When tackling a period-centered project like Mank, David Fincher and his assembly of below the line craftspersons create magic, fully immersing the viewer in a faithfully recreated 1930s-era California. While the project leveraged many real-world locations and built sets, changing times and the absence of an unlimited budget posed some challenges to create that immersive world Fincher and team demanded. To complete the illusion, the filmmakers looked to co-producer Peter Mavromates, who led a team of four visual effects (VFX) supervisors.
Now, Mank isn’t effects-heavy The Avengers, but that doesn’t mean VFX aren’t just as critical to the film’s storytelling and overall atmosphere.
“The assumption, at minimum, is that you’re going to at least need to retouch a background to get rid of modern anachronisms,” Mavromates explained. “As in this movie, there are situations where David [Fincher] will want to actually replace the background so that period buildings are back there.”
VFX on Mank ranged from the creation of said period buildings or elimination of modern facades to the Hearst Estate monkeys to the extension of built sets to even something as small as the straightening of curtains.
One example of subtle yet incredibly necessary VFX used in Mank appears when Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and his wife Sarah (Tuppence Middleton) drive down Wilshire Boulevard. In the car, Mank reads a newspaper article about Los Angeles’ homeless and sees a key Upton Sinclair billboard. Mavromates explained that simply reading the script wouldn’t allude to the VFX required for the sequence.
The VFX direction in this case came directly from Fincher. Given the extensive changes to that area since the setting of the film, Fincher would not have been able to film the sequence as he wanted without an entirely 3D CG background.
That’s where Mavromates steps in and works directly with the VFX teams to achieve the finished product. Mank employed VFX work from four different houses: Artemple (Wei Zhang), Territory Studio (Simon Carr), Savage (James Pastorius), and ILM (Pablo Helman). Each house in coordination with Fincher and Mavromates worked with the other crafts departments, particularly the production design teams, to ensure their work would seamlessly integrate into the finished product.
Of particular importance to Fincher was minimizing set distractions while actors were on set. He knew he had precious little time, so he wanted elements outside of his control to be either rendered or adjusted through VFX. For example, in the Louis B. Mayer birthday and circus party scenes, all of the fires in Hearst Castle were added via VFX. For Mayer’s birthday party scene alone, there are approximately 65 shots with fire in them. Additionally, the ceilings in those scenes, which were shot on sound stages and not in Heart Castle, were all added via VFX to avoid the additional cost of physically building them out.
Another compelling example of well used VFX occurs in the Glendale train station sequence. Mank is driven to the station. When he emerges (drunk) from the car, you see a series of art deco buildings in the background. Those buildings were added to the scene by Artemple. Of all of the VFX shots within the film, Mavromates calls that shot one of his personal favorites.
But Mank’s VFX doesn’t just end at the creation of period-specific architecture. Even the look of the film received a VFX-led touch-up to achieve the finished product that Fincher needed.
“If you watch our movie, you’ll see that we have grain in it. If you pay attention when you look at old movies, grain increases when it cuts to an optical — like a fade or dissolve. So we did that,” Mavromates explained. “Even though this is a digital movie, we added film changeover marks which are cues on when the projection is supposed to switch reels.”
All of these choices help Mank stand out as a brilliant example of how modern technology helped Fincher achieve the exact look and feel he wanted for the film.