MOVIE ESSAY: Back To The Future – Star Trek Returns By Scott (The Plant) Essman

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Star Trek is nothing if not a franchise—the most popular genre franchise in American pop cultural history. The original TV series ran from 1966 to 1969, encompassing 80 episodes and revolutionizing science fiction with its cult status on syndicated TV in the 1970s. Demand was so great for more Star Trek, it led to a series of 10 films and four additional spin-off TV series. But a strange thing happened to Star Trek in the new millennium. The coolest sci-fi franchise suddenly became uncool. In the era of The Matrix, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings, Star Trek seemed tired and old.

Enter J.J. Abrams, the creator of TV’s Felicity, Lost and Alias, and director of the third Mission: Impossible film. He was handed the Star Trek reins for a new self-titled film in the form of a prequel to the original series. With Abrams’ requisite amplitude and new imagining of the franchise, it seemed Star Trek was re-energized for a new generation. Youth and enthusiasm were injected into cast and crew, and Abrams’ high-octane style was the perfect antidote to the doldrums of an entity now over 40 years old.

To some, Abrams might have at first been an odd choice, but such fears will be quelled on the May 8, 2009 release date of the film; Star Trek is very impressive on every cinematic level. In fact, one must go back to the ten-year-old original Matrix film to find a combination of action, suspense, and likeable characters that mixes to knock it out of the park in a genre film.

Clearly, Abrams is both humbled and excited at the possibilities with his new take on the franchise. “As someone who was not a big Star Trek fan to begin with, “Abrams said, “I was approached to produce the movie, not to direct it. All I knew was that doing a story about Kirk and Spock was most interesting. It was clear that there was so much that had not been explored.” 

What turned the tide for Abrams was his first read of the screenplay by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. “When I read the script, I knew that I had to direct it,” Abrams revealed. “It was emotional, funny, scary, sexy, and there was huge spectacle and intimate, wonderful character moments. It has the makings of all of my favorite movies–big and small–and at the core had these terrific characters. By the end of reading the script, I knew that I would be jealous of whoever got to direct it.”

With Abrams on board as director and producer, many key crew members from both Mission: Impossible III and his various TV series were brought on board. Foremost among those were editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey. Brandon had cut Mission: Impossible III and episodes of Alias dating back to 2001 while Markey had cut episodes of Felicity, Alias, and Lost plus the feature.

According to Markey, she felt as though her previous experiences with Abrams and Brandon would lead to an editing job on Star Trek. “He knew that he could communicate with and trust us,” she said. “If he had any doubts, he knew that he could fill in those gaps.”

Though Star Trek would have many action moments, Markey noted that Abrams did not hesitate in offering her the Star Trek assignment, although prior to Alias, she had never cut an action sequence. “Editing is editing,” she said. “The younger generation doesn’t have that same mindset that there are all of these specialists. JJ had a lot of faith in us.”

The two seasoned editors’ method for dividing chores on Star Trek was simple. “We have worked together before, and when the dailies came in, we both started working simultaneously,” said Brandon. “When more dailies came in, we got together and randomly split the movie in terms of sequences. I took the opening sequence and she took the next chunk. It has worked on both Mission: Impossible III and on Star Trek. These movies naturally form into sequences. We do a little shifting in the middle, but we virtually each cut half of film. Our work was interspersed. At some point, we all look at it together. I welcome all of her comments and she welcomes all my comments. Of course, JJ has the final word!”

Starting the second week of November 2007 when principal photography began, the editors worked during the five-month Star Trek shooting schedule, then continuously through the first week of January 2009 when the show was complete. The movie was shot on 35mm film, and Photokem telecined the material and sent Abrams’ Paramount-based production company (Bad Robot) the HD dailies on a hard drive which were then input into their Unity editing system. The team then used Scriptor to organize multiple takes of a shot. “It makes it really easy on the editor to flip through the different takes,” Brandon said.

Without a doubt, the 12-minute cold opening of Star Trek hits you in the gut on several levels. First of all, the action is riveting as it presents a full-on Romulan attack on a Starfleet ship, the Kelvin. But much more is going on as the sequence culminates in the birth of a very notable classic Trek character–future Enterprise Captain James T. Kirk. “JJ came to me and said, ‘They have to be crying when Kirk is born,’” Brandon, who cut the sequence, noted. “We came up with this way of making it very lyrical and visual with the music. We cleared out everything to determine what would be the basic thing that would touch your heart. We built up to this moment when the baby is born. Who wouldn’t cry?”

Both fans and cineastes are sure to agree that the action, though intense, is not overcut in Star Trek’s many action moments, and this is immediately evident in the opening sequence of the film. “With action sequences, you have to figure out the story,” said Brandon. “Where is it going to hit you the most? If there is a shot where a character has to be there to defend another ship that’s firing, how am I going to tell that story clearly? I can’t tell it in five choppy shots because you’ll never know what you’re looking at. Why are you looking at that shot? Are you looking at it so that you can see an explosion? I just cut it for a kind of clarity. I am always looking to make sure that you’re not confused, even if it’s short, so that there is a rhythm and you can get into it–your eye and emotions can follow it.”

Amazingly enough, Brandon noted that there were 53 different versions of the opening sequence that evolved during its editing. Originally, there was another sequence that opened the movie that will be on the DVD as a deleted scene involving Spock’s birth. “In the end, it set the wrong tone,” Brandon said. “It always pains to think that it doesn’t open the film because it had fascinating things in it, but it wasn’t totally right for the film.”

In a visual-effects intensive film such as Star Trek, the budget for all visual effects and post-production was worked out in advance of shooting. “We had a budget that Paramount agreed to, and Industrial Light and Magic gave us previz shots of the big sequences,” said Brandon. “We were told to follow the previzes because this was all that they budgeted for–we could not go a penny over it.”

Going forward with the initial previz plan, the editors immediately realized that elements would need to be amended. “I got the first sequence and you cut the previz in, but the live action doesn’t really go with the previz,” Brandon revealed. “Then I’m cutting the sequence and realized that there are no shots in space that show the ships. I had a battle in space, but I had one space shot, so I started slugging in the story with shots that I needed. The ILM visual effects supervisor saw what I had done and said, ‘You just added like $3 million to the budget. You can’t do that.’” I said, ‘all I can do is work out the story.’”

Of course, as all who work in post-production know, early promises end up taking new turns. “Always with JJ, there is discovery in the footage,” Brandon explained. “‘This could make more sense. This is more emotional. We don’t need that whole chunk.’ If I just go with the previz, and I don’t go with my gut and work from there to tell the story, I’m limiting myself and doing a disservice to the movie, to JJ, and to ILM because they will be creating these shots that make no sense. Even with big action films, it’s not about the visual effects. It’s about the emotion and the story. This particular [first] reel is a story about two people who are separated, a tragic thing happens, and a baby is born.”

Alas, various compromises were reached to please all parties. “All the previzes were done before they started shooting,” Brandon detailed. “Paramount budgeted and approved the film based on those previzes. We stayed within budget and juggled things around. You choose where you’re going to put your money and we got the space shots we needed. You start off big and work your way into what you think you need, and then realize what you know you need.”

When she came into the project, Mary Jo Markey knew that Star Trek would be challenging. “Origins stories can be hard,” she said. “You are laying the foundation for what is to come. The characters must be engaging.”

First up for Markey was the second big sequence, with Kirk and Spock as young men. An extensive sequence set in Kirk’s native Iowa, it featured Kirk in a brawl with other young men, which led to his first meeting with Uhura. The scene has more carefully cut action beats than contemporary action movies, yet it is not as frenetic. “Action has to come out of the character,” Markey said. “These characters aren’t Jason Bourne, because that is not who Kirk is. In other situations, yes, I would cut it so you can barely see what happens, but not in Star Trek. You would feel like you are being cheated.”

Additionally in the Iowa sequence, the surly young Kirk meets Captain Pike who encourages him to attend Starfleet Academy, though Kirk does not pay heed. Both Markey and Abrams thought the scene worked but needed an extra boost. “We had to write one line in the cutting room,” Markey said. “We needed Pike to say something else to Kirk to motivate him, and we came up with the idea that Pike would remind him that his father had been a hero, that he and his mother were on earth only because his father had stayed with the ship during the Romulan attack. We came up with ‘He saved 800 lives, including your mother’s, and yours.’” Bruce Greenwood did a temp version of the line 15-20 times and emailed it to the editing room, and Markey cut it into the sequence so that it is heard but not visibly spoken.

When she cut the sequence, Markey noted that she had due freedom from her director. “Very very rarely have I gotten a list of notes for cutting to shots,” she said. “JJ shouldn’t have to split his time when he’s filming to decide how to cut. Sometimes he likes the idea that I come up with.

The Iowa bar scene dialog between Kirk and Uhura is pretty close to how I cut it originally. During the director’s cut, we tried using takes where Kirk was a bit more cynical and soul-weary in his manner, but then we had the problem of why Uhura would continue talking to him, and – even more important – whether the audience was going to want to go on a journey with that guy. We ended up giving him his charm back.”

With a character like Kirk in his formative stages, Markey had to pull off a delicate balancing act. “To create a character, you need an arc–he has to end up in a more interesting place, but how do you make him a hero?” she considered. “You can’t make him really dark at the beginning. It’s not Batman.”

In the middle of Star Trek’s complex plot, which involves many surprises for Trekkers and genre fans alike, Kirk finds himself on a snowy planet being pursued by a creature who in the distance at first resembles a friendly dog until it gets closer and reveals itself to be some manner of beast. The sequence only ascends from there, ratcheting up the tension with a fleeing Kirk.

To cut the otherworldly snowy planet sequence, Markey needed to use her imagination to see Kirk’s perspective. “I put myself emotionally there to identify with the character through whom the scene is happening,” she commented. “What piece of film will show how scared he is? What piece of film will show him from the monster’s point-of-view?”

Markey cut the blue screen of Kirk in the scene and handed it over to ILM, but all does not end with them simply adding the monster. “They rough the creature in and give it back,” she said. “We keep editing the scene–changing it. As they give us the creature, we might realize that it’s going on for too long. We can trim a visual effects shot just like any other shot.”

Using CineSynch, an electronic transmission system connecting Bad Robot at Paramount in Los Angeles with ILM in San Francisco, the editors could review the visual effects shots three times a week. “They would show us shots so that JJ could point to the screen and comment,” she said. “50 sequences in Star Trek required visual effects shots. We had a list of shots we were reviewing–often up to 100 at a time. Most visual effects shots went through 15-20 incarnations.”

One of the last ideas that came out of the sequence was just how the approaching animal was going to be revealed to Kirk. “JJ and ILM had a scheme for the reveal worked out, where the creature stepped out from behind a rock,” Markey said, “but no one was ever fully satisfied with it. Then, late in the game, ILM came up with the idea of the animal running from a distance and the snap zoom reveal, as it is in the final film. It worked great; the only problem was that Chris Pine (Kirk) didn’t have a performance moment for that kind of reveal, because it hadn’t been planned.”

Ultimately, Markey came up with a solution. “On the set, they had fake paper blowing around to represent snow,” she described. “There were a couple of shots where there was too much of it blowing in Chris’s face, and he was squinting, trying to keep the paper out of his eyes. That worked great.” In the end, with Kirk straining to see, it clarifies his uncertainty about exactly what the distant animal is, mirroring the audience’s confusion.

As is often stated, Markey underscored that editing is often the third version of the movie after the screenplay and principal photography. “We do end up wanting to change things in the cutting room,” she said. “The kind of rewriting that routinely happens on a shoot couldn’t happen on Star Trek because of the writer’s strike. So you find things that already exist. Almost no scene is as it was in the script. I’ve learned from JJ that you have to do your own rewriting as you rework the film. He knew how to cut out a whole storyline and cut around the problem of it being taken out.”

Theorizing on her approach to editing, Markey stated her basic philosophy. “You start out with more than you end up with,” she explained. “You put it together, do a pass, and sit back and look at it. You give them [the audience] a little less than what they want.”

Three-fourths of the way into the schedule, production filmed the pulsating space jump sequence at Dodger Stadium, cut by Brandon. “JJ wanted it to feel real and be outdoors, and Dodger Stadium has an upper lot with the only clear view of the sky in LA,” Brandon stated. Amazingly, the space jump was shot simultaneously with the ice planet sequence at the same exterior location. “That’s how JJ rolls,” Brandon said. “The more you put on his plate, the more he seems to be able to handle. He is the most multi-tasking person I’ve ever met.”

In the nine-and-a-half-minute space jump, ILM was tasked to add at least one visual effects element to almost every shot. “It was very specific and [what we cut] was as close to the previz as ILM created,” said Brandon. “I want to have it make sense to me but give JJ everything he wants to get out of it. It was too massive to cut as one sequence, so we had to have a way to organize it on paper–there were so many bins that contained pieces of action.”

Noting her method of cutting the massive space jump, Brandon remarked that she approached it section by section. “I had it cut in about a week, but three weeks later, after finessing, I had something that I could present,” she said. “But then we worked on it much more and I spent some time cutting that previz down before they shot the material, because we wanted to get it down to something shootable. A little less will go a long way. We never got the close-ups of them falling the way we wanted, but JJ went back and they shot in the tank at Paramount with a giant mirror that reflected the sky.”

Now with multiple projects behind them, Brandon stated her affinity for working with Abrams. “Because I’ve worked with JJ for so long, we’re pretty closely in synch,” she said. “JJ came by a lot. He’s obviously very busy as there were two units running constantly, so he was bouncing back and forth for five months. A lot of times he was on the lot as all of the interiors were shot on stage at Paramount.”

Markey also reflected on Abrams’ touch. “He’s that rare blend–he has it going with the cinematic toys, but he has a great rapport with the actors,” she said. “He has a great imagination. If you haven’t created great characters that the audience can identify with, you don’t have anything.”

As to her being a woman in the male-dominated field of action movie crews, Markey dismissed such essentialism in hiring practices. “What is important is empathy,” she said. “One needs a sensitive point-of-view: to emotionally identify with the viewer and the character. If a guy has it–fine. If it’s a woman–fine.”

With equal amounts of deference and confidence, the immersive Abrams reflected on the way in which he worked with his two editors. “They are both incredibly smart and creative and character point-of-view driven,” he said. “[Sometimes], I’ll send a list of the sequences and how I want the things to be cut. Other times, more frequently, I like to see what they do with the material. I enjoy seeing another interpretation. I would rather see a version that they do and test it against what I anticipate.”

Abrams noted his methodology with interactions amongst Brandon, and Markey. “Usually, I’ll give notes and go off, and as soon as they are ready to show me something, we collaborate,” he said. “Working with the two of them is nice because there is healthy competition in a way. With the two of them, there is a strong point-of-view. Like when I’m writing with another writer, you are always pushed a little bit more. You also get the job done twice as face because you are working with two accomplished editors.”

Lastly, Abrams explained that he was blind to gender in choosing his editors though having women cut action has historically been rare. “Having only directed two films and having used them, it’s my own experience,” he said. “When I did Mission: Impossible, there were a lot of names that we could go to. I knew that as good as I know those editors are, there is a shorthand and a comfort level that I have with these editors. I knew what I needed working with them: great collaboration, wonderful ideas, focus on character and story. It was seductive to get a big name editor, but it was much more seductive to go with these two editors who happened to be women.”

EM Essay by
Scott Essman
Special thanks to American Cinema Editors
Originally Posted 04.26.09