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The Trek Nation - Mike & Denise Okuda Q&A

Mike & Denise Okuda Q&A

By Sean Stephenson
Posted at November 30, 1999 - 6:00 AM GMT

During the month November, the LCARS: Federation Databank hosted a special Q&A feature where questions could be asked to Michael and Denise Okuda, both working as scenic artists on 'Star Trek: Voyager'. Below you'll find the transcript of the Q&A:

Sean Stephenson: Welcome to the LCARS: Federation Databank's question and answer session with Mike and Denise Okuda. This Q & A is in conjunction with our November Contest where you got to ask the question. We are very grateful for the opportunity afforded to us; thanks from all of us, Mike and Denise. Now on to the questions.

Question #1 (Favorite Question): Denise, Seeing as how one or your hobbies is tropical fish. I was wondering, did you pick out the fish in picards ready room? The Reef tigerfish? (I think) I know, I shouldn't push it. However if I do get a reply, could you answer this question as well? (if you have enough time in your already busy schedual) What software program do you use to create the computer graphic displays? THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR TAKING THE TIME TO READ THIS! GREAT WORK! KEEP IT UP!!!

The Okudas: No, the Australian Lionfish was originally selected by John Dwyer, TNG's set decorator during the first season. After Dwyer left for movie assignments, Livingston became the responsibility of Jimmy Mees, who, like Dwyer, hired Mark's Fish of Studio City to take care of his tank. We use Macromedia Director for most of our comptuer displays.

Question #2: What was the origninal inspiration for the LCARS graphics? Has Microsoft or any other major technology firm ever approached you about creating an OS based on the LCARS concept??

The Okudas: The ST-TNG style of instrumentation and graphics came out of Gene's request that the ship be extremely user-friendly. I interpreted this to mean that there should be extremely clear organization of very complicated information. I've spoken informally with some friends at Microsoft for some project, although I don't know what that is. I don't think it's an OS.

Question #3: My question concerns the 1st season TNG episode "Conspiracy." Nowhere, in *any* version of your Encyclopedias, is there an entry for the alien parasites who infiltrated Star Fleet. Other entries refer to them, but the "buggers" (my pet name for them) have no entry of their own. Is this an oversight? Or perhaps it is part of the conspiracy....??? Thanks, and keep up the great work!!

The Okudas: I think we simply couldn't think of a "proper" name for them, and we intended to go back later and think of something, but in the inevitable deadline crunch, it got lost in the shuffle. We could (and might) add something if we ever do another edition, but there's really no new information to add about them, unfortunately.

Question #4: I think it's amazing that you've been able to keep such a consistent look to the TREK computers over the years. However, do you think that it would theoretically be possible to design a computer system with that LCARS Graphical User Interface that would actually be comfortable to use? It's never entirely clear what the characters are actually doing on the show beyond pressing buttons, and the attempts that I've seen to recreate this user interface in various web sites and multimedia reference products have been, at best, awkward.

The Okudas: The TNG panel graphics are intended to suggest something well-organized when a viewer sees them in the background of a scene. My advantage, of course, is that they are seldom seen closely, so I rarely have to take the time to figure out a panel in exact detail. As long as it looks credible on camera, I'm okay. This is extremely valuable, because it could easily require ten or fifty times as much time (and therefore labor and money) if I had to have all of the panels done in that kind of detail. The problem with actual software implementations of the style is that it requires far more than simply mimicking the colors and patterns. In order to work well, one has to analyze the tasks and the users' needs in great detail. This is something that the software industry in general does poorly, in my opinion. One also sees the same kinds of issues in things that should be well-understood, like VCR controls and TV remotes. They are all elegantly designed, but the users' needs are seldom adequately anticipated. On the show, I have the advantage that the viewer can assume that I've anticipated the crew's needs, simply because you can see how easy it is for the actors to use the controls.

Question #5: Hi! I was wondering, how are the actual graphics made for the video screens which we see on Star Trek? Are they produced on computers? or...

The Okudas: Most of the on-set video screen images are done on Macintosh computers running MacroMedia Director software. Most of the static backlit images are done with Adobe Illustrator. Jim Van Over creates most of the animated graphics on Voyager, while Wendy Drapanas does most of the static art.

Question #6: This question is for Mike: There is a scene in Star Trek 5 that really bothers me (not to mention all of the movie) - when Kirk, Spock and McCoy are in the turboshaft and they start climbing. The deck numbers start at 1 and go to 70 (i think). Anyway, from the Encyclopedia we know that the 1701-A didn't have that many decks. Also, the bridge has always been deck 1. My question is this: did you ever have a conversation with William Shatner to say that this was incorrect? I guess I've assumed that you knew what you were doing based on all of your work but you were told that it didn't matter so just make the signage for 70 decks. Is this the case?

The Okudas: I discussed this with Bill, but he had other ideas. Bill is always open to suggestions, but he (like any director) reserves the final decision to himself. I disagreed with his choices, but once he made his decision, it was my job to implement it as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Question #7: What is the greatest challenge in creating a fresh look in an established setting like the Star Trek universe?

The Okudas: The limitations of time, money, techniques, and our own imaginations.

Question #8: I heard that you integrate little funny sybols and texts into your designs, which are to small to see for the ordinary spectator on TV. Could you say something about these additions and did ever a producer or actor/actress comment on that, do they at all say something to your work?

The Okudas: We do such things occasionally for our own amusement and for the amusement of the crew, but we try never to make them large enough to be visible on camera. If we were to do so, we would be hurting the show. Most cast members notice them, and they've found them funny.

Question #9: What was the first Idea for the StarTrek-Federation-Computer-Panels?

The Okudas: See #2.

Question #10: What kind of screens do you use for Voyager, the have no scanlines are with the animation, too good to be mockups. And if you don't mind me askin' how much are they?

The Okudas: Most of the panels are simple back-lit art. The animated graphics are usually displayed on a variety of commercial video and computer monitors built into the set. They do have scan lines, but Marvin Rush, our director of photography, tries to shoot them so that we rarely see them.

Question #11: Please, excuse my poor english. I'd like to know if your work has some influence or if it is inspired by some Bauhaus style.

The Okudas: A little Bauhaus, an little art deco, I suppose.

Question #12: I've been wondering how you make your Okudagrams come to life on the stage. I understand how the fancy images are digitally matted in, but how are the live gags pulled off?

The Okudas: Mostly with on-set video. We use a variety of special systems to standards-convert our on-set video to 24-frames per second so that they can be photographed without a roll bar. Ben Betts is our on-set video engineer. He works closely with Denise and with Jim to make sure our video graphics look as good as possible.

Question #13: What is the most difficult and the easiest thing about working with your spouse?

The Okudas: It's hard to leave work behind when we go home at night. We get to carpool together to work.

Question #14: How long does it take to make each console for any of the Star Treks. I would also like to ask how long you have been doing this job.

The Okudas: It varies greatly with the importance of the console in any given shot, as well as how much time is available. We rarely have more than three or four days to prepare the graphic art for a console in an episode. And this doesn't count the job that the production designer, art director, set designer, and the construction department has to do to actually build the console. I've been with Star Trek since 1986.

Question #15: Thanks for all the work you have put in over the years to make Star Trek the pre-eminent sci-fi series of our times, and one of the finest dramas too. Can you answer a question that has been batted backwards and forwards on for months now? What has happened to the DS9 sets? Have they been destroyed, as some seem to think, or are they stored away neatly (hopefully to be re-used...)?

The Okudas: The DS9 sets were demolished immediately after the end of filming for the last episode. We've saved a few pieces for possible use on Voyager.

Question #16: Michael, your occupation seems to be both technical and creative. What kind of person would you consider yourself, an artist or a scientist?

The Okudas: A designer with an interest in science.

Question #17: The ships fired (season 7) phasers while flying with Warp-Engines and they effected isn't that impossible, like it was written in technical manual?

The Okudas: Star Trek's technology has always been a little flexible to give the writers some leeway in storytelling. In some cases, we can try to rationalize such changes with technical explanations, but in other cases, we hope that no one will notice. (But someone always does!)

Question #18: How did you get the idea for the LCARS interface?

The Okudas: See #2 and #4.

Question #19: Can you tell me what was the first episode of star trek ever made, What was it called, What was the year and the date try that one.

The Okudas: The first episode of Star Trek was "The Cage," which was produced in 1964.

Question #20: I am fascinated with the "Okudagrams" shown on the various LCARS displays in the various Star Trek series. How did you design the panel displays on the CRT terminals with their touch pads? Their multi-colored hierarchal orientation seems to be quite innovative and appropriate to the general theme of Star Trek. I would like to obtain an "Okudagram" for display in my Star Trek display at home. Is there a source where you offer them for sale? P.S. De Kelly was an inspiration for me to pursue a career in medicine and am saddend by his passing. I was able to see him at a convention and was pleased to hear that obtained joy in the knowledge that he felt honored by his role in inspiring people to pursue this noble profession.

The Okudas: The original TNG display panels were done in 1987 with pen and ink and rub-on letters. This art was then photographed as very-large-format photographic transparancies. We now use programs like Adobe Illustrator on Macintosh computers to design the panels, which are output on large-format inkjet printers. I don't know of a place to purchase actual graphics from the sets. I had suggested this to the folks running the Star Trek store at the Las Vegas Star Trek Experience, but I don't know what ever happened to the idea. DeForest Kelly was a wonderful man who took great delight in the fact that his role of Dr. McCoy helped inspire so many people into the medical profession. We miss him terribly.

Question #21: My question for you is: What was the graphic/board/language most fun to work on (both brainstorming and contruction)?

The Okudas: Probably the original series Enterprise bridge graphics in "Relics" (TNG) and "Trials and Tribble-ations" (DS9), mainly because of all the detective work required to re-create graphics for which we had no reference other than the videotapes of the episodes.

Question #22: Have you ever considered making a collection of the different animations you've created for the different series to be sold (possibly as the REAL Star Trek Screensaver)? I'm sure lots of people would buy it (especially if it was cross-platform). :-)

The Okudas: I've suggested this to our friends at Simon and Schuster Interactive and other licencees, but nothing has come of it. However, S&SI did include some of our screen animation graphics in a CD-ROM product called STAR TREK: THE CAPTAIN'S CHAIR, which is a detailed walk-thru of several starship bridges. (Check it out; it's about as close as you can come to being allowed to wander around on the bridge!)

Sean Stephenson: We would like to thank the following sites for their help in promoting this event:

Dateline Starfleet

Optical Data Network

Section 31

The Star Trek Singularity

Trek Nation


Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Sean Stephenson is the webmaster of Star Trek news site LCARS: Federation Databank.