A LONG WAY FROM HOME is a great way to crowd-fund! (interview with SAMUEL COCKINGS, part 1)

SAMUEL COCKINGS is the distilled essence of the truest of Star Trek fans—gifted with an amazing talent that he enthusiastically shares with other Trekkies in the form of stunning CGI animations which appear in an endless parade of fan films. Indeed, it’d probably take less time to list the major fan films that Sam DIDN’T work on than those he did! (That’s a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but if you want the complete list of every Trek fan film that Sam has turned into CGI gold with his digital Midas touch, just check out Sam’s IMDb page.)

In addition to providing VFX animations for innumerable Star Trek fan productions, Sam is also the co-host of the amazing and engaging TREKYARDS series of podcasts. And if you don’t know what that is and you’re a Trekker, you are totally missing out!

But beyond just helping out other productions, Sam has also been trying his hand at creating some fan films of his own. Back in 2013, he began work on what he was calling STAR TREK: TEMPORAL ANOMALY. It took him 6 years to complete it, and thanks to a call from CBS’s lawyers, he had to remove the words “Star Trek” and a few other things (click here to find out more and to view the finished fan film). But Temporal Anomaly was nevertheless a groundbreaking project, taking virtual backgrounds to an entirely new level for fan films.

In late 2018, Sam launched an Indiegogo for an ambitious new fan film to be titled CONVERGENCE and featuring a crossover of FIVE different Star Trek fan production. It ended up raising $7,385 from 114 backers and was supposed to be completed by now. Of course, it was funded before the world turned upside-down and had to shut down amidst a global pandemic.

With Convergence still paused in the middle of production, Sam surprised the fan film community at the beginning of May by launching yet another Indiegogo campaign, but this time, it wasn’t funding just one fan film but SIX!!! The series of unrelated anthology stories will be set in different time periods of Trek from TOS to the Wrath of Khan era to the Dominion War to the Enterprise-E encountering another “Doomsday Machine” planet-killer. Calling the anthology series TREK SHORTS, Sam announced participants from various other Trek fan series including: INTREPID, AVALON UNIVERSE, STAR TREK CONTINUES, DREADNOUGHT DOMINION, DARK ARMADA, and of course Temporal Anomaly.

After just two weeks, the campaign is already about 40% of the way to its $10,000 goal with more than 60 backers. And if you’d like to be one of them (I am!), the perks are cool, and the project is really exciting. Here’s the link to donate…


In fact, the project is SO exciting that Sam couldn’t even wait for it to fund before releasing the competed first of the six Trek Shorts: A LONG WAY FROM HOME. If you haven’t seen it yet, take a look:

And now, let’s chat with Sam…

JONATHAN – Before we talk about Trek Shorts, Sam, let’s briefly talk about Convergence.  I’m sure a lot of fans are wondering why you aren’t putting your efforts into finishing up that project before crowd-funding this completely new project.

SAMUEL – We had actually booked an August 2020 film shoot, but then the world closed down. The biggest sell for Convergence was getting all our wonderful fan film partners in the same room…not just recording their scenes remotely and cutting them together later on. There’s a different dynamic and energy getting actors physically together for scenes.

But those fans live in three different countries on two different continents. And at the present time, international travel is not an option. So until there is no quarantine and everyone in our cast can travel here safely, we can’t shoot the rest of that film.

JONATHAN – What gave you the idea of trying to crowd-fund SIX different fan films with just one campaign???

SAMUEL – Once the creative process of making A Long Way From Home really kicked in, I just had ideas flowing into me…all filmable during the pandemic and all with unique elements. I had 10-ish ideas and picked the 5 ones that really stood out to me—they also happened to be the 5 most ambitious ones!

JONATHAN – Y’know, $10,000 would be a typical amount for a SINGLE quality production…even one without practical sets.  How are you managing to squeeze SIX fan films films out of that amount when they all have different cast members and require different digital backgrounds and
ship models?

SAMUEL – I’m doing most of the work, which of course lowers any needed budget. Also, not having anyone fly in keeps the budget down, too. It’s all green screen sets (which is my speciality) and includes several costumes that I already had.

Nimrad Saund goes from green screen to camera to shuttle cockpit…compliments of Sam Cockings.

Its one of those things—I’m trying to make A LOT, but I also knew what I had and what I could get. So I’m working around all of that and trying to be as efficient as possible.  I’m sure I’ll go over budget; I’m already on track to, BUT the $10,000 will be the largest chunk and take the financial burden off me personally (since I don’t earn very much) to be able to get the costumes/props and high-quality CGI assets the fans expect from me!

JONATHAN – Now let’s talk specifically about A Long Way from Home. When did you first start working on that specific project?

SAMUEL – It was conceived as a “we’re sorry we can’t finish Convergence yet, so here is some of the cast in a fun and free film” project. Everyone was very onboard, and we were able to film the U.K. segments before our second lockdown. We started the project in August 2020, filmed in September 2020, and released in April 2021! Seven months certainly beats my Temporal Anomaly six-year “record,” haha!

JONATHAN – Who filmed their scenes where, and how did you control for things like visual and audio quality?

Left-to-right: Samuel Cockings, Nimrad Saund, and Steven Cockings

SAMUEL – So it was two teams: my England shoot was with myself, NIMRAD SAUND, and my dad STEVEN COCKINGS. Nim came down for three days to film. Then we had the Scottish team of NICK COOK and his wife LUCITA. They had planned to get a crew and larger cast, but the Scottish lockdown hit about two weeks before their planned shoot. Nick had to work the camera and sound himself, as well as act and direct. I am very thankful to them; I think they gave wonderful performances, even if there were some technical issues with the audio quality on his end. Nick is not the cameraman or sound person for Intrepid, so he did his best.

Nick Cook (top) and his wife Lucita on board the “bridge” of the U.S.S. Intrepid

Then we had MICHELE SPECHTs scene, which had to be filmed on Skype. We had hoped to do a higher-end recorded version, but she has become a film set COVID officer since the pandemic and has no time for anything else. I tried to make the best out of that footage—thank goodness her acting was on point!

JONATHAN – Speaking of Michele Specht, how did she come to be involved in this fan film? We haven’t seen her do Star Trek since STC wrapped.  Is she planning a comeback in fan films, or was this just a one-off?

SAMUEL – Michele signed on to join us for Convergence in 2019. Even if this film takes place AFTER Convergence, I wanted to have a link to that film. Michele agreed to film that fun scene at the end and, boy, it was hard to not even tease her appearance! Hopefully, it was a really nice surprise for fan film watchers out there.

Currently, she is still slated for Convergence, but with the pandemic, combined with her new, exceptionally-busy job and my own fullest intent to film in 2021 (no ifs or butts), and it may not be practical. But we will see.

Michele Specht in STAR TREK CONTINUES (left) and then in A LONG WAY FROM HOME

JONATHAN – Another interesting cast member in this production was your father, Steven, playing an ancient Roman centurion…something we don’t typically see in a Star Trek fan film.

SAM – My father is a Roman historian/re-enactor, so he has one or two dozen historical costumes/variants…most of them hand-made by him. While he didn’t make the armour, he did make that shield by hand and with limited power tools, as he wanted to do it more authentically. He’s actually made three shields over the years of radically different designs, one out of solid bronze.

Like father, like son? Well, maybe not when one is a fan filmmaker and the other is a Roman re-enactor!

My father is very well known in the European historical reenactment community for his knowledge and attention to detail with his outfits. He has also been a historical consultant to many books/documentaries and even worked on a Roman documentary in the mid 2000’s with our current Prime Minister BORIS JOHNSON.

And while the “holodeck malfunction” is meant to be a direct clue that something is going on—that the build-up to the Kobali’s phase displacement FTL drive is causing issues on Horizion—unfortunately, it doesn’t really come across in the film. But know that they are meant to be directly linked, showing things aren’t quite right.

JONATHAN – Late last year, you released a 90-second teaser scene for A Long Way from Home, and it was really cool what you did with the VFX and
compositing. For those readers who haven’t seen it, take a look:

Why did you not use that existing footage in the final fan film?

SAMUEL – That teaser was always intended to be a self-contained clip and audio dialogue which would best promote the project rather than having to try put something together from existing clips and unfinished backgrounds. So I went for this stylized long VFX shot which introduced all the major elements. I’m very proud of it, and because of its length and hero assets, that teaser alone took NINE days to render…rendering day and night (and I have a fast PC!!). So that tells you what kind of commitment that kind of shot needed.

JONATHAN – Speaking of the teaser, that was really impressive just by itself!  Why did you decide to finish the entire fan film first and THEN launch the Indiegogo instead of just releasing the teaser as the “proof of concept” for the Indiegogo and finishing the film after?

SAMUEL – Thanks! Well, A Long Way From Home was intended to be a thank you to the backers of Convergence, more a bonus to show off our skills rather than something we wanted to hold off on finishing. Besides, it should sell the Indiegogo better to show a completed short…even if that hasn’t quite happened in terms of Indiegogo interest. At least we are getting tremendous views on it and the comments are…truly fantastic!

JONATHAN – Indeed…25K views in two weeks is very impressive! So, aside from the green screen footage, what else goes into—or will go into—the production and post-production of these Trek Shorts?

SAMUEL – Well, designing a story that could be filmed in the pandemic was a challenge. And the even greater challenge was to have a film that, at the end, didn’t feel like it was limited in that way. A big big part of this project was my learning how to render in the newest version of Lightwave 3D rather than the classic Trek version. This allowed me to turn all my 3D interiors from gray into fully textured, lit, and ready-for-camera interiors. This was something I started learning in November and am extremely happy with the results.

JONATHAN – What do you mean by “the classic Trek version” of Lightwave 3D? You don’t mean TOS, do you?

SAMUEL – Oh, I obviously don’t mean TOS; they didn’t use CGI way back then! When I say “classic Trek,” I mean Voyager, DS9, and Enterprise. Those series all used a CGI application called Lightwave 3D, which is also what I use. Up through 2015, the company that makes Lightwave continued updating the same version they used on Paramount’s televised Star Trek. But in 2018, they revamped everything about Lightwave to better match the newer capabilities of the modern VFX industry.

The new 2018 version meant that any old asset/ship/station would not work properly and had to be fully converted and re-textured to work. It was a pain to do, but if you spent the time, you could get much more real-looking results, as they re-did how they light ships from the ground up. It was really a paradigm shift in realistic quality. And the quality improved even more with their 2020 version, which is the one I’m currently using.

It’s a more straight forward pipeline to go from gray, to Substance Painted custom textures to the finished result.

JONATHAN – You had me until your last sentence, Sam.

SAMUEL – Let me show you visually. When I’m sent my 3D models, they’re basically gray, like this…

JONATHAN – So you don’t make your own CGI models?

SAMUEL – No, that’s not my specialty. My usual best modeler is always working on commission projects for fan films. But this production needed a much larger team, so I had to bring in three fan modelers whom I’ve been working with for a while now and training up. It always helps to work on actual productions and have a certain standard to reach when honing your craft.

JONATHAN – Are they all doing both interior and exterior models?

SAMUEL – It’s a mix. One guy who has done mostly exterior ship models for me in the past is doing an interior or two. One guy who normally does my high-end fan film commission work has also done the odd interior or two, but he also did the full Type-9 and Type-6 shuttles, and we’ll also be doing the Enterprise-E bridge together. And there’s a new chap who will come onboard to do some Galaxy-class sets for me.

JONATHAN – So how long did it take your modeling team to make all the virtual backgrounds for A Long Way from Home?

Next week, our interview with Sam concludes as we see how he turns a gray 3D model into an Intrepid-class bridge that’s so realistic that you could almost walk into and and sit in the captain’s chair. Then we discuss Sam’s plans for after the current crowd-funding campaign reaches its $10K goal…and what happens if it doesn’t?