Tuesday, January 19, 2010

METAMORPHOSIS - May 1967 (Star Trek)

This posting can also be viewed

and extended) on the

website RALPH'S TREK at


Thus began my second voyage on the Enterprise, my favorite voyage of the seven STAR TREKs I directed. It was written by the incomparable Gene Coon and was spooky and eerie and had a potent message. I was really anxious to make this voyage.

When you look at the lineup of my voyages, it seems as if I just went from one trek to another. Actually there was a three month lapse between THIS SIDE OF PARADISE and METAMORPHOSIS. Part of that time was television’s annual spring hiatus. I also managed to squeeze in the impossible mission of THE TRAIN. After that jarring trip I was ready for the sanity of outer space.

METAMORPHOSIS had no location work. The planet we would be visiting would be created on the studio soundstage. This actually was the usual standard operating procedure for the show. Of my seven ventures, only two left the studio for location filming, THIS SIDE OF PARADISE (my first) and upcoming BREAD AND CIRCUSES. But the planet created for this production, I think, was one of the finest of the whole series. And it was the director of photography, Jerry Finnerman, who was most responsible for its unique look. A cyclorama for the sky was the backing for the set pieces that would be placed in front of it. It was Jerry who decided that the sky would be purple. It was also Jerry who introduced me to the fish eye lens, the wide angle 9mm. The soundstage we would be shooting on was not very large; it was one of the smaller soundstages I had ever worked on. In fact neither of the two stages for STAR TREK (one for the Enterprise and one for the swing sets) was large.

For our opening sequence on this foreign planet, the use of the 9mm lens made the shuttlecraft on the ground seem a great distance away. But use of this lens posed a problem; we were shooting off the set. In fact we were seeing the ceiling of the soundstage. So Jerry brought in large rocks in the foreground to mask the overshoot. When Cochrane enters the foreground and then runs toward the group at the craft, we had to cut away to other angles of his approach. If we had stayed on the fish eye lens, it would appear that he had on seven league boots and was covering the football field distance in about five paces.

There was another problem connected with this set. The sky cyclorama was not a complete circle; it was 180 degrees max. So any reverse angle shots had to be done against the same cyclorama. That meant we shot everything toward the shuttlecraft before we created other backgrounds with rocks and trees against the same cyclorama for those reverse angles.

In the clips that you will be viewing, the sky is not always the deep purple I have described. These clips are from an old off the air transcription that time has not been kind to. There are a few shots where the purple has survived, so use your imagination. I do think even faded, Jerry Finnerman’s photography is exemplary.

Once all of the scenes involving the shuttlecraft were filmed, that set was struck. Cochrane’s home, exterior and interior, was erected and the grounds surrounding the house were relandscaped. Again all of the shots toward the house were done first; then the reverse angles were filmed as had been the case with the scenes involving the shuttlecraft.

I was and still am very impressed with Gene Coon’s script. Two years prior to this he was producing and writing THE WILD WILD WEST. I had directed two shows for Gene on that series, and at that time he told me that he didn’t have time to write all of the shows, but that show was so special as was STAR TREK that he needed to write them. So what he did was have writers come in with their ideas which he would buy, and he would have them write their script. That gave him a first draft which he would then rewrite. I don’t think that he took writing credit for this work. METAMORPHOSIS was not a rewrite, it was an original Gene Coon scriipt as was THE DEVIL IN THE DARK. Compare the wild comic lunacy of THE WILD WILD WEST with the subdued dramatic intensity of the following scenes -- I guess what I’m trying to say is the man was talented!

Jerry Finnerman also contributed another effect for the set. He thought our sky should have clouds, so when we were ready to film, the doors to the soundstage were closed, the fans were turned off, every person was instructed to stand perfectly still, there could be NO movement. The special effects people then came in with their bee smokers and wafted smoke up above the trees. Presto -- we had clouds. It’s a beautiful effect that added to the reality.

The Companion was going to be a matte added in post production to what I shot. The producers asked me to plan my shots to avoid the necessity of a traveling matte, which would be an added expense. For you civilians let me explain. If I shot a very wide shot that would have Cochrane standing at one end of the frame, the Companion would be added to the other end of the frame; and if then the Companion moved across the screen to envelop Cochrane, that would be a traveling matte. Instead I shot a full figure wide shot of Cochrane, panned the camera left across the set and stopped, held frame long enough for the matte to be superimposed in the center of the frame, then panned back to the original shot of Cochrane. The Companion, centered in the frame, now enveloped Cochrane.

But then came a sequence where there was no way to avoid the traveling matte.

I was not present in post production when an actress recorded the speeches of the Companion. But I was there to view the film after her speeches had been integrated into the assembled footage. And nobody disagreed with me when I declared the performance, which had been uttered in a robotic monotone, was unacceptable. Another actress was hired, and this time I was present to direct the performance. And the approach this time was to play the MEANING of the scene.

At the viewing of the dailies the day after we filmed the previous scene, Gene Coon spoke, “And that’s why we pay him the big money.”

When in the arts you copy someone, that’s plagiarism. Unless you copy a large amount, then it’s a tribute. What is it if you steal from yourself? Because that’s what I did for the final sequence in this episode. The genesis for the opening shot was an episode of THE FBI (THE ESCAPE) that I had filmed the previous year. In that lakeside scene, the girl, having made love to her fugitive lover, looks at him through a pink chiffon scarf. Maybe life from now would be rosier for her. I needed something to get into this scene between Cochrane and Nancy. I decided I would have this cloud, recently turned into a human, look and marvel at the scarf that Nancy had in her possession. I admit, not knowing at that time what the Companion was going to look like, that I had no further motivation in my choice of this action. That the vision of him through the scarf was as she was used to seeing him when she was a cloud at that point had no significance for me. As it turned out it was an added unforeseen bonus. You can read about THE FBI episode in my archives to the right of this column.

One day walking back to the office after a screening of the completed film, Gene Coon said to me he was just amazed; how did I know to have the scarf and the Companion look alike. And I had to admit it was just one of those freak wonderful accidents that can happen. Now from the vantage point of forty-three years later, I can wonder when did the lab start working on the effect for the Companion. We didn’t shoot the Cochrane-Nancy scene until the final day; in fact I think it was the last scene to be filmed. Did the lab start work on the Companion before or after that sequence was in the can? Did they see that scene before or after? We’ll probably never know. But who cares! It worked!

There was another question I will never know the answer to. Gene Coon told me one of the advantages of being on STAR TREK was that he was able to deal with issues that he couldn’t do on any other series. For instance he had written an episode that emananted from his own anti-Vietnam War feelings. The race issue was a major issue of the sixties. I never asked Gene, but I have since wondered if the cloud-man love story in METAMORPHOSIS was his way of dealing with that issue. I’ll never know.
There was something else I didn't know then but was to learn about when I returned for my next flight. Desilu Studios had been sold to Paramount Pictures, a new regime was about to take over and life in outer space was going to take a sharp turn for the worse.

You can hear my telephone interview on METAMORPHOSIS on the StarTrekHistory website at: http://www.startrekhistory.com/interviews.html

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