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Fan Film Friday – An Interview with KENNY SMITH of STAR TREK: FIRST FRONTIER (Part 2)

Last time, I began chatting with KENNY SMITH, the show-runner behind the eagerly-anticipated fan production STAR TREK: FIRST FRONTIER.  This exciting project will feature the first-ever commander of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701, Captain Robert April and his crew on their maiden voyage directly from dry dock.

Everything about this production looks amazing!  From the costumes to the sets to the 11-foot model of the USS Enterprise constructed specifically to create amazing-looking visual effects.

In Part 1, we learned how Kenny had become a convention promoter, working with most of the main cast members from the various Star Trek series, and also how he made connections with various people in the entertainment industry.  This led to finding a producer to help him bring his fan film script to life.

We continue this great interview by looking into some of the other exciting aspects of this fan film, the selection of cast and production crew members, and exploring why Kenny decided not to use donated crowd-funding to help produce this project…

Kenny Smith in the center seat surrounded by the first crew of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701.

JONATHAN – I’m also psyched to see your practical (physical) sets.  Your bridge looks incredible.  What other sets did you build, and where did you build them?

KENNY – The sets were constructed in Atlanta.  Matt Green, who supervised construction of  the eleven foot model, also supervised the building of the sets.  He and Scott [Lyttle], as well as other amazing volunteers, constructed the bridge, the transporter room, two hallways, a conference room, an airlock, the admiral’s office, the captain’s quarters and sickbay…as well as designed an all new evil alien race, called the Sa’Ryn, and their starship interior.

JONATHAN – Holy moley!  That is a staggering number of sets to build for a fan film!

KENNY – The practical sets, I believe, made the difference. The actors were able to “feel” the ship around them, and it gave them an extra layer of reality to work with.

I originally had hoped to save some budget by renting the Star Trek Continues sets which were relatively close by in southern Georgia. That plan was dashed when I received an email from VIC MIGNOGNA, who plays Captain Kirk in that series, who basically let it be known that I wouldn’t be using those sets, as he had just purchased them. It was the most arrogant sounding letter…so proprietary. I saved that letter and used it as inspiration, then I built my own sets. I wouldn’t have been able to use theirs after all, because our design was an earlier one than theirs to fit Captain April’s era.

JONATHAN – Well, that is unfortunate about not being able to use the Star Trek Continues sets.  I know that John Sims’ Exeter Trek (not to be confused with Starship Exeter) was able to use the STC sets in slightly altered form for a Pike-era fan film (still unreleased).  But I seem to recall that several of the folks involved with Exeter Trek had helped out during the original construction of those sets when they were used solely for Starship Farragut.

EXETER TREK, another Pike-era fan production, was able to film scenes on the slightly altered STAR TREK CONTINUES/STARSHIP FARRAGUT sets in southeastern Georgia.

Anyway, it seems to have worked out well for you and your project, and you have amazing sets of your own, and I can’t wait to see how they turned out!

So let’s move onto your actors.  Most fan films use volunteers and fans to play the roles, and a few use local actors or at least folks with some acting experience and training.  And then there are the few productions that take it to the next level and hire professional Screen Actors Guild (SAG) actors…and that now includes Star Trek: First Frontier.  Can you discuss that decision and your choice of actors?

KENNY – While I enjoy the fan films that are being produced, my problem is often with the acting abilities. I know from directing that acting is a full time, difficult job.  And I noticed that most people who were making fan films were casting themselves as the captain. I chose to go the the Screen Actors Guild and cast appropriately real professionals who knew their craft and could give me the performances I needed to maintain verisimilitude in the film. We obtained all SAG permissions and held an extensive casting call, which brought to us most of our wonderful cast.

When it came to casting the father of Robert April, I saw an opportunity that many may have missed. I thought back to the films Halloween and Star Wars and decided that, with a mostly unknown (though talented) cast, I needed an anchor. I needed the wise, fatherly figure, and I needed him to be played by someone with a name…someone fans my age would recognize. In Halloween, it was Donald Pleasence and in Star War, Alec Guinness. I had met Barry Corbin, who played General Berringer in Wargames, at my One Tree Hill convention and asked him to play the role. He agreed instantly. He brought an “Andy Griffith” fatherly presence to the character of his son Robert, who is struggling in the story.

Barry Corbin (John April), Tara Ochs (Sarah April), and Robert Pralgo (Robert April) in costume.

In the time since we shot the movie, I have seen my cast succeeding on other films, and I couldn’t be happier for them. Robert Pralgo who plays Robert April recently played Tom Hanks’ doctor in Sully and was in Fast and Furious 7. Paul Telfer was on The Vampire Diaries and has recently appeared on Days of Our Lives and Once Upon a Time. Mark Ashworth had a one-on-one scene with Denzel Washington in The Magnificent Seven as the preacher on the balcony. Mark plays Commander Young, our chief engineer, and has a beard in our film because he wasn’t allowed to cut it for filming on Magnificent Seven.  [Kenny laughs.] He will also be in the upcoming Marvel film Logan.

JONATHAN – That’s quite a cast!  I hope you gave them all nice, meaty character roles to play!

KENNY – I want to be clear that while our story is as true to Star Trek as I could possibly make it, it’s not a story based on technology. It’s based on the people. It’s the story of three main characters who are trying to find their place in the universe and the character arcs created for each. It’s a very touching story of love, friendship, sacrifice, and desperation. It’s also the first time that the idea of a married captain has been expanded on. The idea, if we ever went to series, of an episode down the line where Robert April has to send Sarah April into certain death to save the ship has intrigued me. How would he handle this as a Starfleet captain? Could he even do it? The aspect of their relationship is uncharted Star Trek territory for an Enterprise captain.

JONATHAN – Okay, switching gears to one of the aspects of your project that I personally find the most intriguing…

In late March of 2015, you began a Kickstarter campaign with a $130,000 goal. About six weeks later, with only $30,000 pledged, you canceled the Kickstarter and decided to self-fund instead. Why not just start up a new Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign? After all, isn’t some money better than no money at all?

KENNY – My fiancée has asked me that very question no less than 100 times, since the movie drained our bank account to almost nothing. But she had faith in me, and I have faith in Star Trek, even with no hope for a financial return. The reasons for cancelling the Kickstarter were more than financial though.

First, I had nothing but words to show potential donors. I knew I could make the movie, but convincing others was difficult, and Kickstarter was starting to be flooded with other films and products to lure the dollars away from us. Secondly, the questions I was receiving were ones I didn’t want to answer, though they were questions that potential donors were entitled to. I was receiving questions like “What is the story about completely?” and “What are your filming locations?” I received emails saying someone would donate if I had Klingons and one man who wanted his daughter to have a starring role. In order to maintain 100% creative control, I knew Kickstarter wasn’t for me, nor was any crowd-funding.

JONATHAN – So what happened after you canceled the Kickstarter?

KENNY – It was then that I decided to not even try another Kickstarter. Our One Tree Hill conventions had done very well, and with a loan from my mother, we had the budget we needed to self fund the entire project. The freedom this gave me was substantial. I was indebted to no one and able to tell the story I wanted to tell.

The one thing I had to sacrifice was the hiring of an orchestra to compose a new score. I simply couldn’t afford it. I had originally planned to contact James Horner to gauge interest in writing a new piece for the film. He died in his plane crash the month I planned to approach him. I ended up scoring using Star Treks II and III, and I am dedicating the film to James Horner. We obviously still have no hope for a financial return, but if, at the end of it all, if I was able to make a new Star Trek movie that gave me the same feelings I had when I was a kid, and share it with my fellow friends and fans who want to feel that feeling again, too, then it was worth all of it.

JONATHAN – So I’m sure folks are curious (I know I am!), if you funded this whole project yourself, Kenny, how much has it ended up costing you in total?


Next time, we find out if Kenny is willing to answer that question!  Also, we discuss production delays, the challenges of being a first-time director, and the biggest question of all: will Star Trek: First Frontier be complying with the fan film guidelines (well, it already has the words “Star Trek” in the title!)…and if not, why?

In the meantime, you can see LOTS more behind-the-scenes photos on the Star Trek: First Frontier Facebook page, and you can watch their newest official trailer below…

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  • […] Next week – we dive deeper into the sets, the decision to use SAG actors, and why Kenny opted to forego crowd-funding and finance the entire production himself.  Also we ask the question that has to be asked: will Star Trek: First Frontier be complying with the fan film guidelines…and if not, why? […]

  • […] Last time (and the time before that), we began chatting KENNY SMITH, the passionate Star Trek fan who is self-funding his own fan film.  But it's not just any Star Trek fan film!  STAR TREK: FIRST FRONTIER is getting fans excited in ways that few other fan films have recently, and there's several reasons for that. First, it's one of the few fan productions recently to build elaborate sets of professional studio quality.  Second, Kenny has hired professional SAG (Screen Actors Guild) Hollywood actors to portray his characters.  Third, Kenny has brought in industry professionals to handle production, construction, and visual effects.  Fourth, he's going where no fan film has gone before: to the launch of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701 under the commander of its first captain, Robert April, who is married to the ship's Chief Medical Officer (a fact established in April's only canonized appearance in the animated episode "The Counter-Clock Incident").  And finally, Kenny and his construction team built an incredible 11-foot model of the starship Enterprise in its earlier pre-Kirk iteration…a model which is being used to shoot visual FX the old-fashioned way. Although Kenny tried to do a Kickstarter to raise $130K, he only got to $30K and then canceled it entirely—leaving him with zero in crowd-funding.  Instead, Kenny decided to pay for everything himself.  So I just had to ask him… [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Kenny Smith and fiancee (and cast member) Autumn Dawn Nierode[/caption] JONATHAN – If you funded this whole project yourself, Kenny, how much has it ended up costing you in total? KENNY – The total cost for the film hasn't revealed itself yet. We're still in post production, and some costs are still waiting for me.  [Kenny laughs.]  A rough estimate would be just over $200,000. JONATHAN – Holy second mortgage, Batman!!! KENNY – For that $200,000, I would say that we got at least a million dollars worth of production value as Zeke Flatten, the producer, stretched every dollar as far as possible and got the best talent he could find that we could afford. He knew that I had paid for everything and that it was all the money I had in the world…so he did everything to keep costs low. JONATHAN – How much of that $200K was that amazing 11-foot USS Enterprise? KENNY – The Enterprise miniature was constructed for approximately $5,000. The value is well over $30,000, but Matt Green knew I didn't have much money and that we were nearly set on using CG because we simply couldn't afford the miniature. He was already working on the sets for me, and he told Zeke he would build it for the insane low price of $5,000…a completed eleven-foot miniature ready for shooting! I couldn't say "no," so I borrowed five thousand more dollars. In the end, both Matt and Scott, aside from their sweat and tears, also put their own money into the miniature, as the costs exceeded the $5,000. Matt, by being an awesome person, saved the miniature build from being scrapped with his sacrifice, and the result is on screen. It looks fantastic. JONATHAN – So how did the rest of the costs break down? KENNY – The exact costs of the sets are difficult to calculate, but in the end, I would guess that approximately 30%-40% of our original budget went to sets and costumes. Our costumes were designed by me with some input from my long time Star Trek friends Dizzy Galette and Paul Frenczli. They were assembled and maintained on set by Jo Veitenheimer, who works on costuming in Atlanta. The costumes came out better than I had hoped, and we have received quite a few compliments on them, so I am very proud. Being a Star Trek film helped immensely with keeping costs low because people were happily donating their time to help work on it simply because they themselves were Star Trek fans, and Star Trek had touched their lives in some way. We were able to attract real professionals who took bare minimum pay…out of their love for Star Trek. We were very fortunate that Imoto Harney, who took the job of first assistant director, was available. I couldn't have asked for a better right hand than her while directing the film. Keith Brooks, our Unit Production Manager, is a fellow filmmaker and had a film in Sundance. He kept me on course while on set and used his literary skill to help me polish the script, adding many Human elements to the story. JONATHAN – So I was only half-kidding when I said, "Holy second mortgage!"  If you don't mind me asking, how did you manage to pay for everything?  It sounds like you're not exactly Daddy Warbucks… KENNY – It was a lot of money for me. I had to take a loan out on my company and one from my mother, who still to this day is helping me achieve my dreams. So for anyone wondering why I would do that, the answer is I really don't know. I have no hope of a financial return; it could almost be considered throwing money away by many. But I guess that, no matter the monetary cost, if I hadn't done it, if I hadn't done everything I could to grab on to this opportunity, if I had given in to fear or frustration and walked away, the cost would have been my soul…as James Kirk said so eloquently.  [Kenny laughs again.] I had to do it. I miss Star Trek. It hasn't been here in a long, long time…but it's still alive and well. JONATHAN – Kenny, your last update on your Kickstarter page said that you had finished filming all of your scenes back in September of 2015 after a 15-day shoot. You had intended to premiere your completed film on the 50th anniversary of Star Trek on September 8, 2016. What happened to delay that premiere date? KENNY – This was my first film as director. With my lack of knowledge came the risk of delays on set.  So my unit production manager, Keith Brooks, who had had a film in Sundance, helped me to learn to direct on set. He filled in my gaps to be the most efficient we could be. We started shooting on September 8, 2015, to honor the 49th anniversary of Star Trek. On September 9, day two of filming, Keith approached Zeke, Imoto Harney (my 1st assistant director) and me and, with a tear, let us know that he had just that very day been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had one year to live. I tell this here because Keith has openly told this story in his own company production called "Bean Dip Productions" for which they did an episode on cancer. [caption id="attachment_10204" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Left to right: John Pruner (director of photography), Keith Brooks (unit production manager, screenplay, co-writer Brianna Ferris (actor: Lyra), and Lauren Hope Williams (script supervisor)[/caption] Keith was the primary editor for the film, and he was now faced with torturous chemo-therapy which left him incapable of much activity. We refused to remove him from the editor's position. We worked at his pace and this, along with the few delays building the miniature, delayed the release. Keith's work and his vision for the film were worth the wait. I am happy to report that he is still with us and kicking cancer's ass! JONATHAN – YAY! KENNY – I don't see the delays we've faced as weaknesses. I see them as strengths. If even one person is helped by his cancer video, it's worth it. The ship model's construction was delayed by the need for Matt and Scott on the set of Hidden Figures, but we had the time to spare, so it was no inconvenience. JONATHAN – You only just recently filmed that gorgeous 11-foot model of the Enterprise in mid-February. How did that go? KENNY – The shooting of the 11 foot miniature was a dream brought into reality. We shot the ship on Stage 25 at Universal Studios Orlando, the DAVE School, with the help of Dan Smith, who is coordinating students to complete some of our green screen elements as school projects! For the shoot, I actually didn't have much to do on set, rather than stare in awe. I had done most of the work making animatics and shot lists at home. Once I handed those to Lee Stringer, Dan Smith, and my director of photography, John Pruner, they took the ideas and made them real. If memory serves, there aren't more than 10 or so shots of the Enterprise in the original series, and they used them over and over. We had that many, and then some, by day two of our four day shoot. Lee, Dan, and John were able to complete our shot list and then "play" with dream shots, angles and fly-bys that have never been seen on Star Trek. To see the original Enterprise look as gigantic and graceful as the Motion Picture Enterprise is the stuff dreams are made of. These shots are beautiful. JONATHAN – So what else is left to do before you're finished? All principal photography is completed including all live action and all miniature work. Lee Stringer has the miniature footage and is working his magic on all of the Constitution-class footage, plus adding his vast knowledge of CG to make the film look real. Dan Smith at DAVE School at Universal is allocating green screen inserts and VFX shots to his students to complete as assignments. John Pruner, our DP, will be color correcting the film. I am completing the sound effects, finalizing the score, and doing touch up editing. The film is very close to an edit lock, and we anticipate a release around October. The film is coming in at a running time of 90 minutes. It will look like an A-List movie once completed. Lots of fun coming up! JONATHAN – 90 minutes?  Isn't that longer than what the guidelines allow? KENNY – Yes. The guidelines were not in place, even when we finished principle photography.  We have openly contacted CBS and informed them of our film and haven't received a response. I'm hoping that since the film is self financed, it falls into a different category. I have also heard of a "grandfather" clause. We shall see. Fan films seemed to be accepted, so my goal wasn't to infringe on anyone's property, but simply among non-canon fan films, I wanted mine to be the best of those. None of us thought making the film would be an issue since there were so many being made already. We even had our attorney look into how fan films are looked at before we started production and were advised that the current climate for fan films was for the studios to look the other way, as long as no revenue was generated. We proceeded in good faith with no intentions of violating laws, though, since I have made no money and used my own money to make it, I've basically just made an elaborate expensive home video just like when we were kids and took our camcorders and made our own Star Trek episodes. JONATHAN – Will this fan film be it for you guys, or will you be making more First Frontier? KENNY – Star Trek is my life. I am willing to dedicate myself to serve in whichever capacity preserves the integrity of true Star Trek. Some television shows and movies transcend into more than what they started as. Star Trek is one of, if not the main show that has done this. It is worthy of respect and protection. If the fans like what they see, and if God allows me the gift, I will make Star Trek forever. If not, then I made one heck of a fan film for me to watch with my kids and grandkids. JONATHAN – If you do, in fact, produce more First Frontier, will it be following the guidelines, or will you take your chances? KENNY – I just don't know. It all depends on the next story I want to tell. Maybe we can do something in an official capacity with CBS, if there is fan support. We would be open to that. There is room in Star Trek for everyone. You can see LOTS more behind-the-scenes photos on the Star Trek: First Frontier Facebook page, and you can watch their newest teaser trailer below… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Csn_LeN5KBM […]