TREK SHORTS’ newest release “THIS SIDE OF MORALITY” is a father/son project! (interview with SAMUEL COCKINGS)

Perhaps you can call SAMUEL COCKINGS “the hardest working person in Star Trek fan films.” I mean, sure, there’s a lot of fan filmmakers who work REALLY hard on these time-consuming projects, but even if there’s someone else out there who’s putting in more hours than Sam, the race is at least gonna be close!

And that’s because not only is Sam doing the CGI visual FX for such fan films and series as AVALON UNIVERSEDREADNOUGHT DOMINION and PROJECT: RUNABOUTTALES FROM THE NEUTRAL ZONE, the two most recent releases from AARON VANDERKLEY of Australia BEYOND THE SUN and OUTBREAKSQUADRON from the Czech Republic, INTREPID from Scotland, the amazing THE ROMULAN WAR, PART 1 (and the soon-t0-be released Part 2), and the upcoming FARRAGUT FORWARD, Sam is ALSO putting significant amounts of time into his own Star Trek fanthology series, TREK SHORTS. The fan films he’s released so far under this banner are:

The final two fan films in the above list were written and produced in a mock documentary (“mockumentary”) format much like PRELUDE TO AXANAR and The Romulan War, where a major event is described through an interview with someone who witnessed it.

And now there is a third mockumentary in the mix, this one titled THIS SIDE OF MORALITY, and it’s full of firsts for Mr. Cockings…and indeed, for TWO Mr. Cockings! I say “two” because Sam’s father, STEVEN COCKINGS, stars in the film.

This is not the first time Steven has appeared in one of Sam’s productions. In fact, he’s been in several of his son’s films, including the aforelisted A Long Way from Home, Sam’s epic TEMPORAL ANOMALY, and Sam’s recent Stargate Universe film NEW MISSION. Steven has also appeared in cameos in a surprising number of other Star Trek fan films that includes The Romulan War, Part I as well as STAR TREK: FIRST FRONTIER and YORKTOWN: A TIME TO HEAL.

With so many previous appearances, this latest release marked the first time that Sam gave his dad a leading role! And Steven did a FANtastic job. It was also the first time that Sam used digital CGI recreations of major Star Trek characters and the first time a Trek Short has ventured into the 23rd century, as Sam’s previous short offerings were all 24th and 25th century Star Trek. Sam also included a few other digital “tricks” which we’ll discuss shortly.

But first, let’s take a look at This Side of Morality

And now, appearing for the umpteenth time in an interview on Fan Film Factor, the one-and-only Samuel Cockings…

Samuel Cockings

JONATHAN – Okay, first off, whose idea was it for your father to star in your latest fan film: yours or his?

SAMUEL – The idea was totally my idea, and in fact, it was a Christmas present of sorts. Dad is a collector of many things, and most factor into the higher price ranges, so Christmas can often be a little challenging with thoughtful and meaningful gifts for him (I dislike just giving “chocolate,” etc.).

So I thought: “Let me write him a short film to star in…live out that 50+ year fantasy and use the opportunity to give my fans something different!” I had intended for it to be a little quicker to produce but, as you noticed, there are a lot of custom VFX that all added up time-wise but were necessary to tell the story.

JONATHAN – And your father ultimately liked his Christmas gift?

SAMUEL – Dad was thrilled when I revealed the present. He enjoyed filming it and then loved seeing the result!!

JONATHAN – So I guess it’s fair to assume that your father is a fan of Star Trek?

SAMUEL – Dad loves TOS! In fact, for his birthday in March, he just visited the TOS sets NEUTRAL ZONE STUDIOS in Kingsland, Georgia and will actually appear in an upcoming episode from THE AVALON UNIVERSE that JOSH IRWIN just filmed. Sadly, I didn’t have enough money to afford to join him on that trip.

Steven Cockings (right) with Joshua Irwin at Neutral Zone Studios in Kingsland, GA

I had never done TOS, and I wanted to see what a TOS fan film made by me would look like. All the American makers live and breathe in TOS, so I wanted to try my hand at it. I even changed the tone of the narrator to fit a more 1960’s approach than that of TNG onwards…all subtle, but it should come together to bring a more “faithful” feeling TOS experience versus the film feeling as if it’s a TNG film with a TOS look.

It’s also worth noting that I’ve somewhat “avoided” the TOS era because there’s lots of digital sets to build and, more importantly, lighting the TOS-era’s sets is by far the hardest. But I guess this past Christmas I was finally able to crack it, and I am rather pleased with how my TOS sets look!

JONATHAN – They did come out very nicely. So how long did this Trek Shorts fan film take to complete from beginning to end?

SAMUEL – Around 55 days between idea being had and film released. I spent my entire “Christmas break” on it and wanted to get it out before Picard season 3 started.

JONATHAN – You’ve tried out some new CGI “tricks” with this latest film. Would you like to discuss them?

SAMUEL – New tricks is right! I had lots of new stuff to try and show to make this work. The other half of dad’s present was a $100 “Roman City Pack” (50% off Christmas sale), so I got that to be able to give the film the scope it needed. It’s funny; lots of fan films are made for under the cost of that single Roman pack, BUT…you know we strive for great things at Trek Shorts, and that takes budget.

JONATHAN – What exactly is a “Roman City Pack”?

SAMUEL – It’s individual buildings modeled in 3D. I converted them for my software, tweaked, and set up each shot custom individually. It’s like a lego set. I bought a 50-pack of Roman buildings but made my own custom city vibes.

JONATHAN – Well, it was definitely worth the money, as those Roman backgrounds were very impressive and added a fair amount of realism to the film.

SAMUEL – Yeah, the Roman cityscapes were a big thing. Those flybys took about 19 hours to render…each!…normally spread into two or three nights of rendering.

The next big thing was the AI Faces. I used a trick similar’ish to the de-aging, since my Father was first de-aged…then digitally aged…then a beard…then clean shaven…then a full head of hair! Lots of fun on that! Those few seconds of AI goodness took around nine hours of work to do! If they had been any longer than short cameo moments, then they would have taken much longer. But I wanted to really show the audience a true vision of a cloned city—not just the same face but also variants…fun stuff and not easy to pull off.

JONATHAN – Do you have a favorite “variant” of your father?

SAMUEL – I think my dad with the green hood and full beard worked the best. I was shocked how well that worked given the parameters that I had to work with…really characterful!

JONATHAN – Let’s talk about the “cameos” by Kirk, Spock, and some other Enterprise crew members. Where did you get those CGI characters?

SAMUEL – From a game.

JONATHAN – And are you satisfied with the way they turned out?

SAMUEL – Well, they don’t look super-real, of course. I also can’t make their faces move in any way, but I was able to make their bodies move in limited repeatable “motion rigs.” In fact, that briefing room shot is exactly as long as their motion rigs were lasting.

JONATHAN – What’s a motion rig?

SAMUEL – It’s when you take a 3D model, and attach a skeleton structure to the inside so it can move. You can animate each element by hand OR—and this is what let me start adding in 3D people—you can utilize an online service which takes a 3D model, adds a “motion rig,” and lets you pick from several. You then have to re-convert the model to use again, but then they can walk, type in the air, hold a pistol, stand, and look—nothing truly custom or flexible but better than nothing and “relatively” quick compared to doing it manually.

However, those moves may be limited to only 240 frames, since they aren’t mirror/repeating nine or ten times, so a bit of creativity is needed, but it lets them work.

I’m certainly pushing what I can do with CGI people pretty far, but I definitely wanted to bring that to life. Each character takes about an hour and a half to set up, and each new pose is an additional like 40 minutes. I first tested this process for The Icarus Incident at the end, then made a very ambitious play for Duty Calls filling an entire mess hall. People said I had empty ships—which I do because I don’t tend to film extras (it’s just not practical)—so digital people was my way forward, and Dad’s film was me trying to push that idea just…incredibly far!

Overall, I’m impressed with the finished product considering the limitations I had. I did some fancy AI trickery to improve the Kirk character from what i would consider unacceptable to a new one that I’m pretty pleased with. And frankly, it’s nice to be able to include these familiar characters and mostly get away with it—added to the world and story, I think!

JONATHAN – Now, I don’t mean to look a gift-fan film in the mouth because you’ve now released NINE Trek Shorts. But none of them are among the five films that were crowd-funded with your $8K Indiegogo back in 2021. What’s the status on those?

SAMUEL – The first one the will come out is HOURS TO DOOMSDAY, as it’s totally shot and the VFX are probably 85% done. We got our last bit of footage from NICK COOK late last year, so I’d say about 90% of everything in that Indiegogo is now shot. Those are just the largest and most complex films, taking like 4-5 months each to finish. I’ve already spent weeks on each getting things ready over time like space shots, etc. But yeah, those five are the big ones.

The next three shorts to be released will be ones that were announced in the 2022 Indiegogo. This film with my dad just happened to get in under the radar, what with it being something I came up with in December, wrote it before Christmas (and did a script read with Dad after opening some presents), filmed it first week of December, and then released second week of February!

JONATHAN -So which three of the previously-announced shorts from the 2022 Indiegogo will be your next releases?

SAMUEL – Well, we’ve already released The Battle of Velsak 2 and Chaos at the Neutral Zone from those that were announced in 2022. The next short to come out is the one with MARCUS CHURCHILL as the lead, a Star Trek Generations documentary format fan film titled FALLEN HEROES. This covers Sam Harriman’s experience before, during, and after Generations and the loss of the Enterprise-D. Marcus’ performance is excellent…emotive and really grabs you. I actually have an assembly edit of that one, and it’s with the music composer right now…one of the final steps. It’s my longest fan film since Temporal Anoamly, so it will take longer to get all the music completed.

The next short after that on the slate is ALEXA BROWN’s second film, LEGACY OF THE ENTERPRISE-B. We’re forking out another $250 to get Alxea here on the 14th to finish the last three short bits, as we missed those three small elements previously. Aside from that, everything else is shot.

And the one after that is Emma’s “real” planned first film, LOST IN THE VOID. We basically used 2022 as a “Phase 1” for adding Alexa and Emma to establish their characters. Now in 2023, we can move into “Phase 2.” CONVERGENCE, our biggest film (which is about 90% shot), is the Avengers: Endgame of the bunch, but it’s still a phase or two away…ha!

JONATHAN – And that’s how Sam Cockings continues to be one of, if not THE, hardest working person in Star Trek fan films.

SAMUEL – Indeed!