Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt breaks down how the look of Netflix's "Mindhunter" builds on Fincher's well-established style.
David Fincher is one of the most distinctive visual storytellers working today. On his new Netflix’s show “Mindhunter,” the director’s well-established visual style and use of film language is carried throughout the entire Season 1 arc, despite Fincher having only directed four of the ten episodes himself. IndieWire recently talked the show’s principal cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt – who was once Fincher’s gaffer, and shot 90% of “Mindhunter” – about what defines the cinematic style of the great auteur and how he built off the look of “Zodiac” to create something we aren’t use to seeing on TV.
The Color Palette
The imagery in a Fincher film is grounded in realism, but it’s a dark, stylized realism. This is most notable in the director’s use of colors. “[David] has an aversion to saturated colors and magenta,” said Messerschmidt in an interview. “The show has a desaturated green-yellow look, for sure, which is within David’s palette.”
According to the cinematographer, the color palette – which helps give the show its period feel – for “Mindhunter” comes from production designer Steve Arnold, costume designer Jennifer Starzyk and an incredibly creative locations department, not necessarily the lighting.
“Like with ‘Zodiac’ the period look comes from what is put in front of the camera,” said Messerschmidt. “We aren’t using colored light, like you would see other films set in the past.”
The cinematographer said that in terms of adding or removing color in post-production, both he and Fincher went into production with a very strong idea of where they would take the image during the color timing process. One example in “Mindhunter” is the sunny Georgia and Northern California daytime exteriors which had a “tobacco yellow” hue added to them in post.
The yellowish is an aspect of how Messerschmidt played within the director’s established color palette on “Mindhunter” to create a contrast between the exteriors and the interiors.
“We mixed color temperatures, cool and warm in the same shot – often by letting the windows go a little blue and letting the interior practicals stay yellow,” said Messerschmidt. “The idea was to let colors isolate the actors. Let everything in the background be the outside world – whether you are in a prison or police station – there’s a lot of that warm outside, cool inside, or sometimes the reverse. The idea was to let the interior feel lonely during interrogation scenes.”
Peering Into Darkness
Fincher’s films are dark, but not in a traditional sense — it’s not the high contrast, black shadows-type of darkness. Instead, viewers are encouraged to peer into the shadows and mine for details. Whereas most cinematographers try to have a “thick negative” — having high dynamic range of bright and dark in the frame — Fincher’s world works in a far narrower range of light.
“We don’t stretch the exposure across the entire dynamic range of the the display,” said Messerschmidt. “To get very technical, if your brightest points are 100 units, we never worked up there. It’s difficult to see subtlety in the shadows when the highlights are really bright – your eyes have a tendency to go to the bright part of frame. If the story is in the shadows, you have to work in that lower third, lower half part of the exposure.”
Seeking gradation and detail in the lower exposure range is something Fincher was able to take to the next level when he switched to digital cinematography with “Zodiac.” Whereas many filmmakers try to find ways to make digital look as good as film, Fincher has always tried to play to the medium’s strength.
“The digital image acquisition absolutely supports his aesthetic,” said Messerschmidt. ”To get that look on film, and it’s possible – [cinematographer] Darius Khonji did it on ‘Se7en’ – but it’s hard to be nuanced partially on the toe end of the exposure. It requires tremendous discipline. The fact that we can look at the monitor and make those really subtle nuanced choices – a little less fill, a little less smoke – and David will then absolutely get involved those discussions. That’s so much harder to do if you are not looking at monitor showing you exactly what you are getting.”
Practicals in Frame: Minimal Light
Working in this lower half of the exposure range often means working with minimal light – both in terms of the light’s strength, but also the number of lights. Messerschmidt gaffed for Fincher’s longtime DP Jeff Cronenweth (“The Social Network,” “Fight Club”) has come to appreciate using “practicals” — lights that appear in frame — to not only motivate the light, but to be the major light source.
“[Production Designer] Steve Arnold and I worked together alot to find ways to put practicals in places that were going to work to our benefit,” said Messerschmidt. “Whether it’s an overhead practical [hanging over the] interrogation table, or bedside lamp, or a bank of fluorescents.”
The cinematographers process on “Mindhunter” begans with turning off all the lights in the room and just looking at the practical serving as his key light. He would then augments the light as minimally as possible – ideally, not at all – and adds smoke to the frame (using a theatrical hazer) to make the shadows more pronounced and textured.
An Omnipresent, Robotic Camera
The compositions of Fincher’s locked-down (tripod-based) camera are precise, always sharp. The camera rarely moves, and when it does, it’s steady, taking on what the director has previously called an “omnipresent” quality.
“We don’t do any handheld, we don’t have steadicam or carry a steadicam operator,” said Messerschmidt. “If a director wants to come in to move the camera, we don’t say no – but it has to be done with the tools available and stability of the image is vital.”
For most of the last decade Fincher has added an extra degree of preciseness to his images by shooting at a high resolution – “Mindhunter” was shot using a 6K RED Dragon Sensor – and cutting into that image in post-production to reframe and stabilize the image.
“We did a 5K center extraction – so we framed for a 5K rectangle inside the 6K image,” said Messerschmidt. “That leaves approximately 20% extra around the edge of frame which we can use for reframing and stabilization in post, which we did quite a bit.”
In addition to giving Fincher another crack at getting the exact composition he wants, it allows for the elimination of imperfections in the operating of the camera.
“If you are shooting an actor sitting up from a chair and the operator tilts up with him, you might do 10 takes of that and the operator might keep the headroom perfect for six of them, but if they chose for editorial a take where the operator clips the headroom it can be fixed in post,” said Messerschmidt. “Same thing for stabilization – rolling on a slightly bumpy floor or doing a crane move where the crane has a little wiggle in it or whatever, being able to take that out in post very much informs David’s aesthetic. It lets the show maintain that very ethereal, almost robotic look, letting the camera be anonymous in the storytelling process.”
Framing Between the Lines
People in a room talking is not considered all that cinematic, and yet “Mindhunter,” like “Zodiac,” is filled with long interrogations, interviews, and discussions between investigators that are dominated by dialogue. As with other Fincher’s films, information is important, but not because of a need to create clarity – often it’s the opposite – or advance the plot. It’s about how the characters process this exposition and the shifts in interpersonal dynamics between characters as a result. It’s Fincher’s camera that reveals this subtext and engages the audience in the drama of what is not being said.
“The show is about the subtleties of what gets said between the lines,” said Messerschmidt. “From a cinematography standpoint the show is very much about coverage and sequencing. The scenes are long, so we are playing with shot design to build tension or accent certain pieces of information.”
The process of telling the story through the sequencing of specific compositions is bread-and-butter for Fincher (wonderfully analyzed in this episode of “Every Frame a Painting”). “Mindhunter” would fall flat relying on normal coverage. With Fincher, who wasn’t on set for six of the 10 episodes, Messerschmidt found the biggest part of his job was collaborating with the other directors on figuring out how scenes needed to be split into various shots.
“It’s very different from other television shows of this genre – it’s not just about getting the dialogue on camera in as few shots as possible,” said Messerschmidt. “We really explored covering scenes in many different ways, lots of different little setups and giving editors different options of how to share the information. Always considering when does the audience have the information, when do the characters have the information, when are they in sync, when are they not, and playing with that from a camera-lens perspective.”
The first season of “Minhunters” is available on Netflix.