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Mike Okuda and unidentified space alien (who is definitely not the author). (credit: Mike Okuda)

Graphic artist on the final frontier: an interview with Mike Okuda

Whenever I get out to the Los Angeles area, I meet up for dinner with some friends of mine who all work, or work around, the television industry. We call these meetings Geekapalooza because we all share an interest in science fiction and in spaceflight, and those topics usually dominate our dinner conversation. Occasionally, believe it or not, there are actually women present. Previously I interviewed fellow Geekapaloozoid Mike Cassutt for The Space Review (see: “20 Minutes Into the Future: An Interview With Michael Cassutt”, The Space Review, February 12, 2007). This time I’m interviewing another occasional member of our group, Mike Okuda, a longtime graphic designer for Star Trek, and also the designer of several patches and logos for NASA, most notably the mission patch for the upcoming Hubble Servicing Mission, STS-125.

Where were you born?

Tokyo, Japan. My dad was serving in the Air Force and was stationed overseas at the time.

Did you grow up there?

No, after my Dad was discharged, my parents moved to California so my dad could get his Master’s degree, then they moved back to Hawaii, where I spent most of my childhood.

What do you consider the major influences on you growing up?

The space program. Science fiction.

Reading science fiction or watching it?

Mostly reading. Clarke. Asimov. L’Engle. And Star Trek reruns. Of course.

And do you have any particular memories about the space program that stand out?

Watching the Apollo 11 moonwalk. Even as a child, I knew this was a singular moment in history.

Were you always interested in art?

I’ve always been interested in the effects of art to create a feeling, to inform, inspire, to evoke memories. I’ve learned to approach art as a powerful tool to achieve an effect.

Where did you go to school/train?

I have a BA in communications from the University of Hawaii. I also did some community theatre work, I did special effects for low-budget TV commercials, and I put in a couple of years doing corporate graphics for a medical center in Honolulu. Coming from that background, I learned the importance of starting by studying a project’s constraints. Of understanding the budget, schedule, and the client’s wishes so that you can devise a solution to fit those needs. This proved incredibly valuable on Star Trek, which usually had less money than you might suspect.

How is graphic art different from fine art?

Graphic art is also known as “commercial art.” This is because graphic art (and commercial art) is usually created for a very specific goal: to communicate, to inform, to persuade, or to position. Graphics, then, should be judged by the effectiveness with which they accomplish their goals. Of course, it’s assumed that you’ll come up with something attractive, elegant, and artistically pleasing, but that’s not the starting point.

Are there any fine artists, or commercial artists for that matter, who you really like or admire?

Albert Whitlock. He was an amazing matte artist who helped to define the art of visual effects. He also did some matte paintings for the original Star Trek. Matte painting demands a tremendous understanding of light, perspective, and the way the human eye works. If you look closely at a Whitlock painting, you’ll see a surprisingly impressionistic style that looks astonishingly real when photographed.

I should also mention Syd Dutton, Robert Stromberg, and Dan Curry, who worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation and the spinoff shows. And Max Gabl, who worked with us on the remastered Star Trek project.

What was your first real job in the field? What did you learn from it? Did you enjoy it?

My first job in the national media was designing control panels for the Enterprise-A in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. I learned that the working principles in Hollywood are the same as local television and community theatre, just on a bigger scale.

How and when did you first end up working for Star Trek? What did you do?

I grew up with Star Trek and always regarded it as something very special. When the first two Star Trek movies came out, I noticed that the bridge of the refit starship Enterprise had video readout screens with round frames, rather than rectangular. They looked really cool, but I wondered why someone might have built round screens for a starship. I decided that it must have been because they were designed to display information that was circular in format, rather than rectangular.

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.

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