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Fincher Talks 'Benjamin Button' and VFX

Oscar nominee David Fincher gets in the right headspace to talk about head replacement on Benjamin Button and the state of VFX.


David Fincher's six-year journey on The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttonincluded frustrating start and stop testing of new technology for the groundbreaking GG head replacement and performance capture. All images © 2008 Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Ent. 

VFXWorld recently caught up with director David Fincher to discuss Digital Domain's impressive CG head replacement breakthrough on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (arguably the Oscar VFX frontrunner) and his thoughts on the new digital paradigm, 3-D and what movies he's looking forward to in 2009.

Bill Desowitz: So what has this six-year journey been like for you to make Benjamin Button?

David Fincher: It has been a journey, in a weird sort of way. It is one of these movies that you don't have this ticking clock -- there are no plot devices -- you're just basically looking at human behavior and deciding whether or not it's... behaviorally correct. And, you know, how do we make this little guy?

BD: But you had a lot of time to figure it out, what with technology always changing...

DF: Well, yes and no. Technology is always changing, but, worse than that, was this whole start, stop, start, stop... It's not as if somebody at the studio said, "We think you're going to get there, we think it's eventually going to be cheap enough." Because obviously our first test was very expensive, 'cause we were making all the mistakes we would eventually edit out of the process. And so you spend half a million dollars on a test for one shot, and, of course, the studio comes back and says, "How many shots do you think you have?" And you come back with: "Three-hundred and fifty." And they go: "Wow! We need to seriously reconsider this?" So, I think this is where Spielberg and Lucas and Cameron and Zemeckis have a leg up on everybody: they have the ability to get people to finance things that may or may not come to fruition -- and so I think it helps to be able to go and say, "Trust me, it's eventually going to get there." And to literally test for two years, which we didn't do. We sort of tested, got shut down and then I ended up taking a couple of commercials to fund the development of the technique. And from that we were able to say with a straight face: "Oh, it's going to get there." And up until about eight months ago, we were... our fingers were crossed really, tight. We had very little circulation in our fingertips.

BD: When you finally got to make the movie, what was it like grafting and crafting Brad Pitt's performance?

DF: Well, the grafting part was difficult in that the tracking (and I give [Tracking Supervisor] Marco Maldanado all the credit for figuring it out)... If the relationship between the orbital socket and the clavicles changes in some funky way, it's over. It doesn't matter how good the shaders are or how good the performance is, you're out. And so I give him credit and they were so low impact on the actual shoot days. And coming from ILM -- at least in the photochemical days -- there was a lot of, "OK, everyone, clear the set: here come the guys with the Vista Vision cameras." And I used to hate that. And I told everyone upfront that I never work that way -- at least not with DD. I've actually had people say that they want to bring a supervisor down to the set, and I tell them that we're not going to do that. I don't need another opinion around here. Tell me what the ramifications are and I'll take responsibility. One of the first things I did [at DD] was shoot this Rolling Stones video [the Grammy-winning Love is Strong], but coming from a pretty good understanding of what we were doing. And so I was very adamant with [VFX Exec Producer] Ed [Ulbrich] and with [Visual Effects Supervisor] Eric [Barba] as far as this head replacement stuff [on Button] that it was going to be two guys and they would have to work with our camera crew... and it worked great. I'd rather give a handful of people an hour for setting up than 25 people 25 minutes because it ends up being such a disaster.

BD: There is a move away from specialization going on...

DF: Look, I'm all for specialization. It's led to some great and wonderful movies. And I know that the movie business is about specialization, but I don't believe in it anymore. I've done commercials where Angus [Wall], the editor, did color correction. And I believe in that: You have to be multi-disciplined, especially in a world where the process is moving more and more toward desktop publishing as a model. It doesn't make any sense to have the colorist as this extra layer of creativity. No, he has to be ingested and part of what we're doing.

BD: It's a whole new digital paradigm.

DF: I think digital filmmaking is all about picks, about what Eric's up to with picture information exchange: the idea of being able to write either long-hand or type on a QuickTime and send it somebody with the frames that you're talking about. All marked up, where the head seems to move or turns in an odd way, you circle the head and put an arrow on the chin and say, "Why does the chin seem like it's popping here?" And it goes right on the QuickTime and gets sent right back down to Venice and people look at it and know what I'm talking about.

There were no ticking clocks or plot devices in Button, but there was a clock running backwards to signify Button's time left. 

BD: So it can get fixed instantly.

DF: It's about fewer people having more communication and being able to draw or write or manipulate on the actual media, so you can all be speaking the exact same language. The same thing is true with shooting digitally. The thing for me -- I love film: I think it looks beautiful. And in the right hands, to me, there are maybe 10 guys in the world that make a difference. But when it comes to that gnawing, horrible, 24-hour period between having shot something and seeing it in dailies, and going, "What the f... You don't have one take that's in sharp focus?" I will trade four or five stops of high-end shoulder exposure for the ability to have a 23" HD monitor that allows me to go: "See this thing right here? You can see his ears end and his eyes are out." I can't stand it when movies are out of focus -- it just bugs.

BD: And the impact on the vfx?

DF: Certainly with the amount of effects work that we had in this movie -- and I've never done a movie that had this many shots -- shooting digitally made that a much more complete [experience]. We had it all in-house, we had the ability to just go: "Grab a firewire drive, get that plate down to Lola and get them started on that shot." Or, "Add 19 frames to that and get it off asap." It's the most streamlined finishing process I've ever seen. And part of the reason we went to MPI to do the film outs was not only because of Jan [Yarbrough's] eye [as senior colorist] but also because the system there is set up with three people. And I love that our three people are talking to their three people -- and that's the movie. I always felt that the more a director knew about what we were capable of, there'd be more shots. As soon as they knew that this was fairly effortless and we could fix that, they would go, "Oh, my god! I can get three more setups a day! If I don't have to worry about painting that out being an $85,000 thing and is a $15,000 thing, that's 40 minutes.

BD: And more and more vfx people are becoming directors now.

DF: Yeah, but I think of it more as more and more people are growing up with computers and Photoshop and QuickTime... You look at Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham and Mark Romanick and Spike Jonze, and you see people who can speak eloquently and technologically about the effect that they want to render and what they want to achieve. And before 1995, that was a rare thing. And now it's everywhere.

BD: Getting back to Benjamin, do you think Digital Domain has crossed the Uncanny Valley? They certainly think so.

DF: Have you seen the movie?

BD: Yes.

DF: What do you think?

BD: It's very close.

DF: They've set up camp in it. My feeling is that there are shots that just kill: that looks like a living thing to me. There are others that are simply getting you from A to B. But given that they had 350 shots to do, that's probably [fine]. But I think the next time we do it, they'll be much further along. I think that the greatest lesson to be learned from this was that it wasn't about making a real human; it was about making a character. And I think the great news about Benjamin is that he is a fully realized character in a movie, and that there are all these little moments that allow you to understand and empathize with what's going on in his little noggin, even if he's not saying a lot and even if he can't move a lot. You get who he is. And I attribute that to technology in service of an actor: very specific and very interesting and very varied ideas about who this character was and what he was going through.

Moments that show the poignancy of Button's reverse aging were among Fincher's favorite in the film because of the sadness they evoked.

BD: It must've been important for Brad to feel as comfortable as possible.

DF: It was so freeing not to have to worry about all of the technique that you have to in motion picture acting... So much of what we ask actors to do is more about how they dance with the camera than how they reach down and illuminate a little piece of their souls. That was an interesting thing for me. To be honest, I felt that we really needed to be careful about how we set this thing up because I didn't want him walking into the performance capture stuff and all of a sudden it becomes something other than playing. Because that's really what acting is and the environment you're hopefully trying to set up: to play and feel freedom to make mistakes. And we were able to do that and he felt completely unencumbered. And we budgeted for 10 days and we were done in five.

BD: What is your favorite moment in the movie?

DF: My favorite moment? I don't know. To be totally honest, there were a lot of things I understood intellectually but when you see them they're very different. One of the things I wasn't really aware of was... the poignancy of seeing -- if you buy off on the idea that he's aging in reverse -- a certain kind of sadness that's evoked. If you see someone who is 50-years-old, you have no idea of they have 30 years left or five years left. When you see someone who is aging in reverse and they're 11, you know exactly how many years they have left. I mean, in a weird way, the clock ticking down or the hourglass running out is more poignantly expressed by this conceit. And so I always imagined the child as a little old man: I sort of knew what that was. But the notion of him coming back into [Daisy's] life as a 23-year-old, you really start to go: "Wow! It's really winding down."

BD: So much of it is internalized...

DF: Yeah, which I always love. I like actors who don't wear it on their sleeve.

Fincher sees Button as a Hollywood romance with a little bit more riptide.

BD: Years ago, I made the observation that your movies were like Grimm fairy tales: parables about getting closer in touch with your own sense of humanity. I think Benjamin Button doesn't get under your skin like your other films, but it still fits.

DF: I don't know about that. I saw Benjamin as a way to repurpose Hollywood romance and hopefully have a little bit more riptide with it. I don't know.

BD: Have you seen any of the other big vfx movies?

DF: I saw The Dark Knight. I saw Speed Racer -- that's just so insane in an amazing way. I think that movie will be revisited, and I think it will be very interesting to see how that movie stacks up in five years, 10 years... Yeah, I appreciated it.

BD: Did you like The Dark Knight?

DF: Yeah, I loved it. It was beautiful.

BD: Did you see Indiana Jones? [At ILM Fincher worked on Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.]

DF: Yeah, I did.

BD: What'd you think?

DF: You know, it's such a hard thing because I realized that that movie wasn't made for me. You know what I mean? The first one was made for me and the last one was made for my daughter. It's a whole different density of information; it's a whole different storytelling conceit. So I appreciate it and I thought it was beautifully done, but I sort of felt like... I wasn't in on the joke, somehow.

BD: Did you like Iron Man?

DF: I liked Iron Man for Robert [Downey Jr. from Zodiac]. I remember hearing about the casting and I thought: "You've got to give it to Favreau because that is ingenious -- it's just perfect." And there is no better discovery than the right actor in the right role. But it's way better than any new shader.

BD: And what are you looking forward to in 2009: Avatar?

DF: Yeah, you gotta look forward to that. Anytime that guy [Jim Cameron] comes out of retirement...

BD: And Watchmen?

DF: I mean, this is going to be Zack's arrival. 300 was interesting and beautiful but I think this could really be monumental -- and he certainly has the chops.

BD: What's your impression of the footage in the trailers?

DF: I don't know the [graphic novel], so I don't want to have any preconceptions. Some of it looks funny to me, which I like. It looks like it has wit. But there's no doubting the guy's [talent]. You look at that trailer vs. the 300 trailer and you realize he's come a long way. If this is his arrival, there are a lot of places he's going to go that are going to be really exciting.

BD: What about Zemeckis doing A Christmas Carol?

DF: I'm always interested in seeing what Zemeckis is up to. I actually thought Beowulf was stunning. But I think performance capture is still... It sprung from videogames and so you judge it in a different way, which is a little odd and unfair. It would certainly stack up against other videogames, but I think we're still years away from reaching maturity. We'll see. To me, it's like the acting in videogames is in the '40s...

Among Fincher's pet projects are Heavy Metal, Torso and a World War II movie that he wants to do with Robert Towne Brad Pitt.

BD: I don't know about that: there was some damn good acting in the '40s.

DF: Well, I look at it this way: It's kind of like Errol Flynn. He was a wonderful onscreen personality but it was indicative of physical types and physical expressions and wardrobing and posing and it was driven by [something external]. Certainly if there was anything internal going on for Robin Hood, it was whatever you wanted to see. So that's where I think performance capture is and at some point there will have to be Marlon Brando of the digital performance, where all of a sudden people will realize there's this whole other plane of existence.

BD: Or Robert Downey.

DF: Well, yeah, that's a good example. Before Iron Man, not to take anything away from Michael Keaton's Batman, which I think was spectacular, but, again, acting and performance are two different things. Acting is what you do; the performance is the thing that you make from the acting. And so many people confuse the two. When you look at Keaton's performance... First of all, what an uphill battle. Everybody thought: "Michael Keaton?! Are you out of your mind?! And then you saw it and you went, "Wow!" There was something about his mechanism and the way that he dramatizes what happens internally -- his frustrations -- that really works.

Again, this is all totally personal, but I look at Gary Oldman's performance in Batman Begins... I haven't seen a character in a "comicbook" movie quite like it. He's so good. Heath Ledger aside, and he did an amazing thing and deserves all the posthumous acclaim...

BD: But less is more with Oldman and he is so grounded in reality.

DF: Well, that's what I'm saying. By virtue of the moments they choose to make real -- and Oldman does this so well in Batman Begins -- all the miniatures and CG and train chases and rocket cars aside, you go: "Wait a minute! This guy seems like a real guy!" Again, I love Heath Ledger, but if you really want to see someone in a comicbook, I think Gary Oldman is the one.

BD: Well, he's playing Bob Cratchit, Marley and Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol.

DF: That'll be amazing.

BD: And what do you think about all this stereoscopic hoopla?

DF: I think... it's like crack. If you can create enough of a need, this is a great way to hold on to copyrights. I don't know. It certainly necessitates a new language. I just don't know whether... I mean, I can't think of 10% of the movies I've seen as needing to be in 3-D. I guess Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back in 3-D would be pretty balls out.

BD: Obviously Avatar will be worth the effort.

DF: Oh, yeah. I think if you gave me the original opportunity to see Terminator in 3-D, I would do it, but it wouldn't negate having the 2-D version. You know, that guy's worth seeing if you only had one eye.

BD: And what do you have going next?

DF: Nothing, man. I've got four months of sleep, but just try and wake me up.

BD: Are you still trying to get Heavy Metal off the ground?

DF: You know, when you tell people that you want to make R-rated animation for teenage boys, oddly enough, they don't flock to put up cash for it. But, it is what it is.

BD: And Torso, the Eliot Ness/serial killer movie?

DF: Well, we're trying to find out what it's really gonna cost to do: get a real budget, because internal budgets that are done at studios have a different agenda. "Tell us what the absolute minimum is?" As opposed to: "What is it really gonna cost to pull this off and make it something that people are gonna want to battle parking and lines and babysitters for? That's a different equation comic book I remember on Panic Room, they had an internal budget of $22 million, and we were like, "Well, that's true: you could do it for that if you were doing it like Assault on Precinct 13, but I don't think you want to market that movie."

BD: So what's going to draw us to Torso?

DF: Well, to me, I love the idea of this self-righteous American heroic crusader and all of the questionable shit that he does in the name of his own... And Eliot Ness was a very interesting and very flawed and sometimes scary guy. But he meant well. But he did some really bizarre things. Also, we think we know the guy from The Untouchables. But that ended in '28 and then he goes off to Cleveland and really tears it up.

And I've got a beautiful World War II story that I want to do with Robert Towne and Brad Pitt [based on the biography of Wendell Fertig, a civil engineer in the Philippines, who led a guerilla force in the Japanese-occupied island of Mindanao]. So who knows?

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of VFXWorld and AWN.

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Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.