By TREVOR HOGG
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
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By TREVOR HOGG
A consistent entry on the greatest of all-time films is Citizen Kane, which is famous for innovative filmmaking, having been inspired by the life of American media mogul William Randolph Hearst and serving as the Hollywood debut of wunderkind Orson Welles. Just as legendary is the behind-the-scenes turmoil, in particularly Hearst attempting to derail the project and the careers of those involved. There were also accusations that Welles did not deserve a screenwriting credit as the true author was Herman J. Mankiewicz.
The script controversy captured the attention of journalist Jack Fincher who wrote an initial draft 30 years ago that was furthered developed by his son, David Fincher, best known for directing Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac and The Social Network. The Netflix production of Mank stars Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tuppence Middleton and Charles Dance.
Over the course of his career, Mank co-producer and VFX Producer Peter Mavromates (Mindhunter) has frequently collaborated with Fincher as a post-production supervisor. “There is a high level of consistency in our post team, so we get to have that conversation about how we can do it better the next time.”
Visual effects and DI are done in-house. “When we’re doing tests during pre-production,” Mavromates says, “a lot of the time they are shot in the parking lot and we bring the files right into the DI in the building. How awesome is that kind of feedback for Erik Messerschmidt [Raised by Wolves], our DP, and David Fincher to be able to play with something, see it, test it, bend it, and then go back out and try an alternative version right away? That’s valuable. That’s also the advantage to having in-house visual effects, which is having the ability not to be on the clock. I can call David upstairs where our visual effects are and say, ‘I want you to look at these three shots.’ I can give feedback to the artist right there, and maybe the artist can immediately do his note and get him to sign off. I think of David as the visual effects supervisor and I am the supervisor on some of the more technical stuff, like retouches.”
Fincher maintains a consistent vision throughout the production. “David doesn’t change things, but will use up his time to keep asking for more detail,” explains Mavromates. “I have to add something to it which is remarkable, and this started happening on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with our web-based collaborative platform called PIX. When we’re dealing with out-of-house companies, they post different composites and things on PIX. The thing about David is he uses PIX so consistently that visual effects companies usually have notes back in 20 minutes. It’s rare if there is a delay in the notes.”
The PIX workflow came in handy when the COVID-19 pandemic caused the production that had finished principal photography on February 22, 2020 to work remotely in mid-March. “David has never wanted to spend the time and money to travel to post-production when he’s on location,” says Mavromates. “Once the flag came down, we were up and running in three days. A lot of times David likes stuff on PIX even if we’re in the same building. We were 80% trained already. It didn’t impact our schedule. We delivered at the beginning of September.”
Missing was the human element. “Even though David does the first 90% of the DI with PIX postings, ideally for that last mile you would [like to] be in the same room,” observes Mavromates. “That’s also true with visual effects reviews. My crew and I have gotten in this habit even when outside vendors send shots in – there are usually about five us who would watch them together. They’re fun sessions and we didn’t get to do that this time. In terms of David doing the last notes on DI, we put him in our DI suite by himself and played the entire movie back to him on two different monitors. We put a video camera in there and gave him a laser pointer. David went through and gave the final round of notes semi-in person!”
“When we’re doing tests during pre-production a lot of the time, they are shot in the parking lot and we bring the files right into the DI in the building. How awesome is that kind of feedback for Erik Messerschmidt, our DP, and [director] David Fincher to be able to play with something, see it, test it, bend it, and then go back out and try an alternative version right away? That’s valuable.”
—Peter Mavromates, Co-producer and VFX Producer
About half of the job for Mavromates is selecting and dividing the work among the vendors. “When I decide what stays in-house, usually it’s the smaller stuff that I can put through quickly,” he says. “When stuff gets bigger, that’s when I want a facility that has more bandwidth in terms of bodies and rendering. Over time, I have a checklist of things that these vendors have done successfully, so a lot of the choices have become easier over time. David likes to add a lot of lens flaring to his stuff, and I know that I’m going to go to Savage for that because we’ve designed lens flares over so many projects with them. In the birthday scene, there are 65 fireplaces that had flames added. That’s the kind of throughput that Ollin can handle.” The CG animals were produced by ILM, driving sequences by Territory Studio, and Artemple did everything from digital water to a close-up of a neon sign.
In total there were 753 visual effects shots. “A lot of that is ‘body and fender work,’ which encompasses getting rid of actor’s marks, straightening out curtains, removing metallic reflections that were unintended,” remarks Mavromates. “The work multiplies during the DI – that’s when David is really inspecting shots and says, ‘We should clean this up.’ My data base includes everything from a matte painting of a vaulted ceiling down to getting rid of a tape mark. For the work that Territory Studio did of a mile and half stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, we cut an animatic that turned into a previs that got tightened. Then they went in to fill out the street on the sections where we needed. A lot of the work is plate-based.”
“Even though David does the first 90% of the DI with PIX postings, ideally for that last mile you would [like to] be in the same room. … In terms of [director] David [Fincher] doing the last notes on DI, we put him in our DI suite by himself and played the entire movie back to him on two different monitors. We put a video camera in there and gave him a laser pointer. David went through and gave the final round of notes semi-in person!”
—Peter Mavromates, Co-producer and VFX Producer
Artemple replaced the backgrounds for when Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) arrives at Glendale Train Station
Mank was captured in black and white. “The only thing shot in color were people in blue as elements for a sequence that we ended up dropping,” reveals Mavromates. “It means that there is more manual work for rotoscoping. When you look at Marion Davies [Amanda Seyfried] when she is at the stake and the angle is shooting up, it was a clear blue sky. We probably could have used that for keying the sky replacement in there. Because Mank was shot monochrome, we didn’t have that blue color channel to help us tighten up a matte.”
The monochrome imagery negated shooting LED walls for the driving scenes. “We would have had to shoot that sequence in color in order to do matting,” Mavromates says. “We wanted more freedom to move and re-position the background live in relation to the actors and have a nicer wrapping of reflections on the car bodies. It harkens back to the traditional way of doing rear projection which was available in the 1930s. There were a lot of techniques that we used that were conceptually available in the 1930s, but we had better tools to do that. That would be an example of that. The fact we have the image on a LED screen that can be easily re-positioned or distorted right there on the set would have been much more difficult if it was film-based.”
A constant discussion from pre-production into production was the monochrome presentation and the grain structure that were pivotal in creating the impression that Mank was made in 1939. “There was a lot of research into grain structure, which is hard to do because you’re looking at stuff and making assumptions about the grain,” explains Mavromates. “You could find tight grain in 1932 and lousy grain in 1955. In the end, it had to be a creative choice. We shot quite a few black and white tests, and played with black blooming around that, which you sometimes get when you have dubs of black and white movies. You will see grain a lot heavier on something that would have been a traditional film optical, like a fade out or dissolve. We put in legitimate changeover marks in the movie. There are little speckles of dirt. We did not scratch the movie except for the news footage of Mank [Gary Oldman] with his Academy Award at the end – that’s found footage within found footage! With the research on matte paintings, a certain amount of that lands on the artists to do it, and David is vetting that as they are sending in proposals. With ILM for the monkey cage, they did a bunch of image research and sent that to David and he said, ‘It’s something along these three images.’ Then they’ll design something. There is a lot of back and forth.”
Mankiewicz [Mank] goes on a drunken rant in front of William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his dinner guests. “I don’t know if you see it so much in that scene, but that actual physical space served as the birthday scene earlier in the movie as well,” remarks Mavromates. “When you look at the intro to the birthday party when we come down from a vault ceiling, that is CG done by Artemple. That is also true for the dinner scene. Where you really see it is at the end of the scene when Hearst walks Mankiewicz out of the foyer hallway – that ceiling is artificial as well. Those rooms were connected on the soundstage, but there were no ceilings.”
A digital splash was produced for the fountain scene when Marion Davies kicks the water while walking alongside Mankiewicz. “It was one of those things where once David got in there, he was like, ‘Could we have a splash of water?’” says Mavromates. “That’s the ‘more’ David asks for sometimes. I don’t remember any notes coming back to Wei Zheng [Visual Effects Supervisor at Artemple] after his first attempt at that. He did his homework. There is a flashback of the woman on the ferry and that’s a LED screen back there. The water, island and boats were also done by Artemple.”
“The scene where Marian is leaving MGM to go to Warner Bros. ironically was shot at Warner Bros.,” reveals Mavromates. “We had to change the signs to an older style of their building numbers and remove a lot of security cameras.” Prominent in the nighttime cityscape is the Trocadero neon sign. “That was one of those shots I was nervous about because of it being so close to the camera. I keep looking to see where it’s anchored to the wall if it’s slipping at all. That’s a real crane shot coming down so it’s not like the upper half is manufactured. You see a real building on the left edge and look down the street. David in his mind previsualized it, positioned the camera, and it worked amazingly.”
Skies needed to be replaced. “The big scene for that is when Marion is at the stake when they’re shooting that movie,” he says. “Savage built a 3D model of our location and wrapped in the sky so the camera could be positioned. As the camera cut around, Savage could say, ‘No, we’re seeing that part of the sky.’ They used the Unreal engine to do that. That’s quite a lengthy scene, and every sky in there is replaced. It was methodically planned.”
“You could find tight grain in 1932 and lousy grain in 1955. In the end, it had to be a creative choice. We shot quite a few black and white tests, and played with black blooming around that, which you sometimes get when you have dubs of black and white movies. You will see grain a lot heavier on something that would have been a traditional film optical, like a fade out or dissolve. We put in legitimate changeover marks in the movie. There are little speckles of dirt. We did not scratch the movie except for the news footage of Mank [Gary Oldman] with his Academy Award at the end – that’s found footage within found footage!”
—Peter Mavromates, Co-producer and VFX Producer
“It wasn’t so much modifying the pipeline, but there had to be this constant attention to the whole monochrome aspect of everything,” notes Mavromates. “On Mindhunter, we actually pulled DI in-house so we had the colorist around during production and in post. [Colorist] Eric Weidt does other stuff too, like cosmetic work on all of our projects. The main title sequence is something that David can obsess over. His notes on the monochrome aspect of things and the tones that we had to hit were so specific. It was valuable for the in-house artist who was compositing that to render out his imagery, walk downstairs and watch it with the colorist, and then go back to modify it. That took up more time than DI typically takes up.”
Citizen Kane did have an impact on the way Fincher and Messerschmidt shot the biopic. “People have caught on that we have done some in-camera fades, like they did in Citizen Kane,” observes Mavromates. “But the other thing that is subtle is we did f-stop pulls. There is maybe a half dozen shots where the depth of field changes during the shot. That’s something that Gregg Toland [cinematographer for Citizen Kane] didn’t do! It was tricky in DI because it wasn’t exactly smooth, so Eric Weidt had to take it that last three yards where maybe there was a little flutter in there.”
“Two of my favorite shots are that vault ceiling in the birthday party because it’s uncanny to look at that and say, ‘Wow. That actually didn’t physically exist,’” reveals Mavromates. “I also love the Trocadero sign, which is right up to the lens.
There is a public misconception about the way that Fincher approaches filmmaking, according to Mavromates. “The irony is with David, especially on a movie like this, he is renowned as a perfectionist, and yet so much of our discussion is about what is it that he wants not perfect. This is an example of that. Right now, I’m in a middle of a film and I was trying to figure out, do I order a wet gauge show print or a regular print? Then I realized I order a regular print because if it gets damaged that’s better. I checked that with David and he said, ‘Absolutely.’”