The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The director who brought us Se7en has tapped into the dark side again with the Christmas-time release of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Hot off of the success of The Social Network, director David Fincher dove straight into this cinematic adaptation of Swedish writer Steig Larsson’s worldwide publishing phenomena. Even though a Swedish film from the book had been released in 2009, Fincher took on the project, bringing his own special touch.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is part of Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. The plot revolves around the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, a member of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families, forty years earlier. After these many years her uncle hires Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a disgraced financial reporter, to investigate the disappearance. Blomkvist teams with punk computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Together they start to unravel the truth that links Harriet’s disappearance to a string of grotesque murders that happened forty years before.

For this production, Fincher once again assembled the production and post team that proved successful on The Social Network, including director of photography Jeff Cronenweth, editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall and the music scoring team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Production started in August of last year and proceeded for 167 shooting days on location and in studios in Sweden and Los Angeles.

Like the previous film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was shot completely with RED cameras – about three-quarters using the RED One with the M-X sensor and the remaining quarter with the RED EPIC, which was finally being released around that time. Since the EPIC cameras were in their very early stages, the decision was made to not use them on location in Sweden, because of the extreme cold. After the first phase in Sweden, the crew moved to soundstages in Los Angeles and continued with the RED Ones. The production started using the EPIC cameras during their second phase of photography in Sweden and during reshoots back in Los Angeles.

The editing team

I recently spoke with Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, who as a team have cut Fincher’s last three films, earning them a best editing Oscar for The Social Network as well as a nomination The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I was curious about tackling a film that had already been done a couple of years before. Kirk Baxter replied, “We were really reacting to David’s material above all, so the fact that there was another film about the same book didn’t really affect me. I hadn’t seen the film before and I purposefully waited until we were about halfway through the fine cut, before I sat down and watched the film. Then it was interesting to see how they had approached certain story elements, but only as a curiosity.”

As in the past, both Wall and Baxter split up editorial duties based on the workload at any given time. Baxter started cutting at the beginning of production, with Wall joining the project in April of this year. Baxter explained, “I was cutting during the production to keep up with camera, but sometimes priorities would shift. For example, if an actor had to leave the country or a set needed to be struck, David would need to see a cut quickly to be sure that he had the coverage he needed. So in these cases, we’d jump on those scenes to make sure he knew they were OK.” Wall continued, “This was a very labor intensive film. David shot 95% to 98% of everything with two cameras. On The Social Network they recorded 324 hours of footage and selected 281 hours for the edit. On Dragon Tattoo that count went up to 483 hours recorded and 443 hours selected!”

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has many invisible effects. According to Wall, “At last count there were over 1,000 visual effects shots throughout the film. Most of these are shot stabilizations or visual enhancements, such as adding matte painting elements, lens flares or re-creating split screens from the offline.  Snow and other seasonal elements were added to a number of shots, helping the overall tone, as well as reinforcing the chronology of the film. I think viewers will be hard pressed to tell which shots are real and which are enhanced.” Baxter added, “In a lot of cases the exterior locations were shot in Sweden and elaborate sets were built on sound stages in LA for the interiors. There’s one sequence that takes place in a cabin. All of the exteriors seen through the windows and doors are green screen shots. And those were bright green! I’ve been seeing the composited shots come back and it’s amazing how perfect they are. The door is opened and there’s a bright exterior there now.”

A winning workflow solution

The key to efficient post on a RED project is the workflow. Assistant editor Tyler Nelson explained the process to me. “We used essentially the same procedures as for The Social Network. Of course, we learned things on that, which we refined for this film. Since they used both the RED M-X and the EPIC cameras, there were two different frame sizes to deal with – 4352 x 2176 for the RED One and 5120 x 2560 for the EPIC. Plus each of these cameras uses a different color science to process the data from the sensor. The file handling was done through Datalab, a company that Angus owns. A custom piece of software called Wrangler automates the handling of the RED files. It takes care of copying, verifying and archiving the .r3d files to LTO and transcoding the media for the editors, as well as for review on the secured PIX system. The larger RED files were scaled down to 1920 x 1080 ProRes LT with a center-cut extraction for the editors, as well as 720p H.264 for PIX. The ‘look’ was established on set, so none of the RED color metadata was changed during this process.”

“When the cut was locked, I used an EDL [edit decision list] and my own database to conform the .r3d files back into reels of conformed DPX image sequences. This part was done in After Effects, which also allowed me to reposition and stabilize shots as needed. Most of the repositioning was generally a north-south adjustment to move a shot up or down for better head room. The final output frame size was 3600 x 1500 pixels. Since I was using After Effects, I could make any last minute fixes if needed. For instance, I saw one shot that had a monitor reflection within the shot. It was easy to quickly paint that out in After Effects. The RED files were set to the RedColor2 / RedLogFilm color space and gamma settings. Then I rendered out extracted DPX image sequences of the edited reels to be sent Light Iron Digital who did the DI again on this film.”

On the musical trail

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo leans heavily on a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. An early peak came from a teaser cut for the film by Kirk Baxter to a driving Reznor cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. Unlike the typical editor and composer interaction – where library temp tracks are used for the edit and then a new score is done at the end of the line – Reznor and Ross were feeding tracks to the editors during the edit.

Baxter explained, “At first Trent and Atticus score to the story rather than to specific scenes. The main difference with their approach to scoring a picture is that they first provide us with a library of original score, removing the need for needledrops. It’s then a collaborative process of finding homes for the tracks. Ren Klyce [sound designer/re-recording mixer] also plays an integral part in this.” Wall added, “David initially reviewed the tracks and made suggestions as to which scenes they might work best in.  We started with these suggestions and refined placement as the edit evolved.  The huge benefit of working this way was that we had a very refined temp score very early in the process.” Baxter concluded, “Then Trent’s and Atticus’s second phase is scoring to picture. They re-sculpt their existing tracks to perfectly fit picture and the needs of the movie. Trent’s got a great work ethic. He’s very precise and a real perfectionist.”

The cutting experience

I definitely enjoyed the Oscar-winning treatment these two editors applied to intercutting dialogue scenes in The Social Network, but Baxter was quick to interject, “I’d have to say Dragon Tattoo was more complicated than The Social Network. It was a more complex narrative, so there were more opportunities to play with scene order. In the first act you are following the two main characters on separate paths. We played with how their scenes were intercut so that their stories were as interconnected as possible, giving promise to the audience of their inevitable union.”

“The first assembly was about three hours long. That hovered at around 2:50 for a while and got a bit longer as additional material was shot, but then shorter again as we trimmed. Eventually some scenes were lost to bring the locked cut in at two-and-a-half hours. Even though scenes were lost, those still have to be fine cut. You don’t know what can be lost unless you finish everything out and consider the film in its full form. A lot of work was put into the back half of the film to speed it up. Most of those changes were a matter of tightening the pace by losing the lead-in and lead-outs of scenes and often losing some detail within the scenes.”

Wall expanded on this, “Fans of any popular book series want a filmed adaptation to be faithful to the original story. In this case, we’re really dealing with a ‘five act’ structure. [laughs]. Obviously, not everything in the book can make it into the movie. Some of the investigative dead ends have to be excised, but you can’t remove every red herring.  So it was a challenging film to cut. Not only was it very labor intensive, with many disturbing scenes to put together, it was also a tricky storytelling exercise. But when you’re done and it’s all put together, it’s very rewarding to see. The teaser calls it the ‘feel-bad film of Christmas’ but it’s a really engaging story about these characters’ human experience. We hope audiences will find it entertaining.”

Some additional coverage from Post magazine.

Written for DV magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)

©2011 Oliver Peters

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