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Robert Abel & Associates

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Robert Abel & Associates, Inc., or RA&A for short, was the first visual effects (VFX) company that was hired 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 December 1977. Design and construction work for the company was headed by Art Director Richard Taylor.

The founder of the firm, Robert J. Abel, was considered a pioneer in motion control photography, 2D and 3D VFX. [1] 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. (Star Trek: Creating the Enterprise, p. 46) That shortcoming came to the fore when, according to Olsen, conflicts with Paramount arose at the end of 1978 about the shooting of the studio models, resulting that Abel & Associates were unable to deliver effects footage acceptable to the film's producers and the firm was ultimately released. Some consider Abel's work on this film to be a "failed experiment"; [2] others in the industry have cited conflicts between the effects team and the Paramount's staff of producers. [3]

Former employee Richard Edlund has, years later, shed some more light on the issue. 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 repeatedly tried to make his former employer Abel 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] Edlund's admonishments fell on deaf ears though, and when the studio executives came sizing up the situation on 22 February 1979, Abel had reportedly only a single completed VFX shot to show for all the time and money spent, already four million dollars over budget at sixteen million dollars by December 1978. (The Special Effects of Trek, pp. 29, 31) Abel was fired on the spot and his company released, effective immediately.

Though reviled ever since in Star Trek lore, reinforced not in the least due to several post-production Paramount (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) 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."
Production Illustrator Andrew Probert 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." [5] 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."
On that 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." [6] 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, Future General Corporation, was subsequently given responsibility for the effects work in March 1979. (The Making of Star Trek The Motion Picture) Several key staffers, initially employed at Abel's, moved over to 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.

Astra Image CorporationEdit

Astra Image Corporation logo

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, conveniently located nearby on North Las Palmas Avenue. [7] 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 and physical VFX assets were concerned. All production art for example, was stamped with the Astra logo. "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). RA&A bore the legal responsibility for the cinematography only.

General historyEdit

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 Pederson picked up while working for Trumbull 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 Levis, 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. [8] 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." [9] 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.

Robert Abel himself passed away in late September 2001, at the age of 64.

The Motion Picture staffEdit

Taylor, Probert, and Pederson
Taylor, Probert and Con Pederson at RA&A

External links Edit

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