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Robert Abel

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Real World article
(written from a Production point of view)
"He's blown it. He could have been off and running like another Disney, but he blew the golden opportunity."
– Former associate, on Abel's handling of the The Motion Picture- project, 26 March 1979 (New West magazine, p. 63)

Visual effects (VFX) pioneer Robert "Bob" Jay Abel (10 March 193723 September 2001; age 64) from Cleveland, Ohio, was the original Director of Special Photographic Effects (as VFX were called at that time) on the 1979 film Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He was replaced in that role by Douglas Trumbull in March 1979.

Star Trek: The Motion PictureEdit

Considered at the time to be a revolutionary VFX cinematographer, Abel and his company, Robert Abel & Associates (RA&A), were approached by Star Trek: Phase II Post-production Supervisor Paul Rabwin in late October 1977 to bid for the upgraded VFX required by the transition of Phase II, a television show, into what was to become The Motion Picture. The first thing Abel did, upon consideration and invitation, was to complete a 1 December inspection of the Phase II studio models in their respective states of completion. He also viewed the sets of Phase II to see if they would hold up to big screen requirements. Having brought along his Visual Effects Designer Richard Taylor, Abel decided that these elements would not do. (Star Trek Phase II: The Lost Series, pp. 69, 72)

The studio's overtures came as a godsend to Abel. His company was in financial troubles due to the fact that his acclaimed Levi's commercial had incurred massive cost overruns (tendered at US$190,000, the commercial ended up costing US$330,000) and he needed the Paramount commission to assure his company's survival. His then-executive producer Sherry McKenna revealed that presented with an early script draft, an internal analysis for the effects production revealed that the production of these could not be accomplished for less than US$5.5-$6 million. But Abel, fearing that this amount was too high for Paramount and demonstrating his lack of experience with major features, decided to take a gamble by tendering a bid of US$4 million to assuredly win the account. McKenna left RA&A in late December 1977 when negotiations entered into the final stages as she did not want to become party to the deception. (New West magazine, 26 March 1979, pp. 59-60)

His bid accepted, Abel and his company were contracted for the new movie's VFX during the subsequent month and one of the first things Abel did was to direct test footage on the almost-completed Phase II bridge set to ascertain future VFX requirements. (The Making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, p. 202; Star Trek Phase II: The Lost Series, pp. 78, 104-108)

What happened next over the course of the following year has become the subject of much Star Trek lore. When studio executives and producers, leery since Abel had already officially secured and spent over-budget expenditures of US$750,000 and $220,700 (as early as May and July 1978 respectively, almost exactly the shortfall in Abel's low-ball bid for the effects production), came to inspect Abel's studio model shots for the first time toward the end of December 1978. They found no acceptable model effects footage whatsoever.

To aggravate matters, it was discovered that RA&A had, on the studio's time and at their expense using both the studio's equipment and money, continued to produce commercials. Commercials produced for Home Box Office, Perrier, and Hitachi totaled around US$750,000, as was conceded by RA&A's own executive producer for commercials, Jeffry Altshuler. Irate, the studio demanded that the company cease all side projects and provide a final budget figure for the film's effects, which at that point in time stood at US$14 million. Abel responded that he needed $16 million and a desperate studio relented, resetting the budget at that amount.

The company was pulled entirely from the studio model photography from this point forward and was subsequently denied any access to the models. For the short term, model photography proper was reverted to Paramount's own cinematographer Bill Millar while Douglas Trumbull was concurrently appointed as an unpaid technical consultant for the other effects production, in a last ditch effort to smooth over the increasing problems and conflicts. Trumbull, who was also at loggerheads with the studio, only agreed to do so as a courtesy to his old friend Robert Wise, the movie's director. Yet, both being headstrong characters, over the next two months Abel and Trumbull were locked in vicious combat with each other and Trumbull was ultimately not able to get Abel back on track. The situation proved to be unsalvageable by February. (New West magazine, 26 March 1979, pp. 60-62)

The situation really came to a head on 20 February 1979 when studio executives and producers returned for a second time and reportedly only found a single completed effects shot ready for inspection. Aghast, the studio released both Abel and his studio two days later. (The Making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, pp. 203-204; The Special Effects of Trek, pp. 29, 31) No formal statements of what did transpire that fateful February day has ever been forthcoming from either RA&A or Paramount Pictures, which therefore has given rise to speculation. The most persistent speculation by far was that Abel misappropriated the funds to develop a sophisticated VFX filming rig, something Trumbull referred to when he, after belatedly being appointed to RA&A as studio liaison around Christmas 1978, remarked, "At the same time, Bob was already a year into the production, trying to implement a radically new computerized and computer graphics-driven process", [1] and was elaborated upon by former RA&A employee Richard Edlund, who stated, "I admonished him to keep it as simple as possible, because when the release date's breathing down your neck something's going to happen – it always does – and the more complex the system the more difficult it's going to be to fix and keep shooting. I don't know if Bob misinterpreted my meaning, but the end result was so overcomplicated it couldn't respond to changes without two days of re-programming, even though the problem might be something as simple as the magazine on the camera needing more clearance to avoid hitting the spacedock model." [2] Even before the company was released, two of his employees had already put if more crassly when they made the statements, "He [Abel]'s been bluffing, telling Paramount what he can provide. He has not completed a single final effect to date." and, "He worked to set himself up with the most fantastic special effects facility in town. There was a lot of theorizing, deadlines, flow charts and memos, but no action.", (New West magazine, 26 March 1979, p. 62) an assessment reaffirmed five years later when reporter Dennis Fischer was told by another former employee that Abel had been fully aware that he did not yet possess the set-up for a project of this magnitude when making the bid, therefore spending most of the initially allotted money to acquire the equipment actually required for the project, leaving Director Wise sincerely feeling "being lied to" by RA&A, therefore pushing for their removal on that fateful date. (Enterprise Incidents, issue 13, pp. 25-26)

Close collaborator Taylor however, put a somewhat different spin on the situation, when he stated years later in the 2013 interview given to Paul Olsen for the latter's second edition autobiography,

"Well, what I found was fascinating was, that why Robert Abel Studios, which was really doing graphics and television advertising and so forth, was asked to do the effects for this film, because there was no track record for there. (...) So, to this day I'd love to know who has made the decision at Paramount to come to us, and say, "We want you to do the effects on this film". (...) Our original budget was 12 million dollars. But as they were changing the script, adding scenes, the budget kept rising. (...) There was conflict from the very beginning. And Bob Abel, who was one of the top sales men in the history of film, would go in there, and we'd get involved in more things than we should have ever been. We were initially there to do the models and the model photography, but we got involved with the sets, we got involved with the costumes, and all these other things, we never should have been, and that was a real problem. (...) They kept changing the script, not realizing how much changing the writing of the script affects the budget of it."
The VFX budget reset at US$16 million dollar by the time the final inspection occurred, the extent of the damage for Paramount, in terms of money actually spent, was ultimately revealed in 2000 by then former studio head Barry Diller, the chief financial overseer on the movie, who stated, "The studio poured $11 million into effects, and none of it worked.", and which amounted to nearly three times Abel's original bid. (The Keys to the Kingdom, 2000, Chapter 6) Abel threatened to sue the studio over perceived injuries sustained from Robert Wise. The otherwise levelheaded Wise reportedly lost it on that fateful day and erupted in a full-blown rage, having afterwards tersely stated in the January 1980 issue of Playboy magazine, "We have not been in touch. The air might be a little blue if we had." (p. 144), though he himself had downplayed it a bit a short time later, "It's true that I finally exploded when I saw Abel's showcase. I was annoyed. I didn't scream or yell at him, but I was obviously quite upset. I stalked out of the projection room. After over a year on the film, to come to that point and see us going no place, it became very apparent that we were never going to get anyplace". Then studio liaison Richard Yuricich has added, "I was present in the screening room, but you know, I honestly don't remember exactly what was screened. I just of tuned out and forgot about the whole thing. I can tell you that it was a screening with Robert Wise, Gene Roddenberry and Robert Abel. Wise told you that he blew his cool? Well, he's not lying to you. I can't remember what he said, but I do know that Mr. Wise shouldn't take all the credit for blowing his cool, Mr. Roddenberry was also there." Studio executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, further confirming the incident, was hardly perturbed, "That much is true, Abel has said he's going to sue us because of [Wise's] statements. And I say, let him. Problems with special effects have caused various scenes to be reshot, driving up the cost considerably higher." Yet for Abel the situation went from bad to even worse when the studio was informed that he had sold off some equipment which Paramount had paid for, and Abel was told that studio auditors had begun a criminal investigation, whether or not this was actually the case. Without much further ado, the two suits were settled out of court a few months later, amicably according to Katzenberg. (Reader magazine, 23 November 1979, p. 7; New West magazine, 26 March 1979, p. 63; Return to Tomorrow - The Filming of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, pp. 348-350) As no other formal statements have been forthcoming, Trumbull's, Edlund's, and Taylor's explanatory statements to date should, due to their close association with RA&A, be considered the most seemly ones.

The "Abel Neglex Trex Effex" articleEdit

As indicated above, much of the events surrounding the involvement of Abel and his company has, for the better part of three decades, been mired in lore, especially the particulars regarding his release from the production of The Motion Picture. What information had been divulged mainly concerned three topics: his production budget inflation, the single completed effects sequence, and his misuse of studio funding for personal gain. These topics were almost exclusively discussed in unauthorized and unlicensed reference works only, most specifically the Schuster & Schuster publications and the writings of Edward Gross. Unfortunately, neither had ever been in the habit of citing their reference sources and both frequently exhibited the tendency to rehash copy from earlier works for subsequent ones in reworded and edited form, especially for copy pertaining to The Motion Picture (of which relatively little detailed pre-March 1979 behind-the-scenes information was available at the time), which inevitably led up to information dilution. Add to this the advent of the internet in the mid-1990s, where fans started to chime in with opinionated, half-remembered, and out-of-context commentaries on blogs like TrekBBS, Resin Illumanati, HobbyTalk, and Trek Prop Zone, and the descent of Abel's Star Trek history into the realm of lore, myth, or even hearsay, was nearly completed. To date, the official franchise itself has aggravated this state of affairs by observing an almost near-total silence on the matter of Abel and his company, let alone the circumstances surrounding his release, in any of their licensed reference publications, where very little, if any at all, mention of him is made, essentially "writing him out" of official Star Trek history (a picture of Abel was published in the officially licensed reference book Star Trek Phase II: The Lost Series, page 76, but, typically, he was not identified in the accompanying caption, nor was the above featured picture in Superstar Heroes magazine – even the contemporary Starlog magazine, which otherwise kept relatively close track of the movie production, had hardly mentioned him at all). It was not until the mid-2000s that former, Abel-associated, production staffers started to come forward with additional insights, now in/for citable reference sources; the above Edlund/Trumbull quotes were made to Michael Lennick for his "A Long Time Ago..." article for a 2007 issue of the now defunct IT magazine Information and Technology Magazine, [3] whereas Taylor's remarks were made on behalf of Paul Olsen's autobiography Star Trek: Creating the Enterprise.

Yet, for all the arguable validity of the 1980s-1990s information, it actually was grounded in a single valid reference source. The moment the news broke in the industry that Abel and his company were released from the Star Trek production in February 1979, research reporter Jeffrey Kaye immediately started to delve deeper into the matter by tracking down and interviewing now ex-employees of RA&A (the ones not fortunate enough to be retained RA&A's successor, Trumbull's Future General Corporation, and considering themselves no longer subjected to the non-disclosure obligation), before they scattered to the winds. Kaye presented his findings in his rather detailed article "Abel Neglex Trex Effex", published the subsequent month in the now equally defunct New West magazine of 26 March 1979 (pp. 58-63). Written and published long before the internet age, article and publication source quickly receded into oblivion, save for the three, as more spectacularly perceived above-mentioned topics, which lingered on in the subconsciousness of the public's awareness, starting their, for the time being, unnuanced journey into lore. All references to Abel's release, presented in other contemporary press articles and the later, above-mentioned works, originated from Kaye's article, uncited in virtually each and every case.

Ironically, as it turned out, Kaye's findings have proven to be quite accurate, as much of his findings were independently corroborated as early as late 1979 by several other production staffers who had formerly worked at, or closely worked with, Abel and his company, like the earlier referenced Yuricich (and who had continued to work on The Motion Picture, therefore unable to talk to Kaye earlier due to their non-disclosure obligation), in a series of interviews given to freelance writer Preston Neal Jones. Jones was authorized to write up a production history of the movie, which was to be published in a Motion Picture-themed issue of the genre magazine Cinefantastique. However, for editorial reasons, the theme issue never came to fruition and his copy lingered on in his personal archive for more than three decades, before it was ultimately released in an unabridged format as the December 2014 reference book Return to Tomorrow - The Filming of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Incidentally, Edward Gross, de facto acknowledging his lack of The Motion Picture background knowledge, had already tried to publish the book in 1991.

The somewhat dubious part the internet has played in Abel's history notwithstanding, it has also come to the rescue of Kaye's nearly forgotten article, wrestled from oblivion by the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, where a digital version is maintained on their website. (see link below)

The official franchise itself still maintains a complete black-out on both Abel and his company, and neither are mentioned by name in any officially endorsed and licensed reference work to date. Arguably, this state of affairs is motivated by the studio not willing to divulge the particulars, as it will unavoidably result in having to divulge their own questionable part in the debacle themselves.

Career outside Star TrekEdit

Hailing from the mid-west, Robert Abel started out doing film work with Saul Bass, working uncredited on the titles for Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and camera operating for the father of computer animation, John Whitney. [4] He subsequently worked as a documentary maker, accumulating credits as Producer/Writer/Director for such productions as The Prime Time (1960), By the Sea (1963), A Nation of Immigrants (1967), Sophia: A Self-Portrait (1968), Making of the President 1968 (1969), Elvis on Tour (1972) and Let the Good Times Roll (1973).

Yet, by the time of Let the Good Times Roll, Robert Abel's interest had already shifted to the production of the VFX aspects of motion picture productions, not in the least due to some uncredited work he did perform for the 1968 science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. There he met his long-time partner Con Pederson who interested Abel in creating "slit-scan photography" effects used in that movie.

Together with his now friend Pederson, Robert Abel founded RA&A in 1971, which was to become a contemporary pioneering company employing the newest techniques in creating VFX, including the aforementioned slit-scan photography, and the earliest computer generated imagery (CGI). Initially the company employed these kind of techniques for producing groundbreaking commercials, among others for the beverage 7-Up and the clothing brand Levi's, before branching out to motion picture productions. In those years the company experimented with the use of the Evans & Sutherland vector graphic computer in order to pre-visualize effects shots, called "animatics", digitally, an innovative approach at the time. Eventually, it enabled employee Bill Kovacs (the later founder of Wavefront Technologies, a company developing CGI software) to shoot imagery right off the E&S screen, which yielded unprecedented "pseudo-3D" CGI. Abel was tinkering with this technique at the time of Star Trek movie, but it proved to be too far ahead of its time for practical application in motion picture productions, contributing to the problems described above. Nevertheless, Abel succeeded in making the technique work a few years later for TRON. [5] Abel considered himself an artist first and a businessman second and this had repercussions, as he did not fully fathom the financial consequences of his cutting-edge techniques, and commercial production ran frequently overtime and over-budget, causing friction and irritation with clients, who started to take their business elsewhere by the time Paramount approached the company in late November 1977. Abel had to frequently ask his clients to cover the extra expenditure incurred, and when they balked, the company absorbed these themselves. Executive Producer Sherry McKenna clarified, "Bob [Abel] was interested in art. The fact that his company went from black to red did not interest him. What interested him was that his [Levi's] commercial rated higher than any other." (New West magazine, 26 March 1979, p. 60) One of the first motion picture projects they worked on was Disney's The Black Hole (1979), for which they produced promotional materials and the opening sequence, before they were contracted to provide the VFX for The Motion Picture.

Despite their reputations being somewhat marred by the The Motion Picture failure, RA&A, and more specifically its founder, were held in the highest esteem by professionals working in the field of VFX, particularly for its capacity to serve as a breeding ground for future talents. Even Yuricich, despite the less than successful screening of his The Motion Picture footage, went out on a limb for Abel, having stated, "But, listen, I wouldn't want to be a part of any muckracking report about Star Trek. The main thing that I remember is that we all worked very hard, Bob Abel included. Bob Abel and his people are a great group, and I would hate to see a shade cast upon them. It's just unfortunate that things like that happen, because the public wants to hear all this dirt and gossip, but there isn't any, it's really not true. It's like Jeff Katzenberg said, there were problems that couldn't be solved, and that's it. I would hate to see Bob Abel or his organization or any of the good people that he had working for him tainted in any way. That, to me, would be Star magazine [note: a gossip tabloid], not Cinefantastique. The unfortunate incidents have already been played up out of proportion and made out to be something they weren't, and I think that's a shame." (Return to Tomorrow - The Filming of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, pp. 349-350) Likened to an "Obi Wan Kenobi for his ability to inspire creative people", VFX technician Kenny Mirman has stated on Robert Abel and his company, "We were making it up as we went along. Bob built the best playground possible." [6] A large multitude of VFX specialists, who attained fame later on in their careers, either got their break in the motion picture industry, or were able to further hone their budding skills at the company. Apart from the already mentioned Star Trek alumni, others who have at one time or another worked for the company at the start of their careers included, John Dykstra, Dave Stewart and Robert Legato. Many former, predominantly post-Motion Picture, employees went on to found their own VFX companies to continue the pioneering work in CGI, and other techniques, which were among others, Boss Film Studios (by the above mentioned Richard Edlund), Image G (by employee Tom Barron), Kroyer Films, Metrolight, Rhythm and Hues, Santa Barbara Studios (by employee John Grower), Sony Imageworks, Video Image/VIFX (by employee Richard Hollander), and others, many of them yet to work on the Star Trek franchise.

After the ill-fated Motion Picture-project, Abel oversaw the company's productions of the VFX for High Fidelity (1982), Disney's critically acclaimed TRON (1982), Breakin' (1984), the LaserDisc videogame Cube Quest (1983), and Steven Spielberg's television series Amazing Stories (1985-1986). In 1986 RA&A entered into a merger with Toronto-based Omnibus Computer Graphics, Inc., but went out of business the following year as Omnibus defaulted on its investment. Afterwards, Abel returned to his Writer/Producer roots and chalked up a few more credits as such with productions like The Mind's Eye (1990) and Quincy Jones on Jazz (1994).

Robert Abel's pioneering VFX work did not go unnoticed as he did receive a 1985 "(Annie Award:) Winsor McCay Award" as well as a posthumously 2005 Georges Méliès Award. Abel himself passed away in late September 2001, at the age of 64. In hindsight, it was the above quoted former associate who unwittingly provided Abel, directly after The Motion Picture in February 1979, with the perhaps most fitting coda, "He's blown it. He could have been off and running like another Disney, but he blew the golden opportunity."

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