Not Simply Black and White
Issue: April-May-June 2021

Not Simply Black and White

The period film Mank shines a light on Herman J. Mankiewicz as he struggles to write the screenplay to Citizen Kane. Mankiewicz, a veteran industry screenwriter with many credits, including The Wizard of Oz, is a self-destructive genius with a tarnished reputation due to excessive drinking and gambling, and a careless attitude pertaining to his job. Even so, he is a decent person amid a sea of those with far lesser morals.

In essence, Mank has been described as the filming of the filming of Citizen Kane. It cuts from present-day 1940 to earlier times, as a laid-up Mank pens what would become that famous script. He gets his inspiration while reminiscing about his friendship with actress Marion Davies, who introduced Mank to her powerful boyfriend, media baron William Randolph Hearst, and his cronies - often visiting Davies at Hearst Castle near San Simeon. Hearst became the inspiration for the unflattering title character in the script for Citizen Kane.

Mank, from Netflix International Pictures, has the look and feel of a film created in the 1930s and early 1940s, the time of Mank's flashbacks and Citizen Kane's screenwriting and production, respectively, in terms of its filmmaking methods and style. Director David Fincher, who is also the uncredited overall VFX supervisor, wanted to pay tribute to that groundbreaking film without copying it. He wanted to re-create the Golden Age of Hollywood, albeit using 2020 techniques.

One particular aspect the filmmakers used from Citizen Kane: depth of field and deep focus, whereby everything in the frame (background and foreground) is in focus - a new technique at the time the classic movie was filmed.

The live-action autobiographical drama, written by Fincher's late father, Jack, has its share of visual effects that help seat the film in the period. In fact, digital technology was used in two ways, according to Peter Mavromates, co-producer and overall VFX producer on Mank.

One involved sort of a crossover between DI and VFX for the black-and-white look and lensing of the film, particularly black blooming and lens flaring.

"We also played with grain structure, to be consistent, so when you see opticals, the grain structure gets heavier," says Mavromates. "After photography, there were many instances where David [Fincher] very keenly put things like shafts of light or something that sort of echoed a bit of stylistic choices that were often made in the 1930s. Those shafts of light were actually added in post, as opposed to photography. It's a way for David to paint with visual effects."

The other big usage involved period set extensions and environments, such as the re-creation of Wilshire Boulevard with LEDs, the creation of a cloud sequence using Epic's Unreal Engine, and the CG construction of the private zoo on the grounds of Hearst Castle, complete with a number of animals (see "Walk in the Park," page 30).

Nevertheless, when possible, actual locations were used throughout filming. However, that was not always possible. And that is where CG came in.

Artemple crafted the majority of the key matte paintings, with an assist from Savage FX and Ollin VFX. The studios generated backgrounds and set pieces, as well, which were either too expensive or too difficult to build practically, such as Artemple's re-creation of the Glendale train station. Savage built a textured sky for a lengthy scene when Hearst is shooting his home movie with Marion. Territory, meanwhile, was responsible for re-creating a long stretch of Wilshire Boulevard during a car ride. And Ollin created all the flames seen in the period fireplaces - nearly 100 such shots over three scenes.

In addition, compositor Christopher Doulgeris provided the trippy montage sequence at the election eve party and the distortions when Mank is in a drunken haze. Furthermore, Outback Post was responsible for a number of digital opticals.

In all, the film contains approximately 700 VFX shots, although it is difficult to pin down as to what actually constitutes a VFX shot versus a digital optical in the film, so the number of VFX shots may be as high as 1,200 or so when taking that into account, according to Mavromates.

A Drive Down Wilshire

Although Territory worked on just one scene, it is quite complex: a drive down Wilshire Boulevard. The studio, under the VFX supervision of Simon Carr, re-created a section of 1930s Wilshire, approximately a mile in length, which played on an LED screen behind Mank and his wife, Sara, as they "drove" in their vehicle on the way to the beach. The concept is an updated version of rear projection, only using a large wall of LEDs and CG camera projections instead.

"Outside the car, everything you see is a 3D world," says Mavromates. "It's married in-camera, so there is no compositing required."

The work for that scene took months to do and a good amount of research, such as identifying shops and landmarks from archival footage.

Territory re-created nearly a mile of 1930s Wilshire Boulevard in 3D, as seen outside the car windows.

Train Station/Mansion

Among the work by Artemple, overseen by that studio's VFX supervisor, Wei Zheng, was the creation of the Glendale train station as Mank shows up to catch a train to San Simeon on his first drunken journey to Hearst Castle. The background is a digital matte painting. Artemple also crafted the 3D matte paintings of the vaulted ceilings at the Hearst mansion, which were used to expand the space and give it a grand, luxurious feel.

"By adding that crane shot with those digital vaulted ceilings, it expands the location and makes it feel more like a castle," notes Mavromates.

Sky's the Limit

Savage Visual Effects, meanwhile, generated a cloud dome when Hearst is shooting a movie with Marion, and Mank meets Hearst for the first time. "We had clear skies on those days, and David wanted texture in the sky. So Savage created the sky dome for consistency," explains Mavromates.

Because it is a fairly lengthy scene with numerous shots and a multitude of camera angles and lenses, Savage decided to create a 360-degree CG cloud environment as opposed to matte paintings. This was done with SideFX's Houdini using Epic's Unreal Engine, giving the team the ability to control sky continuity shot-to-shot beginning in the early stages of lookdev to final comp. Proprietary tools were used to randomize the cloud sizes, rotation, and placement.

In order to keep the continuity of each shot and match the lighting accurately, Savage created an Unreal build of the entire set to match size and position of all the actors and set pieces. The artists then were able to navigate through the virtual set and place cameras to match shots for the scene. After a camera was created, they could adjust framing, change time of day, aperture, and focal length to match individual shots. Each camera was then contained within the virtual set for later use. This process was repeated for all the shots in the sequence.

Once approved, the clouds were exported back into Houdini for rendering and brought into Foundry's Nuke for the final composite. Houdini-simulated smoke and custom lens flares added to the final shot.


The overall challenge faced by the VFX teams was making sure the effects "fit" into the scenes, along with the rest of the footage - a traditional challenge, even when shooting in color, to get the elements to seat properly. "Here was the added minor characteristics that were part of our DI effects, the effects with the blooming blacks and then the grain structure," says Mavromates. "Which again, I think is a very traditional challenge and is one that everyone fights every day in VFX-land. Because if your element is too sharp and it pops out, if the grain is different, it can look off."

With black-and-white, it's the same general challenge, but the specifics are different, Mavromates adds, because you're hitting grayscale and also we are adding a certain amount of softness. So, it becomes a question of what help do you need from DI to get that to sit in the scene.

Although he has worked with Fincher for over 25 years, Fincher approaches each movie differently, says Mavromates. "So, there are always new challenges and new techniques that he's trying," he notes. And no doubt it was a unique experience turning back the clock and working in a long-ago era, even if it was for a brief amount of time.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.