Customizing and Centralizing the 'Gone Girl' Workflow with Adobe CC

'Gone Girl' is the first major feature to have been edited using Adobe Premiere Pro CC; industry insiders consider this Adobe’s "'Cold Mountain' moment."
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David Fincher is back with another dark tale of modern life in Gone Girl, the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel. Flynn also penned the screenplay. It is the story of Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike), writers who have been hit by the latest downturn in the economy and are living in Nick’s Midwest hometown. But on their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy goes missing under suspicious circumstances, and the mystery generates a media frenzy. The first third of Gone Girl is told from each of their subjective points of view: Nick’s angle is revealed through present events, while Amy’s story is presented through her diary in a series of flashbacks. Through these we learn that theirs is less than the ideal marriage we see from the outside. But whose story tells the truth?

To pull the film together, Fincher turned to his trusted team of professionals, including director of photography Jeff Cronenweth, ASC, editor Kirk Baxter, ACE, and postproduction supervisor Peter Mavromates.

Gone Girl, like Fincher’s previous films, inspired new digital workflows and pushed boundaries. It is the first major feature to use the RED EPIC Dragon camera, racking up 500 hours of raw footage. That’s the equivalent of 2,000,000 feet of 35mm film. Much of the post process, including many of the film’s visual effects, were handled in-house.

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Rosamund Pike portrays Amy Dunne, whose mysterious disappearance turns her husband into a possible murder suspect. Photo by Merrick Morton.

Kirk Baxter co-edited David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with Angus Wall—films that earned the duo two best editing Oscars. Gone Girl was a solo effort for Baxter, who also cut the first two episodes of House of Cards for Fincher.

Gone Girl is the first major feature to have been edited using Adobe Premiere Pro CC. Industry insiders consider this Adobe’s “Cold Mountain moment,” referring to the postproduction sea change that occurred shortly after Walter Murch used an early version of Apple Final Cut Pro to edit the film Cold Mountain, instantly raising the application’s profile in the editing community as a viable tool for long-form post. Now it’s Adobe’s turn.

In my conversation with Baxter, he revealed, “In between features, I edit commercials, like many other film editors. I had been cutting with Premiere Pro for about ten months before David invited me to edit Gone Girl. The production company made the decision to use Premiere Pro because of its integration with Adobe After Effects, which was used extensively on the previous films. The Adobe suite works well for their goal to bring as much of the post in-house as possible. I was very comfortable with Premiere Pro when we started this film.”

It All Starts with Dailies

Tyler Nelson, assistant editor, explains the workflow: “The RED EPIC Dragon cameras shot 6K frames [6144 x 3072], but the shots were all framed for a 5K center extraction [5120 x 2133]. This overshoot allowed reframing and stabilization. The .r3d files from the camera cards were ingested into a FotoKem nextLAB unit, which was used to transcode edit media and viewing dailies, archive the media to LTO data tape and transfer to shuttle drives. For offline editing, we created downsampled ProRes 422 (LT) QuickTime media, sized at 2304 x 1152, which corresponded to the full 6K frame. The Premiere Pro sequences were set to 1920 x 800 for a 2.40:1 aspect. This size corresponded to the same 5K center extraction within the 6K camera files. By editing with the larger ProRes files inside of this timeline space, Kirk was viewing only the center extraction but had the same relative overshoot area to enable easy repositioning in all four directions. In addition, we uploaded dailies to the PIX system for everyone to review footage while on location. PIX lets you include metadata for each shot, including lens choice and camera settings such as color temperature and exposure index.”

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Editor Kirk Baxter.

Kirk Baxter likes to tackle dailies in a very specific way. “I typically start in reverse order,” he says. “David tends to hone in on the performance with each successive take until he feels he’s got it. He’s not like other directors who may ask for completely different deliveries from the actors with each take. With David, the last take might not be the best, but it’s the best starting point from which to judge the other takes. Once I go through a master shot, I’ll cut it up at the points where I feel the edits will be made. Then I’ll have the assistants repeat these edit points on all takes and string out the line readings back to back so that the auditioning process is more accurate. David is very gifted at blocking and staging, so it’s rare that you don’t use an angle that was shot for a scene. I’ll then go through this sequence and lift my selected takes for each line reading up to a higher track on the timeline. My assistants take the selects and assemble a sequence of all the angles in scene order. Once it’s hyper-organized, I’ll send it to David via PIX and get his feedback. After that, I’ll cut the scene. David stays in close contact with me as he’s shooting. He wants to see a scene cut together before he strikes a set or releases an actor.”

Telling the Story

The director’s cut is often where the story evolves from what works on paper to what makes a better film. Baxter elaborates, “When David starts a film, the script has been thoroughly vetted, so typically there isn’t a lot of radical story rearrangement in the cutting room. As editors, we got a lot of credit for the style of intercutting used in The Social Network, but truthfully that was largely in the script. The dialogue was tight and integral to the flow, so we really couldn’t deviate a lot. I’ve always found the assembly the toughest part, due to the volume and the pressure of the ticking clock. Trying to stay on pace with the shoot involves some long days. The shooting schedule was 106 days and I had my first cut ready about two weeks after the production wrapped. A director gets around ten weeks for a director’s cut, and with some directors you are almost starting from scratch once the director arrives. With David, most of that ten-week period is finessing and polishing because we have done so much of the workload during the shoot.”

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Ben Affleck rehearses a scene with director David Fincher on the set of Gone Girl. Photo by Merrick Morton.

He continues, “The first act of Gone Girl uses a lot of flashbacks to tell Amy’s side of the story. With these, we deviated a touch from the script. We dropped a couple of scenes to help speed things along and reduced the back and forth of the two timelines by grouping flashbacks together so that we didn’t keep interrupting the present day, but it’s mostly executed as scripted. There was one scene towards the end that I didn’t feel was in the right place. I kept trying to move it, without success. I ended up taking another pass at the cut of the scene. Once we had the emotion right in the cut, the scene felt like it was in the right place, which is where it was written to be.”

“The hardest scenes to cut are the emotional scenes, because David simplifies the shooting. You can’t hide in dynamic motion. More complex scenes are actually easier to cut and certainly quite fun. About an hour into the film is the ‘cool girls’ scene, which rapidly answers lots of question marks that come before it. The scene runs about eight minutes long and is made up of about 200 setups. It’s a visual feast that should be hard to put together, but it was actually dessert from start to finish because David thought it through and supplied all the pieces to the puzzle.”

Music That Builds Tension

Composers Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross are another set of Fincher regulars, having scored the director’s The Social Network and TheGirl with the Dragon Tattoo. (The pair received a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Original Score for The Social Network, and a Grammy Award for Best Original Score for TheGirl with the Dragon Tattoo.)

Reznor and Ross have typically supplied Baxter with an album of preliminary themes scored with key scenes in mind. These are used in the edit and then later enhanced by the composers with the final score at the time of the mix.

Baxter explains, “On Gone Girl, we received their music a bit later than usual because they were touring at the time. When it did arrive, though, it was fabulous. Trent and Atticus are very good at nailing the feeling of a film like this. You start with a piece of music that has a vibe of ‘this is a safe, loving neighborhood,’ and throughout three minutes it sours to something darker, which really works.”

“The final mix is usually the first time I can relax. We mixed at Skywalker Sound, and that was the first chance I really had to enjoy the film, because I was seeing it with all the right sound design and music added. This allows me to get swallowed up in the story and see beyond my role.”

Visual Effects

The key factor to using Premiere Pro CC was its integration with After Effects CC via Adobe’s Dynamic Link feature. Baxter explains the process: “Gone Girl doesn’t seem like a heavy visual effects film, but there are quite a lot of invisible effects. First of all, I tend to do a lot of invisible split-screens. In a two-shot, I’ll often use a different performance for each actor. Roughly one-third of the timeline contains such shots. About two-thirds of the timeline has been stabilized or reframed. Normally this type of in-house effects work is handled by the assistants, who are using After Effects. Those shots are replaced in my sequence with an After Effects composition. As they make changes, my timeline is updated.

“There are other types of visual effects as well,” Baxter continues. “David will take exteriors and do sky replacements, add flares, signage, trees, snow, breath, etc. The shot of Amy sinking in the water, which has been used in the trailers, is an effects composite. That’s better than trying to do multiple takes with the real actress by drowning her in cold water. Her hair and the water elements were created by Digital Domain. This is also a story about the media frenzy that grows around the mystery, which meant a lot of TV and computer screen comps. That content is as critical in the timing of a scene as the actors who are interacting with it.”

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Photo by Merrick Morton.

Nelson adds, “Four assistants worked with Kirk on these in-house effects. We were using the same ProRes editing files to create the composites. In order to keep the system performance high, we would render these composites for Kirk’s timeline instead of using unrendered After Effects composites. Once a shot was finalized, then we would go back to the 6K .r3d files and create the final composite at full resolution. The beauty of doing this all internally is that you have a team of people who really care about the quality of the project as much as everyone else. Plus, the entire process becomes that much more interactive. We pushed each other to make everything as good as it could possibly be.”

Optimization and Finishing

A custom pipeline was established to make the process efficient. The effort was spearheaded by postproduction consultant Jeff Brue, CTO of Open Drives. The front end storage for all active editorial files was a 36 TB RAID-protected storage network built with SSDs. A second RAID built with standard HDDs was used for the .r3d camera files and visual effects elements. The hardware included a mix of HP and Apple workstations running with NVIDIA Quadro K6000 or K5200 GPU cards. The workflow relied on the NVIDIA cards to permit as much real-time performance as possible during the edit. The Macs were primarily used for the offline edit, while the PCs tackled the visual effects and media processing tasks.

In order to keep the Premiere Pro projects manageable, the team broke down the film into eight reels, with a separate project file per reel. Each project contained roughly 1,500 to 2,000 files. In addition to Dynamic Linking of After Effects compositions, most of the clips were multicamera clips, as Fincher typically shoots scenes with two or more cameras for simultaneous coverage. This massive amount of media was potentially a huge stumbling block, but Brue worked closely with Adobe to optimize system performance over the life of the project. Project load times dropped from about six to eight minutes at the start to 90 seconds toward the end.

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Amy (Rosamund Pike) uses a diary to express her thoughts about her marriage. Photo by Merrick Morton.

Light Iron handled the final conform and color grading on their Quantel Pablo system run by colorist Ian Vertovec. Nelson explains, “In order to track everything I used a custom FileMaker Pro database as the codebook for the film. It contained all the attributes for each and every shot. By using an EDL in conjunction with the codebook, it was possible to access any shot from the server. Since we were doing a lot of the effects in-house, we essentially ‘pre-conformed’ the reels and then turned those elements over to Light Iron for the final conform. All shots were sent over as 6K DPX frames, then cropped to 5K during the DI in the Pablo. We also handled the color management of the RED files. Production shot these with the camera color metadata set to REDcolor3, REDgamma3 and an exposure index of 800. That’s what we offlined with. These were switched to REDlogFilm gamma when the DPX files were rendered for Light Iron. If, during the grade, it was decided that one of the raw settings needed to be adjusted for a few shots, then we would change the color settings and re-render a new version for them.” The final mastering was in 4K for theatrical distribution.

Director David Fincher has not only told a great story in Gone Girl, but he has set new standards in digital postproduction workflows. Seeking to retain creative control without breaking the bank, Fincher has pushed to handle as many services in-house as possible. His team has made effective use of After Effects for some time now, but the new Creative Cloud tools with Premiere Pro CC as the hub bring the power of this suite to the forefront. Fortunately, team Fincher has been eager to work with Adobe on product advances, many of which were evident in the new application versions previewed by Adobe at IBC in Amsterdam last month. With success on a film as complex as Gone Girl, it’s clear that Adobe Premiere Pro CC is ready for the big leagues.

Kirk Baxter closed our conversation with these final thoughts about the experience: “It was a joy from start to finish making this film with David. Both he and Ceán [Chaffin, producer and David Fincher’s wife] create such a tight-knit postproduction team that you fall into an illusion that you’re making the film for yourselves. It’s almost a sad day when it’s released and belongs to everyone else.” 

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