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Where did Starship "Aztecing" come from !?

There's a lot of
Star Trek to watch.

Seriously, go look up "Star Trek'' on Paramount+ and see for yourself. 

Out of all that content, and perhaps more there is one scene that stands out in my mind as my favorite. Wait...yeah, it's my favorite. No question about it. I love its look, acting, pacing, musical score, everything about it.

It's the moment in the film that we're reintroduced to one of the most important characters in the entire franchise, the original U.S.S. ENTERPRISE NCC-1701.

(and to quote Mr. Scott one more time - "No bloody A, B, C, or D.")

And she's never more beautiful than in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

The concept was perfect. To account for the need for a much more detailed ship for the silver screen, the Enterprise from Star Trek: The Original Series had just spent 18 months in drydock being redesigned and refit to bring her back to being THE ship of the line she had always been. 

The Enterprise's introductory scene had to tell an entire story in the 7 minutes of the movie allotted to it. And it does that in style. 

Admiral Kirk is ferried via TravelPod to the ship by Chief Engineer Scott, and along the way falls head over heels in love again with HIS ship (and so do we).

The Enterprise in The Motion Picture is an Art Deco masterpiece based on Matt Jefferies’s original design for the ship as seen in The Original Series with some changes added from the ship designed for Star Trek: Phase II (the unmade 1977 series) by Jefferies and designer Mike Minor. 

But the finished ship in the film owes the majority of its finished look to production art director Richard Taylor, designer Andrew Probert, and Doug Trumbull who had begun to wonder what a ship like that might look like in deep space. 

“The shell of the model existed and it was just a big fiberglass model, and it didn't have much detail to it,” 

said Trumbull.

"And whoever was designing the process of making the visual effects hadn't really thought about what I was thinking about, which was how do you see the Enterprise when it's in deep space, when it's not near the sun or a star or anything?  

 What's the source of light? Where's the key light? Where's the fill light? How are you going to make this thing beautiful? 

And my thought about it was how to make it light itself up, kind of like the Titanic at night. And make it light itself up by having lights onboard the nacelles, shining on the fuselage, and from the fuselage shining upon the nacelles, and make it look like it's self-illuminated. 

So I didn't have to justify a key light because there wouldn't be one. And no one had ever thought of that."

An enormous team was eventually responsible for bringing the Enterprise into its final physical form, but it was Richard Taylor who thought of cladding the starship in its distinctive opalescent skin.  

"One of the things we did with all of the models was to give their surfaces details and interesting designs. A smooth object has no scale so it’s important in model work to find ways of creating scale. Sometimes it’s very subtle but it’s one of the most important elements in model photography. I had this idea of giving the surface of the Enterprise a patterned, plated look and we made masks for the surface to create that surface effect. We did experiments with Crescent Metal Powders and other iridescent and pearlescent paints. So, in the end, we made pearlescent body panels that varied from each other by minute differences in color and reflectivity. "

“There were multiple masks that were used to give the surface the complex texture you see on the screen. The painting was phenomenal." Taylor later elaborated that, "As we worked up the Enterprise it became apparent to me that we needed a special paint technique to give the surface of the ship scale. Literally, the different spectral qualities of paint and the thickness of one coat of paint could make the surface detail of the Enterprise believable. I had done some tests with different paints as a painter and knew of the Crescent Metal Powder paints and their pearlescent pigments. Jim Dow and I looked into them as he had used them as well on his 1935 Ford, did a little test, and decided some combination of those pigments would work. Designing the pattern and doing the actual painting, now that was going to be one hell of a job for someone to tackle."

The intricate patterning which was eventually called the "Aztec pattern" was applied to the model by Zuzana Swansea and Paul Olsen. 

Working for nearly eight months Olsen, with some help from Swansea, applied a high-gloss pearlescent lacquer coating which gave the Enterprise a chameleon-like appearance in the movie, which changed its color appearance depending on the type and direction of the lighting rig used. 

The Enterprise's Aztec pattern was only visible if the light hit the model at an oblique angle.  Olsen later remembered; 

"I used four pearl colors that were transparent: a blue, a gold, a red, and a green. They all flip-flopped to their complements when the viewing angle changed. Beautiful. 

By varying the amount of color, and the mixture of several colors on top of each other, I obtained myriad colors and depth of color."

While acknowledging Taylor, Olsen, and Swansea for the "Aztec-pattern" design, Andrew Probert is also credited for its creation saying, 

"Richard asked me to come up with an overall scheme of surface paneling to give the ship another level of detail. I agreed that it would give the Enterprise more credibility as a manufactured spacecraft, even though panel lines wouldn't be visible at the scale distance needed to encompass the entire ship in a shot.

Richard thought a subtle differencing of the paint scheme would accentuate those panels and that worked really well. For the saucer, he came up with "Aztec Pattern" panels providing a series of interlocking edges in order to reinforce the ship's surface tensile strength.

So it is unsurprising that the refit was one of the key inspirations in the redesign of Star Trek: Discovery's U.S.S. ENTERPRISE in 2017. 

John Eaves’ reinterpretation of the "original'' Enterprise took elements from three ships ("The Cage," "Original Series," and "Motion Picture") and melded them into a fresh take on the ship for the 21st century. 

From the Motion Picture ship, the Star Trek: Discovery art department took the swept-back nacelle struts, and the "Aztec Pattern" hull detailing seen on almost all Starfleet ships since 1979 (2271?). 

In a way, it reminds me of a child born of Matt Jeffries and Andrew Probert's Enterprises.

We've spent a considerable amount of time training and mastering these fantastic new methods to replicate Captain Christopher Pike's beautiful U.S.S. Enterprise for our own Studio Scale Miniature program

From new printing techniques, new miniature construction & lighting rigs, to painting the intricate Aztec Pattern on the starship's hull. 

And we tested those skills by working on The Motion Picture refit of the ship.  If you want to know how to do something right, you gotta start at the beginning.  The Aztec hull patterning seen on nearly every Starfleet ship began with Admiral Kirk’s refit Enterprise. 

Here again, Star Trek’s most beautiful ship has things to teach us about the future.  

We'll have more on our latest iteration of Star Trek: Discovery's U.S.S. ENTERPRISE and other studio-scale miniatures in the future, but until then remember...  "The Human Adventure Is Just Beginning..." 



John Cooley

John is a writer based in Las Vegas, and a product developer for ANOVOS

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