The scene is set in deep space: The Romulan starship, bent on destroying the USS Enterprise, is spoiling for a fight. But this “Star Trek” battle is playing out on planet Earth in a converted garage in Levittown, steps from Hempstead Turnpike.
The spaceships, miniature replicas of the studio models from the original 1960s “Star Trek” TV series, are the handiwork of award-winning scale model builder Jeff Pollizzotto. Crafted of plastic and metal, the spacecraft are part of a larger collection of space vehicles and fantasy figures from television and film that the 65-year-old father of two has been creating and collecting for a half-century.
When Pollizzotto isn’t working or plying his hobby, he’s writing how-to articles on the craft for FineScale Modeler magazine, leading the online Science Fiction Modelers Society — a group he founded in 1996 — and lecturing on the topic. He also accepts commissions to build any space or science-fiction model (jpmodelworks.com).
“Space is the unknown; it’s adventure,” he says. After the first man landed on the moon when Pollizzotto was 17, he was hooked. “I remember sitting in front of the TV with my parents watching the moon landing in black and white. I’ll never forget that day. It was so cool and amazing,” he recalls. “This [model building] is an extension of that,” he says, pointing to the USS Enterprise replica.
Pollizzotto first learned to build models as a toddler under the tutelage of his father, Vincent, a World War II veteran, in his Brooklyn basement. His first efforts were simple wooden airplanes. As a teenager, he graduated to more advanced models of military aircraft. “When Jeff was a kid he was always building things,” recalls the 92-year-old patriarch, who lives in La Vergne, Tennessee. “It’s something he has in him.”
The master model builder honed his hobby while studying engineering and industrial design in college. After graduation, Pollizzotto had eyed a career in automotive design but found his niche building retail displays. That job can be stressful because of deadlines, but he finds his hobby “therapeutic and relaxing.” It’s also rewarding. Over the years, Pollizzotto has garnered nearly 100 awards in model competitions.
Building a model can take him two months or as long as a year. “I try to make my models as close to perfect as possible,” he says. His wife, Luann, 59, agrees. “He knows nothing in life is perfect, but he knows how to make them look perfect,” she says of his models. “His spaceships look like they could fly.”
His scratch-built hospital ship dubbed the USS Conner, after Sarah Conner, the protagonist from the 1984 film “The Terminator,” fits the description. Pollizzotto designed the nearly foot-long model to resemble the hospital ship in the “Star Trek” universe. He painstakingly “vacuum-formed” sections of the spaceship by heating sheets of plastic to make them pliable, then stretched the material over a self-designed wooden mold. The next step was “vacuuming” out the air to produce a raised impression of the mold. He assembled the sections, airbrushed them and then affixed self-designed decals he had researched online.
Sitting in his garage-turned-studio at a workbench crammed with six different types of glue, a saw, putty, batteries, drill bits, sandpaper and paint brushes of all shapes and sizes, he animatedly discusses his latest project: the sea monster from the 1960s British science-fiction movie “Gorgo.” While he creates many of his models, he also uses kits — customizing them by replacing or adding parts, LED lights and electronics for sound effects and motion. “I like to make it look more realistic,” he says, “make it better than it is.”
One of his favorite pieces is a miniature replica of an iconic scene from the 1985 movie “Back to the Future III.” The diorama depicts a steam-powered locomotive pushing the DeLorean time machine on the railroad tracks into the future. The “special” scale logs that helped propel the locomotive toward the DeLorean were constructed from twigs he asked his two daughters, then 6 and 8, to gather from his yard.
The ingenuity and level of imagination in his original designs are what impress Eric Goldschrafe, past-president of the Long Island Scale Model Society and a member since 1976. Goldschrafe recalls how once when he was throwing out model tank wheels, Pollizzotto glued them flat to look like a hatch on a spaceship he was building. “You have to have an imagination for the subject matter,” he says, “and Jeff has it.”
Occasionally, a project can be all-consuming, such as his scratch-built model, the Borg cube, the spaceship of the Borg collective, an alien race featured in the 1996 movie “Star Trek: First Contact.” After researching photographs of the Borg cube online, he drafted plans for a model. The 10-inch-by-10-inch-by-10-inchvessel — 10 months in the making — was constructed from nearly 7,000 pieces of plastic and brass, more than 40 feet of internal wire, 200 photoetched or engraved metal parts, two dozen metal washers, welding wire for surface detail and a lot of patience.
He brought the model to life by rigging it with a foot of audio wire and 16 energy-efficient LED lights. “We are the Borg; resistance is futile. You will be assimilated,” warns the Borg collective to its arch enemy, the Federation.
The model garnered the attention of FineScale Modeler, a magazine for scale model hobbyists published 10 times a year. An article Pollizzotto wrote on building the Borg cube was featured in the magazine’s special November issue, says its senior editor Aaron Skinner. “The Borg cube is a very impressive piece,” Skinner says. “That kind of work epitomizes the creativity he uses when he produces something. He has the ability to look at something and say I want to do this and produce a model that is striking.”
The Borg cube recently took first place in the JerseyFest Model Kit and Statue Fair in Whippany, New Jersey.
Years ago, Pollizzotto searched for a club on Long Island that strictly catered to devotees of the genre. In 1996, after not finding one, he launched his own, dubbed the Science Fiction Modelers Society. It started with six members who met in a long-gone Jericho hobby shop to swap ideas and modeling secrets. By 2013, he moved the club online to Facebook, where he now has more than 6,700 followers around the globe, some of whom are professional modelers.
Steve Neill, a Hollywood model and prop builder, special effects make-up artist and puppeteer who has worked on scores of high-profile films and television shows, is one such member. “It takes skill and talent and most important of all, passion for the subject matter,” Neill says. “Jeff is meticulous and his attention to detail makes his models museum-quality.”
Pollizzotto contemplates building the SSRN Seaview nuclear submarine depicted in the 1961 science-fiction television series “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.” He has already thought about incorporating light and sound into the model and envisions the completed project.
“I see the finished product in my head and all I want to do is make it,” he says. “When Michelangelo was sculpting David, he started with a chunk of marble. All he had to do was to get the marble away until he saw David. I see the model in my head. All I have to do is build it.”
A model community
Whether you’re a novice or advanced, here are two local clubs that welcome all genres of scale modeling:
LONG ISLAND SCALE MODEL SOCIETY
Meets the third Monday of every month at the Levittown Public Library, lisns-ipms.org
SUFFOLK SCALE MODEL CLUB
Meets the fourth Thursday of every month at the American Airpower Museum in Farmingdale, 631-293-6398