It’s been more than 45 years since the premiere of the original “Star Trek” TV series.
It was shot on 35mm film, just like a movie. Every day, right after lunch, the director and the producers would visit a small Desilu theater to look at the show’s “dailies.” They were looking at a pristine print—its first trip through a projector. It would have no dirt, no scratches, no worn sprocket holes to make the film jitter. It was the best possible image and it was stunning.
Those episodes were produced like movies. The editors physically cut the negatives into A- and B-rolls and then printed a master inter-positive. So when it came time to transfer Star Trek to DVD, all the studio needed to do was strike a fresh print of each episode and scan it. The DVD releases were the best standard-definition videos of Star Trek you could ever hope to see on any set.
But high-definition TV has more than four times the video resolution of standard definition, and a much greater dynamic range for color and contrast. The difference can be as startling as your first exposure to IMAX.
Converting the original series episodes to Blu-ray discs meant that the studio had to go back to the original negatives, clean them, strike new prints, scan them in high-definition, and then digitally process the files to remove any dirt, scratches, judder, bounce or artifacts of transfer. Fortunately, the original negatives were in excellent condition, and the Blu-ray set of the 79 episodes of the original Star Trek series is easily the best presentation ever. On a big-screen set, the picture is equal to what we saw in the Desilu projection room, so many decades ago.
So successful was the original “Star Trek” that 20 years later, Paramount Pictures invested in a new series: “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” In those days, there was some awareness that high-definition television was eventually going to replace standard-definition, but aside from a few industry demonstrations of the technology, few producers understood just how profound that transition would be. And at that time, nobody knew what the eventual HDTV standard would require on the production side. The equipment hadn’t been built yet.
So “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was shot on film, just like the original series 20 years earlier. But… it was edited on tape. First, each shot was transferred to the highest-quality master tape, then dissolves, cuts, mattes, and many other effects were put in electronically. The original negatives were never touched. So unlike the prior series, there was never any master negative that could be used for high-definition video transfers.
The situation was ironic. The original series, existing as complete negatives, could be directly scanned in high-definition for Blu-ray distribution. The more efficiently produced “Next Generation” series was stuck in its original standard-definition format.
CBS Home Video—the current owner of the rights to “Star Trek” video distribution—had a difficult choice to make. They could electronically up-rez the master tapes to a kind of pseudo-HDTV, or they could invest in the complete process of making new transfers of the original film elements and recreating the original edits in high-definition. It would be very expensive. To their credit, the wise heads at CBS Home Video realized that up-rezzing the original video would produce a very unsatisfactory result. The video would not be true hi-def, and the fans would feel cheated and unhappy.
Instead, CBS chose to invest US$9 million to recreate the entire seven-year run of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Each original film element was meticulously scanned to a high-definition master, then—working from the original records—the shots were digitally edited to match. Where necessary, new effects were mastered. So that planet on the main viewscreen is no longer a blurry green circle, now it’s a recognizable sphere with continents and oceans. To make the Blu-Ray release even more exciting, even more of a must-have set for fans, CBS arranged an extensive set of interviews with as many people connected to the series as possible (including myself).
Now, what does all this have to do with computers and software? Everything.