Star Trek got its start after being inspired in part by a TV Western. It was pitched as "Wagon Train to the stars." It makes sense then that the show's producers first looked to Dodge City when trying to find a cinematographer. Harry Stradling, Jr., the director of photography on Gunsmoke, was offered the gig shooting Star Trek. He turned down the job.
So, the producers took the natural next step. They reached out to Stradling's dad. They figured the old man could convince his son into changing his mind.
Harry Stradling, Sr., was a legendary Hollywood cinematographer, a man who had worked alongside Hitchcock, a man who had perhaps lost count of his Academy Award nominations. He had just collected an Oscar for My Fair Lady. The elder Stradling knew he could not talk his son into joining Star Trek. Instead, he suggested they hire his camera operator, Gerry Finnerman.
Gene Roddenberry gave Finnerman one episode to prove himself. If the results were good, the job was his. If it didn't work out… well, Finnerman could go back to working under Stradling, who was about to start shooting Funny Girl.
Finnerman pulled out his full bag of tricks — splashes of color, slashes of dark and bright light. He wowed the Trek producers, who offered Finnerman a three-year contract at $800 a week. How's that for an impressive show-stopping start?
The cinematographer deserves far more credit for the legacy of Star Trek: The Original Series. His crisp lighting, vivid colors, carefully placed shadows, backlighting, and focus effects gave the show a bold, beautiful aesthetic. Nothing else looks quite like it. Nobody knew what the future would look like, so Finnerman was given free reign to play. The results were a kaleidoscope of contrasts — light and shadow, hard and soft.
Oh, speaking of soft….
Any first-time viewer of Star Trek probably asks themselves the same question: "Why is it that whenever a beautiful woman is shown in a closeup, the screen goes all blurry? Was the studio humid? Do I need new glasses?" This contrast is perhaps even more noticable in the modern age of high definition. You are not imagining things.
For example, when Edith Keeler, played by Joan Collins, first walks down a staircase in "City on the Edge of Forever," it seems as if she's being filmed inside a sauna. Ditto for the women in "Mudd's Women," or any of the many loves of Captain Kirk.
Yes, the philosophical Star Trek was aggressively progressive when it came to race and politics, but it could also treat beautiful women like delicate flowers, softening and idealizing them. Though the show was set in the 24th century, it was a techique steeped in the early days of Hollywood.
The soft focus was often paired with romantic, swooning music. While the crew members were shot heroically in blazing light and sharp focus, love interests, on the other hand, looked more like watercolors. To achieve the effect, thin layers of plastic, or diffusion filters, were placed before the lens for those shots. No, as far as we know, Vaseline was not smeared on the lens. The technique came to be known as "The Gaussian Girl," named for the Gaussian blur.
To be fair, not every female character was filmed in soft focus. Take Uhura or Janice Rand, for example, who were crisp in their pioneering female roles on the Trek cast. The technique was typically reserved as sort of "Kirk's gaze" point-of-view perspective. This was a show with expressive cinematography.
The Gaussian Girl became somewhat of a trademark of Finnerman. Two decades later, he was filming Cybill Shepherd in a similar manner on Moonlighting, another gorgeous series. Since that last stand, soft focus has faded away.