If the release of the new guidelines by CBS and Paramount was the shot heard round the fan film world, then the subsequent response by the show-runner of Star Trek Raven was the first hint of return fire.
Or was it?
A week after CBS and Paramount published their guidelines for Star Trek fan films, an announcement went up on the news page for Star Trek Raven, a little-known fan series based in central Iowa filmed at Starfleet Studios (not to be confused with Starbase Studios in Oklahoma). The production had only released three short vignettes so far (this, this, and this), but Raven was about to become one of the most talked about fan films.
On July 1, the lead producer for Raven, David Whitney, posted this proactive statement:
The rules which pertain to direct copyright infringement and intellectual property will be adhered to. The rules which do not directly support their copyright, and copyright law, will be ignored.
Wow! Them’s fightin’ words!!
Among the guidelines that David was preparing to ignore were the ones limiting the length of a single fan film to 15 minutes or less, not being allowed to pay people who worked on the production, and not giving away production-related perks.
The fan world quickly took notice and got set to watch the struggle and excitement. Sides were quickly taken for and against Raven (as they were when Axanar got sued), and for 24 hours, Star Trek Raven (which hasn’t even released its first full episode yet) was the biggest news in fan films.
Then, the following day (before I could even write up something about it on Fan Film Factor), the post on Raven’s news page had changed to this:
We are going to try to conform our film, now called “Starfleet Studios Raven Part One” to the new rules.
I’d like to thank CBS for making the guideline public, so we know what their law team and their licensing team are looking for.
The statements made here are mine, and can change tomorrow. I’d like to thank the RAVEN team for hanging in there.
What happened? Fans eager to see a “David” take on “Goliath” were left disappointed and even somewhat disgruntled that someone got their hopes up and then quickly surrendered before firing a shot. (Of course, all those fans rooting for a glorious battle weren’t risking tens of thousands of their own dollars in potential legal fees in a lawsuit.)
But I was curious: what really did happen to change the mind of the seemingly ravin’ Raven show-runner? (Sorry, that pun was just too irresistible.) So I contacted David Whitney and requested an interview…
Jonathan: Okay, David, what happened to the guy who was shaking his fist vowing to fight the system one day and falling into line the next?
David: Well, I deleted a paragraph. And the sentence about doing our best to conform to the new rules was there before. The paragraph I deleted was the statement about us ignoring the guidelines. And I made the statement at the end that I could change my mind at any time, even the next day…which I did.
The whole “shaking my angry fist” was taken out of context by, last time I checked (I didn’t read all of them), but I saw 99 comments on one story I read. I said, “Good grief! I’ve got a lot of traction on this!” And a little part of me likes attention, and I thought that was very fun, but I talked to my producer and my co-producer. And really, when I say, “I’m gonna ignore the rules,” here’s what I meant by that…
I was listening very intently to John Van Citters’ podcast. To me, it seemed at least somewhat clear that groups that are already in post-production they’re not going to bother with. And moving forward, they don’t want people using the term “Star Trek,” going over $50,000 on your fundraiser, or paying Star Trek actors. And so, the fact is, none of those apply to me. I didn’t make any money, I don’t use Hollywood actors, and I’m already in post-production…which means we’ve done our filming, and we’re just trying to finish the film.
When it comes to the time limit, though, I’m going to have to say, “Yes, I’m ignoring that for Star Trek Raven because I think we got in under the wire. But moving forward, I’m gonna do my best to conform to the guidelines to make sure CBS doesn’t bug me…’cause I don’t wanna end up in court like Axanar and have to fly out to California to defend myself getting to wear a costume and playing Star Trek. It’s not worth it to me because I didn’t make any money off of Kickstarter. I didn’t make a million dollars like Axanar…or Renegades, what, they’re up to $800,000 now for both films. Even Star Trek: Horizon, they raised, like $70,000.
So when I say I’m gonna ignore it, most of the reason I said that is, frankly, it doesn’t apply to me as much as it does to a lot of these other guys. So at least for Star Trek Raven, I’m gonna put it out there as I intended to do it. It was only supposed to be a 24-minute film anyway. I don’t think CBS is gonna come after me for it, but if I put it on YouTube and all of a sudden the next day, I get a call from CBS, then I’ll have to chop it in half and show it in two parts.
By scraping some of the stuff from if already, it gets it off their radar. And that’s the real kicker, Jonathan. I want to go forward and call if Star Trek Raven and finish it because we were in post production…and put it out there—in its full 24 minutes of glory—and then worry about the next film. The next film won’t be called Star Trek anything.
Jonathan: So is Raven going to be a self-contained story that ends, or is it the beginning of an ongoing series…which is, of course, no longer allowed under the fan film guidelines?
David: That’s a great question! Raven, part 1 is just a set-up for a series. And at 24 minutes, part 2 was going to be 24 minutes, as well. So when you combine those, you get a TV episode length. And so the goal was two 24-minute episodes, then combine them later into one episode. But now, with the new guidelines, Raven, part 2—which is already cast with actors and actresses, we have the script almost written, we’ve got the outline, we have new costumes—so now we’re having to decide what to do with it. And I think that right now, where we stand, we’re basically going to have to just drop all references to Star Trek for that. If we’re going to continue on with that character, we’ve got to move her out of the Star Trek world.
Jonathan: But you already have costumes. You already have a library of digital backgrounds for your green screen shots that are mostly Federation starship interiors. I heard you’re even building a TOS bridge set. How do you take Raven out of the Star Trek world?
David: Well, you can’t. I have collected the interiors of starships for the last 3 years. Everything I have is Star Trek: Voyager look-a-like or Next Generation look-a-like or DS9. So I’m gonna have to stick with those interiors moving forward because that’s what I have to work with. And I don’t have the luxury of paying CGI guys to rebuild entire ships. Some of the stuff I have I can change myself, like the LCARS displays. I can edit those and change those. I can change some of the colors and the way things look. But the structure is very obviously gonna be lifted from Star Trek. And there’s just not anything I can do about that right now.
Jonathan: So what’s your specific role at Starfleet Studios, David…or do you wear many hats?
David: I have to do nearly everything, and I’m still learning as I go along. For example, I do all the writing. I do the camera work and all the video editing and all the CGI…and all the sound and music.
Jonathan: So you’re like the “Tommy Kraft” of your production. [Tommy Kraft is the jack-of-all-trades who almost single-handedly wrote / directed / produced / edited / scored / CGI-animated / etc. the 105-minute long fan film Star Trek: Horizon from his parents’ basement. –Jonathan]
David: Yeah, but Tommy’s got a serious advantage ’cause he knows how to make those ships from scratch and look fantastic as they fly around, and I’m kinda cheating when I do it. But my effects still look pretty good. I’ve come a long way. Oh, I should mention that some of the scenes I got camera help from Stephen Janousek, a local actor and camera guy who is very good.
Jonathan: I’m curious about Starfleet Studios itself. How big is it? Are we talking something the size of Star Trek Continues, which is 18,000 square feet? Is it a small warehouse like Starbase Studios in Oklahoma?
David: Really, Starfleet Studios is just a name and a green screen with some cameras and costumes and props. And we would film wherever we could—whether it be someone’s basement or someone’s garage or in the middle of my house with my dogs walking around on the green screen. Now we have a small studio that we rent, but it’s being filled up with set pieces. And we have one third of a TOS Enterprise bridge that has been donated. And we’re going to be receiving another 25% of it, so within just a few months, I’m out of room because I have half a bridge!
And we can re-purpose that set if we wanted to. We could change it. Initially I was going to make it the USS Prometheus interiors, because the Prometheus from that Voyager episode looks structurally like TOS, and it could be changed to conform to look like that. But now with the new guidelines it’s like, “Well, what do I do?” We’re just gonna leave it TOS because, along with the Voyager-style costumes, we’re also getting a lot more of the TOS style. So now, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, we’re making a TOS film. So we’re doing three different eras now.
Jonathan: Three? There’s Raven; there’s the TOS project…did I miss something?
David: There’s also a TNG project that will have Picard and Data in it. I’m going to place it on Kickstarter to see if I can get any money at all—which I doubt because all of my Kickstarters have failed—to see if fans will support if without Hollywood actors…and with a budget of $50,000. And I’m working that up, and I want to be the first one up on Kickstarter to see what happens if I play by the guidelines. “So okay, CBS, here’s what you said we could do. We’re doing it.” Now, what are the fans gonna think about it? Are they going to support it? We’ll see. I’m hoping that after I release Raven, even if it’s a little cheesy with the purple wig, that fans will notice us and give us some support.
Jonathan: What about your TOS project?
David: We’re finishing filming at the end of this month—hopefully—and completely finish with all filming within two months. And that film involves all real sets. I can’t say much more except that it’ll be a TV-length film…between 48 minutes and an hour.
Jonathan: And your belief is that the 15-minute time limit isn’t applicable because the episode was already in production at the time the guidelines were announced…that you’re grandfathered in?
David: The producer has not decided yet how it will be distributed.
Jonathan: You’re not the producer?
David: No, it’s not my project.
Jonathan: So there’s a chance it won’t ever get posted to YouTube?
David: Yes, but I really can’t say anything more right now.
Jonathan: Not a problem, David. Let me ask you instead about your cast. You’ve got a lot of attractive cast members…which isn’t always a hallmark of Star Trek fan films (please forgive my political incorrectness). How did you manage to put together such a good-looking cast?
David: I’ve got some great people, and yeah, they’re good-looking people. And people have asked me that a lot: “Where did you find such good-looking actresses?” And I’ve just been very fortunate. It’s hard to pin down how that all happened. Some of them are family members of the people who work at Starfleet Studios. But then there’s a whole bunch of other actresses who have joined the group. The beautiful Sydney Bowii, who is playing Raven, just showed up one day with a friend. And it turns out, not only is she very pretty, but she can act! And she’s really fun to work with. And she’s now in three or four different projects that I’m working on because I’m not just working on Star Trek. We’re also working on a Labyrinth-style film called The Goblin Princess where she plays the heroine.
Jonathan: Oh, so she’s really a blonde, huh?
David: Well, her hair isn’t really purple. She’s got blond hair, and we use the purple wig for two reasons. One is that since I do everything green screen, her blond hair reflects that green a lot. And it was really difficult to work with. So I said, “Would you mind wearing a wig?” And we went through different colors and different wigs. And she just loved the purple, and I said, “Works for me!” So the second reason is because Sydney likes it. And it works well against the green background.
Jonathan: So you said that Sydney just showed up one day with a friend. And suddenly you had your Raven?
David: There’s a large group of people in central Iowa…a lot of actors and actresses. There’s a lot of Facebook groups. And there was a girl who I think was nineteen at the time who I had in the original version of Raven (before I had to scrap it) who was playing Janeway, and she brought Sydney along. And we put Sydney in a costume and started talking to her. And we were going to give her a bit part as a helmsman. And then after that, things just kept growing.
I eventually had to scrap the entire two years of filming the original version of Star Trek Raven…
Jonathan: Why was that?
Next time: Why did David have to scrap an entire two years of filming!? What does he think about other fan films…and about the guidelines themselves? The answers might surprise you!
A few months after this interview was first published, Star Trek Raven was released as the debut episode of Voyager Continues…