‘Mank’ is a biographical film made for Netflix and directed by David Fincher. Its storyteller and subject is alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, who deals with his own flawed character as he works on the screenplay for Orson Welles’ ‘Citizen Kane’.
Fincher and his team have worked with FilmLight’s Baselight colour grading system since the film ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ and the Netflix TV series ‘House of Cards’. Later on when working on TV series ‘Mindhunter’, the director established his own in-house DI facility in Hollywood.
Colourist Eric Weidt was brought on to lead colour development on the facility’s Baselight X system. Eric’s experience includes developing custom film emulation profiles for traditional film photographers, and considerable post-production work on fashion stills and films.
Shooting entirely in black and white, using a RED camera with the Red Ranger Helium Monochrome sensor, gives ‘Mank’ a 1930s Hollywood feel. Many tests were done before shooting – on the cameras, lenses, even light bulbs – so that Eric could develop the HDR, SDR and day-for-night LUTs along with the project’s DoP Erik Messerschmidt.
Fincher wanted to re-create certain period elements in post, for example black blooming in the shadows, a kind of dark version of light blooming. In digital photography, blooming occurs when a signal charge from extremely bright pixels results in over-saturated pixels that leak or smear, affecting other pixels. “In testing, we developed the 6K look in Baselight, and then we had Fotokem make a version of it to use as a shader,” Eric said. “This way, the period feel could be baked into the dailies.”
Fincher and Erik Messerschmidt went with a monochrome camera because of its sensitivity to light. However, that meant that in the grading suite, Eric Weidt had no chromatic information to cheat with regarding variations from dark to light. “I think I wore out the luminance key knobs,” said Eric. “As DoP, Erik [Messerschmidt] made beautiful choices, shooting with an orange filter for darker skies, for example. Using an orange filter gives more contrast between the sky and clouds, and will also penetrate haze and fog.
“We had whole segments shot day for night that were a real pleasure to grade. They had virtually no grain after grading until we dialled some back in.” In this case, Eric used Baselight’s Add Grain feature, which is procedural so that the effect could be keyframed throughout each shot instead of setting consistent parameters, aiming for the non-linear nature of optical effects.
Overall, he played a major role in recreating other elements of an authentic 1930s look in the grading suite as well. “David Fincher really wanted period references – black blooms, white blooms, edge softening, ‘optical fades’,” said Eric. “They did some fades in-camera using the aperture, but otherwise asked me to reproduce the way light gets boosted and contrasted during the dissolves to and from black, between shots.”
“Personally, I love black and white – dodging and burning – and it’s incredible how much we can do that with 14 stops of latitude.”
Eric encountered challenges due to the smoke that had been generated to create atmosphere on set. “The absence of colour meant devising more clever ways to balance the smoke – such as asking for any existing VFX alpha channels to be passed along. But beyond that it involved a lot of tracking to maintain control over elements in the image,” he said. “Interestingly though, we brought a lot of the smoke back after I’d already tamed it.”
Eric used many different Baselight tools to achieve the look – such as Base Grade, Paint, Texture Equaliser and Add Grain – but he also relied on Baselight’s Colour Space Journey, Cursors View, Gallery and Formats functionality. The Colour Space Journey in Baselight shows details of all colour space conversions in the current stack. Texture Equaliser allows you take texture into account when grading, controlling its effect on colour, frequency by frequency.
Base grade does not define video by external colour spaces or by references to Lift, Gamma and Gain, but specifies exposure values in aperture stops that match human perception and are easier for DPs to understand.
He collaborated a lot with the VFX department too, mostly because so many requests can now fall into either domain. “Baselight has practically become a compositing tool in its own right, and that brings many advantages in terms of flexibility. Many changes can be taken care of in a few steps,” said Eric. “But some tasks can start out small and grow in scope – and certain shots also require interventions by different people. So we got together regularly to re-visit tasks, or the order of operations.”
'Mank' is a passion project for David Fincher, as the screenplay was written by his late father, Jack Fincher. He has attempted to make the film for many years, and the release of the movie coincides with the 79th anniversary of the theatrical opening of ‘Citizen Kane’. Mank is now streaming on Netflix. www.filmlight.ltd.uk