The Social Network

Who would have thought that the online world of social media would make an interesting movie? That’s exactly what David Fincher set out to do in The Social Network, the story of how Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) became the youngest billionaire in history – thanks to a little start-up called Facebook. The Aaron Sorkin script is based on the book, The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich.

This was a return engagement for a number of Fincher’s crew, including cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (Fight Club) and editors Angus Wall (Panic Room, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Kirk Baxter (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). The past two films – shot with the Grass Valley Viper camera – raised the bar for an all-digital production and post production workflow. The Social Network does that again, as the first released studio picture shot with a RED ONE camera equipped with the upgraded Mysterium-X sensor. As in the past films, the editorial team used Apple Final Cut Pro connected to an Apple Xsan shared storage system as their weapon of choice.

Angus Wall explained the workflow, “From our standpoint as editors, it was a very easy film to work on. Tyler Nelson and Alex Olivares, the assistant editors, handled all the data management and file conversions at David’s production offices. They converted the native RED camera files to Apple ProRes 422 (LT) for us. After that, it was pretty much the same for us as on Button or Zodiac, except that this time we were working with 1920×1080 images, which was great.”

When I suggested that Benjamin Button must have been more of a challenge as an effects film, Kirk Baxter quickly pointed out the similarities. “There are about 1,000 effects shots in The Social Network. It has a lot of digital matte paintings, but there was also face replacement much like in Button. In this film, there are two characters who are twins, but in fact the actors aren’t. So a similar process was used to turn one of the actors into the twin of the other. Although the story isn’t driven by the same sort of visual effect, like the aging technique that was a dramatic device in Benjamin Button, it still has a lot of effects work.”

For a fresh feel, Fincher tapped Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the score. Angus explained, “This worked out extremely well. Trent and Atticus were hired relatively early in the process.  Since they were working in tandem with the cutting, we were able to drop in a lot of near-final tracks instead of using temp music. This was great, because we had about 30 of their tracks to work with, all of which were actually intended for this film. That’s much better than the norm, where you scour your iTunes library to find some workable music to put under scenes.”

David Fincher shot approximately 280 hours of footage, recording all of the scenes with two and sometimes three RED cameras. The production schedule spanned from September to March, with a pick-up scene shot in July. Baxter and Wall worked out of Rock Paper Scissors (Wall’s LA editorial company) during shooting, staying up with the production during the first assembly process. Once production wrapped, editing was moved to Fincher’s production company offices. The two editors split up the scenes between themselves during the fine-cutting of the film.

Baxter explained, “David is a busy guy, so he doesn’t constantly sit over your shoulder while you’re editing. If Angus or I started out on a complex scene during the assembly, we usually stayed with it throughout post, since we were already familiar with all the footage. David would bounce between our two cutting rooms reviewing and offering his notes. He’s a very good director for an editor, because he knows exactly what he wants. He’s not an ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ type of guy. But he doesn’t overwhelm you either with information. At the beginning, he’ll set a general direction of what he’s looking for to get you started. Then deeper into the fine-cut, he’ll start tuning his approach and giving you more detailed comments.”

Most first assemblies are long and then the editor has to do major surgery to get the movie to the desired length. This wasn’t an issue with The Social Network. Wall explained, “The script was around 160 pages, so we were concerned that the first assembly was going to be correspondingly long. Our target was to keep the film under two hours. From the start, Kirk and I cut the scenes very tightly, using faster performances and generally keeping the pace of the film high. When the first assembly was completed, we were at a length of 1 hour 55 minutes – actually a minute shorter than the final version. Unlike most films, we were able to relax the pace and put some air back into the performances during the fine cut.”

Shooting with the RED ONE cameras introduced workflow changes for this film. Tyler Nelson (first assistant editor) handled the data management, creation of dailies and the final conforming of files to be sent to Light Iron Digital for the digital intermediate. Nelson explained, “I’m very particular about how the files get handled and so maintained control throughout the process. I was using two workstations with RED Rocket accelerator cards running ROCKETcine-X software to process our dailies. I would generate ProRes 422 (LT) QuickTimes for Angus and Kirk.  However, when it came to delivering visual effect elements and our final conform, we needed a bit more control, so I used a script that I wrote in FileMaker Pro to reference our codebook and pull our online media.”

Nelson continued, “When I received the locked cut, I generated an EDL for each video track and then used my FileMaker Pro script to parse the EDL to drive the transcode of the RED files into 4K DPX image sequences. I used these same EDLs to import each reel into After Effects CS5 to assemble our final conform. The footage was shot in 4K [4096x2048]. David framed his shots with a 2.40 matte, but with a twist.  We added an extra 4% padding on all sides so that if we wanted to reposition the frame north, south, east or west, we had a bit more image to work with. Effectively we had 3932×1638 pixels to use. The final images were exported as 2K [2048x1024] DPX sequences for Light Iron’s DI.” This extra padding on the edges of the frame came in handy, because Nelson also stabilized a number of shots. SynthEyes was used to generate tracking data for use in After Effects for this stabilization.

Early testing with various DI processes allowed the team to settle on the optimum RED settings to use in REDline (RED’s command line-driven software rendering engine). All files were delivered using the REDcolor (color space) and REDlog (gamma) values, which provided the most latitude to Light Iron’s colorist, Ian Vertovec. Light Iron CEO and DI supervisor, Michael Cioni explained, “Working with the full-range (flat) DPX files gives us nearly as much malleable range as with the native R3D raw files. Although it’s nice to grade in raw – because you have additional control to change color temperature or ISO values – that really isn’t practical in a film like this, with over 1,000 visual effects. You don’t want a lot of different vendors applying their own image conversions to the files and then later be unable to match the different shots at the DI stage. With log-like DPX files, they behave similar to scanned film negative and fit nicely into the existing pipelines.”

Cioni continued, “Ian graded the files using one of our Quantel Pablos. Since much of the look of the film was eloquently established on set, the grading came naturally to nearly every scene. The Social Network will really show off the expanded latitude and low-noise characteristics of RED’s M-X sensor. The scenes in this movie really live in the shadows. This film will deliver to audiences significantly more detail in images below 10 IRE as compared to typical digital cinema sensitivity. Although the majority of the first release will be seen as film prints, the future of all movies is digital, so the priority was given to the look of the digital master, rather than the other way around.” Technicolor handled the film-out recording for release prints, including digital-to-film color transforms from the DSM (Digital Source Master). The film’s final output is cropped for a 2.40:1 release format.

The technology angle of The Social Network is fascinating, but I wondered if there were any creative challenges for the editors. Kirk Baxter pointed out, “It was very well scripted and directed, so not a lot of story-telling issues had to be resolved in the edit. In fact, there were a number of scenes that were great fun to put together. For example, there’s an early scene about some of the legal depositions. It takes place in two different boardrooms at different times and locations, but the scene is intercut as if it is one continuous conversation. David gave us lots of coverage, so it was a real joy to solve the puzzle, matching eyelines and so on.”

Angus Wall added, “This is a movie about the birth of a major online power, but what happens on the computer is a very minor part.  For us, it was more important to concentrate on the drama and emotions of the characters and that’s what makes this a timeless story.  It’s utterly contemporary… but a little bit Shakespearean, too.   It’s about people participating in something that’s bigger than themselves, something that will change all of their lives in one way or another.”

UPDATE: Here are several nice pieces from Adobe , Post magazine (here and here) and the Motion Picture Editors Guild that also go into more detail about the post workflow.

Written for Videography magazine (NewBay Media LLC).

©2010 Oliver Peters

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