"One of the most boldly-produced, highest-quality fan series available on the internet today. Stunning action and witty humor combine to form an exciting tangle of stories that leaves you wanting more."
The house -- a three-bedroom stucco ranch in South Pasadena, Calif., 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 (such as "Star Trek" 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. It's time-consuming. Costly. And if you want to do it really well, there are actors, props, background music, costumes, makeup and distribution to think about.
That's when making a small fan film becomes a huge labor of love.
Rob Caves, creator and executive producer of "Hidden Frontier," wanted his series to be good. As a kid watching "Star Trek: The Next Generation" with his father, and later "Deep Space Nine" on his own, he leaned less toward the usual "Trek" fan impulse of "I wish I lived there" and more toward "I want to make that."
Caves, 28, 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 number in the 30s -- a mix of Trekkies, slim aspiring actors, gray-haired former aspiring actors, a couple of wannabe screenwriters and a handful of gay men who fell in love with "Hidden Frontier" because of the same-sex relationships it explores.
Since he first made "Star Trek: Hidden Frontier" available for free downloading on www.hiddenfrontier.org ("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.
Risha Denney, a former actress, current astrology student and 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 has 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 that?"
Ask Caves why he started a fan series, why he opens his house to strangers each weekend, and he'll mention that he loves "Star Trek" and wants to be part of its legacy.
He also can't seem to stop. "It takes a lot of determination to put something like this together," he said. "A lot of people talk about wanting to start up a fan film, but there is so much work involved, 99 percent of them don't get past an idea."
A safe addiction for now
"But once you reach a certain point and you have an episode out there, it is like crack. You just want to do more and get more response and keep telling new and interesting stories. It is really addictive, but not dangerously addictive. I'm not driving myself into the financial ruin column yet."
Caves shoots seven episodes a year at $200 per episode, and he's never built an actual set. But Dave Noble, editor of Fan Film Quarterly, an online magazine that chronicles this expanding genre, put "Hidden Frontier" on his list of top 10 pivotal moments in fan film history. "Usually, for a fan film, a group gets together for one, two or three films and then moves on to bigger and better things," he said. "But ['Hidden Frontier'] started developing seasons, and each installment was like an episode. A fan film can take a group of people up to one year just to do one project. These people were doing an episode every six weeks."
Ninety percent of "Hidden Frontier" is shot on a green screen in Caves' small back room, but he does ventures outdoors. For the final shoot of his series, a wedding scene, he chose the arboretum at the University of California, Irvine. The shoot coincided with the first day of the Excelsior Ball II, "Hidden Frontier's" fan convention. ("The fans are all nervous when I come around; it's so cute!" Denney said later.)
Caves had decided that seven years was long enough for one series, so last fall he announced that the 2007 season would be the last for "Hidden Frontier." (His next series, "Star Trek: Odyssey," begins this fall and stars some of the same actors.)
The arboretum would have been a perfect choice (pretty, free) if only it weren't so near John Wayne Airport. The shoot was interrupted by the rumble of low-flying planes.
- - -
'New Voyages' a noteworthy film
California's Rob Caves, of course, is not the only "Star Trek" addict, and his "Hidden Frontier" is not the most famous "Star Trek" fan film series. That distinction belongs to the New York-based "Star Trek: New Voyages," which picks up where the original "Star Trek" left off before it was canceled after three seasons in 1969.
"New Voyages" was created by Elvis impersonator and "Star Trek" fan James Cawley and his friend, Jack Marshall. Cawley put more than $100,000 of his own money into building a replica of the USS Enterprise set (he was given the original blueprints in the mid-'90s).
Thanks to the set's quality and his dedication to the series, he has been able to lure show-business professionals to donate their time to his production, including Oscar-winning makeup supervisor Kevin Haney and D.C. Fontana, a story editor for the original series. He even has persuaded "Star Trek" stars such as George Takei and Walter Koenig to make guest appearances.
"New Voyages" is renowned for having the best production value of the fan films. They shoot only one episode a year; even with plenty of free labor, each costs more than $40,000 to make.
-- Los Angeles Times