initially the company employed these kind of techniques for producing groundbreaking commercials, among others for the beverage 7-Up and the clothing brand Levi's, before branching out to motion picture productions. In those years the company experimented with the use of the Evans & Sutherland vector graphic computer in order to pre-visualize effects shots, called "animatics", digitally, an innovative approach at the time. Eventually, it enabled employee Bill Kovacs (the later founder of Wavefront Technologies, a company developing CGI software) to shoot imagery right off the E&S screen, which yielded unprecedented "pseudo-3D" CGI. Abel was tinkering with this technique at the time of Star Trek movie, but it proved to be too far ahead of its time for practical application in motion picture productions, contributing to the problems described above. Nevertheless, Abel succeeded in making the technique work a few years later for TRON. [9] Despite that RA&A's commercials were heralded as groundbreaking, the innovative nature of these had serious drawbacks. Abel was not yet able to fathom the financial consequences of his cutting-edge techniques, and the production ran frequently overtime and over-budget, causing friction and irritation with clients. Abel had to frequently ask his clients to cover the extra expenditure incurred, and when they balked, the company absorbed these themselves. Executive Producer Sherry McKenna exemplified, "We were holding our breath from payroll to payroll." This situation became especially grave when RA&A was producing the Levi's commercial. McKenna continued, "Levi's killed us. It was one of the most disastrous six months I ever spent. Bob [Abel] was interested in art. The fact that his company went from black to red did not interest him. What interested him was that his [Levi's] commercial rated higher than any other." This was the state of affairs, with potential customers already taking their business elsewhere, when Paramount approached the company in late October 1977, "Paramount didn't check us out...When I heard about Star Trek, I thought, this is going to be Levi's-times-four.", McKenna added prophetically. (New West magazine, 26 March 1979, pp. 59-60)

One of the first motion picture projects they worked on was Disney's The Black Hole (1979), for which they produced promotional materials and the opening sequence, before they were contracted to provide the VFX for The Motion Picture. After the ill-fated project, the company worked on High Fidelity (1982), Disney's critically acclaimed TRON (1982), Breakin' (1984), the LaserDisc videogame Cube Quest (1983), and Steven Spielberg's television series Amazing Stories (1985-1986).

Despite its reputation being somewhat marred by the The Motion Picture failure, RA&A and its founder were held in the highest esteem by professionals working in the field of VFX, particularly for its capacity to serve as a breeding ground for future talents. Likened to an "Obi Wan Kenobi for his ability to inspire creative people", VFX technician Kenny Mirman has stated on Robert Abel and his company, "We were making it up as we went along. Bob built the best playground possible." [10] A large multitude of VFX specialists, who attained fame later on in their careers, either got their break in the motion picture industry, or were able to further hone their budding skills at the company. Apart from the already mentioned Star Trek alumni, others who have at one time or another worked for the company at the start of their careers included, John Dykstra, Dave Stewart and Robert Legato. Many former, predominantly post-Motion Picture, employees went on to found their own VFX companies to continue the pioneering work in CGI, and other techniques, which were among others, Boss Film Studios (by the above mentioned Richard Edlund), Image G (by employee Tom Barron), Kroyer Films, Metrolight, Rhythm and Hues, Santa Barbara Studios (by employee John Grower), Sony Imageworks, Video Image/VIFX (by employee Richard Hollander), and others, many of them yet to work on the Star Trek franchise.

In 1986 RA&A entered into a merger with Toronto-based Omnibus Computer Graphics, Inc., but went out of business the following year as Omnibus defaulted on its investment.

The Motion Picture staff

Taylor, Probert and Con Pederson at Astra

note: including staff employed at Astra
  • Robert Abel – CEO/Visual Effects Director
  • Tom Barron – Technical Director
  • Leslie Ekker – Animation and Graphics Artist
  • Scott Farrar – Effects Cameraman
  • Pete Gerard – Model Maker
  • John Grower
  • Richard Hollander – Electronic and mechanical design
  • Gil Keppler
  • David A. Kimble – Production Illustrator
  • Paul Krause – Mechanical Engineer/Production Illustrator
  • David Negron – Storyboard Illustrator
  • Con Pederson – CEO/Visual Effects Director
  • Andrew Probert – Concept Designer/Production Illustrator
  • Dick Singleton – Model Handler
  • Steve Slocomb – Effects Cameraman [11]
  • Michelle Small – Effects Production Coordinator
  • Tony Smith – Production Illustrator
  • Mark Stetson – Model Handler
  • Michael Sterling
  • Dave Stewart – Effects Cameraman
  • Robert Swarthe – Animation Supervisor
  • Richard Taylor – Visual Effects Designer/Art Director
  • Ed Verreaux – Story Boards
  • Joe Viskocil – Pyrotechnics
  • Stewart Ziff – Electronic and effects design
  • Terry May – Chief Administrative Officer and Chief Financial Officer

Further reading

External links