The final frontier

Being a big fan of all things Star Trek, I was disappointed when I was unable to catch the new JJ Abrams vision of the future when it made its debut at the local picture palace.

So when I saw a copy of a Digital Versatile Disk (DVD) of the film on the shelves of the local supermarket, I purchased a copy très rapidement, eagerly anticipating what wonders might unfold before my eyes on my widescreen TV later that night.

I can’t say that I was disappointed with Abrams’s work. Indeed, not only had he created a rather exciting motion picture, it was also a respectful tribute to those early, somewhat less sophisticated, TV episodes that I had watched in the 1960s.

One of the more interesting aspects of the production was that Abrams had chosen to make it using conventional film – rather than digital cameras. What’s more, to give the movie that great big outdoorsy John Ford feel, he had also chosen to shoot it in a panoramic format using anamorphic lenses.

These anamorphic lenses lent a rather interesting feel to the film, noticeably because of how they distorted light, creating certain artifacts that don’t occur in films made using conventional spherical lenses.

One of these was a kind of lens flare that produced a long horizontal line with a blue tint that streaked across the screen many times during the picture. The resultant images that were produced not only contributed to the realism of the film, but also created a rather futuristic effect, and one that otherwise would have been difficult to achieve.

Indeed, rather than considering the flaring effect of the lenses undesirable, Abrams and his team used it to their advantage, even augmenting the effect by flashing lights at his cameras while filming. Cleverly, he had turned what some might consider an annoying disadvantage to his benefit in the making of this spectacularly inventive epic.

Interestingly too, the folks at Industrial Light and Magic that produced the special effects for the film – which were, for cost reasons, digitally created, rather than filmed in space  – were also tasked by Abrams to reproduce the very same anamorphic effects to provide a continuity to the entire production.

All of this got me wondering how many engineers might have also used the properties of some mechanical, electronic, electrical or optical component that might, at the outset, appear to have many drawbacks, and then turned these to their advantage when they used them in the design of a new product or system.

I bet there are hundreds of such examples that you might be able to provide me with. So if you’ve been involved in working on a project where you too have boldly turned a sow’s ear into a silk purse, I’d love to hear from you. Your achievements might not win you an Academy Award – Abrams didn’t pick one up either – but I, for one, sure would be interested to find out what you’ve been up to.

Live long and prosper.

Dave Wilson
Editor, Engineeringtalk

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