The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


If hitting the theaters is a Christmas Day tradition in your family, then David Fincher has a holiday treat for you. This innovative filmmaker brought us the first uncompressed digital film in Zodiac, and is now set to outdo that effort in his newest tour de force production, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. The screenplay was adapted by Eric Roth from a 1920s F. Scott Fitzgerald story and tells the tale of a man born in his eighties and who has the unusual condition of aging backwards.


Fincher used a similar methodology to that of Zodiac and nearly the same editorial team, including editor Angus Wall. On The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Wall was joined by Kirk Baxter, a commercial editor at Wall’s Los Angeles editorial company, Rock Paper Scissors. Benjamin Button was Baxter’s first full-length feature film.


In our recent conversation, Kirk Baxter explained, “I worked a little with Angus on the tail end of Zodiac, but this is the first film where I’ve had a lead role. We started this around Thanksgiving two years ago. I edited for the first six months long distance, because the crew was in New Orleans and Montreal shooting location scenes. My communication with David was over the phone and using the PIX system for reviews. After that, they moved to LA and the rest of the production took place on a soundstage. Angus joined in after production and then he and I pretty much tag-teamed on scenes thereafter.”


Digital workflow


Zodiac was photographed using a Grass Valley Viper FilmStream digital cinema camera. In my earlier interview, Wall had indicated to me that Fincher might opt for a Dalsa Origin on Benjamin Button. In the end, the director stuck with a camera and post pipeline that had been successful for Zodiac. Angus explained, “David is very much into the technology. Whenever one project ends, he looks around and sees what’s new and might be viable for the next project. For this film, we stayed with the Viper. A few scenes were also shot with a Sony F23 and the high-speed clips were done on film. David recently shot a Nike commercial with the RED One camera and was very happy with that experience. I found the post workflow easy to deal with, but I think we’re fortunate in that Rock Paper Scissors has a culture of people who like to deal with data. In addition, the RED [Digital Cinema Camera] team provided tremendous support.”


The post pipeline, however, had evolved for Benjamin Button. In the past, Viper footage recorded on S.two hard drive magazines (D.MAG) was first copied to an Apple Xsan shared storage system and then converted into QuickTime for editing. As part of the Zodiac pipeline, they archived the S.two uncompressed DPX files to LTO3 data back-up tapes. These were later used to conform the cut prior to sending it out for the digital intermediate film finish. Apple Shake scripts converted the uncompressed DPX files into DVCPRO HD QuickTime media for use in Final Cut. This required a lot of rendering for all the footage that Fincher had shot.


Assistant editor Tyler Nelson continued our conversation. “On Benjamin Button, S.two had developed their i.DOCK unit, which plays the D.MAGs and acts like a virtual VTR. Logging information from the set is turned into an XML file that can be imported into Final Cut. The clips are then batch captured in real-time. Since i.DOCK uses serial machine control and has an HD-SDI video output, footage goes straight from the D.MAGs into the Final Cut stations through the AJA KONA cards. The XML files provide a way to match the metadata between the DPX and the QuickTime media.” Angus remembers David wanting “dailies to become hourlies.”


Other improvements included the use of Rubber Monkey Software’s Monkey Extract and IRIDAS FrameCycler. Monkey Extract is best known as one of the post options for RED files, but it can be used with a variety of file-based formats. This tool pulled the uncompressed DPX media from the LTO3 back-up tapes. These files in turn were conformed using IRIDAS FrameCycler to match the edited sequence from Final Cut Pro. Despite the heavy use of Apple technology, Color hasn’t yet fit into this pipeline. Angus explained, “I really like Color and have used it to grade three or four commercials with David and several more with other directors. Benjamin Button was done as a DI at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging.” Digital intermediate colorist Jan Yarbrough handled the final color grading on a Filmlight Baselight system.


Editorial challenges


No two films present the same challenges for an editor and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is no exception. Kirk put it this way, “The whole film was a challenge because stylistically there are so many different scenes. The biggest challenge for us came in the first three reels, because there is no lead performance during that entire time.” Angus went on, “In this period of the film, the Benjamin Button character is a composite of a body actor and a CGI face. When we started, we only had the body actor delivering temp dialogue lines in the scene with other actors. Initially we placed a circle wipe over the actor’s face so the performance would not be distracting. Brad recorded temp dialogue that we used for pacing. Once these scenes were close to being locked, David shot motion capture of Brad’s face performing to the rough cut. This performance was then mapped onto a CGI head and Digital Domain composited the CGI head onto the body actor’s torso.”


This film received the benefit of other digital tools. According to Angus, “One of the scenes in the film is a fable told by Cate Blanchett. We were looking for ways to set this scene apart and decided to give it an old movie look, since it’s a movie-within-a-movie. To that aim, we settled on treating these shots with Magic Bullet Looks. The final version that appears in the film was processed through [Adobe] After Effects where we ‘baked in’ the effect. There are also a few other scenes throughout that received a little Magic Bullet love.”


Kirk added, “David employs a lot of classical film language in his shooting style. He uses the rules intelligently and also breaks them intelligently. Often the toughest scenes to cut are the simplest. Big action scenes, such as the battle, go together like a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces just fall into place, because David has planned it all out. On the other hand, a simple, straight dramatic scene made up of a wide shot and singles, can be very tough, because you are trying to gauge the best performance and get the right emotion out of the scene.”


“I’ve done tons of commercial sessions where the editor has to be as much a politician in the room as concentrate on the edit. The good thing about working with David is that he has a very clear vision and limits the number of voices an editor has to listen to. He lets you be an editor. He doesn’t need to review each and every take, but will let you know if something doesn’t work . If you cut a scene three different ways, he can quickly decide which version works and which doesn’t.”


Honing the story


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button spent two years in post with Wall and Baxter cutting on shared Apple Final Cut Pro workstations tied to a 60TB Xsan system located at David Fincher’s production offices. The first cut came in at 3 hours 15 minutes, which didn’t include the last nine days of shooting. That added another 20 minutes. Through tightening, but with the extra footage, the film got down to 2 hours and 50 minutes. As Angus explained, “Every minute after that was hard fought to get down to 2 hours and 46 minutes.”


Kirk expanded on this, “Most of the last year was really spent polishing the film. We revisited every scene to see how we could make it better. For instance, there are 250 split screens as ‘invisible edits’ in this film. These are cases where we might adjust a take for timing or add a bird flying in the sky from a different take, just to add that little something special. David shoots a lot of lock-offs and that makes this sort of polishing very easy. Even though this film has a fantasy element – Benjamin aging backwards – the story is very rooted in the real world. The script worked in a linear fashion so we didn’t have to rearrange scenes in post to make the story work. In fact, we removed one scene that foreshadowed an event the audience hadn’t seen yet. It was better to let the story reveal itself in a logical fashion. David is very protective of the story, so our trimming involved losing unnecessary lines here and there, rather than whole scenes.”


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is told from the point-of-view of Cate Blanchett’s character in her old age from a hospital bed. Angus commented that, “It’s a very personal but universal story – it’s really about life and death. Most of the people who have seen it have commented that it makes you consider your own life. You really get the urge to cherish those around you. The technology is always used in service of this purpose and that’s very satisfying.” Kirk concluded, “This is a very special film. I think it is really David’s ‘flag on the mountaintop’. I hope that the audience will see it that way as well.”


Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine and NewBay Media, L.L.C.