Cover Story: 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'
Issue: November 1, 2011

Cover Story: 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'

HOLLYWOOD — The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is director David Fincher’s take on the international best-selling novel by the late Stieg Larsson, who wrote two other books about the troubled heroine Lisbeth Salander and the journalist Mikael Blomkvist.

Dragon Tattoo reunites Fincher’s post team from The Social Network: Academy Award-winning editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, assistant editor Tyler Nelson and Light Iron colorist Ian Vertovec. 

For Dragon Tattoo the group significantly refined their techniques, upgrading from a 2K post workflow for The Social Network to a fully viable 4K pipeline and 4K digital master.

Dragon Tattoo was shot on location in Sweden with Red One MX and Epic cameras in 4.5K and 5K resolutions, respectively. Nelson was in charge of managing the post processing of the principal photography as soon as the files came off the camera. “We shot CF cards, Red drives, Red RAMs, SSDs — the entire gamut of possible media to record on,” says Nelson. 

Datalab, a company owned by Wall, provided the media processing device aptly called “The Wrangler.” The custom system made primary and secondary copies of the R3D files, then transcoded them into ProRes 422 LT, low-res H.264 copies, finally archiving everything to LTO-4. “It was basically, pop in whatever media you needed and push ‘Go,’” describes Nelson.


The “lightweight” 720p H.264s were automatically uploaded to the Dragon Tattoo production’s PIX Systems account and then downloaded to the Dragon Tattoo LA-based  editorial Final Cut Pro 7 systems. “We used the H.264,” continues Nelson, “as the intermediate format instead of having to upload very heavy ProRes 422 (LT) QuickTimes or ship them. Because both types of QuickTimes contained the same metadata, we were able to re-bake the H.264s in LA until we received the original edit media on a hard drive.” With this set-up Baxter and Wall were able to cut dailies within a couple of hours.

PIX Systems was also used as the main editorial review system during production. When the editors wanted to post a cut sequence, or VFX artists show composited shots, they just exported an H.264 QuickTime, uploaded it to the PIX Systems and sent it to Fincher. Over 5,400 miles away he watched the clips, made notes and sent them back for revisions. 

Baxter (left) and Wall, by their own description, have a very “organic” way of working on movies they edit. “The first part,” says Baxter, “is keeping up with camera, and whoever is available to take the next set of dailies jumps on it. Once we’ve assembled the whole film we start working on it in reels. If I’m cutting reel one, Angus will jump onto reel two. He may have assembled most of the scenes in that reel or he may not have. So you may be working on scenes that someone else has already worked on. I find that satisfying, knowing that someone else is there to double check, like proofreading, the work that you’ve done. Essentially you have to trust the other person that you are working with.”

The Social Network shot 85 days, produced 324 hours of material and printed 281 hours of footage to edit. By comparison, Dragon Tattoo shot 167 days, produced 483 hours of Red One and Epic footage and printed 443 hours of footage. “In 3-perf,” notes Wall, “that is over 1.9 million feet of film. We broke records.” 

Every movie has its own intrinsic challenges, says Wall. “But, I think your general tactics are the same: how you approach, break down the footage, block your scenes, worry about performances. Anybody who has read the book knows there are eight or nine storylines that are constantly interweaving, and in the book you have the luxury of time and the ability to really explain things. One of the challenges with this film is making sure all the storylines are clear, that they’re all intersecting effectively, and that you are ahead of the audience in a good way and not so ahead of them that you’ve left them behind.”

“We had a test screening recently,” says Baxter, “and there were certain scenes where I was thrilled to notice that the audience was hanging on the actions and movements of Salander (Rooney Mara). That was a reaffirmation of a great character. Everyone was just pinned to her reactions even in spots where I didn’t anticipate getting laughs or releases. It was very rewarding to see that the audience is tracking her every move.” 
“We did the same thing on The Social Network,” adds Wall. “We had a preview and people laugh at certain places that were all the right places, so it was a clue to us that the movie was working. The same thing happened with Dragon Tattoo.”

Dragon Tattoo, says Wall, is not a series of one-take Steadicam walking shots, where people have a conversation. “David’s movies are about the accumulation of granular detail,  and our task is to find, at his behest, every great moment, every great piece of a shot, every syllable of performance, and put them together into really a great seamless experience. That’s the joy of working on a film with him. That’s the craft involved in every aspect of the film. You get dailies and it’s like taking a warm bath because they’re so beautiful and the performances are so strong”

Both editors agree that the rape scene was one of the most demanding sequences of the movie to edit. “I can say,” says Wall, “I have a lot more grey hairs than I did before working on any of those scenes. To do a good job as an editor you have to empathize with the characters, and it’s hard. The more finely cut the scene gets, the more the artifice vanishes from it. You don’t see the characters or actors ramp into or ramp out of the performance. You’re trying to create this simulation of reality. You have to get up every once and a while and go for a little walk to clear your head.”
“It’s important to mention this movie is not trying to glorify violence. You’re not hiding, you’re spotlighting it,” adds Baxter,“ and the repercussions of that violence are also in the movie. It’s that every violent act has major repercussions down the line. It’s not about the act itself, it’s about the impact it has on those characters and what it makes them subsequently do.”


There are over 1,000 visual effect shots in Dragon Tattoo. Many of them are like the subtle camera stabilizing and split screens Fincher used on The Social Network. Nelson and his team again did many of these shots using Adobe After Effects. He first generated 10-bit log DPX files from the original camera files and then applied nearly universal camera stabilization. Fincher’s split-screen technique uses a sophisticated repositioning of multiple camera angles or takes in a single frame. Anticipating these effects, Fincher and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth framed the original footage with visual margins around separate shots.

“We had a 4352x2176 image sequence with the Red One footage,” explains Nelson (below), “and we are extracting a 3600x1500 center. We also have something similar on our Epic footage: a 5120x2560 image sequence and we’re extracting 4122x1718. We’re matching those two center extractions in my After Effects timeline and scaling that down so we’re outputting one single resolution.”

During my visit to the brand-new facilities of Light Iron (, Ian Vertovec was adjusting the controls on his Quantel Pablo 4K and studying the images displayed on his Christie CP2000 projector and Dolby PRM-4200 monitor, staring the final color correction pass on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Fincher and Cronenweth were just at the facility. “So I laid down the reels today,” says Vertovec. “This was the first time Jeff and David sat together in a room and looked at it since they were on set. We made a few adjustments, but a lot of it is exactly where they wanted it to start. So this is an extension and enhancement of what they originally talked about.”

On this movie, says Light Iron founder Michael Cioni, there was an early marketing trailer that they color corrected and that trailer enabled them “to explore a whole set of looks in the film and what the film could be. So now it’s taking some of those trailer options and expanding them into entire scenes.”

Vertovec had pre-colored everything based on information he got from Fincher during that process. “Once I get the files from Tyler (Nelson) I load it and set up the custom extraction. I pre-color and pre-balance everything based on a couple of early sessions I had with David. So I know where he wants to go in specific scenes and I have references for that.” Now, he says, they are in the last stages and some final repositioning.

“When you have a creative conversation you are establishing a dogma,” says Vertovec about color correction. “How does the Dragon Tattoo [version of] Sweden look? What kind of world is this, what color are the skies, what color are the flashbacks how do the windows behave with the room? Guys should be not too blue, not too green, not too yellow, not too pink. Wood walls like this, carpet like this, you establish these rules and laws. Brightness levels should live in this space. Blacks should be in this space. You build this world, line it up to that, then you leave yourself open to further exploration.”  

One of the innovations on this project was the creation of a Light Iron application called “Sub-Clipper” that allows the Pablo to treat the 4K DPX files as “camera original” footage. The custom app built by Stevo Brock allows the final conform to automatically be in perfect sync with editorial, up to and including the latest revision. “Because of the amount of visual effects, Red RAW files cannot be used in DI,” says Cioni, “yet the cut may change well after VFX are already processed. With Sub-Clipper, all editing changes and VFX shots can smoothly ripple through to the composited 4K DPX files on the Pablo at Light Iron, even though the offline editorial list refers to an R3D source.”

Cioni says the 4K pipeline is everyone really wanting to raise the bar on this movie. “The Pablo has been 4K for a while,” notes Vertovec, “There is something about the grain-free quality of these digital cameras. You get more out of the 4K. There isn’t that extra layer between you and the subject. It’s much more immediate to have a grain-free 4K image.”

>Cioni says he’s really excited to see more 4K releases in the cinemas “so people can experience the same emotional reaction we do to these pictures.” In the last analysis he says accurately identifying the spirit of the entire post team, “We do this on all our films so we can help make products that turn heads.”