Friday, May 24, 2013

A TALE OF TWO TRANSLATORS – Screen-matching Props

Several years ago I was fortunate enough to acquire a screen-used Klingon Translator used in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. From the photos of the piece, I thought it might match one used by Captain Kirk/William Shatner in the pivotal courtroom scene. Once I got it in hand I was able to specifically confirm that connection – it was indeed Kirk's translator!  The more imperfections there are, the easier it is to match a piece. And Klingon props are purposely "weathered" to emulate great use. The rough, handmade quality of the prop acts as a fingerprint.

My version showing identical weathering
made with brushed-on silver paint
Fast forward to February 2013. I saw where Propstore was selling another Klingon Translator. I hoped that it might perhaps be the translator used by Dr. McCoy/DeForest Kelley in the same scenes with Shatner. If so, I'd have a complete, screen-matched set. I eagerly pored through my photo archive desperately trying to match the translator to McCoy, but no joy. I couldn't say that it was never used by either Shatner or McCoy, only that I couldn't prove it either way. And since it would make sense that they made more than two of the props in case something happened to one or both while in use, I figured the Propstore version was an "extra" – made but not necessarily used. With that, I decided to pass on buying it. 

As it turned out, a collector friend of mine named Doug was the winner (Doug is a member of the Star Trek Prop Room). Knowing of my Kirk version, he contacted me and asked me if I could lend any insight about his version. I shared my findings with him and told him that I was unable to prove specific use. And since I owned the Kirk, and his didn't match the McCoy, I couldn't give him any useful info as to whether or not it was actually screen-used. There was no doubt that it was a production made piece, but proving screen-use was another matter. I was bummed, but probably not as much as Doug.

But then something cool happened.

Like many collectors, I'm a voracious keeper of reference images. As such, I frequently check out Trekcore, an invaluable resource for Trek collectors. Among other things, Trekcore posts screen caps from every episode or film of Star Trek ever made. And they constantly update those images, so that when something is released on HD, for instance, new, BETTER images are posted. So back in April I decided to check their HD images of Star Trek VI to see if there was anything noticeably better that would act as better reference for screen-matching my translator. Sure enough, there was a great series of HD images of the courtroom scene and they were much clearer than older images. I downloaded everything that I thought would be useful and started sorting through them to see which showed the details I was looking for. And that's when I noticed something that I hadn't been able to see before. 

In some of the frames, Kirk is definitely holding a translator that WAS NOT MINE. There were several great shots that showed mine clearly, but a handful were definitely NOT a match to mine. Because of the lower image quality of earlier screen caps, it had not been possible to notice this fact. But now I had pics that were clear enough to show two different examples, both used by Shatner. I got a little excited and pulled out the reference shots I had kept of the Propstore version. Hey, I told you I was voracious.

Doug's version showing tons of organic
features that match perfectly
As I scanned the photos, I saw exactly what I hoped to see – details seemingly matching the new screen caps. I couldn't definitively say they were a perfect match – the Propstore shots didn't show the area I needed in great enough detail for that. But it definitely looked possible. I quickly shot off an e-mail to Doug and told him about what I had found. He didn't have his translator in hand yet, but told me he'd forward some shots to me as soon as he did. 

Last week, those shots showed up in my in-box. I was working at the time, but I was so anxious to see if there was a match that I quickly pulled up my reference shots and started comparing. It took me all of twenty seconds to confirm the match. Doug had a Kirk!  Later on I took my time with Doug's shots and created the comparison image below. I showed it to Doug as well as a few other collector friends to get their opinions. It was unanimous – the prop was a definitive match. I've since been told by Doug that he was able to open it up, put in a new battery and it lit up, just like we see on screen. Even better!

Along with defining the prop's use, the experience also taught me a bit about how props are used on set. Since all the translators looked alike on-camera,  the prop masters would not have needed to keep track of which was which. As props were put down for breaks between takes, there was no need to keep them sorted so that for any given take, the actors might be holding any given version. The courtroom scene undoubtedly took days to shoot, so the translator props could have easily exchanged hands any number of times. There's also the fact that my Translator was damaged, perhaps during shooting (it has since been repaired). If that was the case, my damaged one might have been replaced with Doug's intact version. There's a number of possible scenarios.

So that's the story. I'd be lying if I said that I didn't wish I'd bought the piece for myself. After all, you can never have too many hero props! But Doug is a really nice guy and loves the movie stuff like I do, and I'm always happy when a deserving collector ends up with something cool. Even if it isn't me! 

So congratulations, Doug, you've got a true rarity – a screen-matched hero prop used by Captain Kirk himself! VERY cool. Q'Pla!



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