Today, let’s dive into the filmmaking mind of director David Fincher, and his 2020 film Mank.
David Fincher loves CGI and VFX, and that is on full display just as much in Mank (2020) as it is in all his past films. Only this time, for Mank, David Fincher had to use those tools, along with an old school cinematography and directing style, and smart editing, not only to create a convincing 1930’s Hollywood world, reminiscent of movies like Orson Welles‘ Citizen Kane, but also a convincing golden age Hollywood movie. Let’s see how David Fincher faked Mank.
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.
Mank is the highly anticipated Netflix biopic directed by David Fincher. The movie is told through the eyes of alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz, as he battles with personal demons to finish the screenplay for Orson Welles’ renowned Citizen Kane.
While Fincher and his team have worked with FilmLight’s Baselight colour grading system since the 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the Netflix TV series House of Cards, it was with Netflix’s Mindhunter that the director established his own in-house DI facility in Hollywood. Colourist Eric Weidt was brought on to lead colour development on the facility’s Baselight X system. Weidt had previously developed custom film emulation profiles for traditional film photographers, and brought his considerable experience in post-production for fashion stills and films to the grading suite.
Entirely shot in black and white, Mank has a 1930s Hollywood feel. Many tests were done before shooting – cameras, lenses, even light bulbs – before Eric developed the HDR, SDR and day-for-night LUTs alongside the project’s DoP Erik Messerschmidt. Fincher wanted to re-create certain period elements in post, for example “black blooming” in the shadows.
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.
The Art of the Cut podcast brings the fantastic conversations that Steve Hullfish has with world renowned editors into your car, living room, editing suite and beyond. In each episode, Steve talks with editors ranging from emerging stars to Oscar and Emmy winners. Hear from the top editors of today about their careers, editing workflows and about their work on some of the biggest films and TV shows of the year.
On this episode of the Art of the Cut Podcast, Steve talks with editor Ben Insler about his work on the new Netflix Film “Mank.” Ben has edited multiple series including the Netflix series “Mindhunter.” In this episode Steve dives deep into the work flows and technology used to cut this film including the challenges of finishing a film remotely due to COVID-19.
On a future episode, Steve will also be talking with editor Kirk Baxter about leading the “Mank” editing team. Make sure to keep a look out for that episode!
This episode of the Art of the Cut Podcast is brought to you by Filmtools.com, Hollywood’s trusted one-stop shop for all things production and post.
Want to read/ listen to more interviews from Steve Hullfish? Check out The Art of the Cut Archive for more than 200 interviews with some of the top film and TV editors of today!
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.
Jennifer Chung, Assistant Editor Ben Insler, First Assistant Editor Peter Mavromates, Post Producer
In this panel, you’ll hear Team Fincher discuss their TV and feature film workflows and see how they used the new Productions feature in Premiere Pro along with After Effects in a completely remote scenario during the pandemic.
They’ll also discuss their career paths and give advice on how to succeed as a professional editor.
Six years ago, after I contacted David Fincher and told him I wanted to write an article about how he makes movies, he invited me to his office to present my case in person and, while I was there, watch him get some work done. On an April afternoon, I arrived at the Hollywood Art Deco building that has long served as Fincher’s base of operations, where he was about to look at footage from his 10th feature film, “Gone Girl,” then in postproduction. We headed upstairs and found the editor Kirk Baxter assembling a scene. Fincher watched it once through, then asked Baxter to replay a five-second stretch. It was a seemingly simple tracking shot, the camera traveling alongside Ben Affleck as he entered a living room in violent disarray: overturned ottoman, shattered glass. The camera moved at the same speed as Affleck, gliding with unvarying smoothness, which is exactly how Fincher likes his shots to behave. Except that three seconds in, something was off. “There’s a bump,” he said.
Jack Fincher photographed by David Fincher in 1976, when he was 14. “That’s why it’s out of focus”.
No living director surpasses Fincher’s reputation for exactitude. Any account of his methods invariably mentions how many takes he likes to shoot, which can annoy him, not because this is inaccurate but because it abets a vision of him as a dictatorially fussy artiste. Fincher, who is 58, argues that this caricature misses the point: If you want to build worlds as engrossing as those he seeks to construct, then you need actors to push their performances into zones of fecund uncertainty, to shed all traces of what he calls “presentation.” And then you need them to give you options, all while hitting the exact same marks (which goes for the camera operators too) to ensure there will be no continuity errors when you cut the scene together. Getting all these stars to align before, say, Take No. 9 is possible but unlikely. “I get, He’s a perfectionist,” Fincher volunteered. “No. There’s just a difference between mediocre and acceptable.”
Necessity is the mother of invention, and nothing proves this proverb more true than the evolution of film and television production technology in the age of COVID-19. While the field has always changed rapidly even in normal times, the pace of change and adaptation has accelerated over the past six months.
This adjustment has posed many questions. Beyond personal protective equipment, mandatory testing, on-set safety monitors, walking lunches and corona contingency fees, will the pandemic have enduring effects in the creative, collaborative endeavor that is filmmaking? The technology to work remotely has essentially been in place for some time, but will the pandemic finally push us over into a new normal?
Numerous existing technology trends are being suddenly supercharged by the necessities imposed by the coronavirus. Shooting close to home has never been more appealing, and that impulse aligns neatly with ongoing advancements in LED backings and virtual production. In the world of image processing, connectivity solutions such as those offered by Moxion, Frame.io and Sohonet were already bringing immediacy and super-high resolution to a wide variety of devices without regard to location — and now those virtues are suddenly in much higher demand. And remote collaboration solutions including PIX are looking positively prescient.
Director David Fincher’s team found that the PIX production backbone, a tool they’ve helped develop over the years, facilitated safe group creativity but also enhanced efficiency on the forthcoming Mank.