Behind Mank’s invisible visual effects.
I recently had the chance to ask Territory Studio about their visual effects work for Mank, which involved the re-creation of Wilshire Blvd from the 1930s. Like those shots, so much of Mank’s VFX work was invisible, involving subtle augmentations to tell the period story.
Overseeing these visual effects shots was director David Fincher himself, alongside co-producer Peter Mavromates, and the film’s art department. Fincher and Mavromates co-ordinated an outside effort, also, led by four VFX supervisors at different studios: Artemple (Wei Zheng), Territory Studio (Simon Carr), Savage (James Pastorius) and ILM (Pablo Helman).
In this befores & afters conversation, Mavromates discusses the various VFX work—from sky replacements to matte paintings, to CG animals and what he calls ‘body-and-fender’ shots—that helped tell Mank’s tale.
b&a: The visual effects in this film are so interesting, and one of the reasons for that is that they’re so invisible, my favorite kind of visual effects.
Peter Mavromates: As it should be. It should be like a good magic trick, you know?
b&a: That’s an interesting thing to start with. Is that a conversation that you openly have with David and other people, or is it just sort of, of course, it fits the style of filmmaking and storytelling?
Peter Mavromates: Well, I mean, it fits the style because, we’re not making Marvel movies. It really is about not taking you out to another place. It’s about you just getting sucked into the story and the environment. The Marvel or Star Wars movies, there’s a certain amount of grandstanding in it, you know? And that’s not the same goal in drama.
b&a: There’s a fun way that the visual effects supervision side of this film shapes up. Can you just tell me briefly about that and your particular role?
Peter Mavromates: Since Zodiac on, we’ve brought the supervision in-house and, informally, David is the visual effects supervisor and I’m the visual effects producer. This is more garage-band style, this movie, because it’s a lot of small stuff. But if we get something big [then we hire a bigger company], and that big company would have their own effects supervisor for those shots. But otherwise we’re doing it in-house and I have my little what I call my VFX garage bands that we’ve worked with for many years who’ve done smaller stuff.
The reel above is from Savage Visual Effects. See their work for the sky replacements below, too.
b&a: I feel like sometimes, with David Fincher’s productions, that some of the shots you might normally have traditionally called visual effects are just part of editorial. Things like replacing road signs, grass, skies. Is that how you perceive them as well?
Peter Mavromates: Oh, there’s no doubt about it. And it’s a lot of stuff that comes up while we’re in post and looking at it. So there’s all the stuff that David’s walking around with in his head, which tend to be the matte paintings and the bigger things. Then there’s all the smaller things that come up as the edit comes together. And most of that, we actually refer to it as ‘body-and-fender’ work. David’s producer, Ceán Chaffin, and I, we literally have a line item in our budget: body-and-fender work.
b&a: What’s a classic couple of examples of body-and-fender work?
Peter Mavromates: Let’s see. Sometimes, it’s as simple as a little bit of a lighting accident. There’s the scene, whenever we go into Thalberg’s office, there were some picture frames and stuff like that that were reflecting little distracting bits of light on other parts of the set. So we go clean that up so that your eye doesn’t go there. That would be a classic body-and-fender thing.
And then, what else…this is a little bit more than beyond body-and-fender, but when you do a period movie, one of the big jobs of it, which is true in our movie, whenever they’re outside of the bungalow out in Victorville—because that’s the real location, I don’t know if you know, that’s the actual house where Citizen Kane was actually written. Well, out in the horizon, there’s now…what did we call it…‘urban blight.’ So we would go in and sanitize the horizon so that you don’t see buildings out there, so that it is as remote as it was in 1939, 1940. Certainly, anytime you do a period movie and there’s urban environments, you’re going to have to go in and do some kind of retouching.
b&a: How did you approach sky replacements in the film?
Peter Mavromates: The big sky shot is in the scene where William Randolph Hearst is shooting the movie with Marion at the stake. I don’t remember how long it took to shoot that. I’m sure it was over several days. And then, obviously, there’s not going to be sky consistency there. In fact, for most of that, there were actually no clouds at all, which is worse than having clouds that are discontinuous, because that’s just not interesting, you know?
So, we worked with Savage who used Unreal. They created a 3D model of the set. We told them the location and sent them some art department drawings, everything like that. They created a 3D model of that, and then wrapped it in a 3D sky so that they could just figure out, here’s where the camera was, this is the sky we would see if we look that way, so that there actually is consistency there. We’re always trying to improve the skies, but in that particular case, we were trying to be consistent in 360 degrees. So it was really quite a big job.
b&a: Obviously, the real-time rendering/game engine stuff is slowly infiltrating visual effects. When I talked to the Territory team, they said they didn’t need to go down that route for their driving sequence, but I’m curious, did you look into doing more with real-time and, say, LED wall projections for driving scenes, for instance?
Peter Mavromates: No, we didn’t. We did go and look at some tests of the whole 3D LED wall thing. For what we were going to use it for, it was a bit overkill and it was still a little bit new for our taste. We’re very interested in it, for sure. But what’s interesting is that, even though we used an LED panel for driving scenes, we basically conceptually use the rear projection process that was available in the ’30s. And for what we needed, it worked quite well. Obviously, we had some advantages that they wouldn’t have had in the ’30s where we could change the position of the background of the content on the screen very easily, like just on a computer.
Actually, here’s a little thing that we ran into with that driving scene, is that our image, vertically, wasn’t quite high enough to cover all the reflection on the car surfaces, all the curves. And so what we did, if you get to see any behind-the-scenes, you’ll see that the sky’s actually stretched to the top. So that was something that we easily were able to say, ‘Oh, well, let’s just stretch the sky and that’ll finish wrapping the reflection on the car.’ Because it’s all distorted on the car, you don’t really see that the actual image on the LED is distorted. The distorted part’s out of the main frame, and you’re just seeing the reflection. So it’s like we use old concepts, but we use a little more powerful technology than they had back then.
b&a: For the San Simeon animal park, I liked the subtle use of CG animals there. Can you talk about how they were done?
Peter Mavromates: Well, David never wants to compromise how you would shoot something for the sake of an effect. So he goes out and he shoots it like he expects to shoot it and imagines whatever’s supposed to be missing will fit in there. I don’t think we’ve talked about a lock-off in 25 years, you know? He certainly didn’t make any compromises in how he shot at those three sequences. It’s like there’s monkey, elephants, giraffes, but he kept in mind what he wanted to do there. And really, the biggest one is the monkeys because the monkey cage was not there. So ILM added that Victorian-styled monkey cage and the monkeys. And then with the elephants, they modified the field a little bit and added the fencing that separates the actors from the elephants, and then added the elephants in. The giraffe—they just added the giraffe and some shrubbery that the giraffes are chewing on.
And then, as with anything with David, when anyone’s working on a shot, he’s always asking for a little body-and-fender work. ‘Can we add a shrub over here?’ and, ‘Can we put a branch sticking in to obscure the frame here?’ So there’s always that kind of stuff that happens.
b&a: I think I read that it was shot day for night. Do you consider that visual effects work or is it more like a grading solution?
Peter Mavromates: No, it’s really grading. And, again, that’s a process that has been available in filmmaking for almost 100 years. So they would’ve basically graded it in the lab. They would’ve hit a certain exposure and then they would’ve gone to color timing in the lab.
b&a: Actually, how did the black and white aspect of this film impact on VFX, if at all?
Peter Mavromates: Well, the biggest one is that visual effects people have to do a few things, a bit of grunt work, and two of them are tracking and rotoscoping. In both those cases, a lot of times, they’re using chrominance as an additional element to help them tighten something up. So everybody was forewarned that, hey, you know what, if we shoot somebody against the sky, it’s not gonna be blue, it’s gonna be gray. So be prepared for more rotoscoping than maybe you’re expecting, because you’re not going to get that additional help.
And then one of the things that you have to be careful for is that you’re not shooting something that’s going to end up in a gray tone that’s too similar to something else in the frame and then you don’t have any contrast. But I actually don’t remember that coming up. Certainly, on the set, Erik Messerschmidt, our DP, and David were aware of that. But sometimes on location, you can’t control everything, and so you might run into that situation where you have an actor dressed in a manner that they walk in front of something that’s literally the same monochrome luminance, so they merge, and so then it becomes like a roto job in the DI to try to separate one.
b&a: Peter, is there any other particular scene or sequence or shot, visual-effects-wise, that you wanted to mention?
Peter Mavromates: Well, there’s two matte paintings that Artemple did which I think are somewhat extraordinary. There’s a birthday party for Louis B. Mayer in San Simeon. The way that scene opens up, the camera is basically up in a vaulted ceiling and cranes down. The room itself is a set that we shot at L.A. Centre Studios. But that vaulted ceiling that is married in that crane shot is Wei Zheng’s work at Artemple. And it’s amazing. You get to see it a few more times from static cameras as they cut around down below, but that crane shot, when you look at that and what that would’ve taken to actually build that, and then the complexity of then shooting what you built, and probably, in David’s mind, would’ve been disappointing on some level because he wouldn’t have been able to control the lighting as well.
And then the other one is the Trocadero neon sign. It’s in the foreground, and so the plate for that is just an empty street, and then you see in the ‘after’ the sign covering almost the whole frame, and the camera cranes down. So that’s a live crane down. Artemple took the plate and basically bolted this computer-generated neon sign to the wall that’s really there. It’s pretty amazing, because you’re right up against it. It’s not like something that’s far away where there’s a certain amount of forgiveness if it’s not quite right.
b&a: Thanks Peter, that’s great. You know, one of my favorite things to do is go through a film and pick out what I think are the great VFX shots. Here, I saw some amazing things, but then I probably missed other shots because I didn’t even know they were visual effects scenes.
Peter Mavromates: Thank you. Did you watch Citizen Kane right before you watched Mank? Or is it still embedded in your memory that you don’t need to watch it again?
b&a: I feel like it is embedded in my memory, but I wish I had watched it again beforehand. I absolutely plan on watching it again soon. I mean, isn’t that a really great thing that’s been happening, which is, people have been re-watching Kane. It makes Mank feel more like an event film, I think.
Peter Mavromates: Yeah, and I’m definitely one of those film nerds where that movie is one that I watch at least once a year. It’s incredible. And I’m still in awe of it.
b&a: As am I. I sometimes cannot believe how long ago it was made. It just feels unreal.
Peter Mavromates: One of the things I think about, by the way, when I watch that movie, because, I mean—I think everybody knows that David is very intense in post and in grading and everything like that, and with all the body-and-fender work and what we call either visual effects or digital opticals, I really think that Citizen Kane is sort of the post-production nightmare of 1940.
Peter Mavromates: When you look at all the rear plates that he did and then Linwood Dunnn’s opticals that look like live camera moves in the movie, it’s like the Fincher post world—1940 version.
b&a: Obviously, the film Citizen Kane has been researched heavily for this film. But did you get a chance to research the effects work that they did?
Peter Mavromates: I didn’t do anything specific because over the years I’ve read several books, and so—I won’t say that I know everything about that movie, but I would say I know 60%. So I already had a lot going into it. I mean, that’s the great thing about David and I, who obviously are among the older people on our crew, are the ones who actually do know what acetate is and what perfs are, and we talk about old movies and grain structure and all that. Most of my edit crew has never held a piece of 35mm film in their hands. Even on Mindhunter, where we came up with the look for that, David and I basically debate, ‘Of all the flaws that acetate may have, which ones are we going to honor in this project?’ They’re fun discussions. They really are.