The Long Flight of the Leif Ericson, Part Two

This is the second in a series of posts tracing the storied path of the Leif Ericson, a spaceship designed in 1968 whose afterlife has carried it through a number of incarnations in different media formats – most notably, plastic. Previous posts can be found here.

Viewing the Leif Ericson as the expression of Matt Jefferies’s singular engineering sensibility is pleasing for at least two reasons. First, in crediting the ship to the work of a “great man” of production design (who himself worked under the direction of another, that Great Bird of the Galaxy Gene Roddenberry) it scratches our auteurist itch—one specific to modes of fandom oriented toward behind-the-scenes makers such as special-effects artists. Second, it invites us to tie the Ericson to a larger fictional system, the storyworld of Star Trek: even if never directly seen or mentioned in the original series, maybe the Ericson was out there regardless, plying the spaceways alongside the Enterprise and other Starfleet vessels.

Both of these satisfactions are, in their way, ideological lures: means of extracting pleasure from the fantasy operations of capitalism. We come nearer the truth, or at least a more complete picture, if we see the Ericson as the product of an industrial relationship between two arms of mass culture: television and toys. For in 1968, the Leif Ericson made its first appearance in public not on screen but in the material form of a plastic model kit.

The Michigan-based manufacturer AMT had enjoyed a mutually beneficial symbiosis with Star Trek since before the show’s premiere, contracted by Desilu—the studio where Roddenberry developed Trek—to build technological exotica as needed for the series. Although the company’s name, AMT, stood for Aluminum Model Toys, its capabilities extended beyond the making of cheap playthings into the fabrication of large commercial items. As detailed on Memory Alpha, the need to make “finished display pieces … for marketing purposes” led AMT to start the Speed and Custom Division Shop, a subsidiary “to build both full-scale and scaled automobile mockups … to promotional ends, as well as to manufacture the templates or masters in order to construct the molds from which the parts for their model kits were extracted or cast.” A third axis, extending outward from these coordinates of showroom spectacle and mass-produced consumer item, connected the items AMT built for Trek: objects ranging from studio miniatures to full-sized sets to be inhabited by actors.

These production artifacts were at one and the same time components of an invented future, simultaneously split and joined by the ontological dividing lines of camera lens, celluloid splice, cathode-ray tube. Take for example the Galileo shuttlecraft: AMT built it as a studio model to be filmed against a bluescreen and matted onto backgrounds of starry space, but also made a full-sized version of the ship’s interior. Episodes like the first season’s “Galileo 7”—written in part to showcase the spacecraft—married together exterior and interior, constructing for audiences a screen reality through the simple yet profound magic of a televisual edit.

To be continued …

The Long Flight of the Leif Ericson, Part One

This is the first of a series of posts tracing the storied path of the Leif Ericson, a spaceship designed in 1968 whose afterlife has carried it through a number of incarnations in different media formats – most notably, plastic.


Reflecting the many odd waypoints and junctions through which its journey would eventually take it, the Leif Ericson had more than one starting point: as with a quantum particle, its emergence can be fixed in relation to multiple and not always commensurate frames of reference, and our choice of perspective changes the very nature of the object we describe. One the one hand, we can see it as the creation of a single, inspired author; on the other, the product of a set of industrial forces.

Walter "Matt" Jefferies

Walter “Matt” Jefferies

In the first version, the Ericson was born in 1968 in the sketchbooks of Walter “Matt” Jefferies (1921-2003), production artist on the original Star Trek series. [1] Part of a team of designers that included propmaker Wah Ming Chang, costumer William Ware Thiess, and makeup artist Fred Philips, Jefferies—whose background in aviation and mechanical illustration was ideally suited to visualizing futuristic technologies in blueprintable, buildable forms—supplied Trek with its most familiar and recognizable features. These included the exterior of the U.S.S. Enterprise, with its saucer-shaped command module joined to a cigar-shaped engineering section from which two narrow, cylindrical warp nacelles jetted backwards: a configuration of geometrical solids whose basic arrangement has endured throughout fifty years of resculpting and streamlining in one movie, TV series, and videogame after another. Jefferies also designed the Enterprise’s circular bridge, its crew’s quarters, and the transporter room. Built as standing sets and used repeatedly across the seventy-nine episodes of the original series, these fixtures of a future history quickly became as familiar to audiences as the other, smaller details contributed by Jefferies: Starfleet’s golden arrowhead insignia; the instrumental triumvirate of communicator, tricorder, and phaser. But for the model-building fans who play such an important role in this story, Jefferies’s most important creations were his ships: not just the Enterprise, but the submarine-shaped Botany Bay commanded by Khan in “Space Seed”; the turreted, whirligig space station in “The Trouble with Tribbles”; the Klingon’s manta-ray-like battle cruiser in “The Enterprise Incident”; the boxy, three-windowed shuttlecraft in “Galileo 7.”

Early concepts for the Leif Ericson and Scoutship

Early concepts for the Leif Ericson and Scoutship

The Leif Ericson originated as another of Jefferies’s fictional spacecraft, but not one that ever appeared on Trek—or at least not for many years. In 1968, Jefferies sketched a pointed, rocketlike ship along with a smaller vessel whose delta wings and bulbous front section vaguely resembled a baby bird. Designed as a pair—the second craft would ride within the larger vehicle, inside a hangar covered by two hinged doors—the Galactic Cruiser Leif Ericson, together with its “mini scout ship,” were to be the first release in a series intended not for TV but toys: a line of model kits put out by a company called AMT.

To be continued …


Of Lucasfilm and LEGO, Part One

[This is the first in a series of posts on my LEGO project, described here. Be warned, I’m very much in my “word salad” phase with this project — the goal is simply 500 words of rough draft.]

Two Origin Stories

The story of LEGO’s genesis has its own faintly modular quality, parts and pieces clicking together in a way that reflects the toy’s own pleasing combination of predetermined outcome generated from open-ended possibility, the shape of the statue already extant within the uncarved block from which it will emerge. In the practiced tellings of David C. Robertson’s Brick by Brick (New York: Crown Business, 2013) and Daniel Lipkowitz’s The LEGO Book (London: DK, 2009), first came the humble workshop of Ole Kirk Kristiansen, who set up his workshop in Billund, Denmark in 1916. (Lipkowitz 12). A family business was created in 1932 to make wooden toys (Robertson 10) but evolved to embrace the plastics manufacturing capability developed in wartime and, following the end of World War 2, became available industrially in 1947, resulting in the plasticization and mass production of children’s toys (see Rehak 2012). The LEGO “system of play” emerged in 1955 and, with the patenting of the LEGO brick, became legally legible (and defensible by copyright) in 1958. (Lipkowitz 7) This system, condensed into a list of “Ten Important Characteristics,” was defined by such attributes as “unlimited play possibilities,” “endless hours of play,” “imagination, creativity, development,” and “each new product multiplies the play value of the rest.” (Lipkowitz 11) This system would evolve over the decades that followed to become ever more adaptable to consumer needs through differentiations within the product line that addressed ever finer categories of the play base, with Kjeld Kirk Kristiasen’s “system within a system” providing “each age group of consumers with the right toys at the right time in their lives.” (Lipkowitz 11). Kristiansen, according to Lipkowitz, saw himself as “a more globally oriented leader [than his grandfather], seeking to fully exploit our brand potential for further developing and broadening our product range and business concept, based upon our product idea and brand values.” (Lipkowitz 11)

The other origin story unfolds along similar lines, from humble workshop beginnings to corporate, globe-spanning mastery. In the early 1970s, George Lucas, a graduate of the University of Southern California film school, followed up his debut features THX-1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973) with the space fantasy Star Wars (1977), a movie marked, in retrospect, by a similar handmade quality: the difficulty of securing funding that forced Lucas to shop his screenplay around to multiple studios, the crafting of a fictional world from the detritus of other pop-cultural artifacts, and a find-it-or-build-it ethos emblematized behind the scenes by Industrial Light and Magic, the special and visual-effects house coordinated by John Dykstra. Emerging from a comparative nowhere in the founding moments of the new Hollywood blockbuster, Star Wars was explosively successful, immediately generating plans for two sequels (The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, Return of the Jedi in 1983) to form the “Original Trilogy” – an appellation that, like LEGO’s origins, would come into usage only retroactively, as more and more content followed, often received skeptically as wrongheaded permutations of an authentic essence. But viewed against the background of their global reach and granular infiltration of our physical and mediated lives, the six feature films of the Original and Prequel Trilogies are but a minute core to a vast halo of materials, images, narratives, products, and practices that constitute the franchise. Star Wars, too, would grow into a “system” promising – at least in the claims of its adherents and popularizers – endless possibilities for play and expansion.

Two Projects

Two writing projects sit on my desk, and the fact that they’ve remained there untouched throughout winter break, which ends a week from Monday, means I’d better get my butt in gear. I don’t realistically expect to complete drafts before classes resume January 20, but at the very least I can get some groundwork done. And since a working principle I’m experimenting with is that visibility via this blog is one way to short circuit the cycles of neglect and perfectionistic worry within which so many of my scholarly ambitions languish, I introduce these projects to you below.

The first is a chapter for an upcoming anthology on animation in Rutgers’ Behind the Silver Screen series. In these collections, every decade gets its own chapter — now that I think of it, a layout reminiscent of another Rutgers project I participated in, the 2003 chapter in American Cinema of the 2000s — but editor Scott Curtis, in consultation with me and the other contributors, has opted to stretch that framework in divvying up the blocks of time to respect animation’s complex and interleaved history, more a set of overlapping developments in technology, style, and economic/industrial practices than a neat linear progression. Here’s the abstract for my bit:

Ubiquitous Animation (c. 1990-2010)

The 1995 release of Toy Story marked the dawn of the fully computer-generated animated feature film, but Pixar’s technological and commercial success was only one node of a wider array of digitally-inflected animation practices that flowered in the 1990s and into the first decade of the 21st century. Across a range of screens, drawing on new tools and skills, and engaging heterogeneous subcultures of creators, audiences, fans, and players, animation between 1990 and 2010 was radically reshaped by the computer’s ability to augment, automatize, and in many cases absorb traditional modes of production while putting animated content to work in new platforms, devices, and displays. Computer-generated visual effects played an increasingly central role in building the storyworlds and performers of blockbuster cinema, from Jurassic Park (1993) to the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2000-2003); videogames such as the first-person shooters (FPS) Quake and Half-Life and massively-multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) Everquest and World of Warcraft took graphic shape from the specialized code of their rendering “engines”; and traditional 2D and stop-motion animation began to rely on digital tools for generating backgrounds, tweening keyframes, and erasing supports in films such as Coraline (2009) and The Secret of Kells (2009).

Picking up in 1991 with the release of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast – a film blending traditional 2D animation with CG backgrounds generated by Disney and Pixar’s CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) – this chapter charts the spread of digital animation in three spheres: traditional animation, live action feature films featured computer-generated visual effects, and high-end and casual videogaming. I trace the development of tools and production workflows that facilitated digital animation’s spread, including applications such as After Effects and Flash, motion and performance capture, photogrammetry, artificial-intelligence software for animating crowds and digital “extras,” and in the world of videogames, game engines and content editors that enabled users to create their own videogame animations known as machinima. Alongside these developments, I chart the industry’s embrace of digital animation through the founding of studios such as Pixar, Blue Sky, DreamWorks, and Sony Pictures Animation. The chapter thus emphasizes not just the computer’s role in planning and producing animated imagery, but the impact of the internet and World Wide Web in creating new communities of production and fandom, as well as the growing importance of media convergence in breaking down formerly distinct barriers between television, film, gaming, comics and graphic novels, and a pervasive ecosystem of “smart” devices and interfaces for accessing and sharing content.

There’s a lot here, and as usual when looking at proposals written long before the manuscript was due, I sense that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew — or maybe the better metaphor is that of a trip to the buffet, where I loaded up my plate with more food than I can reasonably ingest. What’s that saying? “His eyes are bigger than his stomach.” I’ve always struggled with my appetites, and while wisdom tells me to be more moderate in my choices, I suppose I will always harbor some sneaky bit of pride in thinking big, whether it’s in regard to an XL pizza with double cheese, barbecue chicken, pepperoni, and anchovies (shoutout to my favorite pizza place in Chapel Hill, NC) or a menu of tasty theoretical and historical tidbits my September 2012 self decided my January 2014 would enjoy sampling.

Here’s the other project:

Lucasfilm and LEGO: The Building Blocks of Transmedial Franchises

In 1999, the Star Wars franchise became the first intellectual property to be licensed by LEGO, with kits based on both the original and prequel trilogies becoming best-sellers over the next decade and a half. During that same period, LEGO licensed additional franchise properties such as The Lord of the Rings, Batman, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, signaling a new industrial alliance within the transmedial storytelling systems and convergent flows of fantastic blockbuster culture. This chapter uses the LEGO/Star Wars history to examine shifts in the fortunes of both companies and their product lines, emphasizing the ways in which LEGO’s modularity and near-infinite adaptability harmonized with Lucasfilm’s efforts to expand and extend the Star Wars property through its own “modularization” of production, including prequelization, the recasting of key characters, and the eventual conversion of iconic characters, settings, and vehicles into animated forms such as the Clone Wars series (2003, 2008-present) and video games set in the world of LEGO. LEGO thus emerges as both the prototype and future of transmedial franchise building, exposing underlying industrial logics of substitution and recombination of fantasy assets, and marking a negotiated succession between analog and digital media culture.

This one is for Mark J. P. Wolf’s upcoming LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon, and before you ask, I believe I came up with the “building blocks” line first. (I’m open to correction on this, of course.) The editor, on the other hand, is behind “transmedial,” which I agree is the more elegant if less standard way of referring to properties that bridge multiple media forms in creating and narrating their virtual universes (for more on which I highly recommend Mark’s magisterial Building Imaginary Worlds). My focus here is narrower and more critical, as I firmly believe that nothing very good happened to the Star Wars franchise after 1983’s Return of the Jedi, or really after 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. (Yup, I’m one of those fans.) Still, my planned goal in reading Lucasfilm and LEGO against each other is not to suggest that the former “ruined” the latter or vice versa, but rather to think about the interesting harmonies that link their strategies — a strange-bedfellows argument.

More on these projects as they develop; they’re my primary diet for the foreseeable future.

Notes on blueprint culture 1

My conversation today with an interesting young man — a Swarthmore student — about Mass Effect 3, a topic on which I’m preparing a future post, reminds me that blueprint culture arises not just around the “metatexts” and “hyperdiegeses” of literary, television, and film franchises’ fictional worlds, but those of video games as well. In fact, mapping and schematizing activities subtend any number of fictional media worlds, including those associated with comic books and fantasy wargaming (the latter a particularly interesting case in that its maps frequently function as actual spatial matrices of player engagement, its tables of character attributes actionable scripts for determining the turn-by-turn progressive generation of narrative and battle; in this sense, perhaps, fantasy wargames constitute a purer ur-form of referential play whose hallmarks, applied to more authorially-locked territories of noninteractive media, are unavoidably adulterated by a secondary, paratextual distance).

What makes a fictional world particularly amenable to blueprinting and referential treatment? (Note for further investigation the close lexical kinship between reference and reverence.) Looking at the invented universes that spring most quickly to mind as examples — Star Trek and Star Wars — I would argue for a list of attributes that includes the following:

  • belonging to the genre of science fiction, esp. “hard” SF, and some forms of fantasy
  • primarily visual in their base form (e.g. movies and television)
  • marked by distinctive design motifs that are also proprietary in nature, marking off one intellectual property from another
  • serial in nature and consisting of multiple instances (i.e. single, standalone films rarely have blueprint cultures associated with them; similarly one-off TV episodes, rare entities within that medium in any case); see “transmediated” below
  • as a consequence, containing large amounts of detail rendered still vaster and more extensive within the blueprinting practice
  • strong on continuity, often an outgrowth of limited numbers of repeatedly-visited settings
  • active or once-active fan bases (here an archeological/tautological factor: the very study of blueprint culture is premised on the availability of an archive constitued through blueprinting practices, themselves inherently textually generative; the wave of fan activity, once passed, leaves documentation in its trail like a waste product, or less pejoratively, something like a coral reef)
  • frequently the locus of officially-authored blueprinting as well, via tie-in texts
  • transmediated, or implemented across multiple media platforms, its very proliferation in part a function of blueprint materials that stabilize the fictional universe as an IP, organizing its extension and seeking to maintain coherence (an action whose continuousness suggests an equally relentless counterforce that threatens to decohere and scatter the storyworld’s textual instances)

On Blueprint Culture

As promised in my last post, I am undertaking a new essay project, one whose first draft I will write in public on this blog. I haven’t yet committed to a deadline, but my hope is to pull this together rather quickly, writing in small daily chunks — let’s say as a ballpark estimate the end of the month. I face some challenges here: with classes ending in two weeks, it’s the height of a busy semester (and I’m at my most burned out), and revisions on our essays for the BFI special effects anthology need to go out by April 15. But as JFK said of going to the moon, “we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

The essay in question is a long-simmering project involving blueprint culture, something I’ve only recent started to blog about but which has been on my mind since summer 2005, when I wrote the earliest version of my Star Trek chapter for the dissertation at Indiana University. Since then, my conception of the project has broadened past Roddenberry’s franchise to embrace a larger set of fan and professional practices devoted to mapping, drafting, indexing, and historicizing the storyworlds of fantastic media, from film and television franchises to literary and video game universes. In tomorrow’s post, I will condense my current thinking about blueprint culture and sketch out the argument I plan to make, before moving on to identify subtopics and amass resources.

Franz Joseph and Star Trek’s Blueprint Culture

As part of a larger project I’m preparing on “blueprint culture” — fan subcultures devoted to drawing, drafting, charting, mapping, and playing the worlds of science-fiction media — here is a brief history, excerpted from my book manuscript on special effects and transmedia, of Franz Joseph and the Starfleet Technical Manual he created in 1975.

One man in particular would dominate Star Trek’s design-oriented fandom in the 1970s. Though not a fan himself, Franz Joseph Schnaubelt was the first to awaken a broad base of fans to the pleasures of charting and extending Star Trek’s diegetic backdrop. By the same token, Schnaubelt brought to the attention of the show’s license holders the enormous profit potential of Trek manufacturing: first through supplementary materials expanding on the Trek universe, then through relaunching Trek as a storytelling franchise.

Schnaubelt, who in his professional life went by the name Franz Joseph, was born in Chicago in 1914. A designer and draftsman, Joseph began working at the aeronautical and military research firm General Dynamics in 1941, drawing up plans of seaplanes and fighter planes. “For being a man who was vehemently opposed to war,” Joseph’s daughter Karen Dick writes, he “certainly worked on some of the most formidable war machinery of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.”[i] Laid off in 1969, Joseph entered an early retirement that ended when his attention turned to Trek – not as entertainment, but as intellectual exercise. During the original series’ run, Joseph and Karen had watched the show together, but her passion outstripped his (he considered Star Trek only slightly superior to Lost in Space). In April 1973, Karen took her father to the inaugural meeting of the San Diego branch of the Star Trek Association for Revival (S.T.A.R.).[ii] The fans gathered there brought with them homemade models of Trek equipment such as communicators and phasers. According to Joseph, the ersatz props “were made out of cardboard, balsa wood, tape, wiring, glue, and paint and, for college kids … the workmanship was pretty bad any way you looked at it.”[iii] A former Cub Scout director, Joseph told the amateur craftsmen he thought “they could do better.”[iv] When they asked for assistance, Joseph agreed to bring his own professional training to bear.

Working from more than 800 film clips Karen had amassed, Joseph began to draft blueprints of the props, basing his work on a principle of architectural draftsmanship in which schematic drawings are projected into 3D views. Joseph reversed this, moving “from picture to plan” rather than from plan to picture.[v] In this sense, he inverted the process by which Matt Jefferies, a decade earlier, designed Trek’s sets and spacecraft: Jefferies would prepare both top-down plans and elevations – 3D views, some in color – showing how the finished object would look from camera viewpoint. According to Joseph,

I could take a picture of an enemy airplane and, as long as there was something on the airplane, or in the picture, that permitted me to determine the scale or make a fairly good judgment of the scale, then I would simply reverse the procedure and draw the plans of the airplane in that picture. This is what I was doing with the Star Trek slides. I drew the plans of the communicator, and then plans of the hand phaser and the pistol phaser.[vi]

When Karen’s friends saw the drawings, Joseph said, they “went wild over them. They wanted a lot more. They wanted everything. They made a whole list of stuff they wanted to see and I decided, well, I would do it if there was an interest in it.”[vii] When Joseph examined the lists, he realized that the fans were asking for “a ‘technical’ manual,” and set to work drawing up a comprehensive mechanical anatomy of Trek’s diegetic contents (Figure 3).[viii] From Lincoln Enterprises, the memorabilia vendor run by Roddenberry and Majel Barrett, Karen obtained a set of Matt Jefferies’s drawings of the Enterprise, the Galileo shuttlecraft, and the shuttledeck. “From those sketches and those in Whitfield’s book [The Making of Star Trek],” Joseph “laid the drawing out, scaled and sized it, and made a drawing of the Enterprise.”[ix] He then departed for the first time from canon, extrapolating a new type of Starfleet vessel – a massive warship called the Dreadnaught, which rearranged elements of the Enterprise configuration. Joseph topped off this initial set of drawings with a pattern for the standard Starfleet uniform, again demonstrating the seamless slippage among visual effects and more concrete elements such as sets, costumes, and props.

In the course of preparing the technical manual, Joseph decided it would be necessary to map the Enterprise’s internal layout. This was because the fan community

wanted bridge stations and other things concerned with the interior of the Enterprise, which did not exist except in a book or in somebody’s mind as a throwaway line. So it became rather obvious that I would have to lay out the Enterprise far enough to get to those areas – to see whether I could make drawings. This is how the Enterprise blueprints came about – in the middle of making the technical manual – they were primarily an afterthought.[x]

In “lofting” the ship, however, he discovered several errors in scale and perspective, most stemming from the change from 203 to 430 personnel (and a corresponding change in length from 180 to 947 feet) made by Roddenberry and Jefferies during preproduction on the original series. He also noticed that the bridge was 36 degrees out of alignment with the rest of the saucer – throughout the series, Captain Kirk had been facing slightly to the left of the ship’s angle of travel, a mistake that had to do with the producers’ need to create dramatic visual compositions by placing the “turbolift” elevator so it was not directly behind the captain’s chair. Drafting the technical manual and ship blueprints was, then, largely a matter of reconciling the “imaginary” object of the Enterprise miniature with the “real” object of sets such as the bridge, sickbay, and engineering, explaining in graphic form how exterior and interior aspects of the Enterprise fit together into a coherent whole. In this sense, Joseph’s work might be described as operationalizing the Kuleshov effect, tying down and standardizing relationships created through editing. The technical materials upon which design-oriented fandom thrives – blueprints, models, hand-crafted props – thus serve an essentially conservative function, knitting together loose seams of an imperfectly-manufactured diegetic reality, as opposed to the exploding/perverting of officially preferred meanings that occurs in fan fiction (particularly slash).

Nevertheless, his technical productions did ultimately bring him into conflict with Trek’s legal authors. Interviews with Joseph demonstrate the care he took not to step on the toes of Trek’s copyright holders; from the start, he corresponded with Roddenberry and Paramount executives, sending them samples of his work. At the same time, Joseph’s encounters with the fan community convinced him there was substantial interest in his technical drawings, a site of imaginative investment as well as potential profit. By May 14, 1973 – only a month after the S.T.A.R. meeting that inspired the project – Joseph, having completed a dozen drawings, contacted Roddenberry and received a go-ahead. Roddenberry hinted that Lincoln Enterprises would market the drawings once Joseph completed them. For a brief time, Roddenberry even employed Joseph as technical consultant and designer on a new science-fiction series he was then developing, Planet Earth.

But months later, with a major Trek convention approaching, Joseph had still not received official permission to sell his work. Bypassing Roddenberry, he made a one-time deal with Paramount to sell the “General Plans” (the Enterprise blueprints) at the upcoming convention. Equicon 1974 took place in Los Angeles from April 12-14. Of the 500 copies of the General Plans Joseph had prepared, 410 sold immediately; 450 requests for additional copies were taken on postcards. Paramount, which received Joseph’s royalty check shortly thereafter, sensed it was on to something, and began negotiating for a mass-market release of both the General Plans and the still-growing Technical Manual. The results exceeded all expectations. The blueprints went on sale across the nation on May 24, 1975, selling out within two hours. By May 28, 50,000 additional copies had sold, prompting Ballantine to print 100,000 more. In July the New York Times marveled,

It lives! There’s one publication that’s been selling so furiously in book stores during recent weeks that it would be included on the list [of bestsellers] above except for one fact. It’s not a book. “Star Trek Blueprints” is a set of 12 reproductions by Franz Joseph Schnaubelt showing “every foot of every level of the fabulous starship Enterprise.” Since mid-May Ballantine Books has sold 150,000 sets, enclosed in a plastic and leatherette portfolio, at $5. This week it goes back to press for 100,000 more.[xi]

The blueprints continued to sell strongly throughout the summer, reaching 10th on the paperback bestseller list and receiving a fourth printing in October. Meanwhile, interest in Franz Joseph’s other creation, the Technical Manual, was growing: at a time when a typical first printing of a Trek-related publications might run 20,000, Ballantine Books planned an initial run of 450,000. Both the General Plans and the Technical Manual ended up as bestsellers.

Although he found the widest audience, Joseph was by no means the first or only producer of design-oriented Trek material. In addition to the substantial body of such work that went on unremarked in bedrooms and basement workshops, many fans printed blueprints and manuals and sold them at conventions and through mail order. Geoffrey Mandel’s Starfleet Handbook, for example, came out in September 1974 and featured “schematics of the phaser, communicator, tricorder, and shuttlecraft.”[xii] Nevertheless, Franz Joseph’s creations inspired numerous others throughout the mid- and late 1970s to map the fantasy world of Trek in exacting detail through blueprints of the bridge, K-7 Space Station, and Klingon and Romulan cruisers. The success of the General Plans and Technical Manual led to a string of similar publications at the mass-market level, and constituted an access point for fans wishing to join the ranks of professionals: The Star Fleet Medical Reference Manual, published in 1977, featured the work of Geoffrey Mandel and Doug Drexler (who would later go on to create Christopher Pike, Commanding and other imagery for the “Ships of the Line” calendars). The popularity of Joseph’s technical materials arguably influenced the development of the “Star Trek Poster Magazine,” whose first issue came out in September 1976, and the Trek “Fotonovel” series, both of which showcased Trek’s spectacular visuals through color reproductions of film frames.[xiii] This trend would eventually lead to a series of official Trek publications such as Mr. Scott’s Guide to the Enterprise, as well as technical manuals for spinoff series The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.[xiv] With the growth of the personal-computer industry, software products such as the Interactive Guide to the Enterprise and Starship Creator joined the lineup.

Franz Joseph himself, however, did not go on to do more Trek projects. In part this was due to a series of illnesses affecting both him and his wife; but the larger obstacle seems to have been caused by Gene Roddenberry and Paramount themselves, who, during Trek’s pop-culture renaissance, were hard at work on relaunching the Star Trek franchise. In the early 1970s, Roddenberry assured Joseph that development of the General Plans and Technical Manual could continue unimpeded because Trek was, to all intents and purposes, a dead property. “Before I started seriously on the Manual,” Joseph said, “I had talked to Gene, Paramount, NBC, and Ballantine Books, and they all assured me that the Star Trek TV series was dead, it would not go back into production.”[xv] But the show had left a uniquely profitable corpse in the form of “the seventy-nine jewels,” as industry insiders called the original series, which continued to earn revenue through constant rebroadcast. The syndicated series was profitable in a secondary, subcultural sense, as Joseph himself acknowledged: “the reruns were maintaining continued fan interest, and gaining new fans every year. So I felt it was all right if I made the manual. It was something the original series never had, Gene wanted me to go ahead and finish it, and Ballantine was interested in publishing it.”[xvi]

[i] Greg Tyler, “Karen Dick” (June-July 1999 interview), <>, accessed 18 June 2005.

[ii] Paul Newitt, “An Interview with Franz Joseph” (June 1984), <>, accessed 18 June 2005.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Gerry Williams and Penny Durrans, “These Will Be A Reality Sooner than You Think” (October 1976 interview with Franz Joseph Schnaubelt), <>, accessed 17 June 2005.

[viii] Newitt, “An Interview with Franz Joseph.”

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Gerry Williams and Penny Durrans, “These Will Be A Reality Sooner than You Think.”

[xi] “Paper Back Talk,” New York Times (13 July 1975), 210.

[xii] Joan Marie Verba, Boldly Writing: A Trekker Fan and Zine History, 1967-1987, 2nd Ed. (Minnesota: FTL Publications, 2003), 17.

[xiii] Lynn Simross, “Fotonovel: The Movie-Picture Book,” Los Angeles Times (18 September 1978), OC_B1.

[xiv] Shane Johnson, Mr. Scott’s Guide to the Enterprise (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989); Rick Sternbach and Michael Okuda, Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991); Herman Zimmerman, Rick Sternbach, and Michael Okuda, The Deep Space Nine Technical Manual (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998).

[xv] Newitt, “An Interview with Franz Joseph.”

[xvi] Ibid.

SCMS 2012: We Have Never Been Digital

March is here — in fact, it arrived three days ago, and I’m only just now noticing it like a UPS box left on my doorstep — and the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference is only three weeks away. Depending on where the dial is set on your own personal Procrastinometer®, you will find the following sentence either (A) shockingly lax, (B) remarkably foresighted, or (C) just about right: time to start writing the paper.

It’s even more important that I compose my essay in advance, because this year my wife and son are coming with me to Boston. My days, er, nights of sitting in a hotel bathtub with a pad of legal paper, pulling together presentations at the last minute, are done. And while I would like to believe there is a certain Keith-Richards-style glamour to such decadent showboating — beneath the surface of this mild academic beats the heart of a Lizard King — I do not miss those days. Empirical testing verifies that it is much, much, much less stressful to work from a script, even a script that contains such stage directions as “MAKE JOKE HERE.”

So by way of jumpstarting my process, here is the abstract I submitted as part of a panel on “Archaeologies of the Future: Popular Cinema and Film History in the Age of Digital Technologies,” organized and chaired by my former IU colleague Jason Sperb (whose highly recommended blog can be found here).

We Have Never Been Digital: CGI and the New “Clumsy Sublime”

Digital visual effects have been hailed as a breakthrough in the engineering of screen illusion, generating new forms of filmic phenomenology and spectatorial engagement while fueling a crisis discourse in which the very indexical foundations of the medium are said to be dissolving into their uncanny, computer-generated replacement. Both as an assessment of current aesthetic trends and the larger narrative of technological and stylistic change in which they are embedded, such accounts fall prey to the historical amnesia implied by the term “state of the art” – accepting, as a kind of discursive special effect, the alleged superiority and perfection of digital imaging while neglecting the way in which all special effects age and become obsolete (which is to say, visible precisely as compromised attempts at simulation). Exploring the temporality of special effects, this essay presents a brake and counternarrative to the emerging consensus of alterity dividing digital and analog eras of special effects, by drawing on Laura Mulvey’s concept of the “clumsy sublime,” which suggests that the passing of time lends classical Hollywood special-effects methods such as rear projection their own particular charisma as ambitious but failed visual machinations. Scrutinizing key “breakthrough” moments in the recent evolution of digital visual effects films and the critical discourses that both celebrate and condemn them as decisive breaks with a flawed analog past, I argue that today’s special effects are as susceptible to dating as those of the past – that, in fact, we are always witnessing the production of a future generation’s clumsy sublime.

Borrowing its title from a subheading in my lengthy post on Tron: Legacy, this project is intended as a polemic and antidote to a cinema studies that too often accepts as transparent given the idea that digital image creation, and the larger colonization of film production, distribution, and exhibition by digital technologies, marks the arrival of perfect photorealistic simulation and undetectable manipulation on the one hand, and the extinction of the index on the other. Digital special effects are a linchpin of arguments for a fundamental shift in the ontology and phenomenology of cinema, hence a menacing metonym for an epochal, irreversible transit across a historical dividing line between analog and digital. It’s much like the singularity, a supposed event horizon we can’t see past. Yet we continue to fantasize ourselves on the other side of the terminator, describing what-will-never-arrive in the verb tense of it-already-happened.

Much like the month of March.

Notes on Spacewar

What is it about Spacewar that so completely captures my imagination? Teaching my Theory and History of Video Games class, I once again crack open Steven Levy’s great book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, which I have read at least a dozen times since it was published in 1984. A time now further away than the period of which Levy was then writing — the late 1950s and early 60s, when a motley assortment of brilliantly talented social misfits at MIT repurposed a PDP-1 to create, if not the world’s first computer game, then the first digital artifact to capture the spirit and culture of gaming that would explode over subsequent decades. Below, a bulletin board of sorts, collecting resources on this seminal software object and the matrix from which it was spawned.

Steve “Slug” Russell, posing with a PDP-1.

A bibliography on hacker/computer culture.

An article on Spacewar from WebBox’s CGI Timeline.

From the MIT Museum.

Origin story from Creative Computing magazine, August 1981. I remember reading this when it first came out, at the age of sixteen!

News snippet from Decuscope, April 1962. I was not alive to read this one at the time of its publication. Decuscope, one finds, is a newsletter for DEC (Digital Equipment Computer) Users; PDFs from 1961-1972 here.

About that PDP-1 and its capabilities. It’s always vertigo-inducing to consider how computing power and resources have changed. The TX-0 on which MIT’s hackers cut their teeth had something like 4K of storage, while its successor, the PDP-1, had the equivalent of 9K. By contrast, the Google Doodle below, at 48K, is more than five times as large:

Some tools for finding one’s bearings amid the rushing rapids of Moore’s Law: Wikipedia pages for the TX-0 and PDP-1; a byte metrics table; a more general-purpose data unit converter.

Modeling Monsters, Part Three

This is the third in a series of posts on a new project of mine exploring movie-monster fandom and “kid culture” in the U.S. from the early 1960s onward. My focus will be less on monster movies themselves than on the objects that circulated around and constituted the films’ public — and personal — presence: model kits, toys, games, and other paraphernalia. Approaching media culture through its object practices, I argue, reveals a dynamic space of production in which texts, images, and objects translate and transform one another in flows of commodities, collectibles, and creativity. [Previous posts can be found here.]

The line of monster models put out by Aurora starting in 1962 were not, of course, the first figure kits; neither were they the first scale plastic models. As Thomas Graham notes in his collectors’ guide Aurora Model Kits, the company’s first foray into the world of scale model kits was in 1952, with a line of airplanes. Other kits released by Aurora in its first decade of operation included automobiles, boats, submarines, tanks, and missiles. These subjects shared a set of qualities: they were based not on fictional, licensed properties but on existing real-world referents; not on organic, living beings (with the exception of figure kits, which I will discuss below) but on mechanical vessels; and, though they comprised a range of historical periods from antique cars (the WWI-era Stutz Bearcat) to the latest in mid-century aerospace experimentation (the Ryan X-13 Vertijet), favored transport technology and armaments from the two major global military conflicts.

This focus was unsurprising, given the circumstances of plastic kits’ emergence as a popular pastime in the U.S. after the end of World War II. The enormous social and economic changes following 1945 included a radical expansion of products geared to recreation, as factories and workforces were repurposed to drive an affluent North American economy (and a culture of advertising emerged in parallel to foment the necessary appetites). This prosperity played out simultaneously on two levels, one for parents and one for children; as Graham describes it, “Veterans from World War II and Korea resumed their lives, moving to the suburban world of ranch style homes with new Chevies, Fords and Studebakers parked in the car ports. Their kids rode bicycles, shot Daisy air rifles, watched Sky King on TV, listened to 45 rpm records, and read comic books. And they made model airplanes.” (5) As goods proliferated across the spheres of youth and adulthood, the toys of the former scaled down to cheaper, playable size the luxury items of the latter: cars in the garage were mirrored by model autos inside the house. Yet the objects of childhood supplied by mass culture also distorted and amplified the world of adults, condensing primal drives and half-repressed memories in material form: science-fiction serials, air-rifle weapons, and most of all the replication of wartime air- and seacraft in miniature suggest that children of the Baby Boom were awash not just in the detritus of overproductive industry but the solidified, visualized dreams — and nightmares — of the preceding generation.

In Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America, Steven M. Gelber situates the postwar explosion of plastic kits against a longer history of crafting and collecting that dates from the late nineteenth century, when social and economic changes in the workplace led to a colonization of domestic space and time by the recognized and hence legitimized world of handicrafts. “Before about 1880 a hobby was a dangerous obsession,” he writes. “After that date it became a productive use of free time.” (3) For Gelber, the paradox of such activities is that they reproduce the attributes of labor, such as regimented time and the creation of commodities, in a domain that should ideally be distinct from, and uncorrupted by, such labor.

Hobbies are a contradiction; they take work and turn it into leisure, and take leisure and turn it into work. Like work, hobbies require specialized knowledge and skills to produce a product that has marketplace value (even if there is no thought of selling it). … Hobbies occupy the borderland that is beyond play but not yet employment. More than any other form of recreational activity, hobbies challenge the easy bifurcation of life’s activities into work and leisure. (23)

Hobbies, in this view, have the ideological effect of industrializing the home, and reconfiguring domestic subjects as subjects of domestic labor — bringing what might otherwise be an unruly and disobedient space into line with the values and beliefs of modern capitalist society. This essentially disciplinary function did not preclude the very real pleasures that could be obtained from, for example, sewing, stamp collecting, or needlepoint. In addition, hobbies could represent complex negotations with the economy, as when items of furniture built at home replaced those that would otherwise have been purchased at stores, or when, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, hobbies took on new ameliorative significance as an inexpensive way to fill the working hours denied to the unemployed. Finally, hobbies remixed gendered identities and skill sets in unusual ways, as women explored newly authorized forms of creative expression and men adapted to more domestic roles.

For Gelber, however, the rising popularity of kits in the postwar period was a less positive development. Citing a 1949 catalog for the hobby supplier American Handicrafts, Gelber notes the way in which kits — prepackaged sets of items for assembly into everything from pot holders and pottery to woven stools and Indian beads — “severely limited hobbyists’ creativity but greatly facilitated their productivity.” (262) Because one could only build a kit into its intended object, and because this process required nothing more than the following of instructions, kits represented a more blunt and dire industrialization of home spaces and subjects, turning hobbies — sometimes literally — into paint-by-numbers activities, “no more art than gluing together a plastic model was a craft.” (263)

The kit was the ultimate victory of the assembly line. Whereas craft amateurs had previously sought to preserve an appreciation for hand craftsmanship in the face of industrialization, kit hobbyists conceded production to the machine. They became the leisure-time equivalent of the apocryphal Ford worker who, as his last wish before retiring, requested permission to finish tightening the bolt he had been starting for the last thirty years. Kit assemblers did not dream of designing the product or forming its parts. It was enough that they could surpass the Ford worker’s wish and actually assemble the whole thing. Forty years of assembly line mentality had transformed the public’s understanding of personal agency from that of the artisan to that of a glorified factory worker. (262-263)

The worst thing about kits, in Gelber’s view, was that “the hobbyist did not have to engage the hobby at a higher level of abstraction.” DIY projects or handicrafts built from the ground up required a hobbyist to solve many problems ahead of time, exerting his or her individuality through the choice of object and materials, along with the tools and skills required. With kits, on the other hand, “There were no preliminary steps, no planning or organizing, no thinking about the process. In other words, the hobbyists did not have to engage the craft intellectually.” (262)

Gelber’s history of hobbies in America stops around 1950, at the dawn of the plastic-kit craze — a time that saw sales of plastic models grow from $44 million in 1945 to $300 million by 1953. His critical reading of the kit phenomenon brings up valid points: this transition to a new era both of industry and recreation marked a profound reconfiguration of longstanding, and much cherished, traditions. The same period saw the diminishment of certain knowledges and skills shared by a public base increasingly dependent on the prefabricated products of mass culture: manufacturing and distribution technologies that Bruno Latour, by way of Marx, has called “congealed labor.” And while, as we shall see, his derision of model-kit building as limited and artless pastime requiring no creative input from the assembler ignores the kinds of transformation, circulation, and sharing that would come to define object practices in 1960s horror fandom, it is easy to imagine the more generous readings that contemporary hobby culture, outside the scope of his book, might engender.

In the next installment, I will turn to the heyday of Aurora, from 1962-1977, and the line of monster kits that made it a success.

Works Cited

Gelber, Steven M. Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Graham, Thomas. Aurora Model Kits. 2nd Ed. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2006.