Star Trek II: The Wrath of CAD

After 1979s Stark Trek: The Motion Picture fell short of expectations, the production team on its 1982 follow up were under immense pressure.

Today Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is widely regarded as the benchmark for the franchise and one of the best science fiction films ever made.

It’s also notable as the first movie to use the principles of Computer-Aided Design, better known as CAD, for visual effects.

In 1982, few believed the sequel could rejuvenate the Star Trek brand.

High pressure, fewer resources

With less than a third of the original’s budget to work with, the filmmakers got creative.
They aimed for a more story and character-driven movie, and they sought cost-effective solutions for special effects.

That’s where CAD helped save the day.

CAD in the Early 1980s

CAD technology had been maturing since the 1960s by the time Hollywood took notice.

In the early 80s, it was used primarily for engineering drawings, product design, and simulations, enabling improved efficiency and precision in designing complex objects and systems. During this era, CAD systems ran on large mainframe computers or specialized workstations.

The technology’s adoption was a shift from manual drafting and physical modeling to digital processes.

The Genesis Effect

A seminal scene in the Wrath of Khan visualizes the Genesis Effect, a terraforming technology that can rapidly transform a lifeless planet into a habitable one. In the film, the Genesis Effect is shown through a computer-generated simulation, depicting a lifeless planetoid quickly changing into a thriving Earth-like planet.

The sequence required detailed modeling and complex animations simulating real-world physical transformations, akin to how CAD is used in engineering.

Custom software developed by the Graphics Group of Lucasfilm’s Computer Division, which would later become Pixar, drove the effects. The solution adapted CAD’s 3D modeling principles for filmmaking.

Complex Simulation

The sequence simulates a complex transformation similar to how CAD is used in engineering to model and simulate real-world objects and environments.

The filmmakers used the technology to:

  • Create a three dimensional representation of a planet’s surface and subsequent transformation
  • Utilize fractal algorithms to generate a realistic and detained terrain, and
  • Create a sophisticated animation to simulate the explosive terraforming process

Legacy

The Genesis Effect sequence proved to be a powerful case study. The Wrath of Khan was a box office sensation and it paved the way for increased CAD and CGI in film, influencing countless projects.

The 1982 film Tron, which was filmed concurrently to the Wrath of Khan and released after, is also credited with pioneering 3D imagery in cinema, but the specifics were more aligned with early computer graphics techniques than traditional CAD.

CAD is still used in movies today, though its role has evolved and expanded.

Modern filmmakers use a variety of 3D modeling, animation, and rendering software that can be considered descendants of traditional CAD tools.