Striking a Balance for J.J. Abrams's Second Trek, the First Shot in IMAX and Converted to Stereo 3D

Editors Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon have come a long way with director/screenwriter/producer J.J. Abrams. The trio has been working together since Alias, and Markey has edited all of Abrams's television series, including Felicity and Lost, for which she won an Emmy. The pair subsequently co-edited Abrams's Mission: Impossible III, Super 8 and 2009's Star Trek. Their latest collaboration with the director, Star Trek Into Darkness, returned them to the U.S.S. Enterprise and a variety of effects-heavy locations. In this installment, the trademark humor, adventure and futuristic sets are still there, but so, too, are warm closeups and very human connections.

Star Trek Into Darkness, converted to stereo 3D in post, was shot predominantly in 35mm Cinemascope and 15-Perf and 8-Perf 65mm IMAX, though one scene, shot late in the game, was recorded on Red Epic with a skeletal crew. Several VFX plates, including the London city scenes, were shot on ARRI Alexa at the request of ILM VFX supervisor Roger Guyett. The film, like all of those the pair has cut for Abrams, was edited on an evolving set of Avid Media Composer versions, from Media Composer 5.5.3 through 6.5.1 (an unreleased patch at the time) up to the current version, 6.5.2, which will be followed by version 7 this summer. Julian Smirke, Brandon's assistant, and Rita DaSilva, Markey's assistant, organized dailies for the editors and were able to take the converted 3D, as a top layer of video, back into the Avid to let everyone view the result during the edit. Media was managed by a 64 TB Avid ISIS 5000 with about 12 Avid Media Composer systems connected to it.

In discussing how they balance Abrams's vision, the cast's performance and the elements of story with jolts of warp-speed action, Brandon and Markey reveal the secret to the director's pacing and the way they all work during production and post. They also have a few things to say about their larger-than-life next project with Abrams, Star Wars: Episode VII, coming in 2015.

StudioDaily: The film was shot on a variety of formats and converted to 3D in post. How did this affect your workflow?

Maryann Brandon: 3D wasn't really a complication for us. We paid attention to the fact that it was going to be in 3D, of course. There were shots that J.J. designed to be more 3D than other shots. But as far as we were concerned, it didn't change things up at all for us during the edit.

Mary Jo Markey: I was worried about it at first because we'd heard that supposedly someone at Paramount had told J.J. that all the shots should be longer because of 3D — and J.J. was worried about it. But then we went to see a few stereo 3D films and quickly realized they were cut just like anything else. And so we cut this film just like we cut anything else.

How do you collaborate? Do you work on the same scenes alternately or simultaneously?

MM: Neither. We divide up the movie and Maryann has her section and I have mine. When the film is all cut together we do make comments on the overall film, and that involves us both commenting on the other's work. This is the stage when we try to figure out where the film is working and where it's slow or where characters aren't coming across as they need to. But we never cut on each other's sequences. We maintain ownership all the way through of our sections.

MB: I would add to that that what I do in my sections quite often might affect what Mary Jo is working on. So we definitely talk about it to get the overall picture of things we might change.

MM: If she changes a storyboard point it could very easily affect another scene later on that I'm working on, and I'll have to make an adjustment. But we always just let each other know that stuff.

How much input does Abrams give you in the edit suite?

MM: He's hands-off when he's shooting because he wants to concentrate on the shoot and not have to worry about the cutting, unless we have visual effects sequences we have to turn over during filming. In a film like this, you do have to do a lot on set and cut in a trailer so he can come over during lighting setups or lunch and try to get those visual effects sequences into the shape that he wants them before we turn them over to ILM or the other effects houses. The setup on set is identical to our regular edit suite, so we can continue working and not just sit around waiting for him to show up.

MB: I'd also say he's quite interested in our versions, or our interpretation of his footage, so I think he doesn't really want to get involved until he sees a version of it that we put together. We've been working with him long enough that his footage becomes much more familiar right away. We get what he's going for.

MM: We look at it, and I think a lot of the time we just know what to do with it.

The actors' eyes and faces take center stage in the film and they glisten, literally: Scotty sweats, Kirk wears a fresh bloody wound across his cheek, and everybody cries, even Benedict Cumberbatch's villain. Was that a pre-planned thing?

MB: I think that was developed on the set and interpreted by the individual actors. I would say that this Trek movie has a very emotional story about growth and between the very highly charged action sequences is actually a very human relationship story about family and people coming together and being torn apart. So I feel like the tearful scenes are definitely earned by the actors. And I think they all went for the emotion.

Was it ever hard to find the right shot?

MB: There were a lot of great performances, so we had a lot of things to choose from that were very moving.

MM: I don't really talk to much with J.J. about performance stuff, though we do talk a lot about the script and we're given the opportunity to give feedback on the script. He really wants that. In this case, we did have a fair amount of input when we came onto the show. But I don't know how much of that was planned. I think it just evolved out of the performances. When you're an editor and you see something feels real and is moving and emotional — startling, even, like seeing the villain shed tears over his own loss of his crew — you're just drawn to that and you put it in. Then you see if J.J feels the same way!

You're balancing multiple points of view in this film. Was it difficult?

MM: I think point of view is one of the most important things in editorial — to establish a point of view and allow the audience access to the story through a specific set of eyes. In fact, I think a lot of times when you feel lost in a movie, it's because a point of view hasn't been established for you. It's all kind of objective, rather than being provided with a guide, a set of eyes with which to go through the film or story. Which isn't to say it stays consistent from scene to scene, especially in a film with such a strong ensemble cast. In Trek, sometimes you're Kirk, sometimes you're Spock, sometimes you're Uhura. I remember that was one of the early, important notes that J.J. gave me when he was looking at a scene and said, 'I don't know who I am in the scene and I don't know who I'm supposed to be as a viewer. Whose eyes am I seeing the scene through?' That started me along the path of thinking about that more carefully. What point of view do I really need to establish, scene to scene, so the viewer has a way in? And if I do that, it becomes much more experiential for the viewer if they feel like they are there with Kirk through the scene.

Were there any performances that really wowed you?

MM: Benedict was terrific but also Chris Pine, who is just so charming and adorable as Kirk. But I'm always startled by what Zach [Quinto] is able to do when he's so limited within the confines of Spock's character. It's really amazing. 

This is Star Trek, so wry humor is also a big part of the equation.

MM: Absolutely. I love the comedy and you see something that's really funny that maybe they only did in one take but I just think, "I really want to put that in." And if J.J. laughs when you show him the scene, then it stays in.

[Editor's note: Minor SPOILERS begin here. If you want to avoid reading about any of the film's main plot points, you may want to skip past the spoilers.]

Which scenes, in terms of editing, really worked for you?

MM: I love that quiet scene between Kirk and Scottie, where Scottie quits the Enterprise. It's a favorite for me because it just came together and the performances were so good.

MB: I have two answers. I really liked the opening sequence [Kirk and Dr. "Bones" McCoy dash through a forest on a distant planet before a dramatic cliff jump propels them into yet another world underwater]. It is so visually stimulating, and you get to meet each character. If you were familiar with Trek, you immediately related to who they are—Kirk's cockiness, the doctor's sarcasm—and if you weren't so familiar with Trek you knew who the characters were and what their temperaments were. I thought that was a great way to bang-open the film. I also really loved the bar scene between Captain Pike [Bruce Greenwood] and Kirk, which was shot on a Red camera in a tiny room. After we watched the film, we realized that the relationship between Kirk and Pike had to be clarified. We wanted the audience to understand why Kirk is devastated when he lost this man, who was his mentor and basically his father figure. His character just needed to be lifted a notch above to say, look, this is their relationship. When he loses Pike 10 minutes later, you're totally with Kirk in feeling his loss and that feeling carries you through the film and shows you what motivates Kirk on his quest to find Cumberbatch's character.

MM: I think the movie would be diminished if that scene wasn't in there. I think that's what we figured out — it wasn't working and we needed to do a down-and-dirty shoot to add a scene that wasn't in the script.

This was after principal photography was finished?

MB: Yes. We didn't have a crew, the main shoot had been long over, and we pulled a smaller crew and set together at J.J.'s place, Bad Robot. So that was really an actor-dependent scene. The scene was written and we all weighed in on what it should be but it was really interesting to watch them, Chris Pine and Bruce Greenwood, work out where their characters came into and out of that scene.

Were there more VFX shots this time around?

MB: Probably the most we've ever had. We start off with a huge amount of bigger, broader scenes on paper and then we work out, through the editing, what we will need, because they require a lot of crews and a lot of work to make those big shots happen.

MM: Sometimes when we cut a scene that requires a visual effects sequence, the VFX supe, in this case ILM VFX supervisor Roger Guyett, will come to us and say, "You know, you can't possibly afford this." So you've got to find some way to cut 15 shots out of the sequence. It's like, 'What?!?" It's always a surprise when it happens.

MB: And do that major surgery and make it even bigger and better, too!

MM: The scenes on Kronos are a good example of that. That sequence had a budget problem, so it had to be trimmed way back.

MB: What was that, like $2 million over budget?

MM: I don't know exactly but I spent a lot of time on that sequence. The thing is, it read well on the page and in previs but it didn't play well on the screen, so we ended up changing a lot of the story points in that whole sequence. Originally, it was Kirk who fires first, not [SPOILER DELETED] and there were a lot of individual battles that ended up being cut out. It was months and months of work on that one sequence but I think it was all worth it and for the best. I'm really, really happy with the way it turned out.

One might see in the gear the U.S.S. Enterprise crew wears in space a trace of Iron Man's Mark VIII suit, or recognize Neo's black leather Matrix cape flapping off the villain. Would you say that Abrams is winking at those other films?

MB: I don't think he's nodding to all that or paying some sort of homage to any other film. I think he really is that guy and loves those kind of adventure films. That just comes from him. He's also a very funny man, and writes with that sense of humor that isn't forced and comes very naturally to me.

MM: I think he's very into the rhythm of a film, that after a big visual effects sequence it's a good idea to have a dialog run. That you don't want to have too much of one thing. He likes a kind of interweaving of comedy, drama, action and he has an inner rhythm about not hanging too long on one of those and trying always to keep mixing it up.

MB: You'd get fatigued otherwise. You don't need to be on Kronos for an hour and a half. That being said, I believe J.J. made a really fantastic movie. I am thrilled to have been given the opportunity to work with him, MJ and all the other incredibly talented people involved with it. I know that Trek has a certain limitation to a mass audience because it carries the "Trekkie" brand, as it were. But my dream is that even those audiences who aren't Trek lovers, but just love movies, will go see this film. I strongly believe it works on it's own merit as an adventure story with great characters, and moral message. That quality is what I am most proud of as one of the storytellers. 

In other big news, you've signed on to edit Star Wars: Episode VII under Abrams's direction. What's your strategy for heading into a project like that with such huge cultural significance?

MM: First of all, there's no script yet so we haven't read it and a lot of what we do grows out of the material that we're given, from the themes and character arcs—the underlying meaning of scenes and the film as a whole. I never try to impose a style—and I think you feel the same, Maryann, and correct me if I'm wrong—but the material reveals the theme. You look at the material and it more or less tells you what to do.

MB: I also think J.J. works like that. He always has these visions in his head of what he wants to see but I think he like the material to grow out of the collaboration. He writes or co-writes the script and they are his ideas but once the material is there, he'll walk around the set and bring that vision to life by getting feedback from the DP, the art director and what the actors do. The actors are a key part of that. Star Wars is a very different film than Star Trek. Star Wars is a much more straightforward coming of age story; Trek is military cowboys out in space going on a mission. Star Wars, to me, in general is just a film about another world "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away," and this is what happens. The whole reality is set somewhere else.

MM: Star Trek is really about human beings a few centuries from now who are working on a lot of the same moral problems we're working on now. Even though it's not dystopian the way most science fiction films are now, there are still these thorny problems that we're dealing with now, like what do you do when you're not sure you can trust your leaders, or people in positions senior to you, [when they] order you to do something you're not sure is really a good, moral choice.

MB: I think they're still writing [the next Star Wars movie], honestly. Pre-production is scheduled to start in September. Michael Arndt [Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine, Oblivion] is writing it, so we'll see when we get a script.

MM: Our minds are kind of blown, honestly. I mean, how are we going to do this?

How have your families and friends reacted to your involvement?

MB: My 22-year-old son called me from college and said, "Mom, my friend just called me and told me you're doing Star Wars. Is that true?!" We'll have to get out all his old LEGO Star Wars figures.

MM: Didn't you have a real lightsaber at one point, Maryann?

MB: I have four lightsabers.

Enough said.

MB: I remember when I was on Star Trek and ILM was doing our visual effects and they had these really cool lightsabers. I asked the VFX supervisor if I could buy one and he gave me one. I was sitting in my room playing with it when J.J. walked in and said, 'Are you kidding me? I can not believe this!'

MM: J.J. is really excited about it, but I don't see how you couldn't be just a little intimidated by the whole thing. But he's somebody who likes a huge challenge, so he's definitely up to it. He grew up absolutely loving that movie.

MB: I think he's also very excited about the world of Star Wars and is excited to work with Kathleen Kennedy and George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt. Those are really smart people to be involved with, and he is completely embracing the whole thing.

Well, good luck to you both and have a wonderful trip.

MB: That's for sure. It will be quite a trip!