Last time: we learned the fate of the Starship Exeter bridge set was not oblivion. After decaying in a Texas barn for years, it was moved to Oklahoma City in 2010 by John Hughes to be used for a new production called Starship Ajax. John advertised for volunteers on Craigslist, and two guys from the concert industry became leaders of the project in their own right: Richard Wells and Scott Johnson
Shortly thereafter, John Hughes decided to concentrate primarily on his fan film, leaving Richard and Scott to complete the bridge restoration and set up Starbase Studios, a place where fan filmmakers could shoot their Star Trek stories for free on an actual TOS bridge recreation set.
But not all went swimmingly. As we continue our interview with Richard and Scott, we learn what happened after when the hand of nature once again threatened this beautiful bridge replica…
RICHARD: Almost the same scenario happened in 2013 and 2015, too. Twice we’ve had some big tornadoes hit near here. Now we’re right on the very beginning run of “Tornado Alley.” Moore, OK, just 10 miles south of here, gets hit all the time. So we’re very close to the firing line, I guess you would say. In both of those instances, we had rainfall of about 7 inches in one hour. This whole area of town just flooded…we had a good foot of water right here in this part of our building. It got up to just about but not quite the top of that platform that holds the captain’s chair, but the carpet didn’t get wet on that riser.
SCOTT: The weatherman came on the television and said we’re expecting big rain. But we didn’t understand what big rain was until we got about 15 inches of rain over the course of like an hour and a half or two hours.
RICHARD: From what I understand, we’ve only had rainfall like that twice in the last 20 years…both times it was while we were here!
SCOTT: Where our studio and building is located, it flooded so bad that, over the span of about an eighth of a mile square, there was just nowhere for the water to go.
JONATHAN: And so you walked in, you saw this water damage, and then what happened?
RICHARD: The first time, I wasn’t sure what was gonna happen. I was actually living here at the studio at the time, living in the green room, and what used to be my rent check was going into buying materials to build the set. I came home that night, driving through flood waters most of the way, and there was over a foot of water in here. So I opened the front door, and water comes flooding out. My trashcan just sorta floated out of the green room, around the corner, and out the front door and headed down the road!
I wasn’t sure what was gonna happen, but then everybody pulled together, they came down here. Luckily, we’re in an area where it all drains off pretty quickly. We didn’t have any standing water. In less than an hour, it was all gone. We didn’t have like they do in some flooding situations where everything is just soaking up water and getting ruined. It all drained out pretty quickly; volunteers really rallied together, scooping up mud and sweeping and mopping… and we got it all back together. It’s happened twice now, and both times we’ve had volunteers just jump in and come down and really take care of it.
RICHARD: Pretty much, and they look great!
JONATHAN: How long did it take to build the sets?
RICHARD: Sickbay didn’t take very long at all. The way it’s designed, it’s mostly square, so it’s pretty easy. The bridge set drove me crazy because I don’t think there’s a 90-degree angle on there anywhere! But the sickbay was pretty simple. One of my actors in Starship Grissom, John Snow (not the one from Game of Thrones) is also a builder. He came in – I had a picture of a sickbay bed – he just started taking measurements, wrote down some figures on a piece of paper, and he extrapolated all the measurements from the pictures. And then he just sat there and set it all out on the spot. He did an incredible job, and it really looks close to the actual sickbay bed.
JONATHAN: Are there any other sets you’re planning to build?
RICHARD: For the future, we’re planning on building a section of engineering and a briefing room that can be redressed as other rooms, too. After that, we’re pretty much outta room here. For corridors, we’re just gonna be building flats that we can put up and take down as we need.
JONATHAN: How much space do you have to work with?
RICHARD: I think it’s 3,700 square feet, maybe 3,750. That’s a good size space for what it is, but it’s not enough space for Star Trek sets.
JONATHAN: But you can’t really move it anyplace else because then you’d have to pay rent.
JONATHAN: So Starbase Studios officially opened its doors when?
RICHARD: I suppose it’ll be two and a half years ago next month. That’s when Starship Valiant came in and filmed their first episode.
JONATHAN: That brings up an interesting question. Originally, John Hughes brought the Exeter set to Oklahoma to film Starship Ajax. But Starship Valiant finished their pilot episode first, and I don’t think Ajax has released an episode yet, has it?
RICHARD: We were at the point where Valiant and other projects were ready to film, and Ajax still wasn’t, so that’s when John let me and Scott turn it into an actual studio for anybody to use. And that way, he could just concentrate on Ajax. He didn’t have to worry about running a studio AND a show.
JONATHAN: I watched the original version first episode of Starship Valiant: “Legacy” (a short 20-minute “introduction vignette” is what I think they called it). There were only seven actors and just two sets. One was the bridge and the other was a living room in a house.
RICHARD: Michael [King] wrote his first episode based on what was available at the time. That’s why it was easier for him to get in and get done. Once we had the Sickbay set finished, Valiant shot a new 4-monute intro scene there and released a special edition version of their first episode. As for Ajax, there are still more sets in their script that we don’t have built yet. Hopefully they’ll be filming soon.
JONATHAN: And is Valiant going to be shooting any more episodes?
SCOTT: Their script is finalized. Their next episode, which will be titled “The Ties That Bind,” began filming here a few months ago.
JONATHAN: In the winter in Oklahoma??? BRRRR!!!! It’s gotta be freezing!
RICHARD: Especially in an empty warehouse with no heating! But it’s better filming in winter than it is in summer. We filmed our first episode of Starship Grissom in the middle of summer. We started at 4am and let out at 11am. After that it just gets so unbearably hot in here.
JONATHAN: Speaking of Starship Grissom, that’s your own Starbase Studios fan series focusing on solely education, right? Can you tell us a little about it?
RICHARD: I was initially explaining the idea of using the sets for educational productions to my cousin, who is a teacher, and she said she would talk to some friends about it. A few months later, out of the blue, she called and said, “We have the first script ready!” And I suddenly realized: “Okay, so I’m producing a fan film.” I hadn’t really thought about doing my own film before that phone call.
The local teachers who wrote the lesson plan scripts – each is a short story teaching some aspect of science in an engaging way – plan to incorporate our show into the classroom with their students. Hopefully, it will inspire them to go further along with their science interests.
RICHARD: We’ve filmed three. We completed post production on the first episode, “Planet L-197,” and just released it.
JONATHAN: What has the reaction been like so far?
RICHARD: We have had a few educators contact us or leave Facebook replies, but not a lot. Those have been high praise, though. I took the week after the release off, so didn’t actually spread the word around Facebook till this last weekend. Now I’m trying to rally the teachers to start sharing it on any educators’ Facebook groups they are members of.
The response from Star Trek fans has been typical. For every praise for going the extra mile to provide free entertainment, there has been a complaint that it’s not exactly like the original show was or that it was a futile effort because CBS would be shutting us down shortly. So many people who call themselves Trekkies just don’t understand the term. However the number of likes on the post and new likes to our page has been surprising.
JONATHAN: Your first episode ended on a cliff-hanger. How long will fans have to wait for the next installment?
RICHARD: The next episode of Grissom should be out this summer… I hope. It’s been in the can for quite a while now and we have started doing cgi for it. We’ve gone through a bunch of editors who have started and then backed out. But we found a new editor last year, and we hope to have the other two episodes edited pretty quick.
SCOTT: The acting and getting it “in the can” – where you’ve got it on film – that’s the easy part! The hard part is when it gets to post because it takes forever and a month, and we all get antsy and wanna see it, and it’s not done yet. It takes a while to do CGI, get it blended back in, do color correction – it all takes a long time… especially when it’s all being done by volunteers working for free.
JONATHAN: Speaking of free, is it true that any fan film can use your studios completely for free?
SCOTT: We don’t charge, but you do have to pay for the electricity you’re gonna use.
As I tell anybody who is interested in coming here to shoot, you’re more than welcome to come here, but you do have to make a nominal donation of at least $50 per day…because I’m not willing to pay for electricity to shoot your movie. If I’m gonna pay for anyone’s electricity, it’s gonna be for what I wanna shoot.
JONATHAN: So when somebody comes to you to use your facility for filming, do you offer them anything beyond just the sets?
RICHARD: Especially for people who come from out of state, we try to help them find as much locally as we can. We have some groups set up on Facebook. There’s a Starbase Studios actors and resources board where anybody who wants to be an actor can sign up there. So many of the fan films tend to look there to find actors, or if they need uniforms or props or whatever. Anybody who makes those can sign up there so the shows can find them.
JONATHAN: And none of the actors get paid, right?
RICHARD: It’s in the rules of the board that this is all non-profit volunteer. Most of the actors in our local productions – Valiant, Ajax, and Grissom – will usually just jump in and help out in any show that needs them.
JONATHAN: When they’re filming, do they bring their own equipment, or do you have equipment they can use?
RICHARD: We have a good supply of lighting, most of it is owned by Scott. He used to do lighting for concerts, and I did sound, so we both have some gear left over from that. We offer our uniforms from Starship Grissom for anyone who needs extra uniforms while they’re shooting. We have a few props, too, and we know places to get camera equipment. Most people end up bringing their own cameras, and Scott ends up doing most of the lighting for most of the shows.
JONATHAN: What is the process someone goes through to use your studio? How far in advance do they have to book the space?
RICHARD: There’s a calendar link on our website. People look and find an open date, and if me and Scott are available, it doesn’t really matter if it’s the next day or a year down the road. We’ll book it if we can.
JONATHAN: And does it have to be somebody who wants to film a Star Trek fan series? For example, could somebody who wants to get married on the bridge of the Enterprise come and have their wedding there?
RICHARD: We’ve had a few people ask about doing weddings. Nobody has actually done it yet. One of the not-so-glamorous things about being in an old warehouse is there is no running water in this whole building. There’s no restroom. But we’ve had a bachelor party stop in once just to take a look, and we do private tours all the time. About six months ago, we had a model shoot… different professional photographers shooting professional models in uniform. Some of them had their own, and some borrowed a few of ours. It was an event sponsored by a magazine…a pretty neat event.
JONATHAN: How many fan series have used your studio so far, and what have they produced?
RICHARD: We’ve probably had a dozen shows film over the last two years. Along with Starship Valiant and Grissom, The Red Shirt Diaries filmed parts of two episodes here. Those are the three series that have finished editing and released the episodes they filmed on our sets. And there have been a few shows that have filmed here that weren’t Star Trek. They just wanted to use pieces of the bridge in their shows. We had one show film here where there was a scene of an open house at a Star Trek set (I think he got the idea by attending one of our open houses).
JONATHAN: How often do you have open houses?
RICHARD: We’ve been doing them twice a year, and I think that’s gonna be our standard to have one every spring and every fall.
JONATHAN: So how does a person donate to you guys?
RICHARD: Well, there’s a link on every page of our website. And if someone just wants to donate their time or their skills as a volunteer, visit our Actors and Resources board on Facebook. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t local, there’s still lots of ways you can help us out making props or costumes. And if you are local, there’s also a Statbase Studios Crew group on Facebook.
SCOTT: We’re happy to get any help we can!
JONATHAN: Thanks, guys! As Spock would say, that was fascinating.
Starship Valiant and The Red Shirt Diaries will be covered in future blog posts. However, here is a rating for the debut episode of Starship Grissom, “Planet L-197,” which you can watch here.
UPDATE: At the end of 2016, Starbase Studios moved to Mountain Home, Arkansas. Learn why in this follow-up blog article.