(This post first appeared in 2014. I have updated it with current information.)
For as long as pop culture has been around, fans have wanted to get involved by creating new material for the properties they love. There’s nothing particularly deep or surprising about that idea. Just considering Star Trek, which is one of the fandoms I know best (And don’t worry. This post is not going to be all about Trek. I promise. That’s what Mondays are for.), fans of the series began writing and publishing their own stories in fanzines in the late 1960s while the series was still on the air.
At first fan fiction, art, and parody/tribute songs were the most prevalent forms of fan involvement, but as technology advanced, so did the ability of fans to play in the worlds that they loved so much. The arrival of inexpensive digital video cameras along with reasonably-priced editing and effects software in the early 2000s led to the rise of the fan film.
This isn’t to say that fans weren’t at least trying to make their own films prior to this. In the Fall of 1994, several of my friends and I attempted to make our own Trek-ish movie based on my fan fiction. However, all we had was a basic VHS camera for filming and two VCRs for editing. The sound mixing board my roommate bought was as high-tech as the project got.
Once good tools were available to the fans, though, the floodgates opened. Star Wars fans were some of the first to really take advantage of the new capabilities, and, in the days before YouTube, the fanfilms section at TheForce.Net provided one of the best repositories of fan creations. In researching this post, I was happy to see that the archive is still there providing links to many older fanfilms. Most are Star Wars related, but some branch out into other fandoms, such as superheroes.
Star Wars made sense as a first step due to both its enormous popularity and the relative simplicity of its environments. It actually became something of a joke that most fanfilms were basically “Jedi and Sith meet in a forest and fight.” One of my favorite fanfilms from this time, The Formula, is actually a comedy about friends attempting to make one of these fanfilms.
As prices came down on two other technologies, 3D rendering software and compositing software, the Star Wars films became more advanced with better looking ship sequences and the ability to put actors in virtual environments. Broken Allegiance is one of the most impressive of these mixing small sets, virtual backgrounds, fantastic costumes, and, yes, people fighting in a forest.
Star Trek fanfilms had a few more obstacles to deal with (I said this post wasn’t going to be all about Star Trek. I never said that there wouldn’t be some Trek content). Sure you could make a film about characters on a planet, but Star Trek without a starship (Or space station) just feels lacking. And a Starfleet vessel isn’t just a cockpit. There’s the bridge, transporter room, sickbay, quarters, and various other places on board to think about. Building sets for any of these, much less all of them, was beyond most fanfilm groups.
Accessible compositing software, which allowed actors to film in front of green screens and have virtual sets put in later, let Trek fanfilms come at the problem from another direction. Shooting in front of green screens, groups such as Star Trek: Hidden Frontier and Star Trek: Intrepid began making not just a standalone fanfilm but whole series of episodes. Hidden Frontier ran for multiple online seasons and led to many spinoffs.
For other Trek fanfilm groups, the goal remained to create full physical sets, and in the early 2000s, two separate groups did just that. Starship Exeter and Star Trek: New Voyages (Also known as Star Trek: Phase II) built sets in the style of the original Star Trek television series and began producing episodes. Exeter made two, the second of which remained incomplete until May of 2014. New Voyages, meanwhile has released eleven episodes (with a twelfth coming soon), many of which have included people involved with “actual” Star Trek, either in front of the camera or behind the scenes. George Takei, Walter Koenig, and Denise Crosby have all appeared, and episodes have been scripted by original series writers DC Fontana and David Gerrold.
More recently, Star Trek Continues joined the ranks of series with full sets, and, like Star Trek: New Voyages, it boasts the appearances of many professional actors, including Michael Forest, reprising his role of Apollo from the original series episode, “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, Jamie Bamber, Erin Gray, and Lou Ferrigno. Vic Mignogna, the driving force behind the series, is a professional actor as well (And, while I don’t know that he would call himself an actor, Grant Imahara from Mythbusters plays Mr. Sulu). Also like New Voyages, Star Trek Continues aims, as its name states, to continue the original series. As of this writing, they have released five episodes, with two more slated to come out this year.
The involvement of Hollywood professionals in fan productions has certainly upped the quality level of the episodes and raised viewer expectations. And interest does not seem to be waning. Right now, two projects are in various stages of production that promise to blur the line between fanfilm and professional production even further. Both Star Trek: Renegades and Star Trek: Axanar are utilizing casts made up almost entirely of professional actors including Tim Russ, Walter Koenig, and Robert Picardo, in the case of Renegades, and Kate Vernon, Michael Hogan, and Richard Hatch in the case of Axanar. Both projects raised over $100,000 dollars each in Kickstarter campaigns to make their films possible.
Fans of other properties, meanwhile, have continued to use the technology available to them to create better and more-professional looking projects. The duo, Not Literally, have released several incredible music videos for parody songs that celebrate their favorite fandoms. Aside from several Harry Potter-themed videos, they also made “Through Time,” a fantastic Doctor Who video, and the very clever “A Character I Used to Know,” which expresses feelings that fans of Game of Thrones know all too well. And while it’s decidedly less high tech, I couldn’t bring up Game of Thrones music videos without linking to the “Ultimate Birthday Rap Battle” (Warning: LOTS of language in this one. Skip it if you’re easily offended.).
With the cost and technological barriers greatly reduced and, thanks to the Internet, free distribution, creators of fanfilms and videos are able to share their visions and their love of various properties with the world. We’ve come a very long way from my days of editing with two VCRs and a pause button. Hmmm…maybe it’s time to get another movie together. Anybody want to back a Star Traks Kickstarter?
- Alan Decker
@CmdrAJD on Twitter