Mindhunter

The investigation of crime is a film topic with which David Fincher is very familiar. He returns to this genre in the new Netflix series, Mindhunter, which is executive produced by Fincher and Charlize Theron. The series is the story of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit and how it became an elite profiling team, known for investigating serial criminals. The TV series is based on the nonfiction book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, co-written by Mark Olshaker and John Douglas, a former agent in the unit who spent 25 years with the FBI. Agent Douglas interviewed scores of serial killers, including Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and Ed Gein, who dressed himself in his victims’ skin. The lead character in the series, Holden Ford (played by Jonathan Groff) is based on Douglas. The series takes place in 1979 and centers on two FBI agents, who were among the first to interview imprisoned serial killers in order to learn how they think and apply that to other crimes. Mindhunter is about the origins of modern day criminal profiling.

As with other Fincher projects, he brought in much of the team that’s been with him through the various feature films, like Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Zodiac. It has also given a number in the team the opportunity to move up in their careers. I recently spoke with Tyler Nelson, one of the four series editors, who was given the opportunity to move from the assistant chair to that of a primary editor. Nelson explains, “I’ve been working with David Fincher for nearly 11 years, starting with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I started on that as an apprentice, but was bumped up to an assistant editor midway through. There was actually another series in the works for HBO called Videosyncrasy, which I was going to edit on. But that didn’t make it to air. So I’m glad that everyone had the faith in me to let me edit on this series. I cut the four episodes directed by Andrew Douglas and Asif Kapadia, while Kirk Baxter [editor on Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network] cut the four shows that David directed.”

Pushing the technology envelope

The Fincher post operation has a long history of trying new and innovative techniques, including their selection of editing tools. The editors cut this series using Adobe Premiere Pro CC. Nelson and the other editors are no stranger to Premiere Pro, since Baxter had cut Gone Girl with it. Nelson says, “Of course, Kirk and I have been using it for years. One of the editors, Byron Smith, came over from House of Cards, which was being cut on [Apple] Final Cut Pro 7. So that was an easy transition for him. We are all fans of Adobe’s approach to the entertainment industry and were onboard with using it. In fact, we were running on beta software, which gave us the ability to offer feedback to Adobe on features that will hopefully make it into released products and benefit all Premiere users.”

Pushing the envelope is also a factor on the production side. The series was shot with custom versions of the RED Weapon camera. Shots were recorded at 6K resolution, but framed for a 5K extraction, leaving a lot of “padding” around the edges. This allowed room for reposition and stabilization, which is done a lot on Fincher’s projects. In fact, nearly all of the moving footage is stabilized. All camera footage is processed into EXR image sequences in addition to ProRes editing files for “offline” editing. These ProRes files also get an added camera LUT so everyone sees a good representation of the color correction during the editing process. One change from past projects was to bring color correction in-house. The final grade was handled by Eric Weidt on a FilmLight Baselight X unit, which was sourcing from the EXR files. The final Netflix deliverables are 4K/HDR masters. Pushing a lot of data through a facility requires robust hardware systems. The editors used 2013 (“trash can”) Mac Pros connected to an Open Drives shared storage system. This high-end storage system was initially developed as part of the Gone Girl workflow and uses storage modules populated with all SSD drives.

The feature film approach

Unlike most TV series, where there’s a definite schedule to deliver a new episode each week, Netflix releases all of their shows at once, which changes the dynamic of how episodes are handled in post. Nelson continues, “We were able to treat this like one long feature film. In essence, each episode is like a reel of a film. There are 10 episodes and each is 45 minutes to an hour long. We worked it as if it was an eight-and-a-half to nine hour long movie.” Skywalker Sound did all the sound post after a cut was locked. Nelson adds, “Most of the time we handed off locked cuts, but sometimes when you hear the cleaned up sound, it can highlight issues with the edit that you didn’t notice before. In some cases, we were able to go back into the edit and make some minor tweaks to make it flow better.”

As Adobe moves more into the world of dialogue-driven entertainment, a number of developers are coming up with speech-to-text solutions that are compatible with Premiere Pro. This potentially provides editors a function similar to Avid’s ScriptSync. Would something like this have been beneficial on Mindhunter, a series based on extended interviews? Nelson replies, “I like to work with the application the way it is. I try not to get too dependent on any feature that’s very specific or unique to only one piece of software. I don’t even customize my keyboard settings too much, just so it’s easier to move from one workstation to another that way. I like to work from sequences, so I don’t need a special layout for the bins or anything like that.”

“On Mindhunter we used the same ‘KEM roll’ system as on the films, which is a process that Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall [editor on Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network] prefer to work in,” Nelson continues. “All of the coverage for each scene set-up is broken up into ‘story beats’. In a 10 minute take for an interview, there might be 40 ‘beats’. These are all edited in the order of last take to first take, with any ‘starred’ takes at the head of the sequence. This way you will see all of the coverage, takes, and angles for a ‘beat’ before moving on to the group for the next ‘beat’. As you review the sequence, the really good sections of clips are moved up to video track two on the sequence. Then create a new sequence organized in story order from these selected clips and start building the scene. At any given time you can go back to the earlier sequences if the director asks to see something different than what’s in your scene cut. This method works with any NLE, so you don’t become locked into one and only one software tool.”

“Where Adobe’s approach is very helpful to us is with linked After Effects compositions,” explains Nelson. “We do a lot of invisible split screen effects and shot stabilization. Those clips are all put into After Effects comps using Dynamic Link, so that an assistant can go into After Effects and do the work. When it’s done, the completed comp just pops back into the timeline. Then ‘render and replace’ for smooth playback.”

The challenge

Certainly a series like this can be challenging for any editor, but how did Nelson take to it? He answers, “I found every interview scene to be challenging. You have an eight to 10 minute interview that needs to be interesting and compelling. Sometimes it takes two days to just get through looking at the footage for a scene like that. You start with ‘How am I going to do this?’ Somewhere along the line you get to the point where ‘This is totally working.’ And you don’t always know how you got to that point. It takes a long time approaching the footage in different ways until you can flesh it out. I really hope people enjoy the series. These are dramatizations, but real people actually did these terrible things. Certainly that creeps me out, but I really love this show and I hope people will see the craftsmanship that’s gone into Mindhunter and enjoy the series.”

In closing, Nelson offered these additional thoughts. “I’d gotten an education each and every day. Lots of editors haven’t figured it out until well into a long career. I’ve learned a lot being closer to the creative process. I’ve worked with David Fincher for almost 11 years. You think you are ready to edit, but it’s still a challenge. Many folks don’t get an opportunity like this and I don’t take that lightly. Everything that I’ve learned working with David has given me the tools and I feel fortunate that the producers had the confidence in me to let me cut on this amazing show.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

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