When tackling a period-centered project like Mank, David Fincher and his assembly of below the line craftspersons create magic, fully immersing the viewer in a faithfully recreated 1930s-era California. While the project leveraged many real-world locations and built sets, changing times and the absence of an unlimited budget posed some challenges to create that immersive world Fincher and team demanded. To complete the illusion, the filmmakers looked to co-producer Peter Mavromates, who led a team of four visual effects (VFX) supervisors.
Now, Mank isn’t effects-heavy The Avengers, but that doesn’t mean VFX aren’t just as critical to the film’s storytelling and overall atmosphere.
“The assumption, at minimum, is that you’re going to at least need to retouch a background to get rid of modern anachronisms,” Mavromates explained. “As in this movie, there are situations where David [Fincher] will want to actually replace the background so that period buildings are back there.”
There are many reasons why there’s a general wave of excitement whenever there’s a new David Fincher movie. That’s particularly been the case with Mank considering the six-year gap since Fincher’s last film Gone Girl, roughly half that time in which Fincher was making the series Mindhunter for Netflix.
Most of Fincher’s fans within and outside the industry see the filmmaker as a modern master of the visual medium, and Mank offers further proof of this with stunning shots recreating Hollywood in the ‘30s and ‘40s, fully realized background environments in which well-known icons from the era discuss the political climate of the times, both in the country and in Tinsel Town itself. At the center of it all is Gary Oldman’s Herman Mankiewicz, the illustrious screenwriter who would win a shared Oscar for co-writing Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
One person who has been along for the ride watching Fincher’s rise as a visionary filmmaker is Peter Mavromates, whose first film with Fincher was 1997’s The Game, but who first met the director on a Michael Jackson video and a commercial he directed. Mavromates has worked in post for over 35 years, as one of the first to champion the benefits of combining analog film with digital post, producing his first DI (Digital Intermediary) for Fincher’s 2002 movie, Panic Room, which was shot on analog. Five years later, he did the same for Zodiac, Fincher’s first digitally-shot film.
As Fincher’s Post-Production Supervisor, Mavromates’ duties continued to expand and evolve, his duties involving all the budgeting and hiring when it comes to the post process. “I like to describe it as once the image is captured, it becomes my problem,” he told Below the Line over a Zoom call a few weeks back.
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.”
Panelists include Co-Producer and VFX Producer Peter Mavromates, VES Award nominated Visual Effects Supervisor at ArtempleWei Zheng, Visual Effects Supervisor at Territory StudioSimon Carr and HPA Award nominated Visual Effects Supervisor at Savage VFXJames Pastorius and VES Award-winning Visual Effects Supervisor at ILMPablo Helman, moderated by VES Board Secretary Gavin Graham.
“Mank” is one of 2020’s most technically dazzling films. David Fincher‘s perfectionism transported us back to the Golden Age of Hollywood to tell us the story of Academy Award winning screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) and the film has been hailed as one of the year’s best, most recently being rewarded as one of the Top 10 films of the year by the American Film Institute (AFI). Many members from the film’s production were kind enough to give us a behind-the-scenes look into the making of the film including Academy Award-nominated sound designer Ren Klyce, Costume Designer Trish Summerville & Co-Producer/VFX Producer, Peter Mavromates.
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The new David Fincher movie, Mank, released on Netflix on December 4th of this year, was originally scheduled to be produced in 1999 but didn’t happen due to a number of factors. In 2007 Fincher released Zodiac which was one of the first major theatrical features to be shot in a digital environment around a completely new file-based workflow that would revolutionize the industry over the next decade.
Peter Mavromates, the post production supervisor on Zodiac and a number of other Fincher projects over the years, including a co-Producer credit on Mank, joins Critical Conversations to discuss how digital workflows have grown and evolved over the last 15 years. Peter will talk about helping to design the early workflows on Zodiac, continuing to build it with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the ongoing developments created for Mank, and what’s next for the future.
Peter Mavromates has worked in post production for more than 35 years. He saw the future of “film” when he walked into a high-end video facility in New York called Charlex. Working at Charlex while still in “film” school in the NYU Grad Film Program, he saw the beauty of film (read ACETATE) and the power of electronic (read ANALOG VIDEO transitioning to DIGITAL) and watched as those two processes merged and mutated throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. Peter produced his first DI on Panic Room in 2002, and his first DI of a digitally acquired movie on Zodiac in 2007. Most of the last 25 years have been spent working on projects with David Fincher, but he has also worked with Quentin Tarantino, Stephen Gaghan, and George Clooney.
I recently had the chance to ask Territory Studio about their visual effects work for Mank, which involved the re-creation of Wilshire Blvd from the 1930s. Like those shots, so much of Mank’s VFX work was invisible, involving subtle augmentations to tell the period story.
Overseeing these visual effects shots was director David Fincher himself, alongside co-producer Peter Mavromates, and the film’s art department. Fincher and Mavromates co-ordinated an outside effort, also, led by four VFX supervisors at different studios: Artemple (Wei Zheng), Territory Studio (Simon Carr), Savage(John Pastorious) and ILM (Pablo Helman).
In this befores & afters conversation, Mavromates discusses the various VFX work—from sky replacements to matte paintings, to CG animals and what he calls ‘body-and-fender’ shots—that helped tell Mank’s tale.
Early in Netflix’s Mank, the screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) ambles onto an outdoor movie set, where he bumps into an array of glamorous characters. In a scene full of repartee with real-life figures such as the actor Marion Davies, the film honcho Louis B. Mayer, and the mogul William Randolph Hearst, the visual details of the environment might seem unimportant. But to Mank’s director, David Fincher, they mattered. “The grass was not to David’s liking, and the sky was not to his liking, so all that’s been replaced,” Peter Mavromates, his co-producer, told me. When making a movie, Fincher literally controls heaven and earth.
That example sums up the capricious-sounding, godlike power of a director, especially in the age of digital filmmaking, which allows for total command of every frame. But as with all of his movies, Fincher’s vision for Mank was realized by a group of dedicated collaborators, most of whom have worked with the director for many years across projects. This film, which Fincher mulled for nearly three decades, is unlike anything he has made before. An unusual-looking-and-sounding film set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Mank reflects the aesthetic of the 1930s with its black-and-white cinematography; an echoey, old-fashioned sound mix; and a brassy, orchestral score. But Fincher also wanted it to be a distinctly modern film, which posed many unique and fascinating technical challenges to the creators charged with bringing his lofty ideas to life.
How will filmmaking adapt in the post-Covid era? A glimpse into the future is afforded by Mank, the forthcoming Netflix feature project directed by David Fincher and spearheaded by producer Ceán Chaffin. More than a love letter to a catalog title, Mank is a glimpse of the complex interplay of human creativity and the filmmaking process as practiced in Hollywood’s golden era.
Fincher is known for working in the vanguard of filmmaking technology. Examples include a very early digital intermediate on Panic Room – the first ever in a facility designed for the purpose – and Zodiac, one of the first major features to be shot almost entirely digitally. The remote collaboration envisioned by futurists at the dawn of the internet era was already common practice for his team long before the pandemic.
“Fortunately, we have not missed a beat,” says Chaffin. “We are working now exactly how we mostly could have been working the past ten years, which is working from home during post.”
But the virus and its requirement to remain physically apart may constitute a final push for the industry at large. All the attributes of true remote connectivity – reduced travel time and its attendant benefits in terms of stress, pollution and time savings, enhanced with rapid feedback, superior organization and a centralized database – will still be applicable when health concerns subside.
A canvas of the top pros on David Fincher’s team indicates that while the pandemic naturally raises stress levels, the need to work separately has been essentially a non-factor in terms of their ability to collaborate efficiently and keep the production on track.
Fincher came to the project with a mandate that the production work with the PIX production hub. Chaffin, who has made nine films with Fincher, says that the system is an essential tool for collaboration and input.
“This is how we have worked for a long time.” says Chaffin. “David feels the team is making the film with him, sharing in the problem-solving. Even when we were in the same building, David was often responding exclusively through PIX. His preferences and concerns are there for everyone to refer to. You don’t have to go find that one email, or remember a comment someone made on their way out the door.