Usually when a person hears the words "visual effects," what comes to mind are splashy, extreme, in-your-face visuals. Not so for the film Mank. The movie, presented in black-and-white, takes us back to the 1930s/early 1940, a time when the rising director Orson Welles was given full creative control of his films, and he calls on the shunned alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz to pen a screenplay, which would become the critically acclaimed movie
Mank is filled with backstory scenes from the writer's past, particularly focusing on his friendship with actress Marion Davies, who is in a long-term romantic relationship with the rich and powerful, albeit unscrupulous, William Randolph Hearst. The businessman, newspaper publisher, and politician becomes the main inspiration for Mankiewicz's lead character in the screenplay
Mank, from Netflix International Pictures, is directed by David Fincher, who is also the overall de facto VFX supervisor, though uncredited. Peter Mavromates is a co-producer and overall VFX producer.
The film contains a number of compelling VFX sequences (see "Not Simply Black-and-White"). One VFX sequence in particular, which takes place at the private zoo on the grounds of Hearst Castle, had Fincher working especially closely with Industrial Light & Magic, which created the CG animals and zoo park.
According to Pablo Helman, ILM VFX supervisor, Fincher approached this work from a storytelling perspective whereby the animal encounters with Mank (Gary Oldman) and Davies (Amanda Seyfried) as they stroll through the zoo have a three-act structure. First, audiences are introduced to the animals, followed by a bit of story, then there's an interaction between the animals and the characters as the species react each in their own natural way to the humans while they are conversing.
The scene was filmed at multiple locations centered around Huntington gardens in Pasadena, California. ILM digitally constructed the Victorian cages as well as the animals: elephants, giraffes, and Capuchin monkeys.
"David Fincher was very specific about the performances he wanted from those animals," says Helman. The ILM team provided him with references of all the various behaviors those animals exhibit, and then he chose certain behaviors for specific parts of the shots.
This film marks the first time that Helman had worked with the legendary Fincher, who long ago had briefly been employed at ILM as an assistant camera operator and matte photographer on Return of the Jedi and
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in the company's legendary matte painting department. "He was very detail-oriented and had a very clear, fantastic vision for this film. He's able to see what the shot will be, as opposed to what it is. I can present to him and in 15 minutes he has sent his feedback," says Helman.
ILM created the elephants and other animals for the Hearst zoo in Mank.
While the sequence is only a few minutes in length, the work was quite extensive, spanning approximately five months of modeling and animating the animals, including creating the muscle simulations and hair/fur sims, as well as the textures, and more. Mathew Cowie was animation supervisor.
All the animals are computer-generated, this for a number of reasons, the most obvious being to achieve the specific performances Fincher required. Using real animals as reference, the artists created an animal library for the director, who then provided detailed notes for Helman's team - from animal motion to the lenses, lighting, and much more.
"It is a lot easier to explain what you want the animal to do - sometimes Fincher would say, 'I want an elephant to speak,' to emit a sound - and then we would go through reference material and find out how they [trumpet]. Or how giraffes sprint or interact with each other," explains Helman. "There's a shot of the giraffes right before they sprint, and he wanted them to look at the actor who was talking before running off."
"Those kinds of things are precious, and many may not notice them. But that is the kind of detail-oriented director Fincher is," Helman continues.
When audiences first see the monkeys, it in a long lens shot, and initially only one monkey is visible. Then they are more visible on a wider shot, and on the third or fourth shot, the Marion Davies character is talking to them and they are reacting in kind, keeping with the three-part structure. The same goes for the elephants and, likewise, the giraffes.
To create the menagerie, ILM used its Academy Award-winning BlockParty rigging system as well as its creature dynamics system, a proprietary muscle and hair simulation system within its Zeno framework. In this case, however, the group used a "light" version so that Fincher could direct the individual muscles interactively.
"You never want to do anything that takes you out of the story. Everything is very, very subtle, especially for David's finely honed eye," says Helman.
All the animals were backlit, so the artists had to be especially cognizant of the textures.
So, which animal presented the most challenges? "Each had its own moments of complexity," recalls Helman.
As with the animals, Fincher was equally specific as to what he wanted in terms of the architecture and detail of the Victorian-style animal cages. ILM artists studied period references of zoos from the 1920s, '30s, and '40s - which were very different in terms of style and structure than they are today.
In the elephant enclosure, there were no practical elements; there was just a field with short grass, which the artists replaced with video of grass swaying in the wind, shot by Helman during the pandemic at a location near his home. The artists also built and aged a digital Victorian fence in the enclosure.
When filming the monkeys, there was a low wall behind the actors with Victorian fencing, and the artists had to insert the ornate digital cage behind that, which, as Helman notes, was problematic because they were using monochrome photography and no bluescreen or greenscreen could be used. "Everything had to be shot with a really bright screen placed behind the Victorian fence. And then we rotoscoped and used a luminance mask for that," he explains.
This required intricate rotoscoping, and due to the placement of the monkey cage, the trees and vegetation had to be digitally replaced so they were visible through the bars of the cage.
While Huntington gardens seemed to be a perfect stand-in for the Hearst estate, it did present some issues in terms of bringing in the heavy equipment needed to light the scene traditionally. Instead, this night sequence was filmed during the daytime, and since it was black-and-white, ILM had to make sky changes, as there was great emphasis on the sky and clouds. As Helman notes, Fincher has a specific day-for-night look, with a very high moon that is never in the frame, as well as backlighting all the bright sky. That was the particular vision ILM had to match in its VFX shots when replacing the sky in the sequence. Moreover, there was a lot of vignetting and lens layering to better match the look of Citizen Kane itself.
"Fincher also has this deep understanding of depth of field, and sometimes he would shoot with really wide lenses so when he comes around with the camera, the horizon changes. We had to correct that because while he liked the field of view, he wasn't a fan of the distortion," recalls Helman, noting it took some time to map those lenses and figure out why they were behaving that way. "He also knows when the depth of field changes since some shots were traveling with the actors [as they walked]. And at some point he [moves] to the animals and then back to the actors. We had to get those right because he immediately picks up on those."
Meanwhile, ILM inserted spherical lights in all the shots for the day-to-night, and had to be cognizant of the lens flaring because of the period grain structure. "Just the typical visual effects headaches you get that come from matching your work with something that has been shot," Helman says.
Another hurdle resulted from the team having to work from home during COVID. At work, the artists can see the progress on a 60-by-40-foot screen in 4K (the movie was shot in 8K), but at home, it was difficult for them to see exactly what the director was seeing in a big theater environment. So, Helman and associate supervisor Sherry Hicks would trek into the office once a week or so to check the work in the theater at ILM. There, for instance, it was easier to actually view the elephants' skin, which was otherwise difficult to see as a result of the scene lighting specified by Fincher.
The before (top) and after (bottom) shots in the day-to-night scene at the zoo.
A Unique Opportunity
Helman has been working in the VFX industry for quite some time and on an impressive list of films, including the period movie The Irishman,
War of the Worlds, Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, Independence Day, and more, garnering many film awards including three Oscar nominations. So, he's been involved in all kinds of effects. Yet, for him, this project was unique.
"This was not your typical VFX job. It was a different approach to the work that we do; it exercises your eye in a way that you normally don't do," says Helman. "I am often asked, How do I get into visual effects? The first thing I say is that what we're trying to do is mimic life. And the first thing you need to do is be observant and look around you and figure out where the shadows are and where the lighting is coming from, as well as the kind of textures that are in the world and how they change the way you see the world. David Fincher is one of those people who makes you think about all that."
Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.