An Interview with Todd Marks, Part 1: Backstory and Nemesis
For Star Trek, Todd A. Marks (aka “ToddVideo”) has worked as computer/video playback supervisor on the film Star Trek Nemesis and — about twenty years later — on the second and third seasons of Star Trek: Picard. His responsibilities involve overseeing the creation and playback of computer and video content to the screens that appear on camera, which can include handheld display devices, monitors, TVs, video walls, and various types of projection. Often taking inspiration from visual stimuli and scripted descriptions, Marks is extremely passionate about pushing the limits of the final frontier to encompass new display technologies and projection techniques, combined with compelling visuals to help tell more encompassing stories. But how did he get started?
Making First Contact with Star Trek
Marks’ earliest memory of Star Trek dates back to when he was growing up in Silicon Valley in the 1970s, while The Original Series was running in syndication. Young Todd had some neighbours who were enthusiastic fans of the show. “These guys would watch it and then they would record it on their cassette player — just the audio, because we didn’t have video recorders back then,” he recollects. “And I wasn’t into it that much at the time, but that’s like an early memory of kind of the fanaticism that surrounded Star Trek.”
Another of his earliest memories related to the franchise was seeing Star Trek: The Motion Picture when it premiered in December 1979. “I was in LA on high school drama club trip, and saw it at Mann’s Chinese Theater, one of Hollywood’s most famous movie theaters, and it was super cool! It was also the same theater that I’d seen the original Superman movie in, which again was just, at the time, this magical experience, with sound all around you, a grand musical score, and a giant screen that seemed to pull you in!”
Getting Started in the Business
Originally, Marks had no aspirations of working on computer playback as a job. The idea arose after he moved from Silicon Valley to Los Angeles and received a degree in film and television as well as a marketing degree. At the time, he was running a computer consulting business and had done some simple computer graphics. “It was kind of just a chance meeting at a bookstore in the computer section. I was hanging out with my girlfriend (who subsequently became my wife), and some guy asked a Mac question, you know, a question about Mac stuff. And me and this other guy chime in, and we kind of answer the guy. I continue chatting with the other guy and discover that he’s a big-time First Assistant Director, David Sosna. And so, I get his contact info and stay in touch, and later he introduces me to Director John Badham.” Both Sosna and Badham were ardent Apple Mac enthusiasts, involved in software development for ways to make production processes more automated. Marks was subsequently recruited to work on the computer displays for the Badham-directed movie Point of No Return and was later hired to run the video playback department for the movie Drop Zone, Todd’s first two feature film credits in what has turned into a thirty-year career. As for his nickname of “ToddVideo”? It came about when he was working on a set with three different “Todd”s!
Marks’ earliest contributions to Star Trek were thanks to a friend — Ben Betts, who was one of the video playback engineers on several of the Star Trek films and TV series, including Voyager and Enterprise. Much to Todd’s delight, Betts occasionally called him in to do a little bit of work for a day or two on these shows. Todd was present for a couple of days when the Voyager sets were being dismantled at the end of that series. As such, he managed to keep some little set pieces — for example, a few backlit panels — and prevented these precious keepsakes from being scrapped.
Working on Star Trek Nemesis
By the time Nemesis was in pre-production, Marks had “a pretty good resume,” as he recalls, and knew a couple of people already hired as part of the production crew on the film. “And fortunately, I got called in,” he reminisces. “You know, this was a big film, and luckily I had a good pool of talent to work with me on it.”
At first, it was questionable as to whether Marks might supervise both the on-set video playback as well as the playback graphics on Nemesis. “At the time, Mike Okuda had his whole department of Trek graphic artists and animators. In an early meeting, I was asked, ‘Do you want to handle the playback graphics, or do you want Okuda to do it?’ And I was like, ‘I’m happy to let Mike do it, since he has the whole team in place,’ which for the most part was helpful.”
Marks nevertheless faced some opposition from Okuda as they worked on the film. “We did butt heads a lot, because I was always about pushing the technology, especially for Nemesis. Back then, he had done everything with CRTs at 640×480 resolution or 800×600, and I’m pushing things to, you know, 1024×768 or 1280×1600 or something like that. And so, he was not happy about having to have his people rebuild all this stuff at higher resolutions, and also they did a lot of stuff as backlits and I wanted as much as we could as practical visuals, and so there was a lot of back and forth. It was sometimes kind of a little hot and kind of two camps pushing against each other. But that’s what happens in creative environments. I found it kind of ironic that, on Star Trek at that time, I was getting pushed back against trying to push the technology further than what it had been. I’m like, ‘This is a show about the future!’ It took some effort, but we succeeded.”
The fact that, for Nemesis, the set of the Enterprise-E bridge was built on gimbals to enable it to shake was one factor that worked in Marks’ favor. He argued that the jostling of the set could easily break CRT screens accidentally, if the production team used those. Marks thereby managed to convince the team that they needed to instead use more solid-state display technologies.
Ultimately, multiple display technologies were used in Nemesis. “It was mostly fifteen- and eighteen-inch EIZO LCD screens; one forty-two-inch plasma screen; a variety of screens and creative uses of projection for some of the Reman bridge displays; and some Clarity cube rear-projection cubes for engineering, with a handful of other specialty displays in Engineering as well, and projection in a few other places on the ship and such.” The Enterprise-E bridge set incorporated LCD monitors for the readouts combined with backlit transparencies to represent the control panels. The ship’s Master Systems Display was a large acrylic atop a plasma display, with cutouts in the acrylic to allow for some sections to be animated.
All the displays on the bridge were run from a control room where there were multiple Apple Mac G4 towers. From the control room, the colour temperature of each of the feeds from the computers to the screens on the set could be changed manually, using a custom-built RGB controller with analogue knobs.
Marks was able to demonstrate, in person, his work on Star Trek Nemesis to the production designer on the project he was to work on next, the Soderbergh film Solaris. This allowed the production designer to see for himself that Marks could do a lot of futuristic displays related to space travel. “So, that was a great thing for the resume,” notes Marks. He also brought several of the graphic designers and animators from Nemesis to Solaris, even though the design of many of the screens in the latter production were, at Marks’ decision, a reaction against those which he had created for Nemesis, being more multi-dimensional.
Nowadays, Marks has a mixed opinion of Nemesis, having enjoyed working on it even though he ultimately felt that some aspects of the film were “cringy” and despite being left dissatisfied with how the story plays out. “The film unfortunately was kind of a bust,” he admits. “Some people like it, but it was kind of dumb overall. But when you watch the film today, it still looks great, with all our playback. The displays got a lot of coverage in it, and I was able to introduce some really cool technology, some cool projection stuff and cool consoles, and a lot of other stuff.”
You can check out more about Todd Marks on his company’s website, www.ImagesOnScreen.com. Next time: Todd Marks discusses Star Trek: Picard.
Webmaster of WarpFactorTrek, Dan is an avid Star Trek fan who lives in Aberdeen, Scotland. Dan has loved Star Trek ever since discovering it in his childhood. He worked as an administrator, for six years, on the encyclopedic Star Trek website Memory Alpha, which involved studying the making of the various series and films. He has been mentioned in the official Star Trek Magazine, has qualified from a Star Trek course taught at Glasgow Clyde College, and coordinated the SubSpace Chatter (formerly The Scotch Trekker) YouTube channel, which regularly featured live interviews with the cast and crew of Star Trek.