The Curious Case of Benjamin
Button is based on the short story
by F. Scott Fitzgerald and was adapted to film by director David
Fincher. Button is born old and ages backwards toward youth. His
"reverse life story" told throughout the 20th century,
required sets and visual effects to create periods and places ranging
from post-Armistice New Orleans, to New York of the 1930s-40s, to
postwar Paris, and back to 21st-century New Orleans at the onset
of Hurricane Katrina.
After effectively recreating 1970s-era San
Francisco for Fincher's Zodiac in 2007, Matte World Digital
was called upon to conjure up the past once more. "I have come
to rely on you so heavily for all my time traveling needs,"
said Fincher towards the end of production on Benjamin Button.
In 2009, MWD visual effects supervisor Craig Barron won an Academy
Award for Achievement in Visual Effects, along with a team of experts
who make the past "real."
Place your mouse over the images to
see "before and after" comparisons for each shot.
The film starts with
a parable about a clockmaker who builds a clock
that runs backwards, as a symbolic attempt to
bring home the son he lost in the First World
War. The clock reappears several times in the
film as a metaphor for Benjamin's own life. The
physical clock was never built for set. We created
it digitally and composited it into every
shot where it appears. This had several benefits,
including the ability to set the time after the
scenes were edited, and the clock face could also
be aged over the years.
The dedication of the clock
takes place in a fictional train station in New
Orleans. The foregrounds were shot on a sound
stage with a few benches and partial walls. We
created the station as a complete 3D environment
for the scene. The station is seen from dozens
of camera angles throughout the film. Physics-based
lighting allowed us to match the plate photography
very accurately for each shot.
We shot additional
crowd elements on bluescreen to add
people to the scene. Fincher requested a lot of
smoke building up from the flash pans of the newspaper
photographers, which we added as a combination
of practical, painted, and CGI elements.
This sequence used about three-dozen different
angles of our 3D train station.
The station is seen several more
times in the film. Here our 3D station is relit
on a grey day in the early 20's.
shot of a stooped, wizened nine-year-old Benjamin
Button, trying to catch a trolley, is set in New
Orleans. The antique trolley was not operational
so a truck pulled it down the street. We digitally
removed the truck and replaced modern buildings
with period ones, then added electric trolley
lines, signs, a street-corner clock, some sky
elements and finally the illusion of wind blowing
through the trees.
For an establishing shot of New
York, we created an entire computer-generated
city. The virtual camera icon (seen on mouse rollover)
allowed the filmmakers to pan around their 3D
cityscape to select the angle that Fincher desired.
In the final shot, Fincher chose to focus on the
venerable Flatiron Building. The cityscape was
then enhanced with smoke, moving cars and ambient
light and shadow.