Benjamin Button tells the unusual tale of a its titular character (played by Brad Pitt), who ages in reverse. With a character who gets younger as he gets older and a multitude of visual effects shots, Benjamin Button was no simple chronological edit. Such was the challenge presented to the film’s two editors, Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, both first-time Oscar nominees for this film.
Though Baxter was a relative newcomer to Fincher’s world (he was an additional editor on the director’s last feature film Zodiac, following a career in commercials), Wall has worked with Fincher for two decades, cutting many of his features, music videos and TV commercials. “I met him 20 years ago when I worked in the vault at Propaganda,” says Wall. “I owe him a lot and he really got me started in editing. He gave me my first commercial and has been very generous and loyal to me ever since.
An astounding percentage of Benjamin Button contains visual-effects shots, from split screens to full CG characters. “Besides the aging of Brad, it doesn’t look like an effects movie,” says Baxter. “Everything is built into the story and plot. Fincher has the camera locked off a lot. You are never waiting for things to occur without a purpose.”
The film was shot using Thomson/Grass Valley’s Viper camera, and Sony’s F23 for the story’s hospital scenes and slow-motion material. The editors cut on Apple Final Cut Pro, using the same system originally configured for Zodiac.
To keep everything organized in postproduction, the pair used Pix System which helped with collaboration and communication with the director, who shot mostly out of sequence. “Brad’s aged head would be created in the computer and put on a body that was shot two years ago in New Orleans,” explains Wall. “For a long time, for the first 30 minutes of the movie, we didn’t have the performance of the main character, and his face was literally nothing but a black hole in the screen. We kept refining the cut until we had temporary heads in there. Later, when he is at an age when he can fit into his physical body, the aging was achieved with makeup.”
“In New Orleans, we had body actors on location and Brad was acting through the scene with his own voice,” adds Baxter. “Then Brad came in and performed, with his facial movements being filmed with those scenes. It’s called facial capture. We then applied his face to those scenes, and visual effects would rebuild his face on the model of the computer-generated face.”
Looking back on his two years on Benjamin Button, Baxter believes the film is Fincher’s best work as a feature- film director. “All roads have led to this,” he says. “It’s his most accessible movie as well. I could work a lifetime and never do a movie as good as this again.”
“Everybody [was] shooting for the rafters on this one,” says Wall. “When you live with something, it’s really hard to see what it is. Editors have a relationship with all of the characters in the movie and have to fall in love with them. You just hope that people will feel that when they see the film.”
The author would like to acknowledge the American Cinema Editors for its assistance with this article.
Previous Noms and Wins
2009: Nominated, Oscar, best achievement in editing, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; nominated, ACE Eddie, best edited feature film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; nominated, BAFTA Film Award, best editing, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; 2006: nominated, BAFTA Film Award, best titles, Rome; nominated, Emmy, outstanding title design, Rome; nominated, Emmy, outstanding title design, Big Love Kirk Baxter 2009: Nominated, Oscar, best achievement in editing, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Nominated, ACE Eddie, best edited feature film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; 2006: Nominated, Emmy, outstanding title design, Big Love.