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CGI Fridays

CGI Fridays | Adam Howard Made Phasers Pop on Star Trek: The Next Generation

From a firefighter’s mosaic to phasers and photon torpedoes, digital painter and animator Adam Howard reveals a passion for pyro in CGI Fridays Episode 6.

It’s easy to drop meaningless platitudes about the power of teachers to change lives, but as Adam Howard tells Ed Kramer in CGI Fridays Episode 6, his entire career has one man at the heart of it – a teacher prepared to go the extra mile.

Born in Australia, Howard – like his father, Ralph – was educated at the prestigious Scotch College in Melbourne, Victoria. The oldest extant high school in Victoria, Scotch College is a sort of Hogwarts on the Yarra, with great politicians – one prime minister, three governors-general, eight state premiers, four High Court justices – instead of great wizards looming large in its list of Old Collegians. 

“In my third year there, the Art Department hired this guy called Rick Rowton. Rick had been a commercial artist and an illustrator and a designer and had done bizarre things like [teaching] prisoners in the prison system in Australia. On his first day, he said to all of us, ‘I don’t have a curriculum, I want you to tell me what you want to learn. And I’ll make it happen.’ Everybody had different interests. Some kids wanted to do pottery, some wanted oil painting, and I wanted to do animation. So Rick made it happen.”

Adam Howard

Scotch College was the perfect hothouse for high achievers in many fields – Ralph Howard, after all, was a successful dermatologist, businessman, and state legislator in the Parliament of Victoria – but Rowton recognized that this environment could prove stifling to Howard’s artistic temperament.

“In Year 11 [equivalent to 10th Grade in the US], he showed up at my parents’ house one Saturday afternoon. I answered the door, and I freaked out because ‘Oh God, there’s  a teacher at the door – what have I done wrong?’ He came in, and he said, ‘It’s okay, I just want to talk to you about something.’

“We all went and sat in the living room and he started to speak to my parents: ‘I need you to understand something, Adam has a gift that must be pursued. He’s an incredible artist. And given the right tools and the right experience and opportunity, he can turn this into a lifetime career. If you make him do Year 12 at Scotch, he’s going to crash and burn, because he’s just not built for that system. But if you let me spend the next three months helping him prep the portfolio, I want you to take them out of the school and put them into this orientation program at Chisholm Institute [of Technology]’ – which is now Monash University in Melbourne – ‘and have him do that as a prep so that we can get him into the graphic design course.’ And to my absolute amazement, mum and dad both went ‘Okay,’ and so Rick and I spent the next few months prepping this portfolio of art. I applied, and I got in and I went, and I did that course, [and] got to do my first real hands-on animation.”

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Career Beginnings in Australian Television 

As with many of Ed Kramer’s guests on CGI Fridays, Adam Howard’s career predates the field of CGI itself. Whilst his peers in the US had a thriving commercial graphics industry in which to sharpen their skills for the day Hollywood was ready, in Australia at the beginning of the 1980s those opportunities were far fewer. Despite growing confidence in Australian cinema which began in 1971 with the first films of the Australian New Wave, and was heading towards its commercial peak just as Howard was entering the workforce, Australian television wasn’t feeling the benefit. 

(We’re getting ahead of ourselves, but part of the reason Howard eventually joined Industrial Light & Magic was to work with the definitive Australian New Wave director, Peter Weir, on Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.)

Howard wangled his work experience in the graphic design department of the state broadcaster ABC, and eventually pestered his way into a full-time position by showing up every Friday and going desk-to-desk asking if anyone had any jobs going. In the meantime, he worked for an advertising agency producing signage for Parliament House (“We had armed guards and when we come up to work in the morning, they would take the plants out of the safe and roll it out on the desk and we’d be allowed to look at them and not touch them”), and was apprenticed to the State Artist of Victoria, Harold Freedman, working on the incredible mosaic that adorns the Eastern Hill Fire Brigade headquarters.

ABC’s comedy and drama programming was dominated by British imports, so Howard’s work was in current affairs, tracing meteorological data onto acetate for the weather slot on ABC News, and crafting titles and other visual effects for music show Countdown, and the thoroughly weird children’s series Round the Twist. It was at the ABC, that Howard became aware of the reboot of Mission: Impossible filming in Queensland as a cost-cutting effort by ABC. 

That is the other ABC, the US commercial network, but it offered a window into an industry where VFX seemed to be evolving on an hourly basis

“All the post-production work was being done at The Post Group in Hollywood,” explains Howard. “We had a producer from Paramount who was working with us in Melbourne. This is 1989 I had been planning a trip to the States just because I wanted to go to the States. I was talking to him and he said, ‘You should go see a few people while you’re there, and I’ll hook you up with the guys at Paramount.’

“My ultimate dream was to move to Los Angeles and I’ve got three things that I want to do on my bucket list. I want to work on Star Trek: The Next Generation, I want to work on MacGyver, and I want to work on Star War.”

Adam Howard
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Digital Magic and  Star Trek: The Next Generation

It wasn’t quite as easy as that, and despite the warm introductions to Paramount and favorable meetings with many of his VFX idols at The Post Group, promises of employment evaporated. ABC – the other ABC, that is – were more receptive. Howard took his place at the network as an animator and compositor at the on-air promotions department, where, amongst other projects, Howard animated the cracking egg in the opening titles of the prehistoric Jim Henson Company sitcom Dinosaurs.

However, Adam Howard’s TNG dream was by no means dead. Over the course of 1991, a number of key figures at The Post Group jumped ship and formed Digital Magic with a sole client on the books: Star Trek: The Next Generation. The ‘digital’ in the magic referred not to the use of CGI – which was still rare and incredibly expensive at the television level – but the speed with which digital technology was underwriting the entire pipeline.

This was in part thanks to the advent of Sonys D-1 videotape – the first mass-produced professional digital tape. Suddenly, compositing – the process of combining the live-action shots with the effects shots to create a finished print – was no longer a cumbersome, multi-stage analog process involving multiple machines and hard drives. Digital Magic was self-described as ‘boutique’, having been built from the ground up to seamlessly insert itself into TNG’s post-production process – even to the extent of installing a microwave link to the Paramount soundstages, so the VFX team could review live footage as it was filmed.

“So I’m sitting with my boss one night, seven months in, and the phone rang. He goes ‘Adam Howard’ – ‘Yep’ – ‘Rich Thorne, can you talk?’ I said, ‘Not really, can I just switch you to another phone?’ I went into the machine room and I picked up the phone. I said ‘Hi.’ He said, ‘Look, I know I kind of freaked you out before. I apologize for that. I’m sorry that I couldn’t hire you because I was planning on leaving The Post Group. I’m starting my own company. Digital Magic. And I want you to come and work with me.’”

Adam Howard
A young Adam Howard realized his dream on the transporter room set from Star Trek: The Next Generation. | Courtesy of Adam Howard.

The Post Group was wrapping up work on Season 4, and Digital Magic was already picking up tasks with a view to claiming Season 5 as its own. Howard was going to be shadowing the late Stephen L. Price. (Sadly, Price – who also worked with Ed Kramer on Jumanji – passed away in 1995 at the age of 34 following a battle with pancreatic cancer).

“I ended up leaving [ABC] that Friday and started the following Monday at Digital Magic as Steve’s assistant on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He was animating the final episode of Season 4 [‘Redemption: Part I’ – S4, Ep26], which was a cliffhanger episode. I spent one week working with Steve, just watching him. He animated all the phasers in the show. And he left on a Friday and on Monday, Rich [Thorne] walked in and he closed the door. And he said ‘So, it’s been a rough weekend – Steve’s left. He’s gone off to work on ILM, he’s gone off to work on Hook – he’s not coming back. Paramount is very worried because they’ve had a cliffhanger episode and they don’t know what they’re going to do. We’ve had a very, very stressful weekend. It’s been very, very bad’.

“And I said, ‘Oh, that’s just fantastic. That’s the bad news, so what’s the good news?’ – ‘The good news is you’re it.’ So after one week of watching Steve, I became the lead animator on Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

Adam Howard
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Reinventing the Phaser and the First Two Emmys

It was the opportunity that Howard had been waiting for since he moved to LA, and he wasn’t about to squander it.

“As a fine artist, I had a real thing about reflections in the shadows and minute detail. The stuff that Steve did was great. Totally worked for the show. But I thought I could make it a bit better. And so I went to the visual effects producers and I said, ‘Look, what’s a phaser? A phaser is a light source. If you get a phaser going near somebody, what’s it going to do?’ They said, ‘What do you mean?’ – ‘It’s going to cast light on them and it’s going to cast shadows behind them across their faces. And I want to be able to do that and just make these things feel more real.’ And they said, ‘When was your first day on the job? You want to do that?’ – ‘Yeah, why not?’ – And they said ‘Okay, well, if you can do it in the same amount of time that Steve did his you’re on’, so I spent about the entire weekend worked out different ways of… instead of hand animating every single frame, I built loops of various layers that made the phaser up, I drew a thing that we ultimately called the pom-pom. That became something I developed as a technique on Star Trek for when a light source will turn on quickly and it would just be there for one frame and it was just something to lift the blacks a little bit, just at the center, and give your eye that little crunch that you get when you’re hit by a light source. 

“I tried to not have a stark difference over Season 5’s first few episodes. We just ramped into the new work. Later on that year, I had two envelopes arrive on my desk in one day. I opened the first one and it said, ‘You’ve been nominated for an Emmy, for Star Trek, for an episode called ‘Conundrum’ [S5, Ep14]. I was just dumbfounded. The other one envelope said, ‘Congratulations. You’ve been nominated for an Emmy…’ I thought they’d messed up, they sent me two and then I read it more carefully – ‘Matter of Time’ [S5, Ep9]. We went and we won them both. 

“First year in the States – I won two Emmys for Star Trek, which was just beyond a dream come true.”

Adam Howard
Adam Howard (first left) and the rest of the Star Trek: The Next Generation visual effects team at the 1992 Primetime Emmy Awards. Pictured left to right from Howard on the back row are Dennis Hoerter (motion control technician), Gary Hutzel (visual effects coordinator), Robert Legato (visual effects supervisor), and Don Lee (visual effects editor). Front row from left to right: Patrick Clancey (visual effects compositor), Adrian Hurley (motion control operator), and David Takemura (visual effects associate). | Courtesy of Adam Howard.

Over the duration of Howard’s time with Trek – which covered four shows and two movies – his team was nominated for nine Primetime Emmys for visual effects, and won four with the other two being for the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘All Good Things…’ (S7, Ep25-26) and the Star Trek: Voyager episode ‘Caretaker’ (S1, Ep1).

Star Trek was incredibly good to me over the years. I ended up working on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, Enterprise, First Contact, Insurrection… did all the weaponry for all the races in all the shows, all the medical beams, anytime a ship exploded I did those things. We kind of changed the way that looked too.

Adam Howard

“We had nine big stock explosions that had been shot years earlier by the guys on the show. And we use those generic explosions, we would use little pieces of explosions and like little pieces of curlicue off the side and some of the hardcore. A ship would be there, it would cut off and there’d be an explosion. And I said to Gary [Hutzel, visual effects supervisor], ‘We should try and do something cool. Let’s actually get debris flying out.’ And so they started shooting debris passes and I animated stuff coming out of it. And all of a sudden ships were able to break apart in slow motion and just make it a little more dramatic. So we kind of changed the way that was being done.”

One of Howard’s fondest memories of the freedom he was given in pursuit of ever more impressive pyrotechnics was with the introduction of the feisty USS Defiant in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode ‘The Search’ (S3, Ep1-2). A vital part of upping the ante for the Dominion War storyline, the ship was designed by illustrator Jim Martin, with practical contributions from Gary Hutzel and modelmaker Tony Meininger. At the climax of the episode, Defiant turns on its pursuers and shows the Dominion what it’s capable of.

“There’s a shot of this thing roaring out of the background past the camera,” recalls Howard, “it had to be blazing gunfire. I said to Gary, what does it need to be? He goes ‘I don’t know, just make it cool.’ I designed these photon torpedo cannons that were just machine guns at the front – tchu-tchu-tchu – sending out photon torpedoes. It took 20 minutes to animate.”

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Farewell to Models and Miniatures

Another innovation to occur during Howard’s tenure was the switch from models to CGI for space ships, with Star Trek: Voyager being the first Star Trek show to have a fully CGI ship – even the immense Deep Space Nine luxuriating in the show’s opening credits had been a model.

“I think we had one 3D element in The Next Generation, but it was very early days and CG was still just beginning. There were shows like Stargate SG-1, there was a show called SeaQuest DSV that had a CG submarine, there were some things that CG could do okay for TV, [but] there were many things that it was not going to be capable of doing for many, many years. We were just laying the groundwork.”

Adam Howard’s portrait of Spock, just because it’s awesome. | © Adam Howard Art 2021

Model-works was quickly reaching its limits, however. Howard recalls the challenges of a particular epic sequence as shapeshifting Dominion infiltrators plunge the Klingon Empire, the Cardassian Union, and the Federation into war:

“We did an episode of Deep Space Nine called ‘The Way of the Warrior’ [S4, Ep2], Gary Hutzel was shooting it and supervising it. We had to have all these Klingon Birds of Prey armadas and ships flying. And so we had the big Bird of Prey miniature which was about six feet long, which had been built by ILM for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. They shipped that down to us and we were using that for all of the big close-ups and then we had a small one that we shot multiple times for mid-ground behind that and then we started going to plastic kits. [Visual effects coordinator] Judy Elkins had a whole team of people who were making little plastic kit Klingon Bird of Preys and painting them up and putting reflective tape on them and making them look great. 

“We realized the stage wasn’t even deep enough to be able to get the really far background ones and we couldn’t scale the move effectively either. So they got Hallmark Christmas decorations, little Birds of Prey, and just stuck them on sticks. We had entire fleets of them flying in the background that are just Christmas tree decorations. But that show got an Emmy nomination because, you know, the scale of the shots became massive.”

Adam Howard’s interview with Ed Kramer for CGI Fridays Episode 6 is so immense and wide-reaching that we’ve split it into two parts, with this episode covering his work in television on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: Voyager, and his part in James Cameron’s Titanic, which – whilst clearly not sci-fi – was a landmark moment in the use of computer-generated extras and environments. 

Part 2, which will cover his career at Industrial Light & Magic on the Star Wars prequel trilogy and beyond, will be released September 2, 2022.

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James Hoare is editor of The Companion. He has been “working in publishing” since the early 1990s when he made his own Doctor Who fanzine to sell in the school playground.

You can find him on Twitter @JDHoare

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