DIRECTOR'S CHAIR: J.J. ABRAMS - 'STAR TREK'
HOLLYWOOD — The challenge? To boldly go and update the once cutting-edge Star Trek franchise, a task that fell into the capable hands of J.J. Abrams. No stranger to action and sc-fi — he made his feature directorial debut with Mission: Impossible III, created Alias, co-created Lost, and last year executive produced the hit film Cloverfield — Abrams quickly cast a bunch of hot, young actors and surrounded himself with trusted collaborators, including cinematographer Dan Mindel (MI3), editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey (MI3, Alias), production designer Scott Chambliss (MI3, Alias) and Industrial Light & Magic's Roger Guyett.
Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Abrams talks about making the film and his love of post.
Post: What sort of film did you set out to make?
J.J. ABRAMS: "The ambition was to make a film that was emotional and character-driven and yet also fast-paced and full of action, and combine those two elements that are often so separate."
Post: What were the biggest challenges facing you in rebooting this franchise?
ABRAMS: "I wasn't this big Trekkie fan, so my connection was more peripheral, and I wanted to see certain things, like the communicators and the way the technology worked. That's what I remembered, even though I didn't know it that well.
"Shows like Next Generation had gone beyond all that technology. So I wanted it at a glance to look like Star Trek — the wardrobe, the ship design, the Starfleet logo, all that stuff. I just felt that if you're going to do Star Trek, do Star Trek. On the other hand, I didn't want to be constrained by the preexisting design or paradigm to the degree it would render the film somehow anachronistic or irrelevant. I wanted it to feel vital and alive and relevant."
Post: You shot this 35mm anamorphic when so many sci-fi films are now shot digitally. Why?
ABRAMS: "I knew this movie would have a great deal of computer generated visual effects in it and I knew that's the reason Star Wars films have been shot with a great deal of blue- or greenscreen and digitally, and I was nervous about that. I wanted this film to feel distinct from those. I didn't want to have a given about how many effects would be created. I didn't want there to be this artiface to the movie, even though it's called Star Trek, even though it's a fantasy future sci-fi. I wanted it to feel as sort of tangible and gritty and real as possible.
"As [DP] Dan Mindle said, he wanted it to have guts. And so for me the approach to the movie was, I wanted wherever we could to be practical and to be analog, because there was going to be a whole bunch of virtual and digital, so wherever we could add the realism by literally making it real I thought would help the aesthetics. So we built sets and found locations as much as possible and dressed them or extended sets."
Post: You used a lot of lens flares.
ABRAMS: "We added them on the set, not post, because I wanted to give the film that sense of unpredictability. There's something about lens flares — beyond the aesthetic of 'the future's so bright you can't contain it in the frame.' I wanted that beautiful interaction between light and glass that you can't control, to add to the tangible analog human imperfect quality that's increasingly hard to find in these kind of films."
Post: Tell us about the editing process. The film is edited by Maryann Brandon, who collaborated with you on Alias and on MI3, and Mary Jo Markey, who collaborated with you on Alias and on MI3.
ABRAMS: "When I was doing MI3 we met with all these very impressive editors and the instinct to say, 'Let's go for an obvious big name,' was seductive. But I also knew that we had a short post, and there was so much that was new for me since it was my first movie — I needed that shorthand, and I'd worked with both of them for years and we had that shorthand already.
"We'd done Alias together, which was in the same genre as MI3, and I thought, I know how to cut sequences with them, and just as Alias was inspired by Mission: Impossible, MI3 was going to be inspired by Alias in some ways. So I felt using two familiar editors would give me my comfort zone, and they also have great ideas and always present me with options I didn't expect. So it was the same thing here. We cut on Avid, and they did a fantastic job." [They used Mac-based Media Composer Adrenalines running V.2.7.5.]
Post: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
ABRAMS: "We cut on the Paramount lot and post was about six months. But post on a film like this is deceptive because you start when you shoot and then when you stop shooting you're still directing. With ILM we were directing shots and animation up until December, so it was more like nine months of post and production simultaneously."
Post: Do you like post?
ABRAMS: "I love it, and the ability to look at the material and make the best version of the movie based on that as opposed to trying to make the best version of what was in the script is magical and exciting. It can be frustrating when the shortcomings of my directing require us to be acrobatic in the edit, but the answers are wildly satisfying, when you figure out what to cut and how to bridge sequences, or what shots to use from scenes that have nothing to do with what you intended. That's miraculous to me."
Post: ILM's Roger Guyett was your visual effects supervisor and second unit director. What did he bring to the mix?
ABRAMS: "He elevates every shot, every scene and takes the initiative to improve things in a way that he knows is in the intended direction. He'd suggest ideas out of left field that more often than not ended up in the film. I gave him the second unit job as well, although there was very little true action second unit on it, but there were so many shots that were required when we were shooting in tandem, usually on the same set, and he'd do all that and do it so well."
Post: How many visual effects shots are there, and how did it break down?
ABRAMS: "Well over 1,000. ILM did the movie, then Digital Domain did Scotty in the pipes sequences, and Lola did the green-skin girl, and Svengali did the set extensions and Starfleet auditorium scenes, adding on there. They also did some great work on a prison sequence, which we ended up cutting. It's one of my favorite visual effects, but it had to go." (See Post's May 2009 cover story on the visual effects work at ILM.)
Post: What was that the most difficult effects shot to pull off?
ABRAMS: "Certain shots, like the implosion of Vulcan, take a very long time and there's an incredible amount of math going on to make those shots work. The computational and rendering time creates long turnarounds between iterations of the shot.
"For me, the most tricky and exciting shots were the ones incorporating practical elements, where you connect that with the digital elements. The 'Polarilla' chase scene on the ice was very hard to get right and we kept working on that. That took a very long time. And getting the look of the transporter effect to work took a long time."
Post: How important are sound and music to you?
ABRAMS: "They're always 51 percent of what makes a film work. As important as everything else is, when the sound and music don't work, it never works as a whole, and when they're great, it often looks great. It's weird — even if the visuals aren't terrific, the sound saves the day. Most films I love, if you pull out the sound and music, they're just anemic. So it's critical for setting the right tone, and Michael Giacchino, with whom I've worked since Alias, wrote a beautiful score.
"We mixed at Fox, and that was the most difficult part of post, because, for whatever reason, the first mix just didn't really work. So we brought in Ben Burtt to help out with some of the sound effects, because it just didn't sound like Trek. So he created all of these iconic sound effects that we hadn't been using at all, and identified the ones that were aurally the equivalent of what I was trying to do visually, and he ended up basically making the film into a Star Trek movie. Even those first sounds you hear, those sonar pings, weren't originally in the film. And he did a brilliant thing — he cleared out areas of sound.
"Think about your favorite movies of all time, and they might have had 16 or 24 tracks. Now we have 196 tracks, but it doesn't make it better and often makes it worse. Ben came in and said, 'Get rid of it all, pull it all back, use just these three sounds.' And suddenly it was, 'Holy shit! It's impactful now, not just a wall of sound.' So he de-Phil Spectored the film and gave us more clarity. But then we found we'd gone too far in that direction, and taken out 16 minutes of music and pared it all back. So now it felt too slight, so we did a third mix, which was partly possible because we'd delayed the release date by six months. That was massively important. We actually ended up putting back a lot of the score and then we took certain cues written for scenes and switched them out. We must have moved and added and adjusted nearly 24 cues. It was a huge amount of last-minute fine tuning, but it brought the music back to the fore in a lot of scenes, brought sound effects back more and used them as a support as opposed to a central element."
Post: How important is the DI to you?
ABRAMS: "Hugely important. Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company 3 did ours [on a da Vinci Resolve] and he's a genius. Working with him is like having a master mixer. You've recorded the song, it sounds great but it's just missing something. So Stefan gives it that extra something, and as long as you don't push the DI too far and get too precious and over-sweeten, it's a great thing. He makes these very subtle moves to tweak certain scenes and make them sit better in context, whether it's connecting two shots you didn't realize didn't quite go together by color correcting certain elements, or adding a certain palette or tone. I began working with Stefan on MI3 and I can't imagine not working with him."