In a world filled with police procedurals, Netflix’s “Mindhunter” has attracted a lot of attention.
Created by Joe Penhall, the series is a police procedural about two FBI special agents, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany). It has attracted top-tier talent such as David Fincher, Carl Franklin (“One False Move”) and executive producer Charlize Theron.
The second season dropped last month on the streaming platform. The Australian-born editor Kirk Baxter, ACE, a two-time Academy Award-winner for Fincher’s “The Social Network” (2011) and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2012), is the editor of four of the nine episodes.
In an exclusive interview, Baxter talked about serial killers, editing difficult material, and working with the notorious perfectionist Fincher.
You you have had a long and very successful creative collaboration with Fincher. How did you first meet?
Kirk Baxter: I got introduced to David through Angus Wall when Angus was editing “Zodiac” (2007). I got brought into helping out, so I met David when I was already cutting a scene for him. Things went well. I became a puppy that never left.
How you would describe your working methods?
Baxter: I try to rely on him as little as possible because I am familiar with what his days are like, especially during the shooting process. David is incredibly busy, and I like to get on with it.
We work through PIX [a workflow tool that allows production teams to securely share and review content], so I will put a lot of stuff up for him every day and it is the day’s PIX that we critique and do back and forth at his pace.
David is pretty good at being all-consuming. He will tend to get back to me immediately. I don’t really hit him with questions. I just hit him with work.
He shoots, I select, put something together and send it to him and I take the feedback kind of dryly. I don’t take anything from [it as] a personal affront. I just work until it is there, until we are happy with it. I am trying to outgrow the part where you loathe yourself until you like the scene. I am getting better, but I haven’t perfected it yet.
Wheat tends to happen is during the shooting process, the initial assembly is just misery. We all hate ourselves, hate the show, and then once it is beginning to take shape, there is more of a jovial atmosphere where you start to feel comfortable that things are working.
In Season 2, was there a conscious decision to take the work in different stylistic or formal directions?
Baxter: No. David might have had that conversation with the cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, but certainly not with me. Again, rarely am I going to have a philosophical conversation about what we want to do. My communication with David is just by doing.
PIX has worked closely with David Fincher and his No. 13 production company since Panic Room in 2001, developing tools and services that have fundamentally changed how feature films and television shows are made. One of the first directors to embrace digital cameras with his use of the Thomson Viper on Zodiac, Fincher and his team are constantly redefining technology as they seek to blur the line between production and post production and strive to automate the mundane and more clearly communicate their creative vision.
On Netflix’s Mindhunter, Fincher again used the latest digital capture technology – custom RED Xenomorph cameras designed to his specifications, integrating all the usual camera components (wireless video transmitters, focus controls etc.) into the camera for a much more ergonomic design. But Fincher’s desire for innovation extended far beyond the camera, so he again turned to PIX.
Working on his current project, the second season of Mindhunter, David Fincher was looking for a way to better convey the thoughts and ideas he came up with during production via annotations attached to the image captured by the camera. In the past, a thought about the grading required for a particular shot might have been conveyed via a phone call to the dailies colorist much later in the day after shooting wrapped. David Fincher required a real-time telestration solution, rather than a delayed response later in the evening or next day. And it absolutely could not delay shooting or increase the footprint or complexity of production.
PIX has built a system that makes the often-used term “Connected Set” real. PIX OnSet creates a clip of the take and immediately presents this clip to the director via a tablet, so that he or she can make annotations and notes on the image right after it has been captured. These notes are then securely uploaded via PIX to all the approved members of the production who can review them along with image files. Other approved production crew – for example, DP Erik Messerschmidt – can also add their own notes. These notes are securely conveyed through to editorial and post production along with the image files and other metadata.
PRODUCTS DEPLOYED ON MINDHUNTER
– PIX for Desktop, Web, iOS – PIX OnSet – The series also utilized the PIX Developer Program for custom integrations.
Real-Time Creative Capture – The thoughts and ideas of the creative team are recorded in real-time immediately after the take. This ensures that their vision and ideas are communicated clearly and without change through the many lines of communication to the rest of the production team, reducing the potential for misunderstanding. For example, the editorial team can easily see any notes the director or DP have made without relying on paper, phone calls or emails sent later in the day. This might be a note that a take needs to be printed down half a stop or a note that something in the frame needs to be removed in post. Having the note linked to the image vastly reduces the opportunity for error and saves valuable time.
Patented Content Security – Along with the rest of the industry-leading PIX platform, PIX OnSet is extremely secure, built on PIX’s patented DRM with dynamic and forensic watermarking and meets the exacting standards of the MPAA.
Minimal Footprint On Set – Rather than adding to the on-set production infrastructure, PIX OnSet actually reduces it by providing immediate playback of takes to authorized devices as they are captured by the camera
No Production Delays – As authorized members of the creative team can annotate the file immediately and easily on their own tablet, there is absolutely no slowdown in the pace of production.
At PIX System, we help create entertainment and media by bringing creativity, collaborators and assets together. For 16 years, we’ve been creating and innovating ways to give the top creative talent, studios, mini-majors, networks, indie productions, and online content providers the time and resources they need to create. Better. Faster. More reliably.
Our industry leading platform is an open sandbox and secure home base, viewer, community workspace, media mine, think tank and muse – a place on the digital frontier where creative and strategic content and communication are safe and tidy and easily found, shared and worked on alone or together.
On Saturday night at its annual Scientific and Technical Awards Presentation, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored PIX with a Technical Achievement Award. The award recognized Eric Dachs, founder and CEO; Erik Bielefeldt, director of research and development; Craig Wood, technical director; and Paul McReynolds for the design and development of the industry leading security mechanism for distributing media. Prior to the awards ceremony, Digital Cinema Report spoke exclusively with Bielefeldt and Wood to talk about the company’s continued innovation in the evolving world of content collaboration from film to digital to next-generation data rich requirements.
Technical Achievement Award (Academy Certificate): to Eric Dachs, Erik Bielefeldt, Craig Wood and Paul McReynolds for the design and development of the PIX System’s novel security mechanism for distributing media.
PIX System’s robust approach to secure media access has enabled wide adoption of their remotely collaborative dailies-review system by the motion picture industry.
PIX founder and CEO Eric Dachs thanked Ren Klyce, Ceán Chaffin and David Fincher (present at the ceremony): “your friendship, patience, and talents have had an enduring and measurable impact on our work, and more importantly, in filmmaking.”
Eric Dachs, Erik Bielefeldt, Craig Wood, and Paul McReynolds (Amy Sussman/Getty Images)
The familiar Pix app is one of the early tools with security features developed to improved communication and collaboration during production, which was initially conceived as filmmaking became more distributed geographically. After being used on more than 5,000 film and TV projects including Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody and Mindhunter, its developers will be among those honored Saturday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ annual Scientific and Technical Awards.
Pix founder/CEO Eric Dachs — who with director of R&D Erik Bielefeldt, technical director Craig Wood and Paul McReynolds will receive Technical Achievement Awards — started his career in sound and it was while working as an assistant to seven-time Oscar nominated sound designer Ren Klyce on David Fincher’s 2002 film Panic Room that the idea for Pix was born. “I got a look at how digital technology was changing motion picture postproduction, but I also saw the inefficiency from faxing notes when the work was distributed geographically,” Dachs tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I started writing a really simple prototype application for capturing David’s spotting notes and getting them distributed to the crew via a simple web application. So that [composer Howard Shore] could get the music notes in real time, and the different departments within sound were no longer having to wait for faxes.”
One afternoon during the final mix, Klyce showed Fincher the app and the technically-savvy director was impressed. In fact, he continues to use it today.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) honored Eric Dachs ’98, the founder and CEO of PIX System, with a Technical Achievement Award at its Oscars 2019 Scientific and Technical Awards Presentation on Feb. 9, 2019.
Since its creation in 2003, PIX System has become the entertainment industry gold standard in providing secure communication and content management capabilities. Dachs, a theater major while at Wesleyan, designed and coded the initial software early in his career when he was an assistant to sound designer Ren Klyce for Panic Room. It was then that he saw the need for an easy, safe digital platform to share revisions and collaborate across locations.
David Fincher‘s knuckle-biting Mindhunter series for Netflix is based on the true-crime book, Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, an autobiography centered around the establishment of the FBI Investigative Support Unit, the foundation of which would become modern day criminal psychological profiling.
Each hour-long show (from the 10-episode run) was graded by colorist Eric Weidt, who navigated between ultra-modern capture technology, the time and place of late 70s cinema and the very specific needs of Fincher. Weidt started with Fincher as a visual effects beauty artist for the 2014 film, Gone Girl. Before that, he had worked in post production in the world of Parisian fashion.
With considerable experience in Photoshop and the Adobe infrastructure, Weidt brought his retouching talents to motion as photography and filmmaking began to bleed together. Weidt even created custom film-emulation ICC profiles and scanned grains for photographers transitioning from film to digital capture.
Colorist Eric Weidt.
Meanwhile, Fincher and his team had been working with FilmLight‘s Baselight color grading tools and plug-ins since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and on the Netflix series, House of Cards. Adding an editorial and visual effects team at his facility in Hollywood, Mindhunter was the first time that the auteur established his own in-house DI. Weidt was brought on to lead color.
“It’s important to note, we had a lot more time to work on this show than most grades,” Weidt pointed out during a special HDR presentation by FilmLight, Dolby, and Red Digital Cinema at the Dolby Cinema Old Vine theatre in Hollywood. He was given a simple brief: The show was set in the late 70s, centered on the FBI interviews of serial killers.
“The 70’s and serial killers backdrop brought to mind David Fincher’s Zodiac, which is an absolutely brilliant movie; a masterpiece in terms of both content and color,” he says. “The 70s has a distinct color palette. You say 70’s’ and everyone already has an image” he continues. Street photographers William Eggleston and Stephen Shore are personal sources of inspiration for initial color grading.
Post and edit began as production rolled in Pittsburgh. Dailies were usually available to Fincher by the following day. The production used FotoKem‘s nextLAB dailies system and the PIX asset and data management and delivery platform.
Due to overlapping shoot and post production schedules, “David looked at things on his iPad for two-thirds of the season,” says Weidt, explaining that he had a complex rendering process that allowed him to manage new HDR footage as well as sending regular corrections from Fincher to view in SDR. The Baselight workflow file was separated into two timelines, one for any creative color adjustments, and another that had stabilizations and lens emulations applied. Weidt would daisy-chain them, run it through the Dolby Vision HDR professional tools, which automatically take his XML trims, and using that, create offline files to view on an iPad or monitor.
“All you really need to do is add a trim pass layer to each shot, then hit analyze. It might take 40 minutes to analyze the whole hour’s episode. You come back, and you have your SDR version. It’s done, except that you are able to then do lift/gamma/gain, or some saturation adjustments on the trim pass. I found that maybe 85 percent of the time it looked like there wasn’t really anything to do. Out of the box, it’s pretty amazing.”
He continues that, “You don’t want to grade with both monitors, because you’ll go nuts. You have to learn to accept that the REC 709 compared to the HDR is going to look more dull.” Weidt says that Fincher’s color design for Mindhunter was heavily influenced by the organic palette of several classic films, such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, All the President’s Men and the more chromatic yet grittier look of The French Connection. They also wanted a low contrast, information-rich picture, and had first experimented with low contrast optical filtration on set but preferred in the end to “set up the digital chain in a way that Fincher was getting the type of image that he wanted.”
The RED Xenomorph custom camera for Fincher.
“Low contrast does not mean low detail,” Weidt carefully points out. That required a camera with outstanding capabilities for the production. Cinematographers Erik Messerschmidt and Christopher Probst, ASC, employed a one-of-a-kind Red camera with a 6K Dragon sensor called Xenomorph, developed by Red to Fincher’s specifications. Weidt’s starting point for dailies, as well as any color work on the master, began with a low-contrast log curve based on REDgamma3 that maintained as much of the dynamic range provided by the Red Xenomorph as possible, and gave the SDR monitoring on set an approximation of Weidt’s HDR workflows.
“When you grade something, the tone curve can be your initial contrast,” says Weidt. “It’s a bit like choosing a film stock. With Red, at that time, the most current tone curve was REDgamma4. It’s a nice, contrast-y curve, but David wanted to go back to a previous tone curve, which was REDgamma3. It’s a softer curve, and it rolls off quicker and easier in the highlights and also in the shadows.”
With the Dolby Vision HDR toolset, custom color transforms helped manage the monitoring during production. From 6K .R3D files to linear OpenEXR files, they were able to go straight to grade in Weidt’s and Messerschmidt’s preferred ‘flat’ log. For Dolby Vision HDR mastering, Weidt used the Dolby Pulsar 4000-nit professional reference display, while the Rec709 passes were done with automated mapping to SDR from Baselight. For SDR, they used a Dolby PRM monitor at 120-nits.
The HDR look was developed in post production: “In HDR, we initially came across a lot of scenes where the light sources were taking too much prominence,” Weidt says. “David and his post supervisor Peter Mavromates really wanted an elegant balance. Mindhunter‘s HDR is not trying to strike you or slap you in the face. Just like the sound mixing, or cutting, it is not trying to blow your mind, but rather convey the story content. The latter is really what’s going to punch you.”
Areas of focus circled using PIX.
After the grade.
Many of Fincher’s notes require simple dodging and burning, performed primarily through Weidt’s use of shapes, masking and tracking in Baselight. Using PIX, Fincher would circle subjects or areas of a frame, giving suggestive chromatic terms like ‘sallow’ or ‘ruddy,’ and ‘equidistant’ or ‘symmetrical’ in regard to reframing. Mindhunter used a 5K working area extracted from the full 6K frame, ultimately downconverted to a 4K deliverable, a Netflix requirement. As a 2.2:1 center extraction, the editors were able to reposition the image subtly, as needed. The image was stabilized further as necessary by using sophisticated tracking for repositioning and resizing without loss of resolution upon deliverable at 4K.
“David is famous for having a visual style where he is going to stabilize two-thirds of the shots in an episode, or in a movie, so that everything is absolutely perfect,” says Weidt. “What he wants is that the camera, the gaze into the image, is totally unconscious, and you’re really in there without distractions that most people take for granted.” After Fincher returned to Los Angeles, their standard workflow on a scene together would start with a master shot that incorporated the characters as well as background, timing color and light levels for other shots and angles in scenes to be timed from that reference.
Fincher’s eye for detail goes far beyond that, though, and Weidt noted several corrected items that would have escaped his attention, like plants outside a prison that were too vibrantly green, or highlights in reflections that needed to be turned down to match light sources. “There are certain colors that David needs to suppress, and that’s mostly pink,” he continues. “Pink appears in people’s skin tones, and if you get it wrong in the grading suite and ends up on a monitor outside of that environment, it’s going to appear like they have pink faces and it looks really bad. David wants to control that.”
Before / After
Using Summilux-C primes from CW Sonderoptic, XML information was created for every focal length. This was a requirement on Mindhunter as simulations of grain, lens barreling and chromatic aberration in Baselight were tailored to the specific focal length throughout the show. Weidt even created anamorphic effects for the spherical lenses.
“David wanted to refer to 70’s in what could be called ‘the anamorphic wide-screen era,'” he says . “Unfortunately, that focal length is not something that’s carried through in metadata. It’s tallied by the camera assistant with name of the clip and the focal length and put into a database. I had to find a way to apply the right settings for every single clip, in the absence of metadata.”
Weidt was able to merge this information by teaching himself the Python scripting engine for asset management adding the focal length as a variable in the comment field. That enabled him to classify and organize shots by telephoto, standard and wide, then multi-paste effects into an alpha-numerically sorted timeline which came in handy throughout the production. “It worked beautifully,” he says.
He also added pseudo chromatic aberration “on every shot and every episode of Mindhunter,” which he developed himself, as the vast majority of plug-ins and filters will simply shift one of the primary color plates, stretching from center, resulting in bi-color aberrations. These created results that Fincher found lackluster, when for example given a cyan-red, he’d really only want the cyan. “I found the solution in Baselight, which essentially took 20 layers, using blending modes that are usually the purview of a compositing tool,” Weidt says.
Creating a specific ’70s look.
is graded on Baselight.
“David directed four episodes of Mindhunter, but he’s the executive producer for the show, and he’s definitely the director of the DI,” he adds. “All of the color, he directed himself, with contributions from Erik.”
Weidt notes that next season will be shot using a Helium sensor, and HDR monitors will be on set along with a new ACES color space workflow. “We’ve got 20 layers just for chromatic aberration. We’ve got lens warping. We’ve got three different types of grain as well, because you couldn’t just have one,” Weidt adds, regarding the final rendering process.
“Season 2 is going to be just like a real walk in the park compared to season one. We learned so much.” Season 2 of Mindhunter is currently in production.
I don’t do a lot of interviews with editors, that’s the domain of Steve Hullfish and his legendary ART OF THE CUT series but when I saw that Adobe had some editors available for a chat at NAB 2018 I thought … why not. I had done some audio interviews before at NAB and I figured posting an audio interview to Soundcloud was a lot more likely to happen during a busy NAB week than trying to shoot and edit video (I did that one year with an iPad) or take a lot of photos and write up articles on what I saw.