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Just Say "Engage": How the Enterprise-D Goes to Warp
by Greg Tyler
March 31, 2002

One of Star Trek's most well-known visual effects involves a Starfleet vessel activating her warp engines and speeding away. The most oft-used effect made its debut in the premiere episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Encounter at Farpoint."

In Cinefex #37 (Don Shay, 1989), visual effects director Robert Legato called the popular warp drive effect a "rubber-band warp-out effect." He further described the effect, saying that "the Enterprise stretches out or elongates as it goes into warp drive. Then, as it reaches its speed, it snaps back like a rubber band and goes off into the distance."

Contrary to popular belief and countless technical references, the Enterprise-D's warp propulsion system was powered not by matter-antimatter reactions, but by visual-effects trickery.

The rubber-band effect was created using a processing called slitscanning. Legato's idea for the effect involved "scanning a slit of light across [the filming miniature]. The camera would be positioned very close to the tail of the Enterprise while a projected sliver of light swept across the surface from the rear to the front. AS the light scanned forward, the camera would open its shutter and begin to move away, streaking the image onto the film. By the time the camera reached the end of its track, the sliver of light had reached the front of the Enterprise... very tiny in the frame -- creating the effect of a stretched starship."

At the endpoint of the shot, the Enterprise needs to appear far away from the camera, and small in the frame. This was not possible to accomplish with the six-foot-long miniature of the ship, as its enormous size would require the camera to be farther away from the model than soundstage space would allow. To accomplish the effect, a two-foot-long filming miniature was used for the rubber-band effect.

The final shot would be composed of two filmed elements. The start of the shot was a close-up of the Enterprise flying in from below-frame, so the more detailed six-foot miniature was used. The rubber-band part of the shot involved use of the two-foot model. To hide the transition from one model to the other, the transition occurs when most of the frame is obscured by a flash of light from the Enterprise warp engines.

Images 1-3 The visual-effects folks pull the old switcheroo

There are a number of differences between the six-foot-long filming miniature and its two-foot-long counterpart. Detailed photographs of the six-foot model under construction at Industrial Light & Magic can be found in The Official Star Trek: The Next Generation Magazine #2 (O'Quinn Studios, 1987). The best visual references for the two-foot model can be found in The Official Star Trek: The Next Generation Magazine #4 (O'Quinn Studios, 1988).

Here are frames from the rubber-band warp-out shot featuring each model:

Images 4-5 The two models of the Enterprise-D as of 1987


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