Star Trek 50 Part IX — Shooting First Contact

The ninth entry in our 12-part retrospective series documenting 50 years of production and post on the Star Trek franchise.

Battling the Borg

Director Jonathan Frakes, cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti, ASC and the crew of the Starship Enterprise fight for humanity’s future in Star Trek: First Contact.

It’s a mid-June afternoon inside Paramount’s cavernous Stage 14, and a showdown is about to ensue in the Engineering Room of the recently raided U.S.S. Enterprise-E. The cybernetic Borg have secured this section of the newly commissioned starship and are slowly assimilating it to suit their way of life. An acrid haze of artificial smoke fills the air; unruly ganglia of corrugated metallic tubing hang listlessly from the ceiling; in place of the instrument panels’ familiar Federation markings beam bright, lime-green Borg insignia. Stationed ominously along the circular rear wall are two levels’ worth of dormant Borg drones awaiting new instructions as they suck energy out of the Enterprise’s engines.

Directly in front of the pulsating matter/anti-matter intermix cylinder lies Commander Data (Brent Spiner), outstretched and anchored face-down to a rotating hydraulic table. The platform emits a low purring hum, and executes a reverse 180-degree turn as the android stares upwards and struggles in vain with his restraints. Resigned to his fate, Data awaits his tormentor, the svelte Borg Queen (played by Barfly’s Alice Krige). Her mechanized majesty will later tempt the artificial officer with the ultimate choice: betrayal of his fellow crewmembers in exchange for fulfilling his all-pervasive wish to become human.

Due to the misty atmosphere and the strategically spaced spotlights, the set is somewhat humid. Yet Spiner, a good-natured sort, doesn’t seem to mind the fact that he is covered in his signature golden makeup and is strapped to the table by two thick belts across his torso and the platform’s upper rib of faux metal. Between takes, he initiates chipper conversation with the crew, and even offers up a hilarious, dead-on impersonation of Marlon Brando.

The Borg Queen (Alice Krige) romances Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart).

Once the rostrum is repositioned and the set cleared, the levity subsides and a familiar voice booms, “Brento, action!” As the take commences, Spiner’s Star Trek: The Next Generation co-star Jonathan Frakes (a.k.a. Commander William T. Riker) sits off to the side of the cylindrical chamber, staring intently at the images playing out on a monochrome monitor. Oddly, the Enterprise’s first officer is oblivious to the menacing pair of Borg minions hovering over his head. But then again, Frakes’ current concerns are more pressing, since he’s embodying his on-screen title of “Number One” both behind and before the camera as the director of First Contact.

The respective crews of the Enterprise have faced some rather nefarious foes, but none as hell-bent upon interstellar conquest as the Borg. First introduced in the Next Generation episode “Q Who,” this xenophobic race is the imposing nemesis in a film that marks the 30th anniversary of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s original series, which was brought to the small screen with the help of ASC members Gerald Perry Finnerman, A.C. Francis, Howard Anderson and Linwood Dunn throughout its three-season run.

As the eighth Trek feature film (and the first to exclusively feature the Next Generation cast) First Contact is also the most expensive; its $47 million price tag bests even the budget of the first film in the series, Star Trek – The Motion Picture (see AC Feb. ’80).

Revolving around the staple Trek plot device of time travel, First Contact opens with the Borg engaged in its ongoing campaign against Starfleet. Having reached a standoff, the Borg venture back to early 21st-century Earth to prevent scientist Zefram Cochrane (a character from the original Trek series’ episode “Metamorphosis,” played in the film by Babe’s James Cromwell) from developing warp-drive technology. To do so, the Borg must thwart Cochrane’s launch of his experimental ship, the Phoenix, as this landmark flight caught the attention of a Vulcan scout ship which, in turn, followed the craft to Earth. This close encounter pulled humanity out of its painful post-World War III reconstruction period, and prompted the formation of the United Federation of Planets.

To safeguard the future, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) shirks direct orders from Starfleet Command and takes the streamlined, Sovereign-class U.S.S. Enterprise-E into the past to ensure that Earth’s timeline follows its correct course. (As die-hard fans will surmise, this ship is a replacement for the D-series Enterprise which met her demise in the previous film, Generations.)

Angling in on actor Michael Dorn, as Commander Worf — his ship the Defiant under attack by the Borg.

In assuming the directing chair, Frakes follows in the footsteps of veteran Trek stars Leonard Nimoy (The Search for Spock, covered in AC Aug./Sept. ’84; The Voyage Home, AC Dec. ’86) and William Shatner (The Final Frontier, AC July ’89). Though this is Frakes’ first feature, the actor is by no means a neophyte, having helmed numerous episodes of The Next Generation and its spin-off series Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Says the director, “It seemed as a safe a place as any to get my [directorial] feet wet, having worked with all of the actors before and being familiar with the genre and the ship – the whole Star Trek gestalt, as it were.”

The cinematic mission also gave Frakes the opportunity to stretch his directing chops; an episode of the series has seven days of preparation and a seven-day shooting schedule, whereas on First Contact, Frakes had a 10-week preparation period and 12 weeks’ worth of filming (from April to July). The director also got to expand his visual canvas from that of the 1.33:1 TV screen to the 2.35:1 anamorphic format.

Actor-director Jonathan Frakes and Dorn confer on the Defiant set.

In keeping with his philosophy to “always steal from the best,” Frakes’ directorial aesthetic for First Contact drew from the work of such action-genre filmmakers as Ridley Scott, John McTiernan, Phillip Noyce and James Cameron. To visualize this synthesis, he brought aboard director of photography Matthew F. Leonetti, ASC out of admiration for his work on Poltergeist, Another 48 HRS and Strange Days (AC Nov. ’95). Frakes soon found that the cinematographer’s personality meshed well with his own, remarking, “I loved his sense of style, his use of color, and the way he moved the camera. But most of all, after having met him I could tell that he was the kind of director of photography I needed on my first feature because of his experience, and his knowing demeanor. We’re a great balance — I’m hyper and he’s calm.”

A working cinematographer for nearly 25 years, Leonetti’s first contact with the film industry occurred as a youth while he was working at his father Frank’s production equipment rental house. In the mid-Sixties, the Los Angeles native became a camera assistant, and then proceeded to shoot numerous commercials, MOWs and pilots throughout the Seventies. Leonetti earned his first feature credit as director of photography in 1977 on Jonathan Kaplan’s comedy Mr. Billion; his other major feature credits include Breaking Away, Eyewitness, Jagged Edge, Weird Science, Extreme Prejudice, Red Heat, Johnny Handsome, Dead Again, Angels in the Outfield, A Low Down Dirty Shame and Fled.

Filming in Vistavision on the Enterprise deflector dish set.

Leonetti confesses to having been unfamiliar with the Star Trek mythos when approached by Frakes for First Contact. As preparation, he studied the features The Voyage Home (shot by Don Peterman, ASC), The Final Frontier (Andrew Laszlo, ASC), The Undiscovered Country (Hiro Narita, ASC) and the most recent Trek adventures, Generations (John Alonzo, ASC). The cameraman also observed a few days’ worth of filming on Voyager and Deep Space Nine.

A suited Stewart prepares for a "weightless" wire-rig shot.

For First Contact, Leonetti utilized Kodak’s 5298 stock and Panavision cameras and C-series anamorphic lenses — the lightness of which proved beneficial, as Steadicam was used extensively throughout the shoot. His primary focal lengths ran from 50 to 70mm, though exceptions included the distorted point of view from a Borg’s eyepiece, spied through a 14mm spherical lens. “For the hand-to-hand combat scenes [between the Borg and Enterprise crewmembers] we used wide lenses to get in tight,” he describes. “That gets you right in there as part of the action as opposed to being a distant viewer watching it. A lot of these fights were also shot handheld, so when the actors moved we could move with them as opposed to [being stuck] with a tripod.”

A wider view of the deflector dish set — under attack by the Borg.

However, Leonetti has a preference for longer lenses and relied on them whenever feasible, explaining, “We wanted that long-lens effect in the hallways of the ship, to stack everything up and make it seem more claustrophobic. But you can’t get too far back because we didn’t want to make the ship look non-dimensional. If you use long lenses, all you’ve got is a wall behind you.”

Leonetti set a specific illumination scheme for the Enterprise-E’s standard operations ambience, Red Alert situations and predicaments requiring emergency power. “The Enterprise is being invaded by a foreign entity,” offers the cameraman, “so it required more dramatic-looking lighting and framing. I was in favor of giving it a more ‘real’ look, and the story lent itself to a dramatic feel and more smoke as the ship was being taken over by the Borg. Anything in the process of being destroyed, naturally, has a moodier look than a place where everybody’s going about their normal business.”

During scenes depicting normal starship procedures, Leonetti chose to cast crosslighting upon the Starfleet principals. Thus, the traditional muslin ceiling of the Enterprise bridge set was removed, and lighting grids were situated around the sides. The fixtures were then aimed toward the actors’ faces at a 90-degree angle.

During battle sequences, scarlet lights indicate that the Enterprise is on Red Alert. The bridge set itself is lined with window paneling backed by red lights which blink intermittently. Leonetti, however, supplemented by adding “interactive” light. From off stage, red-gelled juniors and 750-watt sources cast flashing rims on parts of the bridge set and the heads of the Enterprise crew.

When an enemy power surge leaves the Enterprise lifeless, the lighting originates only from instrument display panels and the Red Alert signals. Leonetti reduced his fill light so that when the officers venture to different sections of the bridge and other interiors, they would often pass through darker spots supposedly out of the limited range of these sources. Describes the cinematographer, “When the ship’s lighting system breaks down, we added the shafts of emergency lights on the bridge, in the corridors, and in the engine room. They were different colors – red, white or sometimes green – arbitrarily done with a sense of ‘organized disorganization.’ We also used tiny 30- and 50-watt Par lights designed just to throw shafts. If you tried to light something with them you’d only get a surface pool about one foot in diameter.”

Once the Borg breach the Enterprise’s defenses and embark upon their assimilation process, Leonetti had to reconfigure the lighting inside the starship to reflect the designs of its new masters. He explains, “When the ship gets Borgified, everything is changed into more of a squared-off, robotic look with sharp edges but rounded images, so we lit the corridor walls from underneath to give them some serious shape. The corridors were only six and a half to seven feet high and their roofs were attached: if you got the camera low at all, you’d see the ceiling, so every fixture had to be hidden. We used a lot of fluorescents, gimmick lights [50-, 100- and 150-watt globes backed with tinfoil], and box lights we built with foamcore. It was impossible to use regular lighting because you’d see the fixtures, especially in anamorphic, where you see 30 percent more from left to right than you would in 1.85.”

The opening sequence of First Contact entails a nightmare in which Picard recalls the traumatic Borg assimilation he experienced in the two-part Next Generation episode “The Best of Both Worlds.” One shot starts inside the iris of Picard’s eyeball, and, with an extended pullback, reveals the captain aboard a labyrinthine, cube-shaped Borg ship. The shot continues to pull back and finally dissolves into the exterior of the immense craft as it cruises through deep space. This particularly tricky setup was filmed as three separate elements later melded together with digital effects. Notes Leonetti of the initial close-up on Picard’s face, “We started real tight on his eye and pulled back about 25 feet, so we had to pull the key light up to 1,000 footcandles so that we could get enough depth to keep his eye sharp. We used a 50mm lens because its minimum focus is about two feet and we could get an eyebrow-to-nose size that would make it easier for the effects team to dissolve from an extremely tight shot of his eyeball to our pullback.”


In order to achieve a fluid match with the CG painting of Picard’s iris (executed by Syd Dutton’s Illusion Arts), the reverse dolly move had to be as smooth as possible. The surface of the stage, however, proved much too uneven. To remedy this, the 135-foot-long dolly track had to be raised some six to eight inches above the stage floor. The low platform was fashioned out of 80 eight-foot-long 4 x 4s, layered with 140 pieces of double-thick birch plywood (chosen for its smooth veneer). The cutaway interior set of the Borg ship rested some 12 feet above ground level.

Continues Leonetti, “We then put Patrick inside the set, which was about 90 to 100 feet wide and 25 feet high. After making the shot as tightly framed as we could possibly get it, with a remote crane and camera on a hybrid dolly, we pulled back 125 feet to reveal our set, the rest of which would be created digitally.”

Angling in on Stewart while filming the finalé.

In keeping with the practice of the four prior Trek features, a few of First Contact’s futuristic vistas were simulated on modern locations. The shooting schedule commenced with four days of filming in Green Valley, Arizona, at the Titan Missile Museum; a disarmed Titan II doubled as Cochrane’s Phoenix rocket. The missile’s silo had a diameter of 25 feet, was lined with channel aluminum behind 15 foot thick concrete walls, and ran 146 feet deep; the missile itself was 130 feet in height. Jutting out from the silo’s inner walls were trapezoidal-shaped scaffolding platforms on hinges (with an area of approximately 21 feet) that could be lowered or raised to allow for free passage of the missile if fired. Each platform was located eight feet away from the missile. There were 10 levels’ worth of scaffolding, with each floor some 12 feet apart from the next.

A remote head captures Stewart and Krige in action while shooting the finalé.

Rigging the cramped confines of what Leonetti describes as “a cigar inside of a cylinder” proved to be one of the most difficult tasks the cinematographer has ever overseen. Leonetti, his long-time gaffer Pat Blymer, and Frakes blocked out the camera moves before devising a blueprint for the silo’s lighting. Its unyielding design required the grips and gaffers to rig it while shimmying down the shaft, either on bosun’s chairs or climbing cords. Notes grip Lloyd Barcroft, “We had to scale these 150-foot walls and then hang the lights. There were safety officers from the police department there, and we put on belts with tag lines attached to the top of the silo. Personally, I don’t like having a tag on me because if they pull the wrong way, they’ll pull you right off the wall. It’s just like rock climbing: some guys like to free-grip and some don’t.”

Two particular shots of the silo — one from the missile’s nose downward, and the other from its engines upward — necessitated that all of the lighting fixtures be inconspicuous. This was also a consideration for a shot of Data plunging down the length of the shaft to rescue a plummeting technician from an abrupt encounter with the silo’s floor; Leonetti had to shoot two empty plates of the shaft (along Data’s downward trajectory) that were later composited in post with an image of actor Spiner performing the drop in front of a bluescreen. With these shots in mind, there was no option but to light the silo with small units: inkies, babies, tweenies, additional gimmick lights, reflector floods on sockets, 100-watt bulbs and 60-watt mini-globes.

To add greater dimension to the Titan II, and give it a futuristic appearance, Leonetti chose complimentary colors to offset the missile’s metallic surface. He explains, “Its casing is aluminum-like sheet metal, so we added green and orange to it in different places. This created a 3-D effect, as different densities and different-colored gels made it look longer than it really was. You don’t light it fully, you let it drop off at places. Then, if you put a 30mm lens at the nose of the missile and look straight down, it seems 250 feet long.”

Exteriors of the Phoenix’s launch tube and the surrounding encampment of Resurrection City, set in the ravaged environs of 21st century Montana (circa 2063), were captured on Kodak’s 5248 stock at the Charlton Flats campground in Southern California’s Angeles National Forest. As the greenish hues of foliage tend to consume an inordinate amount of light, providing night-for-night illumination for the adjoining forest was no simple task. A 600' by 300' foot section of trees were lit with eight 18Ks, 15 4Ks, and multiple 2,500-watt Par HMIs. Leonetti bathed this area in blue for additional depth and to indicate that the makeshift community had a self-sufficient source of illumination. Says the cinematographer, “It was like an old mining camp from 1850s California, but the structure of the buildings had a more high-tech look. We put a lot of campfires in there that people would be cooking on, and used that as source lighting for the sets at night, along with master lights (boosted 1K bulbs), 407s and inkies. For a wide shot, we would place some HMIs up on parallels and backlit the town. Then the set dressers put in some temporary-looking posts, like modern flood lights, so we could also light part of the set with those.”

Amidst all of First Contact’s 21st- and 23rd-century vistas, a sequence in the Enterprise’s holodeck (an interactive, virtual reality recreation area) allowed Leonetti to indulge his fondness for the lighting of such classic black-and-white films as Casablanca (shot by Arthur Edeson, ASC). In this scene, Picard assumes the guise of his alter-ego, the tough-talking gumshoe Dixon Hill. Accompanied by Cochrane’s spirited assistant, Lily Sloane (Alfre Woodard), he cavorts in a Forties-era nightclub, complete with big band accompaniment.

To create the sequence, the production spent three days in the art-deco Fred Harvey Restaurant in downtown Los Angeles’ Union Station. Finding the site impractical for the 10Ks and 20Ks he initially wanted to use, Leonetti opted to place dimmer-controlled master lights near the ceiling. He also took advantage of a large circular window, backing it with diffusion material and then shining multiple 20Ks through it. Explains Leonetti further, “To give [the nightclub] a black-and-white look, but be as dark as possible without warming it up, we use straight light – straight in the sense that there were no colors. I like creating separation with lighting as opposed to using color. You can’t always rely on color because the actor might start to melt into the background. What if the camera moves around and the background changes from a light orange to black, and the actor has black hair? With just a little bit of backlight separation, it pops him back out. That’s one way of keeping the audience’s eye focused on the actors as opposed to the set.”

The cinematographer had hoped to shoot the scene in black-and-white, but test footage was deemed “too experimental” by executives. 

Having completed his first tour of duty aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, Leonetti is turning his eye to action fare as cinematographer on Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, currently shooting in England and being directed by his brother, John Leonetti. 

You'll find a complete guide to our multi-part Trek collection here.

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