This Art of the Cut we chat with three of the four editors who cut “Star Trek Beyond.” Steven Sprung, ACE is an Emmy®-nominated editor whose credits include the HBO series “Entourage,” NBC’s “Community” and “Arrested Development.” Kelly Matsumoto previously collaborated with director Justin Lin on Fast & Furious 6. Her other film credits include Fast Five, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Van Helsing and Meet the Fockers. Additionally, she co-edited the Academy Award®-winning short film Two Soldiers. Dylan Highsmith served as an additional editor on “Total Recall” in 2012, and was an editor on “Fast & Furious 6” and “Furious 7.” Greg D’Auria also edited the movie but was unable to attend the interview.
HULLFISH: I usually get a chance to watch the movie before I talk to you guys but I didn’t get an opportunity to do that but we still have plenty to talk about, I’m sure. What was the schedule like on “Star Trek Beyond?”
HIGHSMITH: The schedule on this one was intense. Everything was compressed and the prep schedule was next to nothing. I came on first during previs to start cutting the major sequences that they were starting to iron out, which at the time was the Enterprise Takedown. Kelly came on to help for a couple of weeks during pre-viz and then rejoined again a week before principle photography.
MATSUMOTO: We’ve been on this for over a year now. We started up in Canada. It was a crazy schedule because our team got started on this five months late due to huge changes: director, script and screenwriters, so there’s that.
HULLFISH: When did you arrive in Vancouver to set up post?
SPRUNG: Dylan went on location to Vancouver a few days before shooting. He started with one first assistant, Dave Cory and our VFX editor, Craig Smith. We also hired a terrific assistant in Vancouver, Tyler Ruocco. Kelly started in L.A. with the rest of the assistants, Laura Yanovich, Meghan Noble and Jesse Chapman.
HIGHSMITH: Then three weeks in Dubai. Then we finished here in LA.
HULLFISH: Did editing gear and all of the editors go to Dubai or was it just one or two of you? Then when did you finally come home?
HIGHSMITH: Dave and I went to Dubai. I stayed for two weeks.
MATSUMOTO: We shipped over our Avids. It was quite the logistical feat to get everything over. We had to consider the technical aspects as well as keeping the bins up to date and synchronized in both locations. When Dylan and Dave were in Dubai, we didn’t try to exchange data as much mainly because of the time zone difference, but we did when they were in Vancouver. We had to be careful about the direction of how bins were updated so we didn’t blow away anything by overwriting them.
HIGHSMITH: After production wrapped, we began cutting out of a space in South Pasadena, which was close to Justin’s home. Everybody was under one roof. It was a really great collaborative space.
SPRUNG: Over Memorial Day we moved to Universal for sound mixing and also for DI and to finalize visual effects. That’s pretty standard for the way Justin works. We’re coloring upstairs, reviewing visual effects next door and sound mixing downstairs on the Hitchcock stage. Everything was within a building or two of each other so we could quickly move from one to the other. It’s super helpful especially on visual effects movies where everything is crunched and coming in at the absolute last minute.
MATSUMOTO: Everyone is stretched to the limit physically and mentally, and with VFX being done by vendors in different time zones, quick responses and notes are essential. The less time spent traveling to another location, the better.
HULLFISH: Tell me a little about how you guys collaborate as editors. I’ve done a couple of interviews with multiple editor crews, how do you guys break the project up and why have so many editors?
MATSUMOTO: There are a lot of action set pieces which Justin usually assigns before shooting. With the other smaller scenes it mainly comes down to who’s available and what makes the most sense. On this one, Dylan was on location and he needed to keep up with camera because the schedule and prep were so crunched.
SPRUNG: The rest of us were here in LA. When dailies came in we’d watch them together as a group. If Justin didn’t have a specific request for who should take a particular scene or sequence, we would review the footage and decide how to distribute the workload. In most cases it’s a very organic process which moves according to our strengths, interest level and plain old logistics.
HIGHSMITH: One thing that would dictate it is if they were concerned to make sure they got everything because they had to wrap a set the next day. In that case I would take it, if only to do a first pass, because I was right there with Justin. He would generally stop by the cutting room after wrap and we’d go over the scenes and talk things through.
MATSUMOTO: Sometimes Dylan would even cut video assist footage before dailies were ready so Justin could be sure he had gotten what he needed. One of the reasons there are so many editors is that we break up the set pieces, and later in the editing process we can easily get through a lot of changes quickly–it’s very efficient, especially with tight deadlines.
HULLFISH: So thinking about collaborating with Justin, how does he like to work or how do you guys like to work with him? Are there different methods of working with him or did you figure out he liked a specific way and you all kind of adapted?
MATSUMOTO: Generally, we’ve gone through many iterations of the previs sequences and have a good idea of what the scenes should be stylistically. On this project Justin had to figure things out very quickly, so we all tried to be as fluid as possible in how to handle new ideas and changes and offer him changes to help speed up the process. Fortunately, one of Justin’s strengths is being able to brainstorm and adapt to new situations that add to the story. Even though Steven, Greg and I were based in L.A, we all went up to Vancouver at different points to go over our scenes in person, which was really helpful, especially since we were also doing VFX turnovers throughout the shoot.
HULLFISH: What is Justin’s preferred collaborative method? Some people are like ‘Show me’, some people are like, “talk it out,” what is the method of collaboration that he likes?
MATSUMOTO: It’s kind of both. It depends.
HIGHSMITH: I think for the most part there is a basic structure to how we work. Justin is hugely collaborative and he’s definitely the gatekeeper but he wants to hear what everyone else has to say. Usually, we’ll just make a pass through the movie and sit down and watch through it as a group and just talk through the whole thing. Nothing is off the table. We go through and Justin decides what things we want to attack and what avenues we might want to hold off on for another pass. Then we’ll all hit our own scenes and Justin will bounce from room to room to look at the individual changes. Once we’ve finished that round, we meet up again and go through it as a whole with fresh eyes and everybody can see all the new changes that everybody else has made and just talk it through.
SPRUNG: The changes will spark new ideas. Justin encourages us to try new things, so we’ll often have alternate versions that we’re working on that we present to him for consideration. When we all gather, the person who cut the scene will usually have the most to say because they are most familiar with the footage and the challenges of the scene as well as VFX-related concerns. But it’s great to have the others in the room to comment, give input and suggest changes. And when Justin isn’t around, we’ll often consult with each other. “Hey, will you come in my room and check this out?”
MATSUMOTO: It’s also great having the other editors giving their input to see if the scene is making sense. There’s generally a lot of previs and title cards intercut in the sequences, and while it might make sense to you, it might not be understandable to others. We don’t put it together as whole until Justin’s happy with the scenes, so it doesn’t get overwhelming where you’re watching this whole reel without having worked on each scene first.
HIGHSMITH: Plus it’s better that way so you don’t lose perspective. By the end of the movie, I calculated that we had seen the movie over 112 times with technical checks and things.
HULLFISH: Not including the individual scenes?
HIGHSMITH: Right. The whole movie. It is so crucial in the beginning to hold as much perspective as you can, further down the road, you are relying on new elements to give you a fresh perspective. Like visual effects coming in and all of sudden a scene you’ve seen a 100 times, you see it in a new way. Or the score or the mix. You see everything very different on the soundstage.
HULLFISH: There’s a challenge to dealing with so much VFX because editing is so dependent on what’s happening inside the frame. Without the effects, you are missing so much data. What are the challenges on working on something so heavy on effects?
SPRUNG: Sometimes you don’t have the opportunity to make major changes after the visual effects come in. For example, I was cutting scenes between Kirk and Commodore Paris which were shot entirely against green screen and for various reasons it was more distracting to have temp backgrounds. So I had to lock those scenes before I was able to see any composites and take my best shot at how it would feel.
HULLFISH: Do you find yourself using your imagination, like, ‘Okay, I’m sure this ship was gonna cross and by the time it gets through the frame here, that’s when I’ll make the edit, even though I don’t have a ship there yet’ or is the previs pretty good?
HIGHSMITH: We have an amazing previs team, led by Alex Vegh, who does previs and postvis, he works very closely with Justin and with us.
MATSUMOTO: Alex has been with him for at least 10 years.
HIGHSMITH: He’s phenomenal. He really has a shorthand with Justin’s aesthetic and that is crucial to dial in as much as possible, as quickly as possible. With the budget and schedule we only had so much time to previs each scene, so you kind of have to pick, “okay, we’re gonna focus more on dialing this scene in and we’re gonna leave this scene more to the vendor, knowing it’s gonna come in late.”
HULLFISH: There are editors that like to cut green screen with just a green screen and people that feel like they have to put something back there, even if you just key it in the Avid.
MATSUMOTO: We mainly key it if we can, so you’re not taken out of a scene as you watch it. It gives a better feel for how the scene will play without the distraction.
SPRUNG: Yeah, I would’ve liked to have been able to key that Kirk/ Paris scene.
HIGHSMITH: That specific scene though, there was a lot of interactive light, color wise, it’s just really difficult to pull a key. Usually we just want to get everything off green as soon as we can. We had Alex running postvis too and a great in-house visual effects crew to knock those things out for temp.
HULLFISH: What’s the approach to watching dailies.
SPRUNG: When we are reviewing dailies as a group, we’ll generally start with Justin’s preferred or circled takes. And if he shot with two or more cameras, we’ll screen the A camera of the first circled take, the B camera of the second circled take and C camera of the third and so on. This is a good way for us all to just get a sense of the scene and see the basic shape of how Justin shot it. Whoever cuts the scene will always get way more in depth. In regards to that, we all have our own particular style.
MATSUMOTO: Now that it’s shot digitally, in one sense it’s great that you’re getting every take shot, not just the circled takes. But it would take half a day just to watch the dailies with all the different cameras. The assistants add an asterisk to the name under the clip, to signify that it’s a selected take, and add any comments that Justin or the script supervisor makes to locators in the clip. They also add a colored locator if a take restarts within the clip.
HULLFISH: With the amount of material so many of us are faced with how can you watch it all and what’s the solution?
HIGHSMITH: We used the Avid script based editing which is something that Steven brought from his experience in television. This was a first time we’ve used it on a Justin film.
SPRUNG: Not ScriptSync. It’s manually scripted by the assistants. They go take by take and put markers where we ask them to, usually at the top of every line of dialogue, and then at major lines of action. If there’s a long passage of dialogue, we’ll have them mark it at multiple places throughout an entire speech. Script based editing makes it very easy to jump around and look for alternate readings of a certain line. This is especially useful now in the digital age where a single take is not a single take anymore. Sometimes it has four restarts and three additional pick ups of various lines or beats. On the Avid script, you can see it laid out on the script visually and it makes it instantly clear what you’ve got to work with.
HIGHSMITH: Especially, when the director is in the room, it’s such a great tool to just pull up and bounce through alternate readings. On the “Fast and Furious” films, with two units and the sheer amount film that was coming through, we just never had time to do it.
SPRUNG: Plus, on an action movie you don’t really need it as much. The action sequences generally don’t require scripting. Each take is generally confined to one or more action beats and they will mostly cut the camera at the end. You don’t need script-based editing for that. It’s in the more complex dialogue scenes that you really want it.
HULLFISH: If the readers want to see how it works, I have a video tutorial I did for my book, “Avid Uncut.” It’s a little long and it’s specifically supposed to be used with the files in the book, but it’ll definitely show what we’re talking about and why it’s so useful. I honestly don’t want to pitch my book, but this is a really clear example of what the feature does and how it works and why it takes so much time to prepare.
HULLFISH: I was going to ask you about that because on the last feature that I cut, we only had one assistant, she didn’t have enough time to do every scene so we said ‘Okay, here are the ten most complex dialogue scenes, just do these.’ You blow off the simple ones and you blow off the action ones.
HIGHSMITH: Even with four assistants, there was a lot of footage coming from set every day and we were always pressed for time, so we prioritized which scenes were most important to script right away and which scenes could wait until later. That way we would at least have it when Justin is in the cutting room. I think it worked out really well.
SPRUNG: I started using it on “Arrested Development” because that was the first show I’d worked on that was shot digitally. The directors took advantage of this freedom and would do all kinds of restarts and pickups and wouldn’t cut the camera for 10 minutes. So I found it really necessary start using the script based editing I haven’t looked back since.
HULLFISH: That’s interesting. There are a couple people I have talked to, who have edited “Glee” or edited “Big Bang Theory” they said on those shows that are really improv, they find the ScriptSync or Script Integration really hard to use because of the improv.
SPRUNG: Yeah, in the case of improv, you really have to come up with another method.
MATSUMOTO: Because of how time consuming scripting is, one assistant mainly dealt with it while the others concentrated on dailies (checking and building the scene bins and dealing with the complications of having part of the crew on location).
HULLFISH: How do your assistants set up you bins? Are you looking at frameview or scriptview or what types of notes do they provide? Is there a specific way that you like to organize your scene bins?
HIGHSMITH: I think for the most part we all came up with a pretty standardized form for how the bins were set up, how the scripting was set up, how the reels were set up just in terms of track layout. Justin will mix scenes around depending on who is doing what. If I’m working on one big scene that’s taking up all my time, another scene might go to Steven for a little bit to work on. You need to be able to just hit the ground running, so having the editors have a consistent workflow across the board is pretty crucial. The assistants build the bin in frameview based on the lined script. It’s as much as possible emulating looking at pages of lined script, especially if you are looking back and forth through script supervisor notes and everything for the most part lines up.
MATSUMOTO: We group clips by camera setup with the master on top so that you can bounce between cameras, and then we put the A, B and C or whatever cameras below it vertically. So the master is at the top and then your coverage, and it goes down from there. If there’s a setup that’s shot late in the day that’s an insert, that’ll also go towards the top. If there are too many clips to fit into a window, especially with big set pieces, we break it up into different bins by beats/sections.
SPRUNG: There was some little touch our assistants were doing in the bins, I don’t know where it came from-
MATSUMOTO: Actually I got that idea from Tom Cross. I worked with him just before Trek, and what he did was put these little Post It looking clips in the bins.
SPRUNG: It’s a little still frame tile that sits right with the other clips in the bin and has a message like “Take Missing” in yellow if there’s no take 8 and it goes from 7 to 9 with a description like “No take 8”. That eliminates any confusion about missing takes.
HIGHSMITH: Or they would put a Post-It that said, “See notes” and you would know that there was a director’s note specifically on that take that would require reading. Or they would line it up and have a note that said A cam, B cam, C cam. They would just take JPEGs and the assistants had a blast with creating fun or Star Trek-y looking JPEGS. Every time you looked up at the frameview, you could see these labels
HULLFISH: I am sure you cannot send me a screenshot but I would love to see that screenshot. That is awesome.
(We just closed down the editing room the day before, otherwise we would have!)
SPRUNG: And if new takes would come in for a scene that was shot a few weeks later, then you would see a little yellow Post-It with a red ‘New!’ and you would see the new takes there.
HIGHSMITH: When you’re keeping up with camera, simply seeing that when you open up the bin for scene 92A part 2, there’s just this one section that’s new and you know that everything else you looked at before. Very helpful.
HULLFISH: My last interview was with Tom Cross. I need to follow the ‘genealogy trail’ of editors. I swear that Tom mentioned where he learned that trick from, and I talked to that person too, and so I’m starting to piece together “Oh! That’s the person Tom learned it from, and that person learned it from that person’. I’m starting to be able to make those connections after 60 of these interviews.
SPRUNG: And all roads lead back to when David Lean was an editor.
HULLFISH: I just interviewed Anne Coates, so she was talking about Lean too. Like, “Why would does he hire an editor?” Talk to me about collaborating with Justin. We were talking about whether he was a show-er or a talker, and you kind of talked about him being both. What are some of the things he wants to discuss or make clear to you guys before you start? Anything or does he say ‘Go, I want to see it in the end, surprise me’?
HIGHSMITH: I think for the most part, you kind of figure it out, as you go through dailies. Justin isn’t someone who moves the camera all the time. You usually know if he’s doing it, it’s for a purpose. He’s very insistent on always having a point of view through each scene, so you can kind of piece together what he’s thinking through watching dailies, ‘okay I can understand how he intended this to go together.’
SPRUNG: Yeah, he’ll talk it out sometimes. He’ll say ‘Hey, here’s what I have in mind.’ But generally, he likes to react with what we’ve done.
MATSUMOTO: Justin’s very open, which is one of the many great things about working with him–so we’re able to use our own creativity, yet it’s all guided by his unique vision and distinct style.
SPRUNG: He doesn’t want to limit anyone’s ideas out of the gate. As with Alex’s pre-viz, he doesn’t like to say too much at first because he knows people can provide so much more in that environment.
HIGHSMITH: Especially early on, when we watch a scene he’s not going to talk about, ‘Let’s go to a wide here and a close here.’ He’ll just talk about the characters: how he envisioned his entry point through the scene and what the scene is about.
MATSUMOTO: He always talks about the intention of the scene and it usually reveals something about a character. He’ll say something like, ‘The intent of the scene or this character is this.’ And it’s great because you may have read the scene differently, and when you know what his vision is, it’s fun to take a crack at the scene with a different point of view.
SPRUNG: Yeah, those few words he says may send you off for another afternoon or day to completely rework a scene.
HULLFISH: So it’s more about the scene’s objective than it is about the technical?
HIGHSMITH: Always. If you need the extra direction, he’ll always talk to you about the nitty-gritty but for the most part, he likes a constant creative dialogue.
HULLFISH: That’s exactly what I was looking for, that explanation, that it’s not about “Let’s cut six frames from here, let’s go to the wide shot’ but what is the objective of the scene, where is the story progressing, what is the core of the emotion here, who is the scene’s focus or perspective about. That’s awesome.
SPRUNG: And I think that keeps things very fresh.
HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about the approach to scenes.
SPRUNG: With a director like Justin who has such a strong point of view and doesn’t move the camera just randomly, it starts to reveal itself to you and it usually makes a lot of sense, and the scene starts to shape itself.
HIGHSMITH: Generally, if you’re having a hard time, struggling with the scene, usually there’s some little piece or something that you’re missing and the whole scene will kind of click. It’s like, “Okay, that’s how he intended it to kind of work.” Process-wise, I like to mark those points as I see them in dailies. My general process is, once I’ve done that, I just want to get a scene cut together as fast as I can, so I have something I can react to and hone. I’m not someone who will go through and just try and get every cut right. If the director calls and he says “I’m going to come over and need to watch the scene right now,” I want to know that I at least have something so I can hit play and watch. Until I have that, I can’t relax. Once I’ve done that, I’ll go back. It’s always just a constantly evolving entity.
HULLFISH: By going through that process, you know the shape of the scene that you can tweak from there, right? I think that’s very valuable. You were saying you mark stuff. How were you marking it? With locators? Are you subclipping? Or creating selects reels?
HIGHSMITH: I’ll usually just locate in dailies. I was actually lucky because, in Vancouver, nobody else had my dailies bin, so I could mark them however I wanted.
MATSUMOTO: I usually take actual notes. When I watch dailies, I kind of build the scene in my head. Then I watch all the dailies and actually take analog notes about the details that stand out, I asterisk takes that I like or write certain lines down or note small looks or performances within a take that stand out.
HIGHSMITH: What?! With an actual pen?
MATSUMOTO: Yeah! I sit with a legal pad and I sit there and I write it down. Old school.
HULLFISH: Like this you mean? (Holding up a nearby sheaf of my own handwritten notes on a recent scene) (laughs)
MATSUMOTO: Yeah! Just like that! I do that, especially because I’m worried my locators are going to get blown away. For action scenes I’ll add locators because generally no one touches anyone else’s action scenes, so there’s a little more license to mark those up, but all the dialogue scenes, I make … actual notes.
SPRUNG: I developed a system of basically building the sequence with multiple takes. So, if I say, “I like that little piece for that line of dialogue,” drop it in my timeline, and then I’ll find another take, “Oh, I like that one too.” So, I’ll end up with a scene that’s five times as long as it’s going to end up later with multiple takes strung out one after the other. I have an idea of which takes I like best as I’m doing that and even put locators in the sequence, but then when I go back and review the takes, I often change my mind.
MATSUMOTO: Actually, I do that too. I pull a lot of selects and make select sequences.
SPRUNG: Yeah, basically building a selects reel.
MATSUMOTO: When I run through them all, I pick the best of those, then I hone those down to selects of selects.
SPRUNG: Seeing them play in quick succession can be a very effective way to compare performances.
MATSUMOTO: Yeah, it really changes when you see them like that, and then again when they’re in the sequence. Sometimes I do the layers, V2 and V1. I try to alternate them and see what feels best.
HIGHSMITH: Especially for action. You have to.
SPRUNG: Sometimes, I put the scene together just for performances and it’s a bunch of jump cuts. Then, I actually start editing the scene.
MATSUMOTO: And different scenes you approach different ways, too.
SPRUNG and HIGHSMITH: Yeah, right.
HULLFISH: Talk to me a little bit about sound design. I’m sure, with a movie like this, sound design is critical. Not the big, final sound design, but as you’re trying to show scenes to Justin, as you’re trying to get a sense of the scene yourself, how important is sound design and what are you doing?
MATSUMOTO: It’s really important. We have a wonderful sound supervisor, Peter Brown. We’ve worked with him for a long time. Usually, you do the spotting sessions and go through things. This one was so time-compressed that we relied a lot on him and his team. All these sequences, like Dylan’s takedown of the Enterprise scene–just the absence of sound in select places and touches like that added so much. There were so many elements that were up to the imagination as far as what a Swarm ship sounds like or an older generation of the familiar Transporter beaming sound effect. It’s not like on our other “Fast and Furious” films, where the sound of the cars – although enhanced – is more realistic. At the same time, we wanted to honor the original series: the legacy sounds of the Enterprise. Peter built sounds that were very close to them, but were actually different. He played what the actual ’60s Enterprise transport beam sound effect was and then how he designed it for our film. It’s really cool how the new sound is faithful and yet different.
SPRUNG: It’s great to have those sounds in early, not only for working with Justin, but for various screenings. Without that, it’s harder to judge how things are working.
HIGHSMITH: Temp-wise we try to fill up our tracks as soon as possible. This one we’re lucky because we’re coming into a franchise that’s had two films in it already, so we got the stems from all that. For the first big action sequences, you can cut with those stems. TrekCore.com actually has a ridiculous amount of legacy sounds. We got all those into the Avid to cut with, just for temp stuff. So, you can kind of hear and get that flavor that is Star Trek.
MATSUMOTO: Our assistants, Laura, Meg, Dave and Jesse, helped track a lot of scenes for us, which is no easy feat. The scenes were really complicated and they did a great job of building them up. We didn’t have any previews and we never had a temp dub, so we were screening with our Avid built tracks the whole way. Once Peter and his team were on, they started to feed us tracks for the action scenes and cleaned up the dialogue so we could put them into the Avid. They were great at providing us with beautifully cut sounds and choices of sound effects very quickly.
HULLFISH: How did you interact with them? Were you saying to the assistants, “Hey, here are the visuals. Go for it?” Or did you say “I really think I need this here.” or “Can this build to this moment?” How were you dealing with sound effects or music temp?
SPRUNG: Generally, there’s the obvious stuff. The hard effects, the laser fire and all that. For everything else-
MATSUMOTO: …it’s talking to them about the intention of the scene or what you think something should sound like. They’re really creative in trying to come up with sound effects by combining things from the sound effects libraries and coming up with sounds, some of which were quite funny and stayed until the end. Also, the assistants were excellent at doing a lot of temp ADR for added lines–we didn’t realize we had such great performers in the cutting room! Musically, we tried our best to do our own tracking before Paul Rabjohns, our brilliant music editor started, and then he helped us with everything.
HIGHSMITH: He is absolutely phenomenal. Especially when you’re screening, even for ourselves, just for him to kind of take everything, glue it together. Even knowing that it’s temp, it’s great if Justin just wants to experiment with going in a different direction musically. It’s hugely helpful to have a great music editor for the temp.
HULLFISH: When you cut with temp and then you have to re-cut, do you take the temp out because you find the temp is guiding your editing decisions?
HIGHSMITH: I think that’s the good luck we have with Paul Rabjohns. We’ll re-cut MOS a lot of times and then just throw it to him and he’ll go through and merge everything together, so it doesn’t bump with what Justin is used to hearing.
MATSUMOTO: There’s really only one scene that had to be cut to the beat of the music. Even then, Paul had to somewhat adapt the music to the cut. Other than that, I don’t think we let music dictate our cuts. It’s the other way around.
HIGHSMITH: We break it, Paul fixes it.
HULLFISH: You get to a point where, with temp. So, you said you’d just go MOS. That would be my point. If you find you’ve got to cut the scene down do you find that temp music is holding you from cutting at the places you want to cut or do you just say “Hey, the temp’s got to go while I’m trying to do the visual edits?”
SPRUNG: Sometimes we just drag the temp music out and it’ll still work or hide it under an explosion or a loud bang and then we’ll sit with the music editor.
MATSUMOTO: That’s the great thing about action right? (everyone laughs)
HIGHSMITH: Crossfade under an explosion! We’ll sit with Paul again and go through the beats and he’ll rebuild it back to the way it was originally intended.
HULLFISH: One of the other important questions I want everybody to talk about is the change in pacing of the movie when you see things as you cut them together by themselves, finally you assemble the whole thing because you’ve been trying to keep your perspective, then having them in context changes the pacing of the individual scenes themselves internally, correct?
HULLFISH: Talk to me a little about that: “I thought I had this cut beautifully and now, in context, I’ve got to change things.”
SPRUNG: With nearly every scene you make changes as a result of watching the whole thing together.
MATSUMOTO: When you cut the scenes individually, a lot of times, you cut a beginning, middle and end. Everything’s got a button, but then you put the scenes together and the film doesn’t flow, so you need to adjust the beginning and ends of scenes, so there’ll be better transitions. Just watching the film as a whole, you can feel where things drag or move too fast. There are scenes that we moved earlier or later that really affected the way the movie felt and flowed.
HIGHSMITH: That was something we were fighting the whole way through just because, by design the film is very episodic in the second act. Justin really wanted it to feel like a big budget version of the television show. You’re splitting up all the characters into different pairs. So, you have a lot of these different kind of isolated beats and they’re all very modular. Pacing-wise, if you trim one too short that ripples across the balance of every scene. It’s something we were constantly chasing with transitions and with tracking the balance of the amount of times with each character.
SPRUNG: We’ve lifted scenes and put them back, we’ve tried them in different orders, which is pretty standard for the cutting of a movie.
HULLFISH: If you can, without spoiler alerts, can you think of any specific things you could talk about where structure had to change and why did the structure have to change?
HIGHSMITH: We had two separate issues that we were wrestling with for a very long time. There’s a big action set piece in the middle of the second act where the Saucer flips that was always missing a breather before we kick things off again. That was one. Then there’s a really nice emotional scene between Bones and Spock in the muffin, it’s a lovely scene that Steven cut, but it always felt like it was happening too early. Towards the latter part of post we realized that by moving it right after the Saucer Flip it was the perfect balance of a nice character downbeat to give a breather and it felt like was the right amount of time where you really felt like this character moment was earned.
SPRUNG: Yeah it was too early in the film and it followed a little too closely the scene where the two of them enter that location. It was rushed. And it stopped the action.
MATSUMOTO: Instead of enjoying and wanting to hear what they said, you’re kind of thinking, “Let’s get to the next scene.”
SPRUNG: That was a small ripple that made a huge difference.
HULLFISH: I love those stories. Thank you. Talk to me a little about performance. How are you judging and finding and molding performance?
(At this point Matsumoto has to leave for another appointment.)
SPRUNG: Well as I pointed out before with my assembly of selects, a lot times you don’t know right away what the exact tone of a scene is going to be until you start working on it. And that will always change once we go ahead and put the whole movie together and we start to see how the scene is playing in context. HULLFISH: Sure. In the greater context you discover for example maybe the temperature of a performance is a little too hot or too cold it seemed right for the scene but in context you gotta go through an arc or something.
SPRUNG: Yeah exactly. When first assembling a scene, I may feel very passionately that a performance has to be a particular way. And of course, as often as not, that ends up changing. The soft spoken take is the best one, not the intense one or whatever. But that’s just the process.
HIGHSMITH: I think we’re also lucky on this I mean the cast is great. It’s such an ensemble so you’re always making sure you’re clocking all the characters and they’re popping as much as possible. One thing we’ll do when we have a wide where we really love one take from one actor and another take from another actor, is split screen them together. That’s the best way to preserve a beat without having to cut it up and I think it’s a really great tool to maintain performance with ensembles.
HULLFISH: A lot of people don’t realize that’s going on: that the two people are on the screen at the same time but they’re two different performances or the timing has changed or you’ve slipped one person’s timing, done a little speed ramp or something in order to get them to speak earlier.
HIGHSMITH: The term we use we use is editography
HULLFISH: Ok I had not heard that yet
HIGHSMITH: Sweet I coined it!
SPRUNG: Did you coin it?
HIGHSMITH: No I didn’t coin it. I’m not sure. Maybe Fred Raskin coined that one?
HULLFISH: I’ve interviewed Fred. So I’ll have to ask Fred whether that’s from him. Editography?
HIGHSMITH: He did it a lot on Fast Five so we started calling it Freditography.
(I emailed Fred Raskin about this discussion. He responds: “Alas, I can’t take credit for that one. Chris Wagner used the term a lot while we were doing Fast Five, but he credited it to Zach Staenberg, who’d used it in an interview when referring to the work he’d done on one of the Wachowskis’ movies (I think it was Speed Racer).”
HULLFISH: Any final thoughts?
SPRUNG: I think the great thing about this film is that Justin really wanted to honor the original series and part of that was really striking a balance between giving these characters their moments and having a lot of fun action. If it’s all action, that can get tiring fast. So it’s finding the rhythm there, and knowing how long we want to stay with quieter moments and how long we want to stay with the action.
HIGHSMITH: Through the whole process, making sure all the big action stuff is balanced with really nice Trek character moments that are innate to these characters. Because you’ve had 50 years worth of the archetypes of Kirk and Spock and Bones but this is only the third time of really digging into these specific characters in this timeline, so giving them the space to have those moments was a huge treat for me.
HULLFISH: I have one last question before I let you guys go and it’s kind of a big one and seems obvious but how are you storytellers in this. Can you think of specific moments where you said I could’ve cut this together in this certain way but in order to best tell the story that’s why I chose this close up or that’s why I did something the way I did because I was specifically trying do something for the story instead for any other reason?
HIGHSMITH: In every stage there’s always a part where you sacrifice a good edit for better storytelling or a camera move that looks great in a oner but if you can cut it in half you might be able to use this piece earlier on and have it have more emotional impact and then come back to it later. There’re probably several bad cuts in my scenes that I think were absolutely integral for preserving what the story was. Across the board it’s always more important to kill your babies, as the phrase goes, in service of the story.
HULLFISH: Can you think of without giving something away, can you think of specific example of a story moment over an editing moment?
HIGHSMITH: The specific example I was discussing a second ago was a great one-shot of Kirk in the Takedown sequence. We really needed to clock in with Kirk at a key emotional beat in the scene. I think we all decided that instead of preserving the integrity of the 360 shot, it was better to cut it in two so we could take the first half and move it earlier where we needed to clock him for this emotional beat, and then we could come back and use the tail of it later for the kinetic energy.
SPRUNG: It doesn’t matter how much action you have if it’s not grounded in the characters and the emotional arc of the story it’s gonna be boring. So we’re always protecting that. There’s one moment on the Franklin when the crew is planning their next move. At the very end of the scene there’s a moment of Kirk, Spock and Bones reacting to Jayla storming out. I used this moment where they look at each other. It was powerful, but later on we’re talking about it and none of us could articulate the exact meaning of that moment because it’s not about plot. It’s one of those moments that just adds dimension.
HIGHSMITH: I love that moment. And to pile on to what you’re saying something that’s so important for Justin, who is an action director, is he always wants to make sure you’re seeing the action through the character every step of the way. Most of the action in this is very ‘ensemble’ so we’re always making sure we’re not away from a character for too long, that we’re not outside of a character’s headspace for too long. That’s always the directive that every scene is designed that way and I hope it shows.
HULLFISH: Can whoever cut this scene comment on it?
HIGHSMITH: This was a fun scene to cut: the build up to the swarm attack. Prior to the swarm breaking apart, the swarm masse has a very ship-shape to it. Justin wanted it to feel like we’re building up for a traditional ship to ship confrontation. Everything is built for a one-on-one standoff, but there’s something off and we slowly introduce that in each succeeding shot until it culminates with the reveal. The pacing on this was always key. This is a scene where we had honed a very distinctive rhythm to it, then Giacchino starting working on this really interesting, and different, avenue with the score. We went back and reworked the whole pacing of the buildup, not the shot order, just the pacing, and it had a whole new and really fresh feel to it. It was a great case of new elements coming in, and then as you rework to them, everything elevates each other.
HULLFISH: Great. Thanks to all of you for sharing so many great thoughts about editing and your work on this film.