Gone Girl

df_gg_4David Fincher is back with another dark tale of modern life, Gone Girl – the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel. Flynn also penned the screenplay.  It is the story of Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) – writers who have been hit by the latest downturn in the economy and are living in America’s heartland. Except that Amy is now mysteriously missing under suspicious circumstances. The story is told from each of their subjective points of view. Nick’s angle is revealed through present events, while Amy’s story is told through her diary in a series of flashbacks. Through these we learn that theirs is less than the ideal marriage we see from the outside. But whose story tells the truth?

To pull the film together, Fincher turned to his trusted team of professionals including director of photography Jeff Cronenweth, editor Kirk Baxter and post production supervisor Peter Mavromates. Like Fincher’s previous films, Gone Girl has blazed new digital workflows and pushed new boundaries. It is the first major feature to use the RED EPIC Dragon camera, racking up 500 hours of raw footage. That’s the equivalent of 2,000,000 feet of 35mm film. Much of the post, including many of the visual effects, were handled in-house.

df_gg_1Kirk Baxter co-edited David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with Angus Wall – films that earned the duo two best editing Oscars. Gone Girl was a solo effort for Baxter, who had also cut the first two episodes of House of Cards for Fincher. This film now becomes the first major feature to have been edited using Adobe Premiere Pro CC. Industry insiders consider this Adobe’s Cold Mountain moment. That refers to when Walter Murch used an early version of Apple Final Cut Pro to edit the film Cold Mountain, instantly raising the application’s awareness among the editing community as a viable tool for long-form post production. Now it’s Adobe’s turn.

In my conversation with Kirk Baxter, he revealed, “In between features, I edit commercials, like many other film editors. I had been cutting with Premiere Pro for about ten months before David invited me to edit Gone Girl. The production company made the decision to use Premiere Pro, because of its integration with After Effects, which was used extensively on the previous films. The Adobe suite works well for their goal to bring as much of the post in-house as possible. So, I was very comfortable with Premiere Pro when we started this film.”

It all starts with dailies

df_gg_3Tyler Nelson, assistant editor, explained the workflow, “The RED EPIC Dragon cameras shot 6K frames (6144 x 3072), but the shots were all framed for a 5K center extraction (5120 x 2133). This overshoot allowed reframing and stabilization. The .r3d files from the camera cards were ingested into a FotoKem nextLAB unit, which was used to transcode edit media, viewing dailies, archive the media to LTO data tape and transfer to shuttle drives. For offline editing, we created down-sampled ProRes 422 (LT) QuickTime media, sized at 2304 x 1152, which corresponded to the full 6K frame. The Premiere Pro sequences were set to 1920 x 800 for a 2.40:1 aspect. This size corresponded to the same 5K center extraction within the 6K camera files. By editing with the larger ProRes files inside of this timeline space, Kirk was only viewing the center extraction, but had the same relative overshoot area to enable easy repositioning in all four directions. In addition, we also uploaded dailies to the PIX system for everyone to review footage while on location. PIX also lets you include metadata for each shot, including lens choice and camera settings, such as color temperature and exposure index.”

Kirk Baxter has a very specific way that he likes to tackle dailies. He said, “I typically start in reverse order. David tends to hone in on the performance with each successive take until he feels he’s got it. He’s not like other directors that may ask for completely different deliveries from the actors with each take. With David, the last take might not be the best, but it’s the best starting point from which to judge the other takes. Once I go through a master shot, I’ll cut it up at the points where I feel the edits will be made. Then I’ll have the assistants repeat these edit points on all takes and string out the line readings back-to-back, so that the auditioning process is more accurate. David is very gifted at blocking and staging, so it’s rare that you don’t use an angle that was shot for a scene. I’ll then go through this sequence and lift my selected takes for each line reading up to a higher track on the timeline. My assistants take the selects and assemble a sequence of all the angles in scene order. Once it’s hyper-organized, I’ll send it to David via PIX and get his feedback. After that, I’ll cut the scene. David stays in close contact with me as he’s shooting. He wants to see a scene cut together before he strikes a set or releases an actor.”

Telling the story

df_gg_5The director’s cut is often where the story gets changed from what works on paper to what makes a better film. Baxter elaborated, “When David starts a film, the script has been thoroughly vetted, so typically there isn’t a lot of radical story re-arrangement in the cutting room. As editors, we got a lot of credit for the style of intercutting used in The Social Network, but truthfully that was largely in the script. The dialogue was tight and very integral to the flow, so we really couldn’t deviate a lot. I’ve always found the assembly the toughest part, due to the volume and the pressure of the ticking clock. Trying to stay on pace with the shoot involves some long days. The shooting schedule was 106 days and I had my first cut ready about two weeks after the production wrapped. A director gets around ten weeks for a director’s cut and with some directors, you are almost starting from scratch once the director arrives. With David, most of that ten week period involves adding finesse and polish, because we have done so much of the workload during the shoot.”

df_gg_9He continued, “The first act of Gone Girl uses a lot of flashbacks to tell Amy’s side of the story and with these, we deviated a touch from the script. We dropped a couple of scenes to help speed things along and reduced the back and forth of the two timelines by grouping flashbacks together, so that we didn’t keep interrupting the present day; but, it’s mostly executed as scripted. There was one scene towards the end that I didn’t feel was in the right place. I kept trying to move it, without success. I ended up taking another pass at the cut of the scene. Once we had the emotion right in the cut, the scene felt like it was in the right place, which is where it was written to be.”

“The hardest scenes to cut are the emotional scenes, because David simplifies the shooting. You can’t hide in dynamic motion. More complex scenes are actually easier to cut and certainly quite fun. About an hour into the film is the ‘cool girls’ scene, which rapidly answers lots of question marks that come before it. The scene runs about eight minutes long and is made up of about 200 set-ups. It’s a visual feast that should be hard to put together, but was actually dessert from start to finish, because David thought it through and supplied all the exact pieces to the puzzle.”

Music that builds tension

df_gg_6Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails fame are another set of Fincher regulars. Reznor and Ross have typically supplied Baxter with an album of preliminary themes scored with key scenes in mind. These are used in the edit and then later enhanced by the composers with the final score at the time of the mix. Baxter explained, “On Gone Girl we received their music a bit later than usual, because they were touring at the time. When it did arrive, though, it was fabulous. Trent and Atticus are very good at nailing the feeling of a film like this. You start with a piece of music that has a vibe of ‘this is a safe, loving neighborhood’ and throughout three minutes it sours to something darker, which really works.”

“The final mix is usually the first time I can relax. We mixed at Skywalker Sound and that was the first chance I really had to enjoy the film, because now I was seeing it with all the right sound design and music added. This allows me to get swallowed up in the story and see beyond my role.”

Visual effects

df_gg_7The key factor to using Premiere Pro CC was its integration with After Effects CC via Adobe’s Dynamic Link feature. Kirk Baxter explained how he uses this feature, “Gone Girl doesn’t seem like a heavy visual effects film, but there are quite a lot of invisible effects. First of all, I tend to do a lot of invisible split screens. In a two-shot, I’ll often use a different performance for each actor. Roughly one-third of the timeline contains such shots. About two-thirds of the timeline has been stabilized or reframed. Normally, this type of in-house effects work is handled by the assistants who are using After Effects. Those shots are replaced in my sequence with an After Effects composition. As they make changes, my timeline is updated.”

“There are other types of visual effects, as well. David will take exteriors and do sky replacements, add flares, signage, trees, snow, breath, etc. The shot of Amy sinking in the water, which has been used in the trailers, is an effects composite. That’s better than trying to do multiple takes with the real actress by drowning her in cold water. Her hair and the water elements were created by Digital Domain. This is also a story about the media frenzy that grows around the mystery, which meant a lot of TV and computer screen comps. That content is as critical in the timing of a scene as the actors who are interacting with it.”

Tyler Nelson added his take on this, “A total of four assistants worked with Kirk on these in-house effects. We were using the same ProRes editing files to create the composites. In order to keep the system performance high, we would render these composites for Kirk’s timeline, instead of using unrendered After Effects composites. Once a shot was finalized, then we would go back to the 6K .r3d files and create the final composite at full resolution. The beauty of doing this all internally is that you have a team of people who really care about the quality of the project as much as everyone else. Plus the entire process becomes that much more interactive. We pushed each other to make everything as good as it could possibly be.”

Optimization and finishing

df_gg_2A custom pipeline was established to make the process efficient. This was spearheaded by post production consultant Jeff Brue, CTO of Open Drives. The front end storage for all active editorial files was a 36TB RAID-protected storage network built with SSDs. A second RAID built with standard HDDs was used for the .r3d camera files and visual effects elements. The hardware included a mix of HP and Apple workstations running with NVIDIA K6000 or K5200 GPU cards. Use of the NVIDIA cards was critical to permit as much real-time performance as possible doing the edit. GPU performance was also a key factor in the de-Bayering of .r3d files, since the team didn’t use any of the RED Rocket accelerator cards in their pipeline. The Macs were primarily used for the offline edit, while the PCs tackled the visual effects and media processing tasks.

In order to keep the Premiere Pro projects manageable, the team broke down the film into eight reels with a separate project file per reel. Each project contained roughly 1,500 to 2,000 files. In addition to Dynamic Linking of After Effects compositions, most of the clips were multi-camera clips, as Fincher typically shoots scenes with two or more cameras for simultaneous coverage. This massive amount of media could have potentially been a huge stumbling block, but Brue worked closely with Adobe to optimize system performance over the life of the project. For example, project load times dropped from about six to eight minutes at the start down to 90 seconds at best towards the end.

The final conform and color grading was handled by Light Iron on their Quantel Pablo Rio system run by colorist Ian Vertovec. The Rio was also configured with NVIDIA Tesla cards to facilitate this 6K pipeline. Nelson explained, “In order to track everything I used a custom Filemaker Pro database as the codebook for the film. This contained all the attributes for each and every shot. By using an EDL in conjunction with the codebook, it was possible to access any shot from the server. Since we were doing a lot of the effects in-house, we essentially ‘pre-conformed’ the reels and then turned those elements over to Light Iron for the final conform. All shots were sent over as 6K DPX frames, which were cropped to 5K during the DI in the Pablo. We also handled the color management of the RED files. Production shot these with the camera color metadata set to RedColor3, RedGamma3 and an exposure index of 800. That’s what we offlined with. These were then switched to RedLogFilm gamma when the DPX files were rendered for Light Iron. If, during the grade, it was decided that one of the raw settings needed to be adjusted for a few shots, then we would change the color settings and re-render a new version for them.” The final mastering was in 4K for theatrical distribution.

df_gg_8As with his previous films, director David Fincher has not only told a great story in Gone Girl, but set new standards in digital post production workflows. Seeking to retain creative control without breaking the bank, Fincher has pushed to handle as many services in-house as possible. His team has made effective use of After Effects for some time now, but the new Creative Cloud tools with Premiere Pro CC as the hub, bring the power of this suite to the forefront. Fortunately, team Fincher has been very eager to work with Adobe on product advances, many of which are evident in the new application versions previewed by Adobe at IBC in Amsterdam. With a film as complex as Gone Girl, it’s clear that Adobe Premiere Pro CC is ready for the big leagues.

Kirk Baxter closed our conversation with these final thoughts about the experience. He said, “It was a joy from start to finish making this film with David. Both he and Cean [Chaffin, producer and David Fincher’s wife] create such a tight knit post production team that you fall into an illusion that you’re making the film for yourselves. It’s almost a sad day when it’s released and belongs to everyone else.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

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Needless to say, Gone Girl has received quite a lot of press. Here are just a few additional discussions of the workflow:

Adobe panel discussion with the post team

PostPerspective

FxGuide

HDVideoPro

IndieWire

IndieWire blog

ICG Magazine

RedUser

Tony Zhou’s Vimeo take on Fincher 

©2014 Oliver Peters

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