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Fan Film Friday – An Interview with KENNY SMITH of STAR TREK: FIRST FRONTIER (Part 3)

By March 31, 2017 Fan Films

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…

Kenny Smith and fiancee (and cast member) Autumn Dawn Nierode

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.

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)

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…

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