Santa Monica-based VFX studio a52 delivered the finishing touches for David Fincher’s Netflix-exclusive series, House of Cards. Led by colorist/lead Smoke artist Paul Yacono, the a52 team delivered comprehensive color and finishing services for the series’ first season. A52 sister company, Rock Paper Scissors, contributed as well with two-time Oscar-winning editor Kirk Baxter cutting the series’ first two episodes, which were directed by Fincher, and fellow Oscar-winner and RPS co-founder Angus Wall editing the series’ title sequence.
The final result is a sprawling epic comprising 13 one-hour episodes, and representing one of the largest undertakings in a52 history.
“From working with David on The Social Network, I already had an understanding of his attention to detail in his imagery, with a focus on contrast, color and composition,” explained Yacono. “He’s an idiosyncratic director with an incredible eye and he knows the look he likes and doesn’t like; rarely is there an in-between. Yet at the same time he would be completely non-restrictive, allowing us to explore within the world that he and DP Eigil Bryld provided.”
Once the initial look was established, Yacono and a52 second colorist Tommy Hooper tag-teamed the remaining 12 episodes over a five-month period. During this time, the rest of a52’s House of Cards team, including lead online editor Matt Sousa, set about conforming each episode and adding touches of subtle VFX.
To complete the massive project on schedule, a52 producers, engineers and artists developed a pipeline that would serve both the technical challenges and creative aspirations of the series. Led by chief engineer Kevin Bass, the team created a flexible yet structured workflow that allowed for rolling editorial changes on all episodes. “Unlike traditional networks, Netflix releases an entire season in one go,” explained Bass. “As the show took shape, the editorial department needed the flexibility to change episodes at will without slowing down the finishing for the rest of the series.”
Another unconventional aspect of working with Netflix took the form of the online content provider’s all-digital delivery system. Though modern-day spot work and production practices had prepared a52 for digital delivery systems, the magnitude of the House of Cards project still required some creative engineering problem solving. Hooper was instrumental in this process, trading in his colorist hat to help develop the differing compressions and framing charts needed for the numerous deliveries, including PIX H.264, ProRes, and MPEG2 Quicktime masters.
In particular, use of the PIX system proved integral to the process. “We wanted David to be able to keep track of the work and make comments on critical imaging from anywhere – whether he was looking at a 26-inch 1080P Boland LCD Monitor or an iPad,” Hooper explained. “With PIX we were instantly notified of David’s comments on the work allowing us to quickly make adjustments and resubmit for approvals.”
Yacono has led a52’s color efforts on numerous commercial campaigns, including spots for Target, Nike, Visa and HP.
“A52 has always been known as a boutique VFX company,” said executive producer Megan Meloth. “This starts a new chapter in our history. We’re committed to doing more DI whether it be for commercials or long form. Paul is an incredibly talented colorist and with a sophisticated engineering department behind him, we’re ready to take on our next challenge.”