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.