Graphic artist on the final frontier: an interview with Mike Okuda
by Dwayne A. Day
|As a lifelong fan of space and science fiction, Star Trek was a lot more than a job.|
For no good reason, I sketched up some ideas for graphics that might fit those round screens and for control panels that might work with that style. Because of my background in low-budget TV commercials and community theater, I tried to design things that would be relatively easy and inexpensive to build.
On a lark, I sent some of those sketches in to Paramount, where they ended up on the desk of Ralph Winter, who was the associate producer on Star Trek III. Ralph telephoned me and told me that they were already staffed up on Star Trek III, which was just going into production at the time, but he said that he’d keep me in mind if they ever did a Star Trek IV. I was thrilled to get a call from Paramount, and I thought, “Gee, that’s the nicest brush-off I’ve ever gotten.”
Imagine my shock, when two years later, Ralph called back and said, “We’re doing another Star Trek movie. Would you like to work on it?”
It’s pretty surprising that he actually kept your name on file for so long. I think those of us who don’t work in Hollywood have this impression that nobody ever gets a job like that, that it’s all about being related to the director, or sharing the same therapist or coke dealer.
You’re basically right. In the vast majority of cases, it really helps to know someone and to have worked with them before. After all, most film and television projects are done on ridiculously compressed schedules, and when you hire someone, you want to be confident that he or she can jump right into it.
I’m the exception that proves that it is possible for someone who knows no one in Los Angeles to get a job in the film industry. Then again, I was very lucky to be offering the right service at the right time.
It makes a lot of sense that in that business people want to work with those people that they already know. Mike Cassutt is most famously known for writing that when you consider everything that is involved in making a weekly television show on such a short timescale, it is less of a surprise that shows are actually good than that they are made at all. What was it like working on Trek?
As a lifelong fan of space and science fiction, Star Trek was a lot more than a job. It was an opportunity to contribute to something that is not only fun, but has made a very real contribution to the space program by inspiring so many engineers, scientists, and even astronauts.
|Star Trek was incredibly challenging because you were trying to create the look of a big-budget science fiction epic on a weekly basis on a much smaller budget with a lot less time.|
Star Trek was fun because of the diversity of the work and the cool things we got to do. One day, you’re designing a Starfleet readout for the visual effects department, and the next, you’re working on a written alien language while you’re helping the prop master add detail to an isolinear chip prop and simultaneously typing a tech memo for the show’s writers. I was very fortunate that Star Trek’s producers let me contribute to a surprisingly wide range of areas in the show, even though graphics, strictly speaking, is a very small part of a normal production.
That said, Star Trek was incredibly challenging because you were trying to create the look of a big-budget science fiction epic on a weekly basis on a much smaller budget with a lot less time. Even the movies that I worked on were extremely budget-constrained.
What’s your favorite episode to watch?
That’s a tough question because when you watch something you’ve worked on, you see something totally different from what a member of the real audience sees. We endlessly second-guess our creative decisions and we bemoan everything that didn’t go exactly the way we had hoped. I’m really proud to have been part of the production, but that makes it hard to watch an episode for enjoyment.
I’d probably have to pick “City on the Edge of Forever” from the original series. Just fine television.
Was there an episode or movie that was your favorite to work on?
“Trials and Tribble-ations,” the episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in which we re-created parts of the original Enterprise sets. A lot of us grew up loving the original Star Trek, so the chance to work on that ship was fantastic.
Yeah, I recently visited Star Trek The Exhibition in San Diego [which Okuda worked on] and that recreation of the original bridge is just too darned cool. I imagine that if I worked there I’d want to come into the building at night and just sit in the captain’s chair and pretend I was ten years old all over again and playing Captain James T. Kirk.
Forget the old Kirk vs. Picard thing (Kirk would kick his ass)—if it was McCoy vs. Beverly Crusher, who would win?
I wouldn’t bet against McCoy, but I must say that Gates McFadden, er, Beverly Crusher wields a mean phaser.
Did you do other jobs in addition to Trek? What were they?
Up until the end of Enterprise in 2005, Star Trek was pretty much an all-consuming job, especially with the various books and multimedia projects that Denise and I always seemed to be doing. I did manage to sneak in a few side projects, however, including some graphics for The West Wing and several pilots for space and science fiction-themed shows.
During the writer’s strike, I read a comment from some studio suit saying that the writers didn’t deserve compensation for DVD and online sales because writers in general got paid for things that never made the studios a dime. He pointed out that only a fraction of the scripts that Hollywood buys from writers are made into pilots. Pilots are expensive, and only a fraction of those actually get aired and turned into shows. And, of course, most new shows get canceled. His point was that if you stepped back a bit and looked at Hollywood overall, a lot of work never ever makes it to the air. Very rarely are any of those pilots that did not get picked up eventually shown on cable. And it’s even more rare for an unproduced script to ever see the light of day. A few years ago I heard Tim Minear bemoan the fact that his unproduced script for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress would never be seen by anyone in the public (and I for one wish I could read it). Then again, there are a lot of actors working as waiters, so Hollywood is filled with unrealized ambitions. But enough of my babbling. I’m guessing that like lots of people in the business, you’ve worked on pilots that never even aired. Can you talk about any of them? And besides the fact that they don’t turn into a full-time job, do you find it disappointing to work so hard on something only to have it disappear?
That’s the nature of the television industry. Pilots are a huge, expensive gamble, and we’re all disappointed when they’re not picked up. One of the most fun was a comedy a few years ago called Star Patrol that was directed by Jonathan Frakes for Fox. That one was shot on the same soundstages where Babylon 5 had been filmed!
Another was a proposed pilot based on the cult favorite movie, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. We’re still holding out a tiny glimmer of hope that this eventually happens in some form or another.