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How this tech whiz became William Shatner’s eyeball double in ‘Star Trek II’

Engineer and entrepreneur Robert Poor in Manhattan Beach, Calif. His retina stood in for William Shatner’s in the 1982 film “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” (Allison Zaucha/For The Washington Post)
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One day in 1982, when I was about 10, all the safety patrols of Cardinal Forest Elementary School in Springfield, Va., were told to report to the cafeteria. We were herded onto a bus with no explanation other than that we didn’t need to worry about school for the rest of the day.

It wasn’t long before we found ourselves in a massive movie theater with what appeared to be every other red-belted, tin-badge-wearing primary school safety patrol in Fairfax County. Clearly the school system wanted all of us in this setting for a good reason. There was no introduction — just mystery.

As soon as everyone was seated, the lights dimmed, to muttering that whatever was coming — probably some insipid training film — at least we weren’t in a classroom. Seconds later cheering broke out. The school system had decided to thank us for our before and after-school efforts with a sneak preview of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”

As the film celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, “Star Trek II” is generally regarded by fans and critics as one of the better science fiction adventures ever made. The earlier “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” had drawn plaudits for special effects but universal disappointment about everything else, and it wasn’t going to be enough in the sequel just to buff up story, characters and performances. It would have to top the earlier movie’s dazzling effects, too.

One of the trippiest effects was seeing Admiral Kirk submit to a Starfleet tech-security measure: “I-den-tify for ret-in-a scan,” in which Kirk’s eyeball is used to secure access to a classified briefing.

Fast-forward about 30 years. When your trades are newspapering and gumshoeing, you tend to meet interesting people from all walks of life. Sleuthing in the Bay Area one night, I found myself at a dinner of tech business types.

Among them was Rob Poor, a Manhattan Beach-based technologist and entrepreneur whose passions for those endeavors finds expression in all things electronics and music. (Doing research for the information architecture end of MIT’s Media Lab and hanging out with Brian Eno have been routine days at the office for him.) But Poor can also claim a quirky bit of sub rosa fame, and when he revealed it over dinner that night, I nearly fell out of my chair.

It was Poor’s eyeball that stood in for Shatner’s. That is, a very early digitized photo of Poor’s eyeball, which seemed almost impossible to pull off at the time.

Poor’s story illuminates not just how far our technology has come in the past 40 years, but also how the effects wizards working on “Star Trek II,” in swinging for the fences, helped lay the foundation for something we take for granted today: the digital cameras of our communicators (er, cellphones). As such, I asked Poor if he would be willing to revisit the tale of his role in a pioneering filmmaking moment and technological advance — and one that has seen him achieve on-screen immortality, if uncredited, as … William Shatner’s stunt eyeball.

As a young engineer at Stanford in the early 1980s, Poor had helped build one of the first laser printers in the United States. Up across the Golden Gate in West Marin, filmmaker George Lucas was keen to develop digital laser technology for filmmaking, and in 1981 Poor was recruited into Lucas’s nascent and secret Computer Research Development Division to begin early work on digitizing images for film.

Lucas, the genius behind “Star Wars,” took intelligence-agency-level pains to obscure any indicators that he had his own little digitization DARPA. It was housed off a frontage road in San Rafael in a nondescript building “with a little sign in front that said ‘Kerner Optics’ or ‘optical division’ or something like that,” Poor tells me. “There was no indication at all that this was part of Industrial Light & Magic”—Lucas’s special effects lab. It was, Poor says, “hidden intentionally.”

Poor shared offices with computer graphics visionary Tom Duff. “One day he said, ‘You know, we have all these tools for building models. We can make a building out of computer graphics, and that’s great, but we don’t have any organic digital images to work with. Wouldn’t it be nice if we did?’ ”

Because Poor and a few of his colleagues were working with extremely high-powered lasers, Lucasfilm’s insurer had required detailed still photographs of their retinas, for use in considering any possible future accident claims. “What I got out of it,” Poor recalls, “was a set of slides of my retina, little 35-millimeter slides in the little paper holders like we used to [get]. And a couple of my colleagues had theirs, too. And we’re sitting around, comparing retinas, and I’m thinking about Tom Duff saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice.’ And I’ve got this photo of my retina, right? We now had some real photos of real organic things, so we could manipulate them. And I thought that’d be kind of cool.”

A process we take for granted now, digital manipulation, begat one of the earliest digitized photo images of living matter used in a major film. It took, in its first part, most of a day. Poor drove to Palo Alto to the Stanford Research Institute, which had the only high-resolution drum scanner capable of scanning 35mm film. He returned with magnetic tape full of digital data, out of which Duff produced the final image. (“Stuff in weird file formats no one’s ever seen always wound up on my desk,” says Duff, long since a pillar of Pixar’s engineering team. “I was too stupid to know that the computers we had at the time were completely inadequate for doing the things we wanted to do with them.” )

“And voila, we had a very high-resolution picture of a retina,” Poor says. “And I swear, it was like the next day the special effects director for ‘Star Trek II’ came over and says, ‘We’re looking for some kind of special effect to authenticate Captain Kirk, like, maybe like a voice print, or a retina print or fingerprint or something.’ Just so happened that we had a retina ready to go.”

The image that the crew ended up with was “not even high resolution by today’s standards,” Poor says, chuckling. “Today you use your iPhone and you have ever higher resolution now on that.”

And, he adds, as a stunt eyeball, it was actually his left ocular standing in for Shatner’s right retina. But why Poor’s retina, and not that of any of his colleagues? “I had the final say, but I was not trying to choose mine over everybody’s else’s,” he says. “To be fair, I looked over everyone’s retina, and we decided that mine was actually the most interesting. The vein patterns of mine were more dense and spidery, and there’s more color contrast.” (Indeed, Poor’s sole visual effects entry on IMDb is informed by a 1982 article for American Cinematographer magazine by his boss Alvy Ray Smith, who noted his own eyeball had been one of four contenders. “Rob’s retinas,” he conceded, “were the most interesting.”)

The use of Poor’s eye raises an interesting question: As possessor of the retina, is he due any royalties or residuals? “I don’t know how SAG would have handled that, then or now,” he muses. He says that having a cameo in such an iconic film is more than enough perpetual reward. But it’s true: Blink and you’ll miss it.

Jason Vest lives in California.