To paraphrase (De)Forrest Gump: “Fan films are like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get.”
That was certainly the case when I sat down to watch the premiere of the new fan series PROJECT: RUNABOUT, created by GARY DAVIS and RANDY WRENN, who are also the co-showrunners behind the veteran fan series DREADNOUGHT DOMINION. I went in completely cold, knowing only that Gary had worked long and hard to build a brand new TOS-era cockpit set in his basement and that British VFX phenom SAMUEL COCKINGS had designed an awesome-looking CGI model of a 23rd century runabout and was really excited about the visual effects that he was creating for this initial release.
I knew this first episode was titled “Pilot,” and I’d heard there was an all-female cast (with one male Klingon thrown in). But the phrase I’d heard bandied about was “girl-power.” Well, alrighty, then! So I was kinda expecting a space battle of some kind, great VFX (because Sam isn’t capable of creating anything else) and an intriguing new “homemade” Star Trek set.
What I was NOT expecting was…a music video??? And honestly, a really good music video! Here, take a look…
Of course, it’s kinda hard to make a “bad” music video when you’re playing RACHEL PLATTEN’s uplifting Fight Song! But Gary and Randy were also helped along by four newcomers to Star Trek fan films.
Naturally, there was a lot to chat with him about…
JONATHAN – Congrats on another FANtastic production, Gary. So where did the idea for a Project: Runabout fan series come from?
GARY – Our Runabout set was inspired by the DS9 Runabout. I was watching the TNG episode “Timescape,” where four of the characters were taking a Runabout back to the Enterprise. They were seated in the rear area conference room, and the bunks were visible in the back. I paused it and looked at it, and I said to myself: “I could make that in my basement!” I had also seen a fan film where they’d made the DS9 Runabout console with the window frames a few months earlier. I told myself: “I can do that too!”
Once I had the complete picture in my head, I really wanted to do it. I had previously built a Romulan bridge set in my basement, using up only a little under half the space. THIS project would take up the WHOLE basement and THEN some!
I had a crawl space in the basement that would become the upper bunk of the sleeping area. The concrete slab would be dressed up like a bunk that was closed off. Another section of the crawl space would be a Jefferies Tube for engineers to work on the ship. Finally, we have the bridge area in the middle of the basement. This section has the helm as well as two consoles, similar to the traditional TOS bridge set.
JONATHAN – When did you begin construction, and how long did it take to complete the entire Runabout set?
GARY – When the COVID lockdown started in March of 2020, I had no excuse not to start! I went to Home Depot—one of my MANY, MANY trips to get materials—and set to work on framing the rear section that I had seen on TNG. Once I had the “bunk” framed, I started on the “bridge.” I had the old Romulan bridge set pieces in the basement, and in true TOS style, I repurposed much of that material. I used the base of the Romulan console for the middle base for the Runabout console. The walls of the Romulan bridge became the walls of my Jefferies Tube. Screws, wood pieces, the works, went into piles that I used all over the Runabout bridge. I was quite pleased that a great deal of the material I’d used for the Romulan bridge made its way into the Runabout Set.
MANY, MANY months later, paint followed, then carpeting. Tons of LED lights, four televisions, two laptops, and two external monitors were added. It wasn’t until May of 2021 that I felt that the Runabout set—at least the bridge—was ready for its closeup. We shot a collaboration film with VANCE MAJOR and FRANK PARKER for CALM, COOL AND COLLECTED, the bookend of two other productions that began back in 2016!
Calm, Cool, and Collected taught me some lessons about shooting the Runabout set. I was then ready for ANOTHER major idea that I had been working on throughout the construction of the set.
JONATHAN – Are you referring to your new Project: Runabout fan series?
GARY – Yes, indeed. Before the set became an actual set, an idea for a new spin-off of Dreadnought Dominion was conceived. Since we were planning to make a full Runabout set, we wanted to do a new series centered on several ships and four-person crews doing a variety of adventures. Thus, Project: Runabout was born.
Our first Runabout we named the U.S.S. Rio Grande and gave it an NX number, being the class ship and the experiment that the pilot episode would be focused on. We shared this idea with Samual Cockings, who was ALL for helping us with the CGI. He even took the original Runabout rough idea that we had and did a vast redesign which we showed on the pilot episode of Project: Runabout…an episode simply and aptly titled “Pilot.”
JONATHAN – Yeah, let’s talk about “Pilot,” which focuses almost exclusively on the pilot of the Runabout (very clever!). I don’t recall any set-based Star Trek fan film ever simply being a story-based music video playing over a pop song, but I love the idea, and the lyrics fit perfectly! What made you think of doing it that way?
GARY – When Project: Runabout was just running through my head, I chanced up a song listening to Amazon Music: Fight Song. I was immediately taken with the tempo and the story of the song itself. I started envisioning the song was about a lone female pilot in our Runabout on a mission by herself. A Klingon ship, seeing an interesting new class of starship, warps in and takes her by surprise in an attempt to capture it. I could SEE the action in my head each and every time I heard the song. Finally, I wrote it all down in a sort of script and pulled the trigger on trying to make it happen. After all, I had the set. I just needed the right actress, and Sam would do his amazing VFX to match it!
JONATHAN- And how did you find that actress? As I recall, you live in central Ohio?
GARY – Columbus, yes.
JONATHAN – So where do you go in central Ohio to find not just one but three actresses (since you also had the two starship captains) and one male Klingon? Were these people that you already knew?
GARY – I knew our Klingon, THOMAS DAVID ARGANTE from the Netherlands, previously. We first met via the 3D Printing forums—wow, was back in 2019—he messaged me about my TOS viewer. We started just chatting about props, and eventually the conversation came around to fan films. He had once been asked to do something for one, but they never used him. I told him, “Record me some VO material, and I’ll use it.” And we did! His Dutch accent is just too cool! So we used his voice-over for our Dominion episode “We Are Many.” Then he played the Fleet Admiral for “The Passenger With Baggage.”
Thom 3D modeled and printed the three throttles for the Runabout, he did the Runabout handles, intercoms, and even printed me a NOMAD probe. He’s pretty genius with 3D printing. He also drew the computer module “bars” for our ship’s computer. I mentioned to him I needed a Klingon bad guy. He showed me his costume, and BOOM…we had our Klingon aggressor!
JONATHAN – So you went all the way to Europe to find one of your actors. What about the other three?
GARY – I went to a website called “Backstage“—a site for actors to find jobs and projects to find actors. I was REALLY cautious about my expectations. After all, I was the one begging for talent, and I couldn’t pay for it, and all I had to offer was a costume and a set built in my basement.
JONATHAN – Sounds like most of the porn industry.
GARY – Oh, don’t go there! [Laughter.] Anyway, I laid out the project pretty clearly on the site, putting “NO PAY” several times, and released it online. IMAGINE my surprise when I got not one, not two, but a DOZEN replies from amazing actresses not only in OHIO but up in MICHIGAN and ILLINOIS!
RANDY WRENN, my Dominion Media partner, is an actor who goes on jobs like this that pay little or nothing with the intent of just having something for his resume reel. THIS is exactly what these dozen ladies were vying for. I was humbled and amazed.. The very first young lady who wrote to me, VANESSA SAWSON, just seemed perfect. She was beautiful, had a great smile, and when I contacted her, she knew exactly what we were doing, as she had been part of a YouTube web series in the past. Thus, we had our PILOT for our pilot!
We then added two more actresses to the mix to serve as captains of the Starfleet capital ships, LAVONDA BROWN-CLARK and JAYLA MILLER, who come in and save the day. Originally. I had planned on myself, as Captain Brousseau, coming in and saving the day. But when I thought about it, I really soured on the idea. “Pilot” was about a lone female pilot, up against a larger enemy, overpowering her aggressor, and overall, just putting a bully in his place. The idea of having a man come in and save the day seemed so droll! So I instead opted for two more strong female characters, BOTH captains of their own capital ships, another Dreadnought, U.S.S. Confederation (NCC-2114), and the U.S.S. Excalibur (NCC-1705).
Lavonda and Jayla are women that I work with. Jayla agreed to do it only if she didn’t have any lines, which is why only Lavonda says anything at the end.
JONATHAN – It was only last month when you held your successful Indiegogo crowd-funder. That’s a pretty quick turnaround for a fan film! When did you shoot the pilot “Pilot”?
GARY – The campaign was primarily intended to fund the majority of our VFX, since that is typically our biggest expenditure. Although we HOPED to reach our goal of $5000, we really would have been happy with just about anything decent from donations. So while we were crowd-funding, we continued forward on the set, uniforms, and laid out ten VFX shots for Sam to do. Imagine our surprise when we hit 50% of our goal…then 75%…then almost 85%!
It was now June 26th, just a few days before the fundraiser would end, and we took a day to shoot the Runabout scenes with our cast of three lovely ladies. June 26th was a nice, hot Saturday when I had my guests arrive at the house. I showed them the basement set, and boy, were they surprised when they saw what I had IN the basement! I’d shown photos to my friends at work previously, and I e-mails images to Vanessa, but nothing could prepare them for the real thing.
We shot all our scenes in just a few hours. They were fairly easy since we didn’t have to worry about much sound quality as there were no lines until the very end of the production. I quickly took a few scenes to make a trailer, and Sam was able to send me final renders of three VFX shots for the trailer.
My next conundrum was how to make a two minute trailer with music for a production that was only FIVE minutes long, and which, in itself, WAS a music video! I came upon the idea of just showing a few shots then diving into behind the scenes footage of us making the production. I set it to another song that hits the viewer over the head with “girl power,” Roar, and let THAT trailer loose…
When the trailer was released, I don’t know if that was a catalyst or what, but we hit 100% the next-to-the-last day, and then the LAST day increased WAY past the goal! We finished at 125%…an AMAZING ride!
JONATHAN – Hey, in the behind-the-scenes footage at the end of the trailer, is Randy directing via a video call from an iPad???
GARY – Yes, it is.
JONATHAN – Okay, I realize it’s a 7-hour drive from where he lives in Charlotte, NC to your house in Columbus, OH, but is there a reason you couldn’t just direct the pilot yourself?
GARY – I did direct it. And so did Randy. We always direct remotely when one or the other of us can’t be there in person. Randy is AWESOME, and he has much more directing experience than I do. He keeps me grounded.
JONATHAN – Grounded…in space?
GARY – LOL. No, grounded in reality. Together, we keep each other grounded…and he makes sure that I don’t forget anything.
JONATHAN – And finally, as I usually ask you at the end of our interviews, what’s up next?
GARY – With Project: Runabout‘s “Pilot” done, I am upgrading the set to add another full console beside the main pilot controls. While actually shooting it, I found it frustrating that I lacked several angles that I could shoot, so this additional console will fully enclose the set, giving me more angles to shoot. It also forces me to actually use the sliding door I made for the rear of the cockpit!
I’d like to open up this set for use by other fan producers, and in fact, JOSHUA IRWIN has already approached me about shooting scenes for some future episodes of his AVALON UNIVERSE series here.
We are in talks right now for a complete four-person crew for another adventure of the U.S.S. Rio Grande for a late fall shoot. We are working out details to shoot half the show “on location” at a venue like none that Dominion Media has ever attempted before…along with the Runabout set of course! When we get more details about this shoot, we’d love to share it with you!
JONATHAN – I’ll be waiting, Gary. Best of luck to you!