Reading Rainbow “Behind the Scenes of Star Trek: TNG” (part 2 of 3)
So here we are, back on the set of TNG, as LeVar walks out of the turbolift onto the bridge. We hear the doors rolling on their tracks, which we never actually heard on the show, because it got overdubbed with the much cooler whisssk effect. LeVar slowly explains that for every person you see on your TV screen, there are several more working behind the scenes.
“It’s the same here on Star Trek: The Next Generation,” he says, to clips of the show. “Every week, you see the Captain… Geordi… and the rest of the Enterprise crew!” Nice one, LeVar. He’s almost pulling a Chekhov there, I think. “Hey kids! Every week you can see me on Star Trek: The Blind Black Dude and Everyone Else!”
But it’s not quite that bad, because he does go on to introduce “the rest” by name, which are (in order): Worf, Troi, Data, and Riker. Yup, that sounds like the whole cast to me. “Together,” he says, “they keep the ship running at warp speed!” Oh, yes. Especially Troi. (And before anybody complains that I’m being excessively mean to Troi, I’d just like to remind you all that she doesn’t really exist. It’s kind of hard to hurt the feelings of a fictional character, you know?)
In a ridiculously precious voice, LeVar adds, “But there’s another group of people… Behind the scenes! … That you neehhhhver get a chance to see. Until nnnnnnow.” The way he’s talking, I expect this group of people to be roughly three inches tall. And if they ever get out of line, he crushes them with his Daytime Emmy.
And so, there are quick shots of guys setting up lights, looking through camera eyepieces, a burly guy picking up the helmsman’s chair and moving it to… who knows where. Maybe he’s tricking out his Caddy and needs new bucket seats. More looking through eyepieces, lights being set up, reflecting screens being hoisted, etc.
Random people in Starfleet uniforms mill about the set, and it eventually occurs to me that these are stand-ins used to set up the lighting before the actual shoot. There’s a guy who’s the same height, build, and skin tone as Jonathon Frakes, a random black guy who’s clearly standing in for LeVar, a dark haired olive-skinned woman standing in for Marina Sirtis, etc. Yeah, I know all of this might seem obvious to you, but it was a proud moment for me when I figured that one out.
The director, who I would later figure out is Win Phelps, makes big kabuki gestures to the crew to explain what he has in mind for the scene. Someone leafs through the script. Light meters and film canisters galore! Troi and Riker’s stand-ins commiserate. Hey, what if they actually hooked up in real life? Wouldn’t that be adorable?
A sideways wipe takes us to where the real actors are while this is going on: in the makeup chairs. Patrick Stewart is getting his eyes touched up, while Marina Sirtis dabs on the lip gloss with a tiny brush. Boy, they really were roughing it in the early days of TNG, huh? The actors had to do their own makeup. I guess that’s why Gates McFadden occasionally looked like a cheap prostitute.
Brent Spiner is in the makeup chair, and have I ever mentioned that when he’s out of character, there’s something downright menacing about the Data makeup? I mean, he’s got those demonic yellow eyes, and that creepy yellow skin, and this permanent leer on his face. I guess it says something about Brent that he was able to take a character this freaky and turn him kindly and sympathetic.
There’s a shot of LeVar carefully combing his flattop into place, which includes a barely perceptible glimpse of (I think) Gates McFadden behind him in the mirror. LeVar’s voiceover describes how they all have to transform into their roles, and “some of us change more than others!” To illustrate, we see makeup artists glue the Klingon goatee to Michael Dorn’s face.
LeVar talks in VO about how it takes two hours every day to make “my friend Michael into…” and then LeVar slips into to a slightly amusing Worf impression when he says, “Lt. Worf! Chief of Security on the Enterprise!” And… two hours? Boy, did he get off easy. How long did it take to make up Shimmerman as Quark? Or Ethan Philips as Neelix? I think those guys were averaging sixteen hour days most of the time. On one of the Voyager DVDs, there’s a behind the scenes look at a typical day for Ethan Philips, and man, is it sad. Let’s just say everybody else got to go home long before him.
Anyway, Dorn slips in Michael Caine’s teeth and gives a growl into the mirror. I wonder if he’s hamming it up for the Reading Rainbow cameras, or if he really did growl every morning when putting on the teeth. That would have been so totally Method. A fully made-up Dorn steps out of his trailer. He looks around for a moment before declaring in his Worf voice, “Stand aside, I take large steps!” Come on, you’ve got to laugh. Especially because that’s about as (intentionally) funny as this episode gets.
Cut to—as LeVar describes—”going over the script with the director!” And hey, it looks just like what you would imagine, people crowded around Win Phelps while he holds a binder and points to… well, script stuff. LeVar proudly declares, “Everybody contributes ideas to make the scene work!”
Sure enough, Patrick Stewart points out a line and excitedly says it’s “tightening up the action!” And thus began Patrick’s long and storied career of screwing around with Star Trek scripts, eventually culminating in the godforsaken muddle known as Insurrection. There’s also a shot of LeVar, who hasn’t put on his VISOR yet, as he jokes around with someone, and then Win Phelps says they’re ready to rehearse.
There’s a peek at rehearsal, where everybody’s got a copy of the script, and Spiner, for some reason, has an ill-fitting jacket on over his Data uniform. With the collar popped up, no less. That is quite the look. LeVar VOs that this is where “the director blocks the action for the scene, and we practice it with the dialogue!”
Phelps gives Jonathon Frakes his cue, and Riker enters the bridge with Denise Crosby close behind. Interestingly enough, they’re filming the episode “Symbiosis” here, which I figured out based on the dialogue (Picard asks about their “quarrelsome guests”) and the time frame. This means we’re watching Denise Crosby film her last episode as a TNG regular (she was killed off in “Skin of Evil”, but this episode was filmed after that). But of course, you’d never know any of that from watching this supposed “behind the scenes” special.
Anyway, they all say their lines, and somebody coughs loudly, and a crewman puts tape on the floor to mark the blocking. I guess this means that rehearsal is going well, because LeVar excitedly says, “Rehearsal is going well!” But then again, what does he not excitedly say?
So now it’s time for the director to make “final preparations” to film the scene. Lighting is adjusted, and cameras are rolled in. LeVar talks about the “few vital finishing touches” for the actors, and of course he says this over footage of himself putting his VISOR on. Because, honestly, what else on the set could be more vital to LeVar Burton?
Well, to be fair, we also see Marina snag a tube of lipstick from a makeup guy. Hilariously, he’s some sixty year old guy with silver hair and a big gut. You know, nothing says “stylist” like a teamster in a windbreaker wearing a fanny pouch. There’s another shot of the same guy, this time combing (the sad remnants of) Patrick Stewart’s hair.
Phelps calls “places”, and LeVar VOs that all the little crew people have worked their elfin magic, and done a great job so far, and now “they look to us, the actors, to bring the scene to life!” After showing how “focus for the camera is measured” (hint: a big tape measure is involved), Phelps finally calls action. There’s some brief, shaky video footage of the scene being filmed.
They say a few lines and Phelps calls cut. LeVar slowly tells us, “The scene is shot from many angles!” Two stagehands carry Data’s navigation console away, in order to, one assumes, get a better camera angle on the actors in the next shot. Not like LeVar bothers to explain any of that to us. Phelps calls action, and we get a rare glimpse of a stagehand behind the set operating a pulley to open the doors.
Riker enters and puts his crotch directly into Data’s face. Suddenly we get clichéd “movie negative notches” animation on both sides of the screen as LeVar walks us through the different shots that make up a scene. First up is the master shot (“that means… the major characters for the scene… are in the shot!”), and then the same dialogue with a close-up on Picard, then “Riker’s reaction shot”, where he doesn’t really react all that much, to be honest. And finally, Data’s close-up. The same lines of dialogue are spoken each time, so we are in fact seeing unused footage here, something of a rarity for this show. Too bad the footage they actually used was just as uninteresting. Honestly, seeing outtakes from Denise Crosby’s “drugs are bad” speech from this episode would have been far more entertaining, but oh well. It is what it is.