It’s not easy making a set-based TNG-era Star Trek fan film! Unlike TOS, where there are multiple set recreations where fans can film, TNG sets are much more difficult to construct and maintain. Most often, 24th century Trek fan films go the route of compositing actors filmed in front of a green screen with digitally-generated backgrounds.
Such was not the case with GARY O’BRIEN from Great Britain. His first Trek fan film, the must-see CHANCE ENCOUNTER, was released in 2017 to rave reviews from fans. While filmed primarily in outdoor locations, it also featured an elaborate shuttlepod interior set as well as a turbolift constructed for the production. The whole film was produced for an unbelievably meager $2,700 crowd-funded from fan backers via Kickstarter.
For Gary’s next TNG-era project, however, there were a LOT of sets to build (you can see some behind-the-scenes video in this blog entry). Once again co-written with Gary’s friend PAUL LAIGHT, this new script—titled THE HOLY CORE—was much more ambitious and would require $11,000 (£8,700) to produce. Unfortunately, a 30-day Kickstarter campaign in early 2018 failed to reach more than half-way to the goal, and so no money was collected from backers.
Just when all seemed lost, however, an angel donor named ALEXANDER MAYER stepped up with an offer to fund the entire project. Gary and Paul were ecstatic and immediately got to work turning The Holy Core into a fully realized fan film. One year later, here is the result…
Although Gary has produced a plethora of behind-the-scenes updates and videos, there were still a few things I figured the fan viewers might like to know. So here’s a short interview with the director and co-writer of The Holy Core…
JONATHAN – When did you and Paul first come up with the idea for The Holy Core, and how long did it take to complete the script?
GARY – We had a quite well developed story outline, dated 21 July 2017, that had a lot of The Holy Core themes in it, although the story itself was very different. That eventually changed quite a lot as we refined the ideas and made the story into something more entertaining and adventurous.
Also, somewhere in the timeline, Star Trek Continues released an episode called “What Ships Are For,” and it had some very similar ideas to what we were working on. So we decided to ditch a lot of what we had and steered our story to be more about religion instead.
Our absolute final draft of The Holy Core script is dated 20th May 2018, so I guess it took us about 10 months to sign off on it.
JONATHAN – When your Kickstarter failed to fund last year, what were your plans? Were you just going to forget about doing the project, or did you have a Plan B?
GARY – I think we realised that we couldn’t make The Holy Core the way we wanted to, unless we had at least all the money from the Kickstarter available, so we never intended to make this film for less money than that. The idea of making half the film and then trying to raise completion funds didn’t appeal either, as I believe you need to keep momentum up and plough through to get projects like this completed in good time. The idea of having some half-finished film hanging around for two or more years doesn’t sound like fun to me.
I guess if we didn’t get funded, we would have licked our wounds for a few months, and then bashed The Holy Core into a much simpler (and cheaper) shape somehow and then tried again to raise enough money to fund that instead.
JONATHAN – Obviously, Plan B wasn’t necessary because you found an angel donor to finance the whole endeavor. Did you search out Alexander Mayer, or did he just contact you out of the blue with the offer?
GARY – Yes were very grateful that Alex came to the rescue! He had been the single largest donor on our first Trek film Chance Encounter, which I believe was because he had just organically found our Kickstarter page.
Around halfway through The Holy Core fundraising (when it was looking unlikely to succeed), Alex reached out and said that if it was unsuccessful, he could finance the whole project. It was a very generous and unexpected offer, of course, but we pushed on with the Kickstarter anyway.
But as you know, ultimately we only received pledges for about half of what we needed. This being Kickstarter, it meant that we had to hit our target or get nothing at all. True to his word, though, within a few weeks, Alex wired over the full amount, and we got straight to work!
JONATHAN – What made you decide to build such elaborate sets rather than simply using the less expensive green screen compositing like Intrepid or Dark Armada or any number of other 24-century era fan productions?
GARY – I think real sets just give a better viewing experience. They’re so much easier to shoot on, as well, and let you be spontaneous with your camera placement etc. Keying and compositing is also a LOT of work in post production, and it never looks as good despite all the effort.
In my mind, physical sets are the only way to work. Green screen is just an “emergency tool” to be used sparingly when there is no other option. Even on our bridge shots, we had quite a lot of physical set pieces so no individual set-up on the bridge has a full CG background without something real in the frame along with the actor. Also, building the sets, whilst a lot of work, is also a lot of fun!
JONATHAN – What was the casting process like for this film? Did you already know whom you wanted to use, or were there auditions…or both?
GARY – My co-writer Paul suggested Phil Wolff to play Yeshua quite early on, and I thought that was a great idea. We’d worked with him a few times before on some of our other short films, and he is on our wavelength for sure. He’s a joy to be around and a really good actor, so he was a no-brainer.
The rest of the actors we found via casting websites. Loads of people apply for these roles, and we narrow the applicants down quite quickly. Then we Skype audition and see if we want to hire them. After that, it’s on to rehearsals…
JONATHAN – Were your actors particularly excited to be appearing in a Star Trek fan film or was it just another role among many? I mean, obviously, they weren’t going to be bored or uninterested, but were they Trek fans to begin with, or just actors hired for a job?
GARY – I think they were all aware it wasn’t the usual kind of project, and that their roles were a bit different from the usual kind of ones they get asked to play over and over again. Drew Elston, who plays Brother Kost, was a big Trekkie, and after landing the role he enthusiastically set about a TNG rewatch! Alexa Brown, who plays Captain Keller, is also a bit of a Voyager fan.
JONATHAN – Her performance reminded me a little of Captain Janeway. So what was different about directing The Holy Core versus directing Chance Encounter?
GARY – I’m not sure there was much difference, really. You just do your best to focus your attention on getting each individual moment correct, shot by shot, scene by scene, and then keep going and going until the film is finished! One nice thing, though, was that we were indoors pretty much the whole time on this one, where as Chance Encounter had a lot more location stuff, which always makes it a bit more of a challenge.
JONATHAN – How many days did you actually spend shooting?
GARY – I think it was twelve calendar days all in all. Three days for the shuttle, three for the ready room, two for the deflector room, one for the bridge, and one for the location. Then we had a few hours on another day with just myself and Paul filming the opening scenes, and then a final day for pickups and inserts once the edit had come along and I could see what little extras were needed.
JONATHAN – Any fun or funny stories from the set?
GARY – No…ha ha! The tone was always friendly and jovial, and I hope everyone enjoyed their time, but ultimately we’re just there to work hard and get shots in the can before we run out of time!
JONATHAN – In addition to co-writer, set designer, builder, researcher, and propmaster during pre-production; director, camera, and lighting during production; you were also producer, editor, sound-mixer, and did visual effects and picture grade during post-production. Did this “do it yourself” approach make things easier because you didn’t have to deal with a whole bunch of other people slowing you down, or was it just more bloody work
GARY – That’s a good question. The only exception was my good friend Tobias Stronge, who was INVALUABLE in getting this film made. (He also appears a few times as Lt Mills.) Other than me, he was the only person who came to every shoot day, and he was fully committed to getting the project done. If anyone likes The Holy Core, then after thanking Alex for funding it, thank Tobias for everything he did, because it couldn’t have happened without him.
But in relation to your question, there is a balance to be struck between what’s more efficient: doing it all “yourself” or spending time delegating and explaining to a volunteer who’s rocked up for a few hours and who may not have any relevant experience on a set. My other friend Steven came along for a few days, too, and he was a big help. But on a film of this small scale, sometimes it is easier to just do it yourself because, frankly, I’m the only one who knows how these sets fit together or even hat they’re meant to look like!
In terms of post production, though, where I had a lot of help was from Jim Riker, who handled all the exterior shots of the spaceships (except for the shuttle lift-off shot, which I ended up doing). He did a brilliant job and certainly that was a HUGE help to me, and he did them to a much higher standard than I was capable of doing myself as well.
JONATHAN – Will there be any more Trek fan productions from Gary O’Brien and/or Paul Laight?
GARY – I think I’ve pushed the “one man band” approach about as far as it can realistically go with The Holy Core. And as I said above, even this film isn’t really a “one man band” because of people like Tobias, Paul, Steven and Jim…who were all instrumental in getting it done. If there is another Trek fan production from Paul and me any time soon, I think we’ll have to expand the scope some more so that we’re able to get a larger crew who aren’t just burning up annual leave from their jobs and working harder on their weekends than they do at work all week!
JONATHAN – Well, Gary, if that was the case, then the hard work certainly paid off because The Holy Core is magnificent. Congratulations on getting a second MUST-SEE Star Trek fan film under your belt!
GARY – Thanks, Jonathan. I am glad you liked it, and I hope others enjoy the film, as well.