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They just keep on Trekking

The final frontier lives on through fan films, crafted for the Internet by people outside the industry. Financially, it's a different universe.

July 07, 2007|Deborah Netburn | Times Staff Writer

THE house -- a three-bedroom stucco ranch in South Pasadena with daffodils in the front and a carport on the right -- looks normal enough.

But walk through the living room with its overstuffed couches, ignore that door on your left where a young man is getting leopard spots painted on his face, and you'll end up in a small room with a stained beige carpet and two bureaus whose contents are described by pale yellow sticky notes affixed to each drawer. Among them are Bajoran earrings, Alien PADDs (person access data devices), Sirol mind devices, hairpieces, ears and Klingon blades.

This is the set of "Star Trek: Hidden Frontier," the longest-running series in fan film history.

First, a definition: Fan films are movies made by people outside the entertainment industry who write or improvise a script set in a familiar universe (like "Star Trek" or "Star Wars" or "Batman" or "Harry Potter") and shoot it themselves.

It's not illegal as long as nobody makes any money from it -- although some companies, Marvel in particular, don't like their characters and worlds messed with. Anyone can do it, but it's not easy. Time-consuming. Costly. And if you want to do it really well, there are actors, special effects, props, background music, costumes, makeup and distribution to consider.

That's when making a small fan film becomes a Herculean labor of love.

Rob Caves, creator and executive producer of "Hidden Frontier," wanted his series to be good. He's a diminutive 28-year-old with an almost unnervingly calm demeanor. As a kid watching "Star Trek: The Next Generation" with his father, and later "Deep Space Nine" on his own (he never liked the original series), he leaned less toward the usual "Trek" fan impulse of "I wish I lived there" and more toward "I want to make that."

Caves inherited the South Pasadena house from his grandmother, and for the last seven years he has spent most of his weekends in the back room or spaces much like it, directing scenes, holding a boom mike, filling in for missing actors, solving technical problems, consulting on costumes, shaking the camera for the "ship just got hit" shots and doing all the other thankless things an executive producer of a fan film series has to do. (To make money, he works as a freelance film editor, when he has time.)

Most weekends he is joined by a cast and crew that numbers in the 30s -- a mix of plus-size Trekkies, slim aspiring actors, gray-haired former aspiring actors, a couple of wannabe screenwriters and a handful of soft-spoken (and less soft-spoken) gay men who fell in love with "Hidden Frontier" because of the same-sex relationships it (tastefully) explores.

Since he first made "Star Trek: Hidden Frontier" available for free downloading on the website ("Boldly going where no fan film has gone before"), Caves and his revolving team (not everyone sticks around when nobody is getting paid) have completed 50 episodes of the series.

Traffic on the site picked up when the last official television series, "Star Trek: Enterprise," ended in 2005, and fans scavenging for any new "Star Trek" material began to find Caves' work in snowballing numbers. "Hidden Frontier" picked up so many viewers that some cast members started getting recognized at official "Star Trek" conventions they were attending as fans. Now 50,000 people download each new episode, and even more watch the series on YouTube, Ifilm and other video-sharing sites.

"THEY always say it's just a ship."

Risha Denney (former actress, current astrology student, mother of two) is dressed in a replica "Star Trek" uniform with four gold pips (round pins) on her collar to indicate that her character, Elizabeth Shelby, is a Starfleet captain.

She is standing in the back room of Caves' house in front of a thin piece of plywood that's been painted green. When Denney's scene is edited and the digital background inserted, viewers will see Shelby surveying the wreckage of her starship Excelsior, which just crashed, with her and her crew inside, at half-impulse speed into the main concourse of a space station.

"What do they know?" says Robin Lefler, Shelby's second in command, played by Joanne Busch, a sometime actress, sometime liver-transplant nurse. She joined the cast shortly after befriending Denney in an acting class. "So, not evacuating?"

"I can't leave her behind," Shelby says. "Not when she can still do some damage. Can you run it with what?"


"Ninety-three people?"

"Including us."

Shelby inhales deeply and narrows her eyes. "The Tholians won't know what hit them."

ASK Caves why he started a fan series, why he has kept it going for seven years and why he opens his house to strangers each weekend, and he'll mention that he loves "Star Trek" and he wants to be part of its legacy.

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