The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents January 2009 Return to Table of Contents
Revolutionary Road
Benjamin Button
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Jack Green, ASC
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Part of the story takes place during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. At that time, Daisy (Cate Blanchett) is lying on her deathbed in a hospital. These scenes, which have a slightly steel-blue cast, serve as a framing device for the telling of Button’s story. To shoot them, Miranda switched to a quieter Sony 4:4:4 CineAlta F23 (using the same lenses) because the filmmakers found that the Viper’s fairly loud fans couldn’t be turned off for long takes without the camera overheating. The workflow remained unchanged.

About half the shots in Benjamin Button feature digital effects. In some instances, an actor’s performance in one take was isolated and merged with another actor’s performance in a different take via splitscreen. Many shots also featured bluescreen components for future background composites and set extensions. “What I tried to do was light [foreground elements and actors] with a black pulled over the bluescreen and make sure they looked right,” says Miranda. “Then, we opened that up and lit the bluescreen last.”

The Workflow

When Fincher decided to use the Viper again on Benjamin Button, he and his collaborators transplanted the workflow from Zodiac to the new picture, according to postproduction supervisor Peter Mavromates. He notes, “The main difference was that on Zodiac, when we ingested dailies, we had to copy them off the hard drives and then render our edit media, which took hours and hours. For Benjamin Button, S.two developed a real-time batch-digitize process with audio to create our edit media.”

Images captured by the Viper were recorded via dual HD-SDI links to an S.two digital field recorder, which holds a 400GB hard drive known as the Digital Film Magazine System, or D.Mag. Each drive can hold about 30 minutes of footage. Dailies were instantly accessible. The system also allowed the production to forego the use of clappers, which helped keep the shooting momentum going. “The speed at which David works is phenomenally fast,” says Mavromates. “Wayne Tidwell, the data-capture engineer, entered in basic information about the scene and the take. When David said, ‘Cut,’ the system went back and burned in that slate information on frames two through six. Frame one was always a framing chart. The system auto-increments the take every time, so within seconds, David was rolling on the next take.”

When a D.Mag became full, it was delivered directly to what Mavromates called the “digital lab,” also known as the edit room. The material was real-time batch-digitized into the DVCPro HD codec and into an Apple Final Cut Pro system. That media was then backed up at full resolution with no compression onto two LTO tapes, which were then geographically separated. Once the media was confirmed to be safely in the Final Cut system and backed up, the D.Mag was sent back to the set. Production typically used 15-25 D.Mags, depending on how far the set was from the digital lab. If they were shooting on location in another city, the D.Mag was cloned before being sent to the digital lab. The 35mm footage was telecined to D-5 tape and ingested from that.

Dailies were distributed via the Web. “We had secure Web-based dailies distribution called Pix,” says Mavromates. “In Final Cut Pro, assistants created a media file that was uploaded to the Pix system, and access was given to specific individuals.”

Benjamin Button was edited on Final Cut Pro and conformed on Iridas Speedgrade. “S.two wrangled a custom piece of software, a ‘negative pull’ application written by someone in New Zealand,” recalls Mavromates. “All the digital dailies were backed up on LTO tapes — it was about 500 terabytes of material, and it was not reasonable to keep all that online.”

Injecting “Bradness”

At first glance, Button might appear to have little in common with popcorn tycoon Orville Redenbacher, but both belong to an extremely small club of people who have had their heads digitally replaced. In the case of Redenbacher, it was for a commercial Fincher and Miranda shot two years ago — more than 10 years after Redenbacher died. ConAgra Foods wanted to resurrect his image, so to speak. “David saw the ad as an opportunity to test how one could replace the head of a live performer on the set with someone else’s head,” says Mavromates, who was not involved with the ad. “David likes to joke that he learned how not to do Benjamin Button after that commercial. The software used worked well on short tests, but once they did the whole commercial, it wasn’t a very accurate representation of the original performance.”

Throughout Benjamin Button, it had to appear as though Pitt was playing the role at every age, and, of course, the adult actor didn’t physically match the younger Buttons. The solution was to have size-appropriate actors play the character on set and then replace their heads in post with a properly scaled Pitt head that was entirely computer-generated. Digital Domain created the CG heads, working with performances by Pitt that were shot separately. (Digital Domain’s visual-effects supervisor, Eric Barba, declined an interview request.)

“There is a well-known study that basically boils down humans’ facial expressions to 156 different ones, and we brought Brad in and captured him making those expressions,” says Mavromates. “When the Digital Domain team applied them, however, they felt those 156 did not cover all the emotions the film needed, so we had to bring Brad back and shoot more stills of him making very specific facial expressions. They then plugged those into the CG rig of his head, which could go from expression number 99 to 123 to 72, or whatever was required.”

The CG rig was created using a combination of methods. A life-sized bust of Pitt was scanned in a geodesic dome at the University of Southern California that captures the interplay of light on the face and head under every lighting condition. The actor was later brought in to ImageMetrics to shoot his performances, which mimicked the various actors who wore blue hoods on set. “ImageMetrics has sophisticated software to analyze faces,” notes Mavromates. “We shot Brad against black with four cameras in a semicircle in front of him. They analyzed that and converted it into data that could be handed to Digital Domain and injected into the CG model. The value of doing that was largely to maintain audio sync. David got that and he got Brad’s performance, which he referred to as ‘the Bradness’ of a shot.”

During the shooting of the original plate, Fincher directed the actor wearing the blue hood. Those scenes were then edited in preparation for shooting Pitt, who could watch that footage on a monitor as he acted. Mavromates recalls, “David would direct Brad by referring to the video and saying, ‘Here’s what I need you to match,’ or, ‘Here’s what I didn’t get.’ Part of it was about matching the dialogue, and part of it was about David pushing the performance — within certain boundaries — to where he wanted it. He couldn’t change Brad’s head movement drastically because it was locked into what was shot with the other actor. Even if the actor wearing the blue hood turned his head drastically, Brad didn’t do that when we shot him against black because what we needed was his facial performance.

“Eric and his team got to know Brad’s face so well that they found he carries his head at about a 5-degree tilt, and when they didn’t apply that little tilt to the CG head, it felt a lot less like Brad,” he continues. “They strove to capture all the subtle details of his demeanor. The goal was to create a digital Brad from the neck up.”


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