‘Mank’ VFX: How David Fincher Directed the Scene-Stealing Stars of the Hearst Castle Zoo

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Bill Desowitz
·4 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
 IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line
IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line

While the “Mank” visual effects team meticulously recreated ’30s-era LA in black-and-white (utilizing the matte paintings of Artemple, Territory’s LED rear screen projection, and Savage’s sky replacement with the Unreal engine), David Fincher took a special interest in directing the photo-real CG animals from Industrial Light & Magic that inhabit the Hearst Castle private zoo.

In a brief but memorable series of exchanges with the animals during their chatty moonlight stroll, Mank (Gary Oldman) and Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), are definitely upstaged by the scene-stealing Capuchin monkeys, elephants, and giraffes. “David wanted specific performances from all the animals,” said ILM VFX supervisor Pablo Helman (“The Irishman”). “He wanted the [four] monkeys to be agitated, the giraffes to spring in a certain way, and the elephants to have a response.”

More from IndieWire

Fincher, who served as his own production VFX supervisor (alongside VFX producer Peter Mavromates), treated the animals as a sort of Greek chorus with their own story beats, interjecting ironically on the political discussion about corruption and imprisonment, for example. When one of the monkeys makes a loud commotion and bangs on the bars, Davies shoots back: “Nobody but nobody makes a monkey out of William Randolph Hearst.” Or, when Mank quips: “And jail is not something an animal like [Louis B.] Mayer is likely to forget,” one of the elephants approvingly roars back, and elicits a laugh from them.

ILM provided real animal reference side by side with intermediate animation, and Fincher selected what he liked best, providing meticulous notes and drawings related to size and personality along with instructions for lighting, lensing, framing, and movement. “I think what’s interesting about his approach is that, for him, it was all about one scene, like the frame being back lit, and the monkeys being contrasted against the sky and against the foreground,” Helman added. “Everything was directed towards seeing the characters in the front and just posing the monkeys [or elephants and giraffes] behind them to create a portrait.”

In addition, Fincher tasked ILM with creating the particular environments surrounding the animals: principally, the Victorian-era zoo cage housing the monkeys and surrounding vegetation, as well as the gated area and grass where the elephants and giraffes roamed. This necessitated lots of research as well. “There were some specific things that he wanted for the Victorian architecture: roundness at the top of the frame and older bricks,” Helman said. “And we were in the middle of COVID, so, in my backyard in San Rafael, there’s a marsh, and I shot the grass, and we tested it in black-and-white and we replaced the scene with that and combined everything with the animation.”

Yet shooting the sequence in both black-and-white and day for night (by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt) posed a unique VFX challenge. ILM couldn’t use green or blue screen because the chrominance didn’t match, so they did a lot of rotoscope and extraction work, replacing backgrounds, removing skies, and creating virtual lighting for the new environments. “David also went for the skin in the elephants,” Helman continued. “You don’t see much skin in black-and-white and they were moonlit, so that means there’s a top light there. How much of an elephant’s skin are you going to see? But in 4K, you can see some. It’s an interesting thing when you’re working on such a detailed project. How do we, as visual effects artists, see the high-resolution work at home during a pandemic the same way we do in our facilities? So I would go to ILM to view the work with one or two artists.”

Like his collaboration with Martin Scorsese on the “The Irishman” de-aging, Helman found working with Fincher artistically rewarding. “He has an incredible eye and his comments on minimal stuff — lighting things like the silvery sky or the movement of the animals or the grass — is so much a part of his storytelling,” he said. “He was measuring everything we were rendering. He even added one more shot at the end. It was where they first go beside the monkeys. We can see the cage, raking it. You basically wouldn’t see that, but he wanted us to put it there. It’s so cinematic: introducing us to the monkeys. It was important to have a beginning, middle, and an end to that scene.”

Best of IndieWire

Sign up for Indiewire's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.