Thursday 21 August 2014

Interview: Starships Collection's Ben Robinson on year one and beyond

A year of The Official Starships Collection ships
A year ago today the first issue of Star Trek: The Official Starships Collection hit the shelves in the UK. The series has evidently been quite the success, as it has been recently announced it will be continuing beyond its original plan of seventy issues up to at least ninety - Meaning we can expect fortnightly model starships until early 2017!

To look back at the first year of the collection, and ahead to things to come, I am delighted that the series' manager, Ben Robinson agreed to talk with me about his work on the model ship and magazine collection. The interview continues after the jump:

The Star Trek Fact Files ran for 304 issues!
You’ve got quite a long history working in Star Trek, so I thought perhaps we should start by exploring how you wound your way to the Starships Collection, back from the Fact Files days?
It's a very long story. I got the job on the Fact Files when I responded to a newspaper ad. I was already working in publishing and Star Trek was both my hobby and my passion. Back then, no-one knew how long the Fact Files would run. It's success was about an absolute phenomenon. After about a year, the company I was working for decided to try to take it to the US. That meant doing it in a different format, so we launched a US magazine that combined the Fact Files with new behind the scenes material. I was responsible for that and in many ways it was a dream come true. My job was to find out and write about Star Trek. I could literally choose who to interview myself, and they almost always said yes. The magazine ran for four years and I got to talk to almost everyone I wanted to. I made a lot of contacts and collected a lot of material, often tracking down the stuff that no-one had seen before. I still have a pretty hefty archive and I'm very happy to say that a lot of the people I interviewed became friends so if we're working on something I can dash off an email and there's a good chance someone will come back to me.

After the magazine came to an end I carried on working for the publisher, mostly on 'genre' products. I launched a couple of very successful collections - we've done three Doctor Who ones - Battles in Time trading cards, which were a big deal, a DVD collection and now the figurine collection, which I love just as much as Star Trek. I did a James Bond car collection, some DVD collections, TMNT and Transformers collections for Russia. A couple of years ago, the company got bought out by Eaglemoss and I got to add Marvel and DC comics stuff to my CV. We're doing Marvel and DC Chess sets and the Marvel Fact Files. We're pretty busy!
Issue one, a year old today.
So The Collection has been running for a whole year now, but you must have been at work on it for some time before then. Could you take us through the inception of the series? How you settled on the scale of the models, the format for the magazine (part in-universe, part behind-the-scenes), and the running order and balance of different ships?
Is it only a year?! It's being a lot longer than that for me. After the success of the Fact Files we were always looking for another Trek product. Ships seemed like a natural idea, particularly as we'd had so much success with the James Bond cars. I had a few rules: there couldn't be any holes in the ships, they had to be as accurate and as well painted as possible, and they had to be a pleasing size that you could actually get in your home. I know a lot of people wish they were in scale with one another, but I don't think many people have thought through the implications of that. If you keep the NX-01 at the size it is, then the E should be over 2-feet long. There's no way we could do them all for the same price if we did that and there's no way you'd get a Voth city ship through your letterbox.

For the magazine, I knew from the Fact Files that people have a great interest in in-universe stuff. I also knew there's lots of interesting material out there about the filming models and the design process and that's not something I, personally, can ever get enough of. I love my Art of Star Trek book but I was always very frustrated that there was no explanation about what I was looking at.

The running order is interesting. I've learned a bit as we've gone along. The point of the collection was always to give people things that they hadn't been able to get before. I think you want to make it clear from the beginning that this isn't just a collection that has the Enterprises and a Klingon Bird-of-Prey. So I tried to make it clear that it would be varied from the word go so people understood what they'd be signing up for. As we've progressed, it's become clear that people are passionate about Federation ships, so I try to make sure we never go long without a Fed ship, even if it's something fairly obscure such as the Norway class.
Will the Son'a fleet join The Collection? (screencap via TrekCore)
It was recently announced that the collection will be continuing from the originally planned seventy-issue run, up to at least ninety. Do you have all the ships up to that point laid out already? Or is the leading edge of the collection still to be planned?
I have a long list of ships that we might do. It then becomes a case of tracking down the reference or the original 3D model. How good that is affects the order that I do things in. For example, I'd love to do all the ships from Insurrection but the CG models were made and saved in a different format. They never got archived at CBS - in fact, most of the models never reached an archive of any kind. I've used my own contacts to retrieve them. At the moment I'm just sending off the reference for issues 56-59. I've got a plan for another 30 but it's a very fluid one.
Working with designs from half a century of television and film production, you must be facing a variety of challenges translating physical and CGI models into miniatures. Can you tell us about that process, and the sort of reference materials you have available to base the models on?
In most cases we use the original Lightwave CG models that were built for the show(s). By definition that reference is pretty much perfect. It gets a bit tricky when you realise that the only CG version of a ship that appeared on screen is a good but not quite perfect copy of the studio model. When a ship doesn't exist in CG we have to track down photographic reference of the model and get it built in CG. Sometimes that's easy; sometimes it's next to impossible. We have recently been talking to the legendary Greg Jein, who turns out to have a lot of photographs of a lot of ships including ones he didn't build himself.

The tricky part is the painting. You have to make sure the ship looks the way it did on screen, rather than the way the model looked itself. For example, the Ent-D shooting model was painted blue, but it definitely isn't blue onscreen. There's a yellow model of the Stargazer and so on. I was talking to Gary Hutzel about this the other day - in particular about the Jem'hadar fighter - and he told me that they deliberately desaturated the model shots by 50% to get more control over the colour.
The Bajoran Solar Sailor, a unique challenge
Have you got any personal highlights from the collection so far? Which ships have been the most interesting to develop as models?
The difficult ones are the ones I remember - for obvious reasons. And I think on the whole they end up being my favourites. I've been very pleased with the Bajoran Solar Sailor and now the Romulan Drone just because I wasn't sure how we were going to do them when we started out. They're both very pretty models that bring something very different to the collection. There are times when I've been particularly pleased with a paint effect we've been able to achieve. I was delighted that we were able to get a hint of violet into the Jem'hadar bug, plus it's a really cool Jim Martin design. Finally, I think some ships just make more pleasing models than others at our scale. I think the Reliant is a great success.
Getting the details right on the TOS Enterprise
We know a lot of love is being given the TOS Enterprise model. Are there any other ships you’re really looking forward to tackling in future issues, or that are demanding a bit more attention?
They all get the same amount of attention. It's just that... well, the OS Enterprise is the most important ship in the history of Star Trek. I would love for people to think we did the best possible model at the scale. There's also a practical reason. The ships that people seem to like the most are the ones with lots of details on them, in particular people seem to like aztec patterns, and lots of hatches and windows. Matt always wanted his ships to be plain and smooth. He figured that's what a spaceship would be like because you weren't going to grab a spanner and nip outside to make adjustments. That means there aren't a lot of details on the outside of the OS ships. So when we're modelling them we better make sure that all the details there are, are in the right place.

Sorry, completely failed to answer your question.
Looking at the magazine, the highlight for me every time is the behind-the-scenes section, especially as it’s often revealed images and information I’ve never seen before. In the process of putting the magazine together are you discovering a lot of new material? How closely are you working with the original production artists to bring us these sections?
I have a lot of this material in my own archives. Concept art is one of my obsessions. I'm in pretty much constant contact with Rick Sternbach, Mike Okuda and John Eaves. Andy Probert is always willing to help, as are most people. We're working with Doug Drexler on the Enterprise-J and the NX-01.5. I'm name dropping here, but I was talking to Ira Behr about the Jem'hadar the other day and he pointed that it's nearly 20 years since they were working on the stories I'm asking him about, so I often find myself looking back to old interviews I did with people nearer the time. But, yes, they're (almost) all onboard and are lovely and helpful people.
I know my readers and I are eager to know what’s coming. What can you tell us about what’s planned in the following areas:

Kelvin might be coming, the Narada more challenging (image via TrekCore)
nuTrek ships – We’re all expecting the Vengeance as the third special, can we also expect oversized treatment for the Kelvin, Narada, etc? And what about some of the more background ships, are there plans for them to be included some time?
Erm, yes. No promises but I think there's a very good chance we'll see the Kelvin next year. I was looking at the 3D model of the Narada and honestly, it fills me with fear. I'm really not sure how to make it into a die-cast model. It has a lot of very thin, fronds for want of a better word. I keep thinking about it though! Beyond that, I'm not sure. We are doing the Klingon fighter from STID after the Vengeance.
TOS ships – We’ve had a few movie era ships, but nothing from the TV period yet. We know the Enterprise is on the way, will others from that era be following?
Absolutely. I'd like to do them all. Maybe not Yonada since I'm not sure people would feel a rock was good value.
Shuttles – We know the Delta Flyer is coming, can we expect other smaller ships to also feature?
The Delta Flyer is about as small as we're going at the moment. We are doing a Runabout and the Raven. Shuttles are the obvious omission from the collection. When we started out I felt that the scale was too different and that it seemed really wrong to have a model of the Galileo that was bigger than the Excelsior, but now I'm not so sure. I would love to do them. I'm not sure we can do them within the 90 issues that we've got planned at the moment. If people keep buying the collection, and it's financially viable to do more ships, I think we'll find a way.
Space stations – DS9 being included gave me hope of a big model of the movie-era mushroom station someday. Might that, or any other stations, ever come?
Never say never, but it's not on my list of things to do at the moment. If - and it's a big if - we do more space stations, I'd probably do K-7 first.
V'ger concept art (via Film Sketchr)
Big not-exactly-ship-things – Will the likes of the Doomsday machine or V’Ger ever be menacing the collection’s other ships?
The Doomsday Machine is long and thin and kind of looks like a log. I'm not sure it would make the most exciting model. V'ger is different. I have got artwork showing what it looks like inside the cloud that was done for the Motion Picture back in 1979. There was originally going to be a shot in the movie that showed it silhouetted against the moon but I'm not sure how people would feel about a model of a ship that they never actually saw in its entirety. I know what V'Ger looks like, but I'll be amazed if you can find me 10 people that can give me a drawing. I think that raises some questions.
Variants – We’re expecting Enterprise-A and B, on top of the existing Enterprise refit and Excelsior models. Will there be other variants of existing classes in the collection? For instance different Miranda or Nebula class configurations, or miniatures which got reused in different ways over the course of production?
It's not a priority. I can understand why people like variants, but as a fan myself I also know that getting the "same" ship again can feel as if you are being cheated. Again, if people keep buying the collection beyond the issues I have planned and there's an appetite for it, I can see us doing some Miranda and Nebula class variants. I guess it is relevant when it comes to doing different Fed ships. One to think about for the longer term - if we get there.
The NX refit, an exception for non-canon ships
Non-canon ships – Rumours are abound the NX-refit might be joining the collection. Are there any chances for other significant non-canon ships to be let in? (The Titan is technically a canon ship after all)
I think the NX-01.5 is a special case. Again, I know there are people out there who are passionate about the video games and the novels (or old FASA manuals for that matter) but for the moment we've drawn a line that says it has to have appeared in a live action TV series or movie for us to do it. There are a lot of those and it will keep us busy for a while. Of course, I do occasionally have dreams about doing ships from the Animated Series. That said, if more than 5,000 people sign up solemnly promising to buy a Titan or an Enterprise-F, we'll almost certainly do it. If anyone wants to make that happen then feel free - it's a serious offer. But, whatever you do, don't email me! I'm not going to count 5,000 emails.
Want a USS Titan model? Sign the petition!
UPDATE: Ben has confirmed he is completely serious, contact details for 5000 people willing to pre-order is what it takes to get a special issue commissioned! I'm note exactly sure how serious Ben was being there, but just in case, it seemed prudent to set up a petition!

I know there are lots of Titan lovers out there, it's perhaps the most significant of the non-canon ships, and indeed, the only canon non-canon ship! So if you would like a little model of the Titan, please go add your name to the petition I've set up, and I will be very happy to deliver a single email to Ben when we've found five-thousand Titan fans!

Oh, and if you don't know all the background of the Titan design, I just, coincidentally, posted an article about that today... Anywho, back to the interview!

And finally, away from the Starships Collection: You are also the author of both the Haynes Star Trek Manuals. Might we every see another addition to that series?
I'd love to do another one, but I think Haynes feel they've done enough. I can't say enough how much I enjoyed doing the Klingon book in particular. We talked long and hard to CBS about how much freedom we'd have. I'm always concerned about books that add to the canon. Too often they don't feel quite right to me. In this case, I think having Rick onboard made a big difference and I did an enormous amount of research into the Klingon Empire.

I was amazed at how consistent it was and how easy and logical it was to fill in details in places. One of my favourite things was to do with the escape pods. We know the Bird-of-Prey has them because we actually saw one in the last season of Deep Space Nine. The rest of the team kept saying that Klingons would never use escape pods, but I always think they are a bit more practical than that. I pondered long and hard about it and decided that although they'd have escape pods they'd only use them in extreme circumstances i.e. when at least a third of the crew was dead. Then I thought about accidents and I decided that the way Klingons see it, if the ship was lost in an accident then it was the engineers' fault and there was no way they were getting in an escape pod since the ship was only being lost because of their incompetence!

So, yes, I'd love to get the team back together and do another one... all we need is a publisher.
Huge thanks to Ben for his insightful answers. I certainly cant wait to see what comes next, and hopefully many more years of these great little ships!

For a listing of all the ships in the Starships Collection, including links to all my previous previews and reviews, see my index page.

And don't forget, sign the petition to get the USS Titan in The Collection!

Find Star Trek starships on!


Unknown said...

Great post, nice to hear the thoughts of the man behind the series.
I saw the petition and was wondering if we could add the Vesta class to the list? It's as cannon as the Luna class.

Christopher Dilloway said...

Part of the allure of the series was the ability to get more obscure ships like the Norway-class and some of the alien ships that would never see a model release outside of possibly an expensive resin "garage" kit. Definitely hoping for a Titan and I'd be happy to sign a petition for Aventine too. Maybe the Enterprise-F or a couple of the other designs from the online game.

Fox said...

I kind of wish you'd asked him about the quality control issues they've had. Fully have of the models have... pretty glaring defects.


1. Why not start a petition for Ezri Dax' ship from the novels. The Aventine? It's a very sexy design, too.

2. Your petition won't work. Or shouldn't work. You don't have it set up to limit it to one-vote-per-IP, which means a single person could sign in 5000 times.

Dan said...

Great article; I signed the petition, but I would certainly love to see some TOS-R ships too!

Anonymous said...

I want a Vanguard station.



Nils said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nils said...

Excellent interview! You asked all the questions I would have if I had them all written down and Ben's ear.
The NX-01.5 and Kelvin seem assured,and of course I'm signed on for the Titan.
I'm a little taken aback though about Ben's comment about more stations aside from K-7 being a very long shot.... Um, why? Release DS9 right at the start made me believe they would be part and parcel for the specials in the collection. As well they should be, the perfect larger center pieces to our growing fleets of ship to gather around in our displays. I know I'm not alone in hoping for those gorgeous ST space stations. They are canon, no dispute, and part of the on-screen starship experience, are they not? Please? Pretty please??
The most important thing here is that if you love this collection, subscribe, and stay subscribed. Then we all will get 99.9% of our favorites in the end I think.
Fox's comment here is valid though.... about quality control issues, since that can really turn people off. Considering how much hard work and love goes into making each model, it's a shame if all a subscriber remembers is that their favorite arrived poorly assembled. As a whole I'm ecstatic about the models and magazines though, and the customer service team at Eaglemoss STSS has left me convinced that I'm in good hands, and that is key. THE greatest STSS collection is a big deal to a lot of people Ben,Qapla'

BenRobinson said...

Thanks for all the kind words. I am completely serious about doing ships like the Titan, the Ent-F, the Aventine etc IF we can get enough people committing to buying them. What I need is 5,000 plus email addresses that we can contact. If they all agree to pre-order a ship we'll do it as a special in addition to the regular ones we have planned. If you wanted it as a regular priced issue I'd need a lot more names. 5,000 is a big ask believe me!
I'm doing my best to spend more time on the Star Trek ships Facebook pages so if you haven't already do drop by and like the page.

Unknown said...

Hi, is there any chance of the following ships being added to the collection?

Devore Warship
Keldon class
Son'a Battleship
Cardassian Dreadnought missile
Hirogen Holoship
Hirogen hunter ship
Kazon Raider
Kazon Carrier
Krenim Warship
Husnock ship
Admiral Janeway's shuttle
Argo Shuttle

Anonymous said...

I love the collections. I have the Bond Car Collection and parts of Batman and Star Trek. Have you ever considered dioramas that might fit into the plastic boxes? I always thought a Bond scuba scene from Thunderball or a Kirk Spock fight scene from Amok Time would make great display pieces. If you already have the licenses can't you do this?

Dan said...

Oh! I want to see the "Planet of the Titans" and Excelsior study models, since they made it onscreen in TNG and STIII.

mcarp555 said...

Two people comment about quality control, and Ben's response is to ignore it and talk about the Titan, etc. What if it got made and had "U.S.S. Tietan" on it in big bold letters?

Since I don't read the novels, I'm not interested in non-canon ships. But I do get annoyed that a ship I've seen on tv a zillion times has "Intiaparinu" printed on it.

Sean Tourangeau said...

I so sign the petition. I really want my Luna class in this collection. I have so much to say on designing her. Come on PLEASE PLEASE sign the petition and get the 5000 sigs.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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