October 22, 2007

Interview: Art Binninger, the Ed Wood of 1970s stop-motion animated Star Trek parodies

(The sixth in a series of occasional interviews with people I find interesting or who work on interesting projects.)

Chances are, you’ve never heard of Art Binninger, the Star Trek fan whose mission to make stop-motion animated Star Trek parody films began in 1974, and ended shortly after a cease-and-desist letter from Paramount came in 1986. So let’s have him introduce himself:

Yes, that’s right. Art Binninger produced his films with help from his friends in the Air Force’s Audio Visual Squadron. That kind of makes your high school’s A/V Club seem wimpy, huh?

Between 1974 and 1975, Art and his friends produced three “Star Trix” short films (recently resurrected on YouTube). With each one, he refined his technique a little more. After Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out in 1979, Art began working on “Star Trix: The Flick,” which he finished in 1984 with even more amazing sets and special effects (it can also be seen on YouTube in five parts.

To me, the best thing about Art’s “Star Trix” project is that he actually documented the creation of all the films as he went, taking behind-the-scenes photos and footage. In an attempt to get the films shown on TV at the time, Art even made a “Making of” documentary so the total running time would better fit a TV schedule. The result is that today we have a detailed look at a particularly enthusiastic fan and his friends embracing the Do-It-Yourself spirit to create something wonderfully geeky in an era we now look back on with nostalgia.

Art recalls the entire period in a detailed website he put together recently. It’s full of photos and stories from behind the scenes, including the 1984 Cease-and-Desist letter he got from Paramount, and what he did about it. But I had a few more questions for Art, which he was nice enough to answer. With his permission, photos from his website appear throughout the interview:

Looking back at yourself when you were making those films, how do you see yourself? Were you more of an Ed Wood or a young Spielberg?

Very apt selection of names. I think I was Ed Wood trying to be Steven Spielberg. When the Ed Wood biopic came out years ago, a number of my friends who worked with me on those films saw a lot of humorous parallels and asked if I had any angora sweaters stashed away somewhere.

Were you trained in animation, or were you figuring it out as you went along?

There was so little material to learn from in the early 1970’s, especially in the vicinity of Vandenberg [Air Force Base], that I had to figure out a lot as I went along. I did have the advantage of the Mopic Documentary Photo section being near the barracks. I would wander over and haunt the place, asking questions and they were would show me what they were taught in the motion picture camera technical school… As for the clay animations, when I talked about a Star Trek animation, the guys got excited about this like it was something they could really sink their creative teeth in. Unfortunately, by the time we were almost ready to film, all my mentors (grand old men of 21 and 22 years of age) were either finished their enlistments or transferred. So I simplified things and carried on.

By using Air Force facilities for studio space, does that mean the Air Force indirectly funded these films?

Since I was in the Air Force at the time and getting paid twice a month, I guess they did indirectly fund them… When I arrived at Vandenberg AFB in California, I lived in my own room in a WWII-era barracks building. This arrangement had a sort of college dorm/apartment house vibe where you could at least close your door to the occasional rowdiness. It was here that the Star Trix shorts began their slow path to the screen.

I love the production photos, showing everyone working on the sets, etc. They make great documentary material. Why were those photos taken?

I had a Polaroid camera and my roommate Dennis Cargill had gotten hold of some out-of-date film that was going to be trashed. He gave it to me and I started using it for progress photos on the set construction. I’m glad I did that because as my memory gets a bit dodgy I can refer back to them. I’ve also noticed that after I scan them into the computer and bring them up onscreen, I can see details in them that I didn’t notice before.

Any plans for a “Star Trix: The Next Generation” movie?

Just as the series oversaturated the screen during the 1990’s, I noticed that there are countless parodies as well. One more by me would definitely be unneeded. I haven’t kept up with the technology either so it wouldn’t be very good.

What have you been doing since you made these films?

My steady employment during this time has been as an offset press operator. I’ve been with the Office of the Santa Barbara County Superintendent of Schools, A-1 Lithographers in Lompoc and presently in the print shop of the Lompoc Unified School District again (I worked on STAR TRIX-THE FLICK during my first stay there in the early 1980’s). I found that each time I tried to leave printing behind for the film business, I eventually ended up broke and bitter. After a few times of that, you eventually see where your bread is buttered. So I keep the lights on with printing to allow me to pursue my interests, many of which have very limited commercial value but are fun nevertheless.

And what’s next for Art Binninger?

I’ve been doing more drawing in recent years and for a time in the 1990’s, I was pitching ideas for comics that weren’t particularly commercial either. When I started on the Internet in the 1999, I discovered that here was a place I could put this stuff that nobody would buy and at least get it seen. I like being able to cut out the middleman and go directly to the audience. I’m experimenting with animated gifs and trying to keep the file sizes small enough to download quickly. Since I’m still doing dial-up, if the gif loads quickly for me than it’ll be a breeze for all the high-speed users. I always have to remember, though, that I gotta keep getting ink on my fingers to get the green for all these projects.

Thanks, Art!

Update: Several of Art’s other early films are now available for viewing on YouTube. Check them out!

Comments

I guess the difference between Art and Ed Wood, is that Art was parodying something. Saying that, there’s nothing wrong with appreciating Ed Wood and his enthusiasm.

I note that you don’t explain your particular interest in Art’s films, which makes it kind of hard for the rest of us to care…? :( Thanks for making me aware of his work… I guess? :)

Ed Wood (the movie) made me love Ed Wood (the director) and I know the people who made that film totally loved Ed Wood, too.

That had all the right geek moments, that it felt like watching Nerds IV - behind the scenes.

I love it. Very cool indeed.

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Scott Barnes
Microsoft.

Greetings, I’m trying to track down and old and very good friend who I have lost touch with for a very long time. Dennis Cargill who is sited in this article. I was stationed at VAFB from 80-84… Do you have a way of tracking this guys down? thanks Jeff