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Beam Me Up! How to Make Your Own Transporter

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Around 1964, Gene Roddenberry came up with the now legendary “transporter” effect for Star Trek, mostly out of necessity. I don’t think he believed that teleportation technology would actually exist within 300 years or so, but as a writer’s device, the transporter solved a myriad of production problems for Roddenberry’s planned TV series. Compared with having to build complex miniatures to show the USS Enterprise landing on a new planet each week, “beaming” actors off the set was a much simpler effect to insert each week.

“Land a ship fourteen stories tall on a planet surface every week?” Roddenberry exclaimed to writer Stephen E. Whitfield in his classic 1968 book, The Making of Star Trek. “Not only would it have blown our entire weekly budget, but just suggesting it would have probably ruined my reputation in the industry forever.”

Or as Mark Steyn summed things up nearly 40 years later in his 2005 obituary for James Doohan, the transporter’s most famous operator, “‘Beaming’ was the special effect – the one that saved Star Trek from having to have any others.” It also sped up the show, allowing Capt. Kirk to shout, “We’re beaming down, Spock!” and then arriving on the surface of a new planet seconds later, putting Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the cast into jeopardy far quicker than a slow, plodding landing sequence.

While the transporter effect was easier to create than lots of complicated miniature work, it still required some trickery of its own. Here’s a quick summary of how they created the shot using 1966-era effects technology:

The camera used to film the actors on the set of Star Trek is locked down on a tripod in front of the transporter platform. The actors enter the transporter chamber, and the lights below them flicker on and off. The actors then walk out of the shot, and another few seconds of the empty platform is filmed.

That footage was then sent to one of several optical houses that Star Trek used for its special effects, and a matte was created of the actors inside the chamber. A special effects cameraman filled glitter falling past bright lights in front of black cloth in slow motion. This film would be reused endlessly as a stock footage element on the show. An optical dissolve was used to gradually bring in the glitter; another dissolve was used after the glitter had filled the space of the actors on the screen, to hide the cut back to the empty shot of the transporter chamber.

And then the same basic effect in reverse showed the actors arriving onto the “strange new world” of the week.

Return To Tomorrow

Today, we can do just about all of that in our computers, which is why there are several fan-created homages to the original Star Trek series on the Internet.

I have no desire to don a yellow tunic and wear pointy sideburns (let alone pointed ears), but I wanted to end a recent edition of my Silicon Graffiti video blog with a transporter effect. Here’s how I created the shot in front of my green screen, which I them composited into a virtual set.

First, lock your camera on a tripod and tape the person you want to beam down in front of a green screen. (For some tips on working with green screens, including lighting them, see my September 2007 article in Videomaker magazine.) Have your talent say “Energize!” or “Beam me up, Scotty,” or whatever you’d like him to do to help sell the shot. Make sure your talent holds reasonably still for a few seconds, and then have him walk out of the shot.

Import this footage from your camcorder into your favorite editing program. I used Adobe's Premiere Pro 2.0, but any program with similar plug-ins available (which we'll discuss in a bit) will do the trick.

Create four video tracks on your timeline. Drop the footage of your actor in front of the green screen into track one:

Basic Shot For Track One

Then copy that footage and paste it into track four, making sure that that track is in sync with the footage on track one.

Tracks three and four are where your beam-out particles will go. But first, let’s concentrate on track four, and create the matte necessary to hide them.

Track four is where your matte will be created so that the beam-out effect is only visible within the shape of the talent’s body, not bleeding over onto the rest of the screen.

First, you’ll want to disable the sound on track four’s corresponding audio track. Next, insert two plug-ins from the Effects Bin in Premiere Pro: Chroma Key and Alpha Adjust.

To set the Chroma Key plug-in, move its eyedropper tool to Premiere’s playback window to get the exact color of the green screen behind your actor. (This is where carefully lighting the green screen so that it’s evenly lit pays off.) Then adjust the Similarity setting in the Chroma Key plug-in until only a small halo from the Green screen remains.

The Alpha Adjust plug-in is where the fun starts to happen. Set its Opacity to 100 percent, if it isn’t at that setting when you begin. Initially, you should see something like this:

Mask Created

Then click on “Invert Alpha.” At this point, your actor on video track one should be visible once again. But any footage in the tracks between one and four will remain inside his body, because of the inverted alpha channel.

Energize! Creating the Beam-up Effect

In order to provide both large and small “bubbles” as I was beaming out, I used two pieces of stock footage from Digital Juice, the Florida-based video footage supply house. The large bubbles came from one of their Motion Design Elements (Clip #0024, from Revealers Vol. One) turned 90 degrees on its side.(A similar effect could be created via Red Giant Software's popular — and handy — Knoll Light Factory plug-in).

For the small bubbles, I faded in an additional element under that Revealers clip. This was a piece of footage from Digital Juice’s Compositer’s Toolkit, #0013, Coarse Particles 1.

Having these elements readily available in the form of the Compositer’s Toolkit is a tremendous timesaver. But in a pinch, you could also try creating your own elements, by videotaping Alka Seltzer dissolving in water (which some believe was how the original effect was created) and running it in slow motion, or by dropping glitter in front of a camera (the other explanation of how the effect was created).

In any case, you’ll have to spend a few minutes adjusting the size, screen position, and possibly speed of whatever elements you use for your beam out effect. (Assuming your green screen program has a crop function, don't worry about images spilling beyond the green screen; those will be removed later.)

I then tinted both of these elements in shades of golden yellow via Red Giant Software’s Magic Bullet Looks plug-in, to better resemble the color of the particles used on the original Star Trek:

I'm Melting....!

To recap, here’s what your video tracks should look like:

Tracl Line-up
  • Video track one: Actor in front of green screen
  • Video track two: Course particles
  • Video track three: Revealer
  • Video track four: Duplicate clip from track one of actor in front of the green screen, with audio switched off, and with Chroma Key and Alpha Adjust Plug-ins inserted into the track’s effects bin.

Over To The Virtual Set

Once the shot of your actor beaming out in front of the green screen looks acceptable, export this footage out in whatever format you prefer.

At this point, it’s over to your chroma key program or applet, in order to marry this green screen footage with a virtual set. (See my October 2008 Videomaker article for more on that topic.) I used Adobe’s now sadly discontinued Ultra II program and their space station virtual set for my shot, but there are numerous other keyers and virtual sets available. Ultra II allows cropping out of the sides of the shot, and for erasing microphone cables and other visible effluvia from the green screen stage. Other chroma key programs may not be as flexible, so plan accordingly.

Once I keyed the footage in Ultra, I then exported the combined shot as an .AVI file twice. For the second version, I removed the footage of the person standing on the virtual set, so I just had footage of an empty room. I then placed the version with the actor (in this case, me!) in the room on the first track of my NLE’s timeline, and the footage of the empty room on the second track, then edited them both near the end of the beam out effect. I deleted the tail of the footage with the actor in the shot, and the head of the footage of the empty room, then cut and pasted both shots together on one track. I then inserted a crossfade effect on the edit, and presto! One transporter beam up accomplished!

Green Screen And Virtual Set Combined

Obviously, the right sound effects help to sell this shot, and fortunately, the sound effects from the original series are readily available.

 

Here's what the completed shot looks like in real time:

If you’re trying something similar and made it this far, congratulate yourself (maybe even break out the scotch or Saurian brandy in honor of Scotty). This is the sort of effect that Gene Roddenberry needed an army of technicians to create in 1966. But the army of Davids, with the right software and video elements, can create on a home PC in a couple of hours –- and even faster once you’re proficient at the techniques — on their PCs in 2009. I’d like to think Gene would approve.

I know Scotty would!

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About Ed Driscoll

  • Rege Schilken

    I’m waiting for the day when I can create a holo-deck with my computer. Any ideas?

  • Unknown

    I was looking for step by step instructions of how to build a transporter. Do you know where I can find that?

  • Pony Horton

    Just FYI, it was not done with glitter against black.

    That was tried as part of testing, but never used as the final effect.

    The sparkles were created by Hugh Wade (who was at Van der Veer Photo Effects in the late 1970’s when I knew him) using Alka-Seltzer in a fish tank filled with HOT water and lit from beneath.

    I do the VFX work on STAR TREK: PHASE II