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In the history of Star Trek, there have been numerous visual effects used to portray warp drive.

Star Trek: The Original Series Edit

Originally, Gene Roddenberry wanted the effect of the USS Enterprise engaging warp drive to cause the starship to become transparent. This effect was abandoned, however. (The Star Trek Compendium, 4th ed., p. 38)

TOS movies Edit

For Star Trek: The Motion Picture, an unused concept for portraying warp was inspired by suggestions from the film's science adviser, Jesco von Puttkamer. Early concept art depicted the Enterprise encased in a warp bubble that refracted a color-spectrum-shifted starfield around it. However, this idea was discarded in the final version of the movie because a more straightforward shutter-open streaking was chosen instead. [1]

Most of the later instances of warp drive visual effects in the TOS films were achieved by Industrial Light & Magic. ILM Visual Effects Supervisor Scott Farrar commented that, for the TOS films, the effect of showing warp drive streaks in space was "very complicated to do, to figure out. Lots of it we just did manually; I'd have a start and an end mark, and I'd just measure out and go, 'Okay, next frame. Open up. Run down. Close it down.' Problems would be things like, 'Oh, we see a wobble in the track.' We would shoot the shot. It would take hours and hours and hours. It would take all day. And then we'd go, 'There's a bump in the track,' so somebody comes in with hammers and wrenches and fixes the track, and we'd do it again.'" ("Industrial Light & Magic: The Visual Effects of Star Trek", Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (Blu-ray) special features)

The warp visual from the TOS movies wasn't popular with all production staffers. Doug Drexler noted, "I never liked what they did in the movies with the flashy red, white, and blue. I hated that." (The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years, p. 70) Robert Justman agreed. "I didn't like the warp speed effect in the features," he said. "I thought it looked animated, it looked cartoony – it didn't look real [....] Having those lines, those broad lines coming back – it looked so fake to me. But that's the best they could come up with, creatively speaking." [2] Though Michael Taylor interpreted the effect as basically "vapor trails", Ronald D. Moore commented, "It's essentially like a paintbrush. They really sort of cheaped out on the effect." (audio commentary, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (Blu-ray)/(2009 DVD) & Star Trek: Motion Picture Trilogy (Blu-ray)/(DVD) special features)

Star Trek: The Next Generation Edit

A new visual effect was thought up by Robert Justman for TNG. It was inspired by cartoons he had seen, many years previously, in which a character would start to run fast and then be caught up by other characters. "I said, what we need is a rubber-band effect," Justman remembered, "so when the ship takes off to go into warp speed, the effect should be – and I described this to the people that were going to make it – that the front end takes off and the ship stretches out and then it snaps back to itself like a rubber band as it's going forward. I said, that's the effect that I want." The TNG visual effects artists initially didn't know how to achieve the effect Justman had asked them for. They finally realized how to accomplish it, but Justman remained unsure how it was done. Even so, the reconceived effect was included in the show. [3]

Doug Drexler enthused, "I love the rubber-band snap [....] I thought the rubber-band thing was very clever." (The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years, p. 70)

Star Trek: Enterprise Edit

In the script for ENT: "Silent Enemy", the visual effect of a particular unnamed starship suddenly activating warp drive was described thus; "It jumps to warp with a strange optical effect."

Star Trek Nemesis Edit

In Star Trek Nemesis, a trail of smoke briefly appears behind the nacelles of the USS Enterprise-E when the ship accelerates to warp speed. The effect has not been used in any other Star Trek production. [4]

Star Trek Into Darkness Edit

STID warp contrails

Warp contrails

In Star Trek Into Darkness, an effect called warp contrail was used for the first time. This name was originally suggested by J.J. Abrams but was also used by Damon Lindelof.

Conceptually, the USS Enterprise's warp contrails were intended to be a new addition made to the ship between Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness. Regarding the addition of the contrails, Lindelof explained, "That was driven by a few things. One was to show the audience that Scotty has made modifications to the Enterprise between the two films [...] since Scotty is now the [chief] engineer." The filmmakers were mindful that, in adding the warp contrails, they didn't deviate from canon too much, such as if they had added a cloaking device to the Enterprise's systems instead. The warp contrails were depicted with CGI. Said Lindelof, "Roger Guyett, our visual effects supervisor, took J.J.'s phrase 'warp contrails' and ran with it [....] Roger tried a few tests, some of which felt a bit too radical, but it was basically us [...] saying 'wow, that looks cool.' And we went with it." [5]

Star Trek Beyond Edit

Alternate Enterprise at warp

The "bullet shot" from Star Trek Beyond

The warp drive visual effects were re-envisioned for Star Trek Beyond. The new warp effect, depicted in a view of the Enterprise called a "bullet shot" by Director Justin Lin, resulted from discussions between Lin and Visual Effects Supervisor Peter Chiang. "As we were exploring, early on, I wanted to kind of present the warp with a different visual," recalled Lin, "and we looked at all these different iterations, and the bullet time was something that caught my eye, and was something we developed, and [...] it came early on, in trying to hopefully kind of contribute a new aesthetic to Trek." (enhanced commentary, Star Trek Beyond (iTunes))

For his part, Chiang stated, "In the past films, there was always a kind of light-driven way they had for showing the streak to warp speed. In reevaluating our options, this gave us a chance to take inspiration from real physics for our warp effect." Chiang's research inspired him to propose the idea of depicting the warp bubble as seeing space fold around the ship. "Right from the outset, I was presenting Justin with ideas on how this could look," he continued. "We did studies on how light is bent by gravitational lensing, then looked at high-speed shooting of 3000 to 4000 fps to see how bullets create a wake as they travel through water. We also scrutinized images of planes and their vapor trails as they go beyond the sound barrier. I imagined multiple shock waves building up and stacking on one another, forming this layer ahead of the vessel. That tells us we're traveling at high speed and gives a dimensional quality to it." According to Chiang, the effect was only achievable thanks to Double Negative having transitioned, in recent years, to ray-traced rendering, which he described as providing "extremely realistic lighting simulations." [6]

Both Justin Lin and Peter Chiang were extremely happy with how their reimagined warp drive visual effect ultimately looked. Lin noted, "It's something I'm very proud of." (enhanced commentary, Star Trek Beyond (iTunes)) Enthused Chiang, "We've been able to capture such an extraordinary look for this lensing bubble effect." [7]