Fountain of Youth

Cinematographer Claudio Miranda climbs into the way-back machine to help visualize David Fincher’s stunning adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ageless short story

It is only fitting the first words out of Claudio Miranda’s mouth are about the passage of time. “This year, I got the mock-longevity award for my long stretch working for David Fincher,” the director of photography good-naturedly jokes. Born in Chile but raised in SoCal, Miranda first met David Fincher more than twenty years ago when he was a stage manager at SIR Studios; soon after he began working as an electrician on Fincher’s music videos. Two decades later, Miranda is making his feature cinematography debut for his old boss in a big way: Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s bittersweet short story, published in the early 1920s, cost a reported $160,000 million and is the director’s most ambitious film to date. In the titular role, Brad Pitt plays a man born in septuagenarian form who ‘ages’ backwards over nine decades, growing younger as others grow old until, having reached infancy and the end of his days, recedes to the natural state of grace into which we are all born. Fitzgerald’s story takes place in pre-Civil War Baltimore, while Fincher’s version is set in Louisiana, in a later era, with Hurricane Katrina used as a starting point for the retelling of Benjamin Button’s remarkable life.  Claudio Miranda says he turned down a gaffing spot on Fincher’s Panic Room when his career flow changed to cinematography; later on, Fincher hired Miranda to DP some of his commercial spots, including the Viper-shot Beer Run for Heineken. After handling reshoots for Zodiac [lensed by Harris Savides, ASC; see ICG, March 2007] Fincher offered Miranda the DP slot on Button. Like Zodiac, it utilized the Thompson/Grass Valley Viper, [supplied by The Camera House] for most scenes, recording in 4:4:4 FilmStream mode to S.2 hard drives.

Down On The Bayou

To optimize the Viper FilmStream workflow, Miranda relied on a combination of DigiPrimes and DigiZooms and, “a ton of ND to keep things wide open, usually around 1.9. That meant the operators had to be on their game, but with the big monitor and HD, you can see right away whether or not you got it.” Miranda also graded still files from each day’s work to show to Fincher. “It was near-instant gratification,” the DP recalls. “We created one simple LUT for the whole movie, taking a bit of green out of the Viper and adding contrast, then stuck with that most of the time, so we didn’t have to deal with lot of look-up tables.” While the workflow, with the exception of a batch digitize upgrade, was the same as for Zodiac, Fincher found issues that had continually cropped up from his past Viper shows. “For four years,” the director states, “Thompson promised to make the Viper fan system turn off during recording, but they never came across. When it came time to shoot close-ups in a hospital room, we wouldn’t have been able to use the dialog [due to fan noise.] So we shot all that on the Sony F23.”

Fincher says his first visual reference for Miranda was artist Andrew Wyeth, but that wasn’t slavishly followed for production. “We thought Wyeth would influence framing – looking through doorways – but in the end that wasn’t really a factor,” the cinematographer explains. “It was nice in terms of suggesting wall textures, though.” What contributed more to Benjamin Button‘s look were the movie’s real-life locations, mostly shot in Louisiana. “I took my digital camera into the rooms of the main house we shot in, and took a lot of pictures with natural light,” says Miranda. “David loved the natural-light stills, so trying to retain the actual look of the locations was probably the most important visual notion in the film.” Miranda recalls that, “our location manager was pleasantly surprised to see how happy the locals were to have us around. In spite of everything, New Orleans still looks and feels lost in time; gazing down the street is almost like peeking back into another era.”

The DP adds that he found Fincher’s on-set spontaneity somewhat unexpected. “It took me by surprise, since there is such a history for him in features and commercials to do extensive previsualization, working out which lens and what kind of track to use well in advance of shooting. We had previz for the boat battle, but that was pretty much it.”

Uphill Racer

Aging backwards is at the visual core of Benjamin Button, and, in digital terms, it’s a process that dates back to the flashback scenes of Clint Eastwood for In The Line of Fire. That early attempt was a simple shave and a haircut, tracking and altering Dirty Harry footage from 1971 to create Eastwood’s Secret Service agent, circa 1963. More elaborate methods were showcased in a series of TV commercials featuring Sigourney Weaver, William Shatner and Robert Patrick recreating scenes from Aliens, Star Trek VI and T2, which required the performers to appear identical to their younger selves. In X-Men: The Last Stand, a prologue featuring decades-younger versions of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan called for even more detailed and credible alterations.

“We shot de-ageing tests for Button and got everybody to sign off on the look beforehand,” David Fincher recalls. “The [VFX] vendors on the test were mostly the same ones we ended up using on the show.” Pitt’s face was photographed as he played the scenes of his more youthful-looking self near the end of principal photography, and then the imagery, suitably treated, was composited over young actors who had been shot on-set standing in for the adult actor.  Button is told from the hospital bedside of Benjamin’s lifelong love, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), now aged, listening as her daughter (Julia Ormond) reads from Button’s diary with Hurricane Katrina raging outside.

Makeup effects supervisor Greg Cannom found Blanchett’s makeup to be among his most challenging assignments, largely because of the actress’s prominent cheekbones. “Tampering with that would have been ridiculous,” Cannom recalls, “so instead I put aging detail down in the nasal creases, and also on the neck and the forehead.” [Blanchett wore fourteen appliances, enduring up to four hours of makeup and hair for the last two weeks of filming.]  Cannom says that his use of silicone appliances was based not only on the material’s superiority to latex and gelatin in toughness and resiliency, but also in large part on how readily light it takes to light. “Silicone has life and depth that makes it look a thousand times better than foam,” he insists. “Initially, I feared shooting makeups with digital capture, as it might reveal the slightest defect. But after seeing tests on a high-end projector, I was shocked at how well it worked. We could airbrush patches of color and age spots onto the silicone and it didn’t leap out at you. Claudio and his team did a great job shooting the makeups.”

Button also benefited from another development, one that arose out of Cannom’s discomfort with traditional forehead appliances, which invariably distort an actor’s features. Silicone prosthetics were combined with ‘transfer pieces,’ a paper-thin plastic appliance that can be lined up with facial features so they seem to fit into the face rather than look planted-on. “They give the impression of depth,” Cannom elaborates. “I could put a piece the size of a quarter on the eyelid to get an effect of crow’s feet.” This more subtle approach also proved beneficial on Pitt’s old-age makeups. The actor had requested a rough skin texture, so Cannom’s initial old-age makeup incorporated deep forehead lines. “It looked horrible – interesting, but horrible. So I scaled it back to a thin realistic aging on the forehead with lines coming down.” In addition to designing Pitt’s age makeup (a process that involved sculptor Miles Teves), Cannom handled application personally, while his Drac Studio facility wound up taking over manufacture of all prosthetics during production, including those that take Pitt from his mid 60s down to his 40s. The heavily de-aged younger vision of Button included CG blending of Pitt’s face onto other actors, who wore makeups created by Cannom that highlighted the designer’s real-world understanding of aging and skin textures.

Birth of a Geriatric

Benjamin Button‘s entry into the world, as a wrinkled old man-baby, was visually based, in part, on the look of Shar-Pei dogs. Abandoned by his father at an old-age home, Benjamin is raised by the handlers there. As with much of the shoot, Claudio Miranda relied heavily on practical lighting. “When the people at the old-age home are looking down at this baby, the practicals light up the wall behind them,” the DP recounts. “To embellish that, I had a source to the left emulating a practical.” Later, a tent sequence involving numerous extras was lit entirely by visible practicals. A scene outside a theater presenting a ballet, largely created with visual effects, also includes an array of practicals built into the entryway. “Just the bottom floor is real; even the marquee was added,” Miranda notes. “We put some bounce and flicker onto the ticket seller, so you could feel the city’s presence. It was a practical location, so we used the brightest lights that the breaker could take, probably 40-watt.”

Though the story spans nearly a century, no attempt was made to differentiate eras with diffusion or other visual treatments. Miranda says that if he had used diffusion, it would have created problems down the line, given the amount of effects work. A large number of scenes take place in the Button family home, and the DP explains that a series of renovations was needed to make things look more depressed as time passed. “Keeping the natural light feel usually means keeping extra light off the walls, but in that house, the walls were dark enough that they acted as a sponge; bounce wasn’t a factor,” he recalls. First-floor scenes were shot on location, with daylight amplified by 18Ks outside the windows; the second floor was a stage set with simple backdrops outside the windows.

Despite Fincher’s taste for experimentation, Button‘s shooting style was inherently formal. “There was little in the way of extreme camera angles, unless someone was looking up or down to another level, and no use of SteadiCam,” Claudio Miranda observes. “We were almost always on tracks to achieve careful moves and exact framing [J.L. Fisher dollies]. For the large number of boat interiors, which were built on gimbals, we used a stabilized head to keep the horizon steady while allowing for a sense of rocking back and forth.” In fact, Benjamin Button spends a significant portion of time at sea on a tugboat. Miranda says his favorite shot in the film is Benjamin sitting toward the front of the boat, with some light hitting him from above and behind. “We’re in a tank on the Sony stage, and there are silhouetted figures, but they aren’t highlighted in a distracting way. It just felt right to my eye, due in part to production designer Don Burt, who was great about discussing colors and figuring out where the sources came from.”

Eventually the tug is enlisted in the U.S. Navy’s World War II effort, which brings the little ship into contact with an enemy sub. This sequence was shot against either black or bluescreen, depending on the requirements of specific shots. Incoming fire from the submarine flashes across the deck were achieved, in part, live on-set with Lightning Strikes flashes and enhanced later with animation. Arc Light Efx, Inc. supplied a 7K Xenon “Shadowbox” to help Miranda create a hard moonlight source for the night battle, though other shipboard scenes were shot with a mix of fog and sun lighting.  “David and I wanted to have a hard moon light feel and the hardest light I could think of was the Shadow Box,” the DP describes. “Since it was an open face 7K Xenon without the benefits of a reflector or Fresnel, this lamp did not produce much light – just barely over a T1.4 from 100 feet. But it had this great quality so we went with it.”

Button’s many adventures take him to distant shores, including Murmansk in the far northwestern corner of Russia, where he meets Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton.) The DP’s core crew accompanied him to Montreal, where a hotel lobby was created on-stage. “That Murmansk hotel set was so beautifully art directed, half our job was already done for us,” says Miranda. “In that sense, it reminded me of all the paint peeling off the walls at [Tyler Durden’s] Paper Street home in Fight Club, which gave that locale such texture and life.”

Though Button was essentially a digital show, some sequences were shot on 35mm film. Miranda explains that two slow motion cuts of a World War I battle relied on film, “because David doesn’t think slow-motion is all that viable on digital yet. He also prefers doing physical hits like mortars landing in CG.  It isn’t just a matter of control; he likes to be able to shoot a lot without waiting an hour to reset.” Other shot-on-film moments included a 72 fps scene in a restaurant, plus a boat sequence that, according to Fincher, “just wasn’t practical do with cables and DFRs.”

Fellow Propaganda Pictures director Tarsem (The Cell) contributed several filmed pick-up shots, done in other parts of the world, to Button‘s Far East sojourn. “Tarsem has shot all over the world, under every rock, and he became our mercy unit,” Fincher concludes. “He was traveling in the same area of the world as Brad around Christmas, and offered to help us out, which meant I got to use the single most talented second unit director in the history of motion pictures!” As to how this lush, Oscar bound art film/period epic will look in theaters, a release print stock had yet to be determined at press time, though Fincher states that a Vision stock is likely. “We’re in that whole, ‘is it Deluxe or Technicolor?’ battle,” the director shares. “But no matter how that winds up, the theatrical release should be the same movie that appears on DVD. That’s the hope.”

By Kevin H. Martin