Emmy Season Preview: The Brave New VFX World Of "Star Trek"--An Even Bolder Frontier During The Pandemic
Jason Zimmerman, a VES Award nominee for and lead visual effects supervisor on "Star Trek: Discovery"
Emmy- and VES-nominated visual effects supervisor Jason Zimmerman reflects on working remotely, lessons learned, and visions realized

Last month, SHOOT’s TV Awards Season Preview centered on DGA and ASC Award nominees across television categories who could figure in this year’s Emmy race. They included directors Susanne Bier for The Undoing (HBO), Zach Braff and MJ Delaney for Ted Lasso (Apple TV+), and Christopher Werner for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO), as well as cinematographers Ken Glassing for Lucifer (Netflix) and Jon Joffin, ASC for Motherland: Fort Salem (Freeform). Joffin wound up winning an ASC Award, topping the Episode of a One-Hour Television Series--Commercial category for the "Up is Down" installment of Motherland: Fort Salem.

Now in SHOOT’s Emmy Preview (a prelude to our 16-part The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories), we zero in on Visual Effects Society (VES) Award-nominated work that carries Emmy implications--specifically the “Su’Kal” episode of Star Trek: Discovery, which has been entered into the VFX Emmy competition for TV Academy voters’ consideration.

The time-honored Star Trek mantra remains to boldly go where no one has gone before. That ambitious destination, though, was hardly reserved for the select few this past year as we all experienced and have been profoundly impacted by a new frontier--not in outer space but rather our very own world during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And from that pandemic sprung a major lesson for visual effects supervisor Jason Zimmerman, a Star Trek vet whose extensive work includes Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: Discovery, two series created for CBS All Access (now Paramount+). The VES Award nod for “Su’Kal” came in the Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Episode category.

Professionally,  observed Zimmerman, there’s been a silver lining to the pandemic in terms of how it impacted his Star Trek exploits. While working remotely is nothing new to the VFX community, it was far from the norm for Zimmerman and his core team on Star Trek who were most accustomed to working in-person within their close-knit unit. But the necessity of a remote modus operandi, he observed, “caused us to communicate more regularly and to be more specific about what we were communicating.”

Additionally, Zimmerman found himself and his colleagues in touch with their vendors more often, conducting Facetime sessions to make sure they were okay and that work was progressing properly. Zimmerman noted the pandemic kind of “forced” them to collaborate creatively more regularly. He was also struck by the resilience of his team and vendors, their strong work ethic and willingness to adapt.

This, he continued, made the VES Award nomination all the more gratifying, underscoring the importance of “the passion that everyone brings to the table despite all the challenges.”

Zimmerman further observed that the nature of working concurrently for a stretch as lead visual effects supervisor on Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: Discovery was inherently better facilitated by a remote workflow, which helped him to more efficiently navigate through a host of changing worlds and realities across two series.

Awards pedigree
This marked Zimmerman’s second VES nomination for Star Trek: Discovery, the first coming in 2018 for “The Vulcan Hello” episode. He now has a total of four career VES Award noms, the first two having been for the series Terra Nova in 2012 and the TV movie Mockingbird Lane in 2013. He served as VFX supervisor on the team that won the VES Award for Terra Nova.

 Zimmerman is also no stranger to the Emmy nominees’ circle, having been recognized in 2019 for an installment of Star Trek:  Discovery (“Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2) and in 2006 as part of the ensemble on the telefilm Mammoth.

The Emmy-eligible season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery offered other brave new worlds beyond the circumstance of dealing with a pandemic. For one, it differed from past Star Trek endeavors in the sense, assessed Zimmerman, that he and his team were afforded more of an opportunity to develop “a new canon,” not centered quite as much within the rich history of the Star Trek franchise. In the past, he explained, when you’re working on worlds, including icons such as the Starship Enterprise, the impetus was to honor those beloved versions and visual canons that resonated with viewers. For season 3 there was more focus on creating a new series canon while of course staying true to the spirit of the past.

Another welcomed new wrinkle, continued Zimmerman, was a bit more creature work, readily evident in the “Su’Kal” episode which was named after a most unique character, a Kelpien orphan who's fully grown. Yet at the same time Su'Kal is a sensitive childlike soul who’s led an isolated existence communicating only with computer programs designed to help him survive a traumatic world.

Zimmerman is energized by these different dynamics--as well as the differences between Picard and Discovery. Looking back, he recalled that the Picard series carried the opportunity to dig into the Star Trek universe in a way tonally quite different than Discovery. Picard, he related, offered more drama at times, as well as action that varied in nature from that in Discovery. “It’s been really fun to grow into these different worlds and help tell these stories,” affirmed Zimmerman, adding that integrating with the visions of different writers has been creatively inspiring.

Editor’s note: SHOOT kicks off its 16-part weekly The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories next Friday (5/14). The features will explore the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners in September, and then the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on September 19 broadcast live on CBS and streaming on Paramount+.

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