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How Territory Studio rebuilt 1930’s Wilshire Blvd for David Fincher’s Mank

Dec 12, 2020

Detailed reference footage, photography and maps were used to plot out the famous street in the golden age of cinema

Creative design house, Territory Studio, recreated LA’s Wilshire Boulevard for David Fincher’s 1930’s-set, Mank, shot by DP Erik Messerschmidt ASC, now screening on Netflix.

Visual effects supervisor Simon Carr and CG supervisor Ashley Pay were tasked with recreating the iconic street for a unique sequence, and utilised LED rear-projection to bring fidelity and realism to the scene, evoking traditional techniques used during the period to which the movie pays homage.

Territory Studio’s team spent a considerable amount of time in LA during pre-production, working closely with Fincher to create his exacting vision. A selection of archival footage, maps and period photography supplied by the art movie’s department, together with their own B&W photographic references, captured whilst driving along Wilshire Blvd, helped to inform lighting and texture in the CG scene, enabling Carr and Pay to begin rebuilding the famous street as it would have appeared when Herman J. Mankiewicz and Sara Mankiewicz drove down it in 1934.

Rear projection, a classic technique of early Hollywood production, was chosen for the scene by Fincher to pay homage to the films that were created during the period setting of the film. However, his goal was to update it with modern digital techniques, rather than simply recreate it.

Planning and efficiency in the VFX build was key to the success of the sequence, and a guide cut was edited for the street runs using a CG previz build. This allowed the team to focus all of their attention on the specific parts of the street that would be seen on-screen, as opposed to losing time and effort creating a full model containing unseen elements.

Details were key to the sequence to help transport not only the actors but the audience back to Wilshire Boulevard in 1934. Much like the flats of studio lot films from the era, only sections of iconic buildings such as the Fox Wilshire, Cresswell Drug Store, the Coffee Drip and numerous gas stations were created, their roofs and walls not needed if not in shot.

The meticulous focus on details, such as the texture of walls, the period-accurate trees lining the sidewalk and the movie posters adorning the theatres walls helped create an immersive viewing experience on-screen.

Another big challenge for the Territory Studio’s team was creating the street in B&W. Fincher and DP Erik Messerschmidt ASC shot native Red digital B&W footage, rather than desaturating colour footage during post-production. The VFX team chose to create the build of Wilshire Boulevard in colour for rear projection via LED screens, matching to the live action car and actors that would be seen on-set. The camera’s sensor would then capture the whole scene in B&W during the shoot.

To facilitate this process and ensure an accurate result the Territory Studio team viewed their work internally with a B&W LUT, which matched Fincher and Messerschmidt’s reference footage. This enabled them to preview what the final image might look like in advance. It also gave greater control over textures and contrast levels which were significantly affected by the monochrome look.

Simon Carr, VFX supervisor at Territory Studio commented, “It was a great privilege to work on such a visually-stunning movie for an eminent director, and to be able to dive into recreating the period details of 1930’s Wilshire Boulevard. To see the sequence come together in-camera as a perfect blend of old style and new techniques is the essence of how VFX should be used.”

The Territory team worked closely with Mank co-producer, Peter Mavromates, who added, “Mank is a movie for the cineaste. There are so many references to Hollywood myth which illustrate the attention to detail that went into making it. Territory Studio showed meticulous attention to detail in recreating 1930’s Wilshire Boulevard. What I particularly enjoyed about working with them is how much they love solving puzzles, both creatively and technically, and when you do that well, movie magic happens.”

Territory Studio is headquartered in London, with offices in New York and San Francisco. To date, the company has worked on a variety of projects across the entertainment, culture, commercial and technology sectors. Recent feature film projects have included Watchmen, Ex-Machina and Blade Runner 2049.

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