Blending In: The Making of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Trevor Hogg chats with visual effects supervisors Eric Barba and Sean Faden about the making of David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo…

“David [Fincher] is great at knowing and describing what he wants,” states Digital Domain Visual Effects Supervisor Eric Barba who was rewarded with an Oscar for his reverse aging work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). “It doesn’t change from day one to delivery day. He’s consistent and that gives whoever is working with him an incredible luxury of focusing one hundred percent on that one idea versus trying to find it along the way.” Method Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Sean Faden, who animated the airplane tearing apart in Fight Club (1999), agrees, “Fincher definitely has a vision and knows how to get to the point with what he needs to do.” When it came to making The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), the two colleagues collaborated once again with the two-time Academy Award nominated director.

Benjamin Button was really my last experience with David and that one was a massive undertaking because we had to try something that hadn’t been done before. It had a large development effort,” states Eric Barba who did some work on The Social Network (2010). David Fincher sought assistance with about six weeks left in the production schedule. “David called me and said, ‘I’ve got this sequence and need help. There are some things I want to do.’ We hit the ground running with, ‘We know how to do all of that stuff.’ It was much more straightforward because we have that relationship.” He adds, “We do have a bit of shorthand because we have so much work we have done together to reference.”

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At issue was the climatic motorcycle pursuit of the van driven by the serial killer. “Our biggest challenge was Rooney Mara’s head replacement for the Lisbeth character during the Bridge Chase Sequence,” states Eric Barba. “We had to do it on a much shorter time frame with the development up front. We didn’t have a witness cam onset and didn’t get the normal data we’re used to working with. It was good in that it was a challenge. We had to come up with some clever ways to do that work and give him what he wanted with a smaller schedule and budget.” Barba explains, “The temperature was twenty below at night and there was a lot of ice. It was shot with a stuntwoman wearing a helmet on a motorcycle as the character Lisbeth and we had to remove her head.” A number of issues had to be dealt with to make the digital alteration believable. “Anytime you’re dealing with human skin lighting is terribly tricky. Anytime you’re dealing with human hair and it having to move in the wind, that’s tricky. You have to track precisely a 2D image and recreate it as 3D.” Some practical elements were incorporated. “We shot Rooney [Mara] on a motion base and then deposited it into the background plates. There are a few of those, maybe three.”

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“The majority of the work is meant to be invisible,” remarks Eric Barba. “There is a whole sequence where the main character is getting the lay of the land from the landowner of the manor. We added snow and ice, and in some cases added in a home or took out a building. There was a lot of what David referred to as ‘autumnization’ where we shot at one time of year and we made it look like it was more like autumn.” On integrating stage footage with exterior shots, Barba observes, “It can be anywhere to super easy to incredibly tricky. It depends on whether the exposures are right or the camera height is right or the field of view was shot correctly. We did a bunch of those as well such as the car driving through the manor. The car was shot on stage with the process screen and we had to add all of the background.” The key is to be keenly aware of the cinematic environment. “You make sure it works with David’s photography; that it matches the look. A lot of that is the experience of working with David and the crew we have here at DD.” Life was made easier without having to deal with the current technological trend sweeping Hollywood. “Obviously 3D makes everything more complicated. IMAX wasn’t an issue although we could have easily done it because it was a 4K delivery.”

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“It was about a four month production and I came onto it about a month in,” explains Method Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Sean Faden who used his expertise to assist Lead Matte Painter Wei Zheng in handling the task which grew from 11 to 110 shots. “Most of the work that we did was doing exteriors for the interior shots.” Faden explains, “Any of those sequences might have had four or five different angles that required special matte paintings to accommodate what each camera was seeing.” He is quick to point out, “Wei was a big part of the show in helping to define the look of every sequence; he was talking to Fincher a lot in the beginning and by the end, the two of us were dealing with him.” Incorporating subtle effects was the paramount objective for the small team at Method Studios which included two matte painters, six compositors, and two or three CG artists at any given time. “We added the Swedish holiday candles in the windows. Fincher was very specific about the placement of those so they weren’t distracting but he wanted some life in the windows to keep the backgrounds alive.”

“A lot of the matte paintings were based in photography which obviously helped but then we also used a lot of 3D projection,” states Sean Faden. “For the Swedish street we had a rough geometry for the buildings so we knew whether our perspective was out or not. As far as a big shot like the one of the Milton Security building where we’re at a high angle and looking out at the harbor, we had a matte painting for it but Fincher wanted us to add a little life . We added a moving bus, some boats moving in the water, and found some plates of shimmering water. We added some CG flags on the poles so it’s not just a still image. The same thing was with the nighttime stuff looking out the Milton Security building. Fincher wanted to see some life out on the far shoreline. He wanted some big blobby lights moving around to represent cars and stuff like that. We spent a lot of time trying to get that right because it’s not as simple as putting some blobs out there and moving them around. When focusing on it you start to image if there are really cars out there how fast would they be going. We added blinking lights which were either too fast or too slow; it took us awhile to get all those right. When I saw it in the movie I was pleased with how well it all worked.” When discussing how to seamless blend in a matte painting, Faden remarks, “Lighting is huge and also certain relationships between the foreground and the background, in terms of matching the colour. If you have an interior and a very warm light is hitting the walls you have to make sure that there’s evidence of warm light on what’s outside, otherwise, it’s going to feel completely cut out.”

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The wide shot of the train carrying Daniel Craig to Hedestad for the first time was the biggest technical challenge. “The shot started off with Fincher giving us a couple of storyboards or concept boards,” recalls Sean Faden. “Wei built a series of matte paintings for that were then projected onto geometry and rendered through 3D Studio MAX. He was rendering layers of matte paintings transitioning from one angle to the other. We’re traveling over a lot of terrain so you cannot get away with one projection and having a projected matte painting only gets you so far. You end up with a lot of edges of geometry which doesn’t have any real edge to it so in order to get around that we added a lot of trees. The trees were a combination of little tree cards that were rendered procedurally through Houdini and some actual procedural CG trees that were also from Houdini. A bunch of tree cards were done again in 3D Studio MAX, like hero painted trees, and were rendered through the camera move; that gave us our environment for the most part. In order to get the scale and the depth we added a lot of atmosphere layers that were generated in Houdini. We also did a lot of layers of snow generated through Houdini. I’ve done a lot of snow, fortunately, so I was very comfortable guiding all of that stuff.”

A lot of detail was put into creating the modern-day locomotive traveling through the Swedish countryside. “The train was modeled in Maya and rendered through Vray,” states Sean Faden. “We did cell animation on the train to give it some twists so to make the train cars feel like they’re bunching up on each other slightly as it goes down the track. We weren’t feeling the train was sitting in there until we started doing some interactive volume elements. We did volumetric snow from under the wheels of the train which helped to sit it in the environment. We also did snow fluffing off the roof so you get this little trail of snow coming off the train which added a lot and helped it to feel physical.” One other major element needed to be handled to make the environment feel realistic. “The train tracks themselves were rendered out of Vray. We did a lot to get the right organic amount of railroad ties that were buried in the snow. We looked at a lot of images of train tracks in Sweden and other snowy places.” Faden remarks, “It’s a fairly long shot but we don’t travel into things.” He believes that David Fincher intentionally stayed away from what has become his trademark. “I almost feel Fincher didn’t do it because he was trying to make a point that this movie is not about the effects and what you can do with a crazy camera move.”

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“There’s a daytime sequence at Martin’s house and outside is a dense white fog; you get a subtle sense of some trees, bushes, and mountains in the distance,” states Sean Faden. “We put in matte paintings of bushes and trees, and added a little bit of warping on the trees so to make it feel like there’s a little bit of wind rustling through them.” He explains, “The fog was painted. We added a lot of layers. We had some of it drifting a little bit. I don’t know if you can perceive it. Over the course of the shot you might see a bush become more or less revealed. As reference for that my house gets a lot of fog outside around that time of year. I took pictures outside to get a good idea of the relationship between the interior light and the exterior, the values, the exposure, what the visibility would be, and how much detail you’d be seeing of the trees. We gave it to the matte painters as additional reference. It’s always fun to try to track down something similar in real life to make sure you’re staying in reality.” Faden adds, “At the end of the movie, when they go to stakeout the girl in London, they’re in a van. There are a couple of shots of the cameras in front with Daniel Craig or with Rooney Mara; we’re looking out their windows. Those are comps. We tried to match the depth of field, to get the defocus and the contrast just right, and to match the feeling inside the car to make it feel real and not forced.”

“It started off in a whiteout and revealed this big terrain,” states Sean Faden when talking about a shot where the camera becomes engulfed by snow. “There’s no train but you see train tracks, and the camera drops down to the train tracks. Eventually, the camera gets obliterated by the snow and ice hitting the lens. We finished the shot in the last week of production. It was intended to be the opening of the movie but didn’t make the cut at the end.” Simulating snow can be challenging. “It’s a subtle mixture of the snow particles as well as volume elements to help build up the sense that’s there is a lot of atmosphere mixed amongst the snow.” The veteran of six projects by David Fincher had the opportunity to see the completed picture. “In seeing the whole movie a lot of things made more sense to me.” Faden explains, “We did some shots of the exterior of the Millennium building and I didn’t realize it was Daniel Craig’s first time coming back to building. The shot had a lot of rain in it and he wanted us to change the façade so to make the windows more apparent. You get a sense that there’s an empty office waiting for him when he’s walking up to.” In comparing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to the previous movies helmed by the director, Faden believes it combines the darkness of Zodiac (2007) with the mystery of Se7en (1995). “This one was definitely more about subtlety.”

Production stills © 2011 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.

VFX images © 2011 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved. Images courtesy of Digital Domain and Method Studios Los Angeles

For more on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, visit the official website, along with Method Studios and Digital Domain, and be sure to check out Trevor’s David Fincher filmmaker profile, Killer Talent.

Many thanks to Eric Barba and Sean Faden for taking the time for these interviews.

Image Conscious: A conversation with visual effects supervisor Eric Barba

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.