Q&A with Lower Decks’ Director Barry Kelly

To say that Star Trek: Lower Decks is a success might be a bit of an understatement. The show is certainly a smash among Trek fans, where each episode is full of action, laughs and callbacks to prior series and movies. If one counts the sheer number of Twitter and Instagram avatars that have been made into the Lower Decks style, then it’s fair to say that the show is breaking into the popular zeitgeist.

To get a good picture of how Lower Decks is put together from an animator’s point of view, we spoke with Lower Decks’ own Robby Cook a few weeks back. To give a bigger perspective on the show, we were lucky enough to ask Barry Kelly some questions about his role on the production.

Kelly is both the Supervising Director and Episodic Director of Lower Decks, and a longtime employee of Titmouse, the animation firm who put Mariner, Boimler and the rest of the crew of the Cerritos on screen.

TREK REPORT: Tell us a little bit about what you do on the show. It sounds like you oversee the creative people on the staff, and keep them on the right track when it comes to deadline, but what else? On the recent New York Comic Con panel, you mentioned quite a few roles.

BARRY KELLY: Everyday I’m looking at all the episodes in different stages. I could be reviewing a storyboard for an episode, looking at character design for another, or looking at batches of animated shots straight from the oven.

Barry Kelly’s version of the Cerritos crew.
Barry Kelly’s version of the Cerritos crew.

On Season One, I was an episodic director for supervising director Juno Lee, he’s actually been my directing partner for many projects over the past few years. In that role, I was specifically directing 4 of the 10 episodes that season by leading a team of board artists to storyboard those episodes.

In the supervising director role, I’m working with writers to nail down the vision for the story. The writers give us a blueprint with the script and I break down that script with directors, board artists, designers and animators to make the best version of the show possible.

TREK REPORT: On the panel stream, and you mentioned that you got to draw for Lower Decks. Since you’re a ‘director,’ I thought you​ might not actually draw anymore. How often do you get to roll up your sleeves and draw? Is it frequent?

BARRY KELLY: I draw everyday! As a director in 2D animation you definitely have to draw a lot but, it’s mostly in the form of notes to other artists. I’m usually drawing at a rougher stage of development, (at storyboards and character design) to aim the crew in the direction of the story needs. It’s better that my drawings are rough because the crew are way better at drawing the show than I am.

Every director is different, it’s usually a combo of verbal direction, written notes, and drawings. The show is 22 minutes of drawings, 60 seconds a minute, 24 frames to each of those seconds. It may not be on paper but it still takes us thousands of drawings to create the art that makes the final picture.

TREK REPORT: You must realize that you have achieved geek status that many only dare to dream of. Barry, you’ve worked on Star Wars AND Star Trek. That’s huge. What are some of the differences between these two jobs? What is similar? I would venture to guess that in your Wars work, you were reinterpreting what was on screen, while the Trek work has references to the prior series, but in many ways, it’s new.

BARRY KELLY: The formats of both projects are completely different; Star Wars Galaxy of Adventures is a series of action-shorts aimed at younger audiences. Lower Decks is geared for a more mature audience.

Yes! I can’t believe I’ve been able to play in the sandbox of both universes. In terms of what ties them together, it’s the fact that they both start with ‘Star.’ I feel like I can’t say them in the same sentence because it would be cheating on two lovers or something. Maybe more like ‘best friends’ instead of ‘lovers.’

I grew up in the late ‘80s the youngest of three, and absorbed whatever my brother and sister watched, which was Star Wars Trilogy and Star Trek: The Next Generation amongst other things.

The 8-year-old me would never have believed that I could be working on both universes. I don’t feel worthy, but I feel compelled to do this role because I have a heartfelt connection to both Star Trek and Star Wars. They were both very integral to my love of sci-fi and a constant fuel for wanting to create and live in those sci-fi worlds.

The non-animated version of Barry Kelly. Courtesy of Titmouse
The non-animated version of Barry Kelly. Courtesy of Titmouse

If I was to compare those eras of ’Trek and ’Wars, they’re both ‘film-school-in-a-can’ for different reasons. Star Wars taught me all about execution, how you can execute a sci-fi adventure with the most ground breaking of filmmaking techniques, what you can do with excess.

Star Trek taught me about restraint, how to make a compelling show about exploring, that actually relied on limited locations with only actors and a script. It’s ambitious, takes place in space, but the beautiful space shots are actually sparse; the real special effects are the actors and the story.

Star Trek and the Twilight Zone are both shows that taught me a lot about filmmaking, they’re classes on how to make great television with limited means.

​TREK REPORT: What is your favorite part of working within the Star Trek Universe?

BARRY KELLY: I like working with our crew to make a Star Trek series. I like that fans and non-fans alike are part of our crew. I like geeking out over Star Trek stuff with my crew mates, and I also like exposing our non-fans to the things in Trek that opens a new light on things I took for granted in Trek.

I’ve seen episodes of TNG and Deep Space Nine multiple times and someone who hasn’t will point something out, “Why do they do things like that?” and I’d never thought about it; I’m on autopilot. Because I’ve watched these movies and shows over and over again, a lot of small things go right past me because I never questioned them.

TREK REPORT: Without giving anything away… which Trek character would you like to see on Lower Decks?

BARRY KELLY: We do have some fun cameos which I can’t say anything about! But…in a dream scenario, ignoring canon, I like to think of Mariner and Boimler in a room with some of my favorites, that our writers would make it so funny.

Gowron, as drawn by Barry Kelly.
Gowron, as drawn by Barry Kelly.

I love drawing Gowron, and his big crazy eyes. Gorn! Guinan! Garak?! A lot of ‘Gs.’ I love Sisko! I love Quark, Rom and Morn! Could I get an Akira class ship in there? Can we get some whales in there too while we’re at it?

TREK REPORT: ​How did you pull off the ships? The appear to be CGI … sort of. But somehow they fit ​in with the look of the show. Was that difficult?

BARRY KELLY: Yes, it was difficult, because in the first season you’re figuring out how the style of the show should look and fit together. Every episode is a different challenge, every new shot is a chance to improve on the look of things. It’s tricky, we don’t want the Cerritos to feel like the ‘cartoon’ version of a Star Trek ship. You want to look at it and imagine that it could warp into the live action world and co-exist with existing ships.

I treat the ship shots the same way they’d be treating the models 30 years ago. Some are painted stills, some are 3D, but the layers we use are the same passes they would have had to make for the model photography. Light Emissions pass, Matte Pass, the window light pass, and the ship color pass. All the same approach!

Kelly spent a lot of time making sure the Cerritos was not just a cartoon version of a Trek ship. Courtesy of CBS
Kelly spent a lot of time making sure the Cerritos was not just a cartoon version of a Trek ship. Courtesy of CBS

Like I said, those shows and moves are ‘film-school-in-can!’ The ships are going to look better and better every time you see them.

TREK REPORT: ​How did you get started in animation? Was animation something you always wanted to work in?

BARRY KELLY: Drawing was a big interest of mine, inspired from comic books, but the stories I wanted to tell were better suited for film and TV. I went to film school to learn cameras, and editing, but when I moved to LA, I kept getting work in animation because of the split mind of filmmaking and drawing. I’ve been in the industry for 15 years.

I was an editor and compositor early on in my career and wasn’t sure if animation was the right fit for the stuff I wanted to make. Then when I got a job at Titmouse, working with these amazing board artists, animators, and directors, it really showed me I could do the storytelling I wanted to do in animation.

TREK REPORT: Is there a franchise you’d like to work on? You’ve done the big two sci-fi franchises, but is there something else you’d like to do? Like Lord of the Rings, Marvel, DC …

BARRY KELLY: Robocop. I love Robocop. I really like all the above honestly!

It’s weird, I love making sci-fi stuff, sci-fi movies, books, comics but a majority of video games I play are fantasy. A quick list of my loves; Warhammer 40k, X-Men, Hulk, Alien, Judge Dredd, and Bloodborne. If I could have an animated series of all that stuff in one, I’d explode!

I really want to create my own sci-fi show, but it’s probably something that I’d be making for myself. My sensibilities are hard to convey to people, so I just gotta make that for myself.

Fans in the United States can stream Lower Decks on CBS All Access.