How Mank used visual effects to turn back the clock on Hollywood

There’s something appropriate about David Fincher’s Mank premiering during one of the most unusual years Hollywood has experienced in several generations.

The tale of eccentric, unpredictable screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s efforts to pen the screenplay for Citizen KaneMank is a throwback to American cinema’s golden age, meticulously filmed in black and white and set in and around pre-war Hollywood. In order to recreate the historic look and feel of the era (and the film itself), Fincher and co-producer Peter Mavromates, who also served as post-production supervisor and visual effects producer on the film, worked with several VFX studios to turn back the clock for Mankiewicz’s saga.

Digital Trends spoke to Mavromates about his work on Mank, which is available now on Netflix and a contender for an Oscar nomination in the visual effects category, to find out how the film used VFX to create its cinematic time capsule.

Digital Trends: Mank isn’t a conventional visual effects film. What were some of the big, overarching elements shaped by visual effects in the film?

Peter Mavromates: The big stuff that really helped the film were matte paintings for the period and ceiling work in San Simeon, where we couldn’t shoot, to help make that space bigger. One of my favorite examples of matte painting in the film is the Glendale train station when Mank shows up drunk. The buildings in the distant background and the palm trees were all added in after the fact.

There are also some buildings added in when he sees Upton Sinclair giving a speech at night. It was a lot of small touches. When you see the ends of the streets on some of the studio lots, for example, those have all been tweaked for the period. Those effects are peppered throughout the film.

You mentioned some ceiling work…

Yeah, the two vaulted ceilings you see in the film are pretty amazing work, especially the first one you see when it’s L.B. [Mayer]’s birthday party. That scene begins in the vaulted ceiling and moves down, and that upper part of the ceiling is all computer-generated and matched into a live crane shot. It’s really great. Another one of my favorites is the [Cafe] Trocadero sign, which is a big historical liberty because the Trocadero was actually a standalone restaurant. So the film gives a bit of an urban turn to the location of the real Trocadero.

How does the black and white style of the film change the approach to visual effects? What sort of unique challenges does that black and white format present?

When visual effects artists are doing compositing or tracking or especially rotoscoping, they’re using a lot of different tools. One of them is chromatics [using colors to create layers of elements]. So [with Mank] they suddenly don’t have that in their toolkit. We had discussions about that with each of the vendors when we first started, but at the end of the day, if it was a big problem for anybody, they didn’t whine about it. They just ran with it and did great work.

I’ve heard the zoo scene and the animals in it were a particularly involved visual effects element. What was development like on that scene?

One of the reasons we worked with Industrial Light and Magic [visual effects studio] on this is because they’re loaded with experience — particularly with animals. None of our regular visual effects vendors had worked much on animals. We wanted a level of experience so we didn’t have to worry about how to get it done. But I think ILM probably had the hardest time of anyone working on the film.

When you look at that scene with the monkey cage, the cage and the monkeys are entirely computer-generated. When we shot that day, we put a white background behind the fence [where the cage would go] and lit it up for them, but that was a very, very tricky shot for ILM. David makes no concessions to visual effects. He wants to shoot the movie how he would shoot it if everything were really there, so we don’t restrict anything in the shot or put any limits on the camera or anything. He shoots it the way he thinks it needs to be shot to tell the story.

Visual effects are typically used to de-age actors, but in this case, they helped make the film feel like something from the past. What role did VFX play in “aging” the look and feel of Mank?

The first thing we always do is a lot of testing and preproduction with the black and white cameras. We have an in-house DI [the Digital Intermediate, responsible for digitizing a film and adjusting the color], so that means we have our own colorist — or as I called him on this movie, our black-and-white-ist. Eric Weidt is our DI, and there was a lot of testing to give the movie a ’30s, print-film look, and a lot of discussion — with Erik Messerschmidt, our DP [director of photography] — about grain and other qualities.

Those signature flaws or characteristics of black-and-white film print were carried over with visual effects, and because we have Eric in-house, we could send the visual effects files right to him for testing as soon as we got them. That made the turnaround time very, very short, and because of that, and we could spend more time on elements that needed it or move on to the next thing much more quickly.

Unlike many filmmakers out there, David Fincher is known for getting very involved with the visual effects on his projects. How does that affect the VFX process when you’re working on a film with him?

There’s a lot of collaboration. David is one of the greatest note-givers of all time. We use the PIX online collaboration system, and David is addicted to it. He’s always at his computer when he’s not shooting, so a lot of times he gets a shot in to review, and he provides feedback in 15 minutes. That means he can sometimes see two or three iterations of a shot all in the same day.

And yes, he’s not the kind of person to hire someone to work on part of his project and then walk away. Probably the only department where there might be some truth to that is with composing the scores, because David’s not really a musician — although he collaborates with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross at a very high level. But he’s not a musician, so he doesn’t have the same sort of input as he does for compositing and photography, and yes, visual effects, because that’s where his real core talent is: Those eyes of his are unbelievable. They really are.

Mank was such an unexpected film in this year’s shortlist of potential Oscar nominees in the visual effects category. How does it feel to have the film be recognized in this particular area?

Yeah, it’s really interesting. Looking back, the moment I realized the business was going down this path — where high-level visual effects were basically going to be available to everybody — was probably about 15 years ago when I was working on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the film Tropic Thunder came out. The visual effects in that movie are amazing, and it’s a comedy. I remember thinking, “Look at how much they’re spending on visual effects in a comedy! That means this stuff is going to be available to everybody!” And that’s really become true.

Available now on Netflix, Mank is directed by David Fincher and stars Gary Oldman.

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