The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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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.

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Zodiac

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In the late ’60s northern California was terrorized by a serial killer that came to be known in the media as the Zodiac Killer. Starting in 1969, Zodiac taunted the police with letters that included cryptograms and claimed to have killed as many as 37 victims. These letters were signed with a symbol of a circle and cross that was dubbed the Zodiac by one letter writer to the San Francisco Chronicle, though the killer never actually named himself that. He is generally believed to have killed five victims, though some writers have theorized that the murders might actually have done by several persons, rather than a single serial killer. Thousands of suspects were investigated over the years, but the case remained unsolved.

 

The hunt for the Zodiac Killer is now the subject of director David Fincher’s (Alien3, Se7en, Fight Club, Panic Room) latest film. Zodiac is an adaptation of Robert Graysmith’s books about the events surrounding the investigation and the subsequent media circus. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Chloe Sevigny, and Brian Cox. Fincher, who started his career with a stint at ILM and then as a commercial and music video director and cofounder of Propaganda Films, is hardly a typical Hollywood director. Some of Fincher’s commercial clients have included Nike, Pepsi and Levis and he’s directed music videos for such artists as Madonna, the Rolling Stones, the Wallflowers and Nine Inch Nails.

 

As a director who’s moved to features from short form genres, he combines interesting commercial sensibilities with cinematic storytelling. He is also willing to challenge the status quo of traditional filmmaking technology. Like Michael Mann (Collateral, Miami Vice), Fincher is a fan of the Grass Valley Viper FilmStream digital cinematography camera. The Viper captures scenes similar to a digital still camera in the raw mode, with three 9.2-million-pixel Frame Transfer CCD sensors at a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels. A characteristic of the Viper is its FilmStream mode, which retains the image fidelity as an unprocessed, 10-bit log 4:4:4 signal. Unlike Mann, who chose to record onto Sony HDCAM-SR tapes, Fincher opted for a totally tapeless workflow. In fact, this will be the first major Hollywood digital film with a totally uncompressed, tapeless path from production to the creation of a digital intermediate master. By staying uncompressed until a film negative is struck after the DI grading, the image quality will theoretically rival or surpass the image quality of camera film negative scanned at the 2K resolution (2048×1556 pixels).

 

A Fresh Approach to Feature Post

 

Like Fincher, editor Angus Wall is not your typical film editor either. In 1992 Wall and Linda Carlson founded Rock Paper Scissors – a respected West Hollywood creative editorial house known for its commercial work for such clients as BMW, HP and Nike – and later in 1997, visual effects house A52. Angus Wall took some time out of finalizing the trailers for Zodiac to discuss the post on the film with me, as well as his collaboration with Fincher. “I knew David from when I worked in the vault at Propaganda and had always aspired to work with him. He has been very generous to me and I have been lucky enough to work on a few commercials and videos with him. My first film experience with David was doing the titles for Se7en. Seeing them on the big screen at Mann’s Chinese really ‘put the hooks in me’ to do more movie work. I have since worked on Fight Club, Panic Room and now Zodiac. With David’s support, Rock Paper Scissors was able to design and set up the post production workflow for Zodiac. If technology can only be as good as the people working it, we had ‘the perfect storm’ on Zodiac. Andreas Wacker brilliantly designed the data workflow and wrote the software to make the whole thing work.  Joe Wolcott created budgets and provided the liaison with S.two, Thompson, Camera House and production to ease ‘where the rubber hits the road.’ Assistants Wyatt Jones, Pete Warren, Brian Ufberg, and Brad Waskewich did their usual jobs, plus what the labs, neg cutters, and finishing houses are normally supposed to do. I can’t say enough about their efforts… And David really went to bat for us to be able to do it.”

 

You’ve probably already read a few articles about the Zodiac production methodology, but Angus filled in the gaps on the post side for me, “On set, Viper footage was recorded to S.two DFRs. These are essentially fast hard drives that store footage as uncompressed DPX sequences [and hold over three times the number of minutes as a 35mm film magazine]. These drives were shuttled to editorial and loaded onto an Apple Xsan. Two copies of these files were archived to LTO3 media for back-up. A stringent verification process was performed to make sure there was no data corruption in either archive. With film, if frames are damaged you can cut around or repair them; if a file is corrupt, you may have lost the entire take or worse… It’s a binary world.  So in many ways, copying and verifying files is one of the most critical aspects of this workflow. The LTO cartridges really became the equivalent of the camera negative, because once the data was verified, the D.Mags were sent back to the set for reuse. Since we were in effect acting as the lab, we had to be able to turn around the D.Mags and generate dailies on the same sort of nightly schedule as a film lab working with 35mm negative.”

 

When Viper is used in the FilmStream mode, the 10-bit log images have a greenish cast, since you are viewing a raw image from the sensors. Often DPs and directors will add special look-up tables (LUTs) to correct this image for the on-set monitor. Angus continued, “We created nine LUTs with David using Final Touch software for on-set and dailies use. After verification, the footage was processed for editing and dailies. We used Apple’s Shake to downrez the DPX files to QuickTime movies using the DVCPRO HD codec, which included rendering the applied color-correction from these LUTs. We called this ‘Shake & Bake.’ Andreas created a script, which preserved the metadata of these files, essential for tracking them through the database he designed and for various uses, such as the later conform.  Our render farm was the six G5s used to edit.  In the second week when David went to two cameras, Mac Minis were added to handle the extra load!  To stay tapeless, the secure PIX [Project Information Exchange] system was used to post dailies online and later to post review versions of picture and sound.”

 

Footage Galore

 

From our conversation, it was obvious that Wall had to deal with more than the typical amount of footage for a feature. Fincher shot the equivalent of almost three million feet of 35mm film, deleting about half of that on set, keeping just his selected takes – an important aspect of a digital production workflow. According to Angus, “In total, David’s ‘printed’ takes amounted to 18,220,156 frames. That’s around 210 hours of footage.” Nevertheless, Wall was happy with their tapeless workflow. “This approach offers great opportunities in terms of efficiency and simplicity. Once you remove the linear component of film or tape, scaling is made much easier. Efficiencies are realized by dealing with files and it’s environmentally friendlier, since there is no chemical component and there are fewer expendables.” 

 

Wall completed the first assembly of Zodiac two weeks after production had wrapped, and spent 11 1/2 months total editing the film. The first assembly was about three hours long, based on the 190-page script. The final length is projected to be under two hours and forty minutes. Rock Paper Scissors has been involved in the finishing as well.  “Andreas wrote software to do the ‘virtual conform’. This takes XML from Final Cut and pulls the relevant uncompressed files from the archives using an LTO tape robot. For the first test screening, Iridas was used for color correction and the resulting uncompressed file sequences were rendered in Shake for use in Final Cut. There, the picture was double-checked, titles and sound were added, and the whole thing output to D5. The final DI is being done at Technicolor, who will use the conformed, uncompressed file sequences for final grading.”

 

Desktop Tools To The Rescue

 

Those who’ve checked out the Fincher profile on Apple’s website know that Angus Wall is a strong proponent of Apple’s Final Cut Pro. “Multi-clip sequences were really the tipping point for me. In Zodiac, there’s a scene that takes place on a TV talk show. David had Digibeta camcorders placed in the three old studio camera bodies. Each of these recorded the scene and was later upconverted to HD in Final Cut. The monitors in the control room were blue-screen, so we were able to comp the Digibeta camera shots into these monitors. This allowed us the flexibility of controlling what image needed to be in the monitors. David covered the scene with three Vipers as well, giving us six multi-cam streams of HD running in real-time. That’s pretty amazing. Most of the final composites were completed in Shake. In all, there are hundreds of shots – lots of split screens – that were done in Shake – many in-house.”

 

As we wrapped up the interview, Angus finished up his thoughts on Final Cut Pro, “Rock Paper Scissors is now all-Final Cut and that transition happened in about six weeks.  Everyone simply warmed to it as a better way. I prefer the interface because it’s more customizable and flexible.  On Zodiac we cut with 30″ and 23″ Apple displays, and it was great to be able to have several timelines up and to move pieces of the interface around where we wanted them. Our Apple PowerMac G5s were equipped with AJA Kona 2 cards, so David could see the cut on a 65″ plasma screen in HD resolution. I like that Final Cut is resolution agnostic. You don’t need any specialized gear to work with HD inside the computer, so it really embraces newer technology. Besides, it’s what the ‘cool kids’ are using! [laugh] Seriously, most of the film students are learning it in college, so they come out familiar with the interface already.”As more directors investigate the options offered by a tapeless, file-based workflow, movie fans will get a chance to see new and unique ways of storytelling, wrapped in some of the best-looking footage to ever hit the screen. The economies that this workflow will offer ensure that more directors than ever will be able to tell those stories.

 

Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)