What Was The Transporter Effect Created With On Star Trek: The Original Series?
Answer: Aluminum Powder
The special effects found in the original Star Trek looked futuristic on the screen but were surprisingly low-tech in real life. The automatic doors located around the ship, for example, were anything but automatic. They were actually opened by two film crew members pulling on a pulley and rope system–many of the bloopers from the show hinged on a film crew member day dreaming at their post and letting an actor walk right into the still closed doors.
In this regard the transporter system on the Starship Enterprise was no different. The actors and actresses on the show would walk onto the transporter set, take their places, be filmed for a few moments, and then–as the audience would later see it–be beamed down for some exciting adventure on the planet below. In reality the actors would simply step back off the transporter set and then, in the post processing, a sort of compositing magic would happen.
The modern CGI-wizardy we take for granted in the 21st century simply didn’t exist back in the 1960s. The sparkling effect you witness when watching old Star Trek episodes was executed in a very analog fashion. The special effect was created by Darrell Arthur Anderson of the Howard Anderson Company, a popular optical effects production company.
To create the effect, Anderson set up a slow motion camera, inverted on its axis, and pointed at a dark production stage. He then back lit the focal plane and sifted aluminum powder down through the frame creating a sort of sparkling snow effect. This footage was then later, using an analog masking and post processing technique, layered over the outline of the actors. If you’ve ever wondered why the transporter seems to freeze the people in place before beaming them down, it’s because compositing the image over a moving actor was simply too time consuming. Freeze framing them allowed the film crew to use only a single mask in order to create the effect.
When you see the crew beam down in a burst of shimmering light and atomic rearrangement, what you’re actually seeing is light shining off thousands of aluminum shavings lit with a high power stage lamp.