Visual Journeys Into The Final Frontier

  When it comes to designing small details on Space Ships and control panels. The Emmy award winning illustrator Rick Sternbach is one of many people who Paramount have...



When it comes to designing small details on Space Ships and control panels. The Emmy award winning illustrator Rick Sternbach is one of many people who Paramount have called on to add that little extra to the visual side of Star Trek.

Sternbach’s career in creating visuals for Star Trek can be traced as far back as 1978 when he worked as a visual illustrator on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Sternbach has served Star Trek in 3 of the 4 spin off shows, and has worked on TNG, DS9 and also served as senior illustrator on Star Trek: Voyager. Sci Fi Pulse was lucky enough to catch up with Rick and talk about his many contributions to Star Trek over the years.


SciFiPulse: When you set to work creating the visual media for a TV series or a movie, are you usually given a brief by the director or producer? Could you give us an example of the type of thing you are given to work with when you’re designing props and vehicles for a Star Trek production whether it is a movie or a television series?
Rick Sternbach: We normally started out reading over a script or story synopsis in order to get a sense of the hardware or graphics that might be required. On a few rare occasions, we had a pre-pre-production meeting to get an early handle on anything that might have taken a longer time than normal to design or fabricate. In my area, the long lead times usually meant large, complicated ship designs or strange alien gadgets bigger than a phone booth.


SciFiPulse: Your very first experience working on Star Trek was the first movie outing of Kirk and crew. Did you contribute much to the interior designs of the refitted Enterprise? Was there ever any time while you worked on that movie where the effects people came into conflict with the design people? One of the famous instances of that movie is the fact that another effects company was called in at the very last minute to re-shoot certain things. Did this affect your work at all during the making of that movie?


Rick Sternbach: My work on ST:TMP was primarily in the graphics and small props area, with occasional set sketches and storyboard doodles. I must have inked about a third of the control panel art boards and other bits like med lab screens, rec room and office complex signage, that sort of thing. I helped pick three shades of tan and brown for the bridge wall colour scheme, drew up the turbolift diagrams, all sorts of support art for the look of the film. I didn’t do a lot for the actual sets; that was pretty much handled by the Harold Michaelson and his band of set designers, the actual draftsmen. The only differences of opinion I saw regarding the sets and the effects came when the team from Robert Abel’s effects shop made the case for their own look to the sets, which wasn’t exactly protocol. Like any big production with a lot of unknowns, we were all finding our way, working up solutions for various design and operational problems, trying to stay on time and budget. My vague recollection is that Abel’s shop was replaced by Doug Trumbull’s shop when the effects work was falling behind. That reshuffling had little or no effect on what I was doing in the art department.


SciFiPulse: What would you say are your best memories in relation to working on Star Trek? And if there was anything that you could change from a visual point of view what would it be and why.


Rick Sternbach: I’d have to say that the thing I was most excited about was helping to reshape Trek through the seven seasons of TNG. My experience on TMP was maybe only six or seven months, but TNG gave us a much longer time to develop and evolve new gear, new ships, and interesting technology concepts to work along with the story drama.


SciFiPulse: Rick we have already talked about this very briefly in E-Mail. So I’m wondering if we could approach this from a hypothetical point of view. Not many people will know that you talked for a while with Tom Desanto about his vision of Battlestar Galactica, and although you said yourself that nothing ever came of this. I’m curious as many others will be as to what sort of ideas you may have had in regards to updating the look of the 1978 series. One thing I have always thought of visually is an additional landing bay on the Battlestar Galactica itself.


Rick Sternbach: I really can’t say I had any notions of what any new Galactica hardware could look like. Since I wasn’t certain about the direction DeSanto really wanted to take things after one short meeting, I didn’t expend much mental energy on the designs. Had I been hired on, I would then have gotten input and begun sketching. I’m sure some artists would have taken the basic shape of the existing miniatures and worked up new textures and colours, which is probably a good starting point, but without some definite directive or even a general order to come up with whatever I thought was interesting, I didn’t even begin to think about it. In the time since that one short meeting, have I thought about the designs? Not really, but this is not to say I’d have a hard time kicking into a sketching frame of mind if the call ever came. Space hardware design is not terribly difficult for me, though I do appreciate a good challenge to satisfy a set of requirements for looking cool and looking at least semi-plausible, and giving a spaceship all the proper parts.


SciFiPulse: One of the things that I’ve found to be of interest on your website, is the work you are doing with regards to ‘The Mars Machine Project’ would you mind sharing a little information on this and how far along you and your team have gotten with it.


Rick Sternbach: The Mars Machine is an educational mock-up of a speculative NASA-type of landing craft for a human mission to Mars. It will become a simulator of sorts for both kids and adults to get a sense of what the cockpit module of a Mars spacecraft might be like. Right now the project is on hold for various logistical and spare-time reasons, but with any luck we’ll be back to work later this year.


SciFiPulse: Back onto Star Trek. You have often said that you feel the Enterprise NX-01 looks a little to modern for the series. Again this is hypothetical. How would you set about designing a spacecraft, which predates Kirks Enterprise? Would you be more inclined to use Cochran’s Phoenix as a starting point or would you be daring and completely start fresh.


Rick Sternbach: I’ve done some shape doodles of the possible evolution from the Phoenix up to the TOS Enterprise, and have a few candidate shapes for an early Enterprise, but that’s about as far as I’ve taken it as a simple thought exercise. The Phoenix is a perfectly fine design to start with, and sets the tone for later vehicles; i.e., it has an engineering hull of sorts, two nacelles, and a detachable re-entry vehicle. The only thing I gave much thought to was how to change from a ballistic re-entry body to a saucer for the forward part. My thought there is to flatten the conical hull into a lifting body sort of shape, and then enlarge it, make it a bit rounder with each new vehicle. For the time period preceding the Earth-Romulan war, I think the saucer section would still have been a bit more triangular, and attached to a larger engineering hull.

SciFiPulse: You have worked as a scenic artist and 3D artist on all incarnations of the TV Trek with the exception of Enterprise and the original series. Which one out of the three TV shows has been the most positive experience for you in regards to creativity and breaking new ground?

Rick Sternbach: As I said, it would have to be TNG, though Voyager as a show comes in a very close second because of the chance to design the U.S.S. Voyager itself. I thought TNG was about as close as we’ve ever gotten to mainstream television drama, *with* a good mix of humor and swashbuckling and strange super-technology and diplomacy and weird aliens. Helping to develop the science and technology for that show was, for me, a terrific reflection on what new things were being discovered and invented and applied in real life. The personal computer age was only a few years old back in 1986, when TNG was first being developed, and we were experiencing it all for the first time. The space shuttle was only five years old. There was the Russian Mir, but no ISS. Computer-generated visual effects were still in their infancy. Teeny cell phones were still some years away. But we had amazing computer devices and biotechnology on TNG, extrapolated from what we were seeing, aside from the staple diet of familiar science fiction gadgets.


SciFiPulse: In Star Trek terms you worked on the Motion Picture and recently worked on Nemesis. Obviously both are very different movies in terms of their look and their technology. How much freedom did you have creatively on both these movies and what was your favourite aspect from the design point of view about working on them. Is there anything in particular that you would want to point out to a fan that was watching both these movies? Something that you are particularly proud of.


Rick Sternbach: As far as Nemesis goes, I was quite happy with the way the large bird-of-prey sculpture turned out, along with the floor graphic for the Romulan Senate. I’m also satisfied with many of the other aspects of the graphic design, right down to little sticky labels that almost no one will be able to read, even on the DVD. It’s not that we strove for any kind of super-detailing, specifically with the labels, it’s just that we know how to do this kind of work and how to operate within the design style, and the details emerge and get applied where they’ll look best. The freedom to design specific elements has been rather generous on Star Trek, with the expected notes for changes, which have actually been pretty minor in nature. I get worried when the producers *don’t* ask for any changes. On ST:TMP, the graphics and set elements work was different in terms of the methods we used, compared to TNG or the later productions, but the idea was the same: convey a sense of future equipment and procedures through interesting shapes and colours.


SciFiPulse: With the DS9 DVD’s on the way, have you been asked to do any commentary for them, and are there any memories about working on DS9 that you would like to share now by way of a little preview for the fans out there.


Rick Sternbach: I spent a few hours being taped for some design commentary, which should appear in a few of the season sets. Most of the comments concerned the design of the space station, auxiliary spacecraft, and props.

SciFiPulse: As you know many fans would like to see a Mini series of DS9. I for one would be curious to know if it would be possible to perhaps have a completely animated Trek series made again using a mixture of characters from the more recent shows, and heavy use of CGI. Theoretically how much further do you think you could go with an animated show to push the narrative of a story? Something that you would perhaps not be able to do as easily if we were talking about a feature length series.

Rick Sternbach: Anything’s possible, though a revival of a live-action DS9 could require a huge expense in recreating the sets, actor’s salaries, and the like. It’s all contingent upon what Viacom would want to do with the franchise. I have no idea what else they might attempt beyond the current ENTERPRISE series. Anything new done in the Star Trek universe is simply a matter of time and money and whether the company wants to take the risk.


SciFiPulse: As you know, there are a lot of designers out there, who work with CGI and 3D Software. What advice would you give to these people who are trying to break into the business, and what pitfalls can they expect to run into while trying to make a name for themselves.


Rick Sternbach: I can’t really advise CGI designers specifically how to get into TV and film beyond telling them to know their craft, know how to make contacts, and show off their talents. With any luck the jobs will arise. It’s a very competitive field that is advancing almost daily, and a lot of the traditional drawn and painted elements have been done on the computer for some years now, so it would behoove many artists out there to add to their 2-D and 3-D CGI skills. It works both ways, though; folks who are proficient in CGI must also understand what makes good art. You can be a great technician but have lousy composition and colour sense.


SciFiPulse: As many will know Enterprise is not doing so good ratings wise of late, and Nemesis did not really perform as well as expected in the Box office. A few actors from other shows such as Voyager and DS9 feel that the decline in interest is due to the market place being over saturated. What would you say is a contributing factor in the decline of interest? Do you think that the Powers that be should give Star Trek a long Hiatus or do you think that the franchise needs some new creative blood behind it in order to pick up the straddlers?


Rick Sternbach: Well, the fans have spoken, so there’s not a lot more I can add.


SciFiPulse: My final question, are there any new Television or movie projects that you are currently working on?


Rick Sternbach: I’m currently working on a number of freelance aerospace and space science projects involving illustration and model work. More news will eventually be posted on my website.

To keep yourself updated on Rick’s Current projects click here to access his website.

By Ian M. Cullen

Ian Cullen is the founder of and has been a fan of science fiction and fantasy from birth. In the past few years he has written for 'Star Trek' Magazine as well as interviewed numerous comics writers, television producers and actors for the SFP-NOW podcast at: When he is not writing for Ian enjoys playing his guitar, studying music, watching movies and reading his comics. Ian is both the founder and owner of You can contact ian at:
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