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Exclusive Steve Neill Interview

More about the man and his 1/2 scale USS Enterprise NCC-1701

RELATED TOPICS: SCI-FI / FANTASY | STAR TREK | SPACECRAFT
01

Last winter FineScale Modeler received a reader tip that led to Steve Neill, a longtime figure in the movie industry as a visual-effects artist and a fine modeler in his own right — although most of his builds won’t find a place on shelves next to 1/48 scale fighter planes or 1/35 scale armor.

 

For instance, his starship Enterprise (May 2016 FSM) is 66" long — a 1/2 scale replica of the 11' filming miniature built for the original “Star Trek” TV series and displayed at the Smithsonian Institute's National Air and Space Museum.

 

Steve’s exhaustive research yielded a replica as close as possible to the TV model, and he doesn't mind telling you so. Of course, to say your Enterprise model is more accurate than most is to invite close scrutiny from fans. But amidst the babble of Internet chatter, Steve can hold his own in any field of aficionados. His firsthand references and master-modeling skills make it so.

 

Early days

Though he has worked in Hollywood for decades, Steve, 64, grew up in Northern California. “Born in San Francisco, just like Sulu," he says with a laugh, citing a line from “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.”

 

Eventually, Steve’s family moved out to Pacifica, where he graduated from high school. Like most boys his age, Steve built models. “Most of my first models were World War II aircraft, and cars, stock cars. In the ’60s, growing up, my dad was a really good modeler, a fine artist, and an engineer, so he had a fine sense of model building. He used to build the most elaborate plastic models I’ve ever seen. All my friends would just kind of stick them together and not even paint them. But my dad went all the way, the way we see it today, back then.

 

“So he was very inspiring, and I did a lot of that. But by the time I got to high school I discovered motion pictures and effects and went into that.”

 

One of his next moves proved pivotal in his career — an internship in San Francisco at American Zoetrope, the film studio founded by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas.

 

Steve says, “Lucas was there at the time doing his one and only movie that I really consider a piece of art and a really good film, and that was ‘THX 1138.’ So I was around when all that was going on. Francis was a really great human being who helped me a lot. I learned a lot of my filmmaking from him.”

 

Steve’s longtime fascination with modeling and science fiction helped set his professional direction. He says, “I started picking up makeup prosthetic work because I really loved ‘Planet of the Apes’ and I wanted to re-create that makeup. One thing led to another. I learned how to do that work as best I could in the Bay Area.”

02

When Steve decided to build a starship Enterprise, he went big — really big — and scratchbuilt a 1/2 scale replica of the 11' filming miniature. That makes his ship 5.5' long!



On to LA

Sometime around 1973, Steve moved to Los Angeles. There he soon met famous makeup and effects artists such as Rick Baker (whose credits include “American Werewolf in London” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”), John Chambers (“Planet of the Apes” and TV shows “The Munsters,” “The Outer Limits,” and the original “Star Trek” series, for which he designed Spock’s ears], and Fred Phillips ( “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Outer Limits,” “Star Trek,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”).

 

Steve says, “I started a career in makeup effects, always planning to go back to filmmaking.

 

“I did actually make a movie called ‘The Day Time Ended,’ with (producer) Charles Band. I ended up doing a number of pictures with him doing special effects, makeup, props, miniatures, and that kind of stuff. I also produced and wrote the movie.

 

“After that, it was such a bad experience making that movie, I said, ‘I'm just gonna do this prosthetic stuff and creature work, it’s steady and I’m getting a lot of work.’"

 

And getting to know people in a business where connections are gold. As Steve got into the swing of things, his network proliferated. An exchange of professional favors brought Steve the thrill of a lifetime — working on the first Star Trek movie, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”

 

“That’s because I had met Fred Phillips,” Steve says. “I was friends with Bob Schiffer, who was the head of the makeup department at Disney studios for, like, an eternity, he had done everything from ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’ to ‘Shaggy Dog.’ He was their main guy.

 

“There was a job Schiffer had been asked to do for a TV show, and he could not do the job or even create it because he was under contract to Disney. He asked if I would do it and said he would show me how he did it and I could just go from there.

 

“So I did that, I created the makeup and got the job, but I could not apply the makeup because I wasn’t in the union yet. So I had to get a makeup artist. And Bob said, ‘Well, Fred Phillips is available, and he’s good with prosthetics.’"

 

That was an understatement. You could say Phillips had been around — since working makeup, though uncredited, for the 1939 “Wizard of Oz,” as a matter of fact. Phillips took the work and remembered the favor.

 

Later, Steve says, “I get this phone call from Fred and he asked if I wanted to work on ‘Star Trek.’ I thought he was joking, I thought, ‘What ‘Star Trek?’’ It had been off the air for a long time. And he said no, we’re making a movie.


03

Makeup artist Fred Phillips makes a fine point on Vulcan physiology with Leonard Nimoy during the original series of “Star Trek.”

“He said he had all kinds of stuff for me to do, just come down tomorrow. Could I report tomorrow?

 

 “So I went (to Paramount Studios) at 7 in the morning, went to the Gower entrance, and to the main studio where ‘Star Trek’ had been made, and that little makeup lab at the edge of the sound stage, and the first thing Fred brought out was a pair of ears John Chambers had made for Leonard Nimoy for the original TV show. He set them down and said, ‘Can you replicate these exactly?’ and gave me a casting of Leonard's ears.

 

“I was just blown away. I remember being in high school and reading The Making of Star Trek and thinking wouldn’t it be cool if I could come down to Hollywood and get on the back lot and meet these people and actually be around the crew, and here I was. And I was being asked to make Spock’s ears. I damn near fainted!”

Steve was working late that day, sculpting masters for Spock’s ears, when a shadow fell across his desk and he heard a sonorous, unmistakable voice ask, “Are those my ears?”

 

“I look up and there’s Nimoy,” Steve says. “It was one of those magical moments you have in a career that you never forget and will always be your favorite.

“So, that's kind of the short story of what's been going on between San Francisco and now. I've learned how to condense it. There's so much other stuff in there, working on ‘Star Trek: The Movie’ and ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Fright Night,’ all kinds of stuff, even the ‘Planet of the Apes’ TV show. It's just too much to list.”

04

A scene from “Ghostbusters” with Sigourney Weaver: The ghastly prosthetics were made by Steve (rear, left).


Fast forward — and more modeling

Having escaped the daily Hollywood grind, Steve lives an hour out of LA in Ventura, Calif., and does as he pleases. But it didn't come easily.

 

 “There’s always a problem when I go in for a job at a studio and people ask what I do,” Steve says. “I say I do prosthetics, I do makeup, I do CGI graphics, I do editing, I do aftereffects, I build miniatures, and they say, ‘You do too much. You're not for us.’

 

“And that’s what started happening to me. They want you to be specialized, and I could never really do that. I love all this stuff and I love doing it.

 

“We started doing some models for movies. I did a bunch of model work for ‘Honey I Blew Up the Kid.’ We had to re-create a Lotus and a lot of the buildings. I was working with [visual-effects artists] Bob and Denny Skotak at their studio, and they were doing ‘Batman Returns,’ so I got inspired to do more model work then. And I was building Star Trek models for myself.

 

“But I didn’t really get into it as a professional, a modeler for hire, being commissioned for several thousands of dollars, until about six years ago. People would come to me, high-end collectors who had the money and wanted exact replicas made of their favorite ships.

 

“Basically I've been doing models, off and on, all my life. Also sculpting and making figures and busts, and all the creature work I did for studios. It's all related.

05

Occasionally Steve even got on camera, as in this King Kong cameo for a Transamerica commercial during the 1984 Olympics. His wife Gilly controlled the gorilla’s face by radio.

“I did a lot of scratchbuilt R/C vehicles — submarines, say I want a model of the USS Washington, there isn’t one, OK, give me the plans. This is when I got in there and thought this is nothing more than a model airplane built out of balsa wood. Being an avid R/C airplane nutcase who builds World War II replicas and flies them, it was second-nature. I mean, essentially, I would take the cross sections — from plans or maybe from a smaller model — and use those bulkheads as forms, wire-cut them out of foam, and then (fiber)glass (them), and shave, all by hand, to make the masters, and then make silicone molds and produce models of subs, models of World War II boats, and, of course, later on, the big Enterprise. By that time, I knew what I was doing.

 

“I did a lot of that for a while when my wife was fighting cancer, and it really helped because studios weren’t hiring me as much at that point. I was in my 50s, and about that time it gets harder to get work. So I started working out of my garage at home.”

 

Professional challenges were overshadowed by heartbreak as Steve’s wife of 31 years, Gilly, died of cancer. Steve struggled to make ends meet while caring for his wife.

 

Going to warp drive

At one point in his darkest days, his friend Doug Drexler, a veteran visual-effects artist and designer, paid a visit. Seeing Steve’s 1/2 scale Enterprise lying neglected in his workshop, Drexler said, “Why don't you finish this? You gotta finish this. This is beautiful!” When Steve explained he had neither the time nor the money it would cost, Drexler asked what he needed — then wrote a check right on the spot.

 

“Doug was a huge supporter,” Steve says. “This model could not have been completed without his help.”

 

Steve’s Enterprise had begun not as a commission but as a passion. Steve says, “You know, Jim Key from Custom Replicas made his — and I didn't know Jim at the time, I'm friends with him now — and then he stopped making them. And I wanted to buy one and just build it and I couldn’t get one, and it really bugged me. I mean, I finally have the money to buy one of these things and there’s nowhere to get one.

 

“So I said, fine, I'll just make my own.”

 

And eventually he did, with a little help from friends and Star Trek authorities such as Drexler, Gary Kerr, Mike Okuda, and Rick Sternbach.

 

It so happens all of the above are on the special committee invited to advise the Smithsonian on the current restoration of the original NCC-1701.

 

“I knew I was being accurate, because I kept showing it to them at every step of the way, and they’d say a little bit to the left or a little bit to the right, and they would send me photographs of the Enterprise that I was not to share with anybody else. It was fun.”

 

Panel lines or no panel lines?

Perfectionists and experts abound in any field of scale modeling. “Rivet counting” is not uncommon in science-fiction modeling, even when rivets may be centuries past. Certainly anyone who builds a specific version of the USS Enterprise will hear from hobbyists with strong opinions.

 

Now that Steve’s Enterprise has been plying cyberspace for a few years, he has heard his share of chatter. One ongoing discussion hovers around the question of whether the TOS ship had engraved panel lines.

 

The very ship in question — the original 11' filming miniature displayed at the Smithsonian — still shows penciled radial lines. Steve says he tries to talk about it with fans, “because they’re so obsessed.”

 

A recent feature on the Smithsonian's restoration project bears Steve out.

Read the blog here

 

“But there are always these raging debates about it on the Internet,” Steve says. “I get so tired of it, I just turn a blind eye to it.

 

“I know the ship really well.”

 

But he’s still happy to talk to people about it. “I’m very accessible,” he says. “My friends say, ‘I would be besieged by calls!’ But it rarely happens. It’s like reverse psychology. People call and I hear this pause, and then they say, ‘Is this Steve Neill? I didn’t think you’d really answer the phone. I don’t want to bother you, but …’

 

“So, yeah, my door is open. Come have a cup of tea and look at the stuff! We do this stuff so not only we have fun, everyone around us who enjoys it has fun.”

06

Mary Cacciapaglia


Good times in Ventura

With the passage of time, Steve has found solace and a soulmate with whom he works side by side, Mary Cacciapaglia, now his business and life partner.

 

“I really didn’t think I would ever meet anybody or fall in love again, but I did. I met Mary. She’s a beautiful, intelligent woman who is also a very gifted artist. We share all the same passions for film and art, amazingly so.

 

“I remember when I first started dating her, I asked her, ‘What’s your favorite holiday? Because mine is …’ and before I could get it out she said, ‘Halloween,’ and I finished, ‘because mine is Halloween.’

“So she said, ‘Why don’t you get out of Hollywood?’ We only live an hour from LA, I’m not out of reach of the studios, and it’s so much nicer here by the ocean. The studio is beautiful. Most of the effects studios in LA are in kind of seedy, rough areas, and this is all beautiful and scenic. We’re very happy here.

 

“We’re doing prosthetics, creature work, miniatures, models, props, and now we’re producing our own TV series with Whitley Strieber, who’s an author of many movies and books (The Hunger, The Wolfen, Communion) and, more recently, he has a show coming out produced by Gale Anne Hurd, called “Hunters,” on SyFy, and we’re working with him on a film series called “But Something’s There,” a dramatic series about people who have encounters with the unknown.

 

“We pick and choose what we want to do, we don’t have to take any work that we don’t want to do. Like today, I was asked if I could build a model. I told him the big price, and if he can afford it, OK, and if he can’t I don’t care. It’s nice to be in that position.

 

“But I get a lot of people who don’t even ask me about price. They’ll say, ‘Well, I got an Enterprise TOS I need built, I’m willing to give you $500 for that.’ I just giggle. I try to be nice and say, no, you don’t understand, the cost covers materials but certainly none of the overhead at my studio to build a model like that.

 

“The last model I built was one of the AMT Enterprise Ds, for a Chinese client. I built a studio scale X-wing for him, and some other models. I got $15,000 for that model because he wanted it exactly like the studio model.

 

And even then, if you break down how long it took me to do it, it’s still not a lot of money at all. It was OK, but not the best. Luckily, I’m tight with a lot of people who worked with Star Trek, and a personal friend of Andy Probert, who designed the ships [for “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation”], so I was able to get all the data I needed on it.

 

“But it was intense building that little model with all those windows, and everything had to blink at just the right speed.

 

“And then Chinese customs destroyed it! They had taken it out of the packing, which was no small matter. It was solidly packed in foam, you had to know how to take it apart. They didn’t, they just opened it up, broke it, looked inside, made sure there wasn’t any contraband or whatever, then put it back.

 

“The poor client was so patient. He sent it back, talked to customs, I fixed it, sent it back, and they did the same thing again. That’s when he gave up.

 

“So, if someone is going to have me build a model they have to come here to pick it up.”

07a
07b

Steve reused his master molds to make another massive Enterprise for the National Museum of Science Fiction — but this time it has an interior and lighting. The bridge and hangar deck are two areas that show the fine-scale detailing.


Celebrating 50 years and paying it forward

Steve’s original 1/2 scale Enterprise isn’t going anywhere — it has a permanent place of honor in his home. However, using the same master molds, he is donating a deluxe follow-on  — with interior details and lighting — to the Museum of Science Fiction in Washington, D.C., to mark the 50th anniversary of the original “Star Trek.”

Steve is sticking by his shipping policy — this model, too, is available only for home pickup. “And that’s what the Museum of Science Fiction is doing,” Steve says. “They’re driving a truck out here.”

 

Not only that, but the transport will be manned by experts: sci-fi artist and kit maker Lou Dalmaso, known to many Trek modelers as “Aztek Dummy,” and Steve Dreyer, chairman of the Museum of Science Fiction’s model construction subcommittee.

 

But before dispatching the latest Enterprise to the museum, Steve held a christening party with various luminaries of Star Trek’s inner circles, such as D.C Fontana, who wrote or contributed to several screenplays of the original series.

08

Screenplay writer D.C. Fontana helps Steve give his museum model a proper sendoff.


More than a five-year mission

For a lot of people, it’s hard to believe it’s been 50 years since the original series aired. But “Star Trek” has never really gone away — as evidenced by an ongoing project that recalls Steve’s heady days at Paramount with Leonard Nimoy looking over his shoulder.

 

Steve says, “That came full circle just recently because Leonard and his son Adam were doing a documentary called ‘For the Love of Spock.’ Of course, when Leonard passed away last year that came to an end. Then Adam got it started back up again, did a Kickstarter campaign and raised a bunch of money to do it.

 

“He got in touch with me and I helped out, because I still had the original ear molds, and I made up some of the ears from the molds so he could offer those as perks. And then he came up here to the studio and shot footage in the documentary of how I made those ears for his dad, and had me make up one of his assistants.

 

“It was really a cool experience to have his son here. He’s so much like his dad. At this point, full circle.”

09

Steve is helping Adam Nimoy, Leonard’s son, raise funds to complete a documentary called “For the Love of Spock” by selling Vulcan ears cast from the same molds used in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”


It’s just what he does

The editors of FineScale Modeler implore contributors to chronicle their projects by taking photos of every step and technique. But we didn’t have to ask that of Steve. Rather, the challenge was winnowing the in-progress photos to fit the magazine’s available space — because Steve omitted nothing.

 

He says, “I have no problem showing the good and the bad. I’m not one of those modelers who covers up my mistakes. I have always showed them to say, look, this is how you learn. It’s from your mistakes. And if you think you’re an expert at any point in your career, you’re not. You’re gonna be thrown stuff that you think you know how to do and it is going to fight you, bite you, and kick you down until you beat it, so you really need to show the people who want to learn how to do this all of the bad, the mistakes, because otherwise they get this idea that you’re somehow perfect and they can’t live up to that. And that’s bull. Everybody makes mistakes.”

 

It’s plain that ordinary setbacks won’t stop Steve anytime soon. He says, I refuse to grow up. That will kill you quicker than anything. When you let go of your passions, you let go of your passion to live, too. You see it all the time.

 

“Just because you retire doesn't mean you stop doing what you love to do.”


More — lots more — at http://sneillfx.net

10

World War II buffs will recognize the U.S. Army Air Forces officer’s crush cap worn by Steve. It’s his tip of the hat to “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, a B-17 pilot. Incidentally, Matt Jefferies, designer of the original Enterprise NCC-1701, was a B-17 flight engineer and co-pilot.

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