Hosted by Turner Classic Movie’s Ben Mankiewicz, this year’s ASC Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography celebrated spectacular imagery, masters of the craft, and the ways in which the industry has adapted in the wake of Covid-19.
One such way that was recognized, celebrated and even employed to produce the awards show was virtual production. Cinematography’s biggest night, which typically takes place in the Ray Dolby Ballroom at the Hollywood & Highland complex, was instead held in the virtual space on Sunday, April 18, with special live moments captured at the historic ASC Clubhouse. This marked the first time in the show’s history that it was livestreamed to a global audience.
The event kicked off with a performance from the show’s live orchestra while a reel played, showcasing the indelible cinematography captured by ASC members — as well as some of this year’s honorees and nominees. Mankiewicz and ASC Awards Chair Dana Gonzales, ASC then welcomed nominees, guests, sponsors and audience members.
In a new series of in-depth interviews with Society members, ASC Insights provides the cinematographer’s perspective on today’s most pertinent topics. The first two episodes cover High Dynamic Range (HDR) from the director of photography’s view.
Episode One discusses the implementation of HDR in postproduction as a deliverable and features the insights from Markus Förderer, ASC, BVK; Polly Morgan, ASC, BSC; and associate member and colorist Dave Cole. The episode examines scenes from Independence Day: Resurgence, the F/X series Legion and the short film Mandy.
Episode Two examines the implementation of HDR throughout the entire workflow from set to post and features thoughts from Erik Messerschmidt, ASC; Marshall Adams, ASC; and colorist Dave Cole. The members discuss scenes from Netflix’s Mindhunterand El Camino: The Breaking Bad Movie.
For both episodes, ASC associate member and American Cinematographer contributing editor Jay Holben discusses the ins and outs of HDR, the benefits and pitfalls and how important it is for the cinematographer to be involved in the postproduction implementation of HDR. The key to the format is in expanding the palette of creative intention for the filmmakers, not in merely delivering a brighter picture.
Tony McVey sets up his sculpture in front of the motion-control camera.
The sound of a heartbeat is heard. A human fetus fades up on the television screen in close-up and a voiceover begins: “Would you give a cigarette to your unborn child?” The camera pans and dollies back to reveal an entire fetus existing serenely in the womb of its mother. “You do every time you smoke when you’re pregnant.” At this point, the fetus slowly brings a lit cigarette to its lips and takes a puff, exhaling the smoke into the glowing placenta it lives in. And the voiceover finishes: “Pregnant mothers, please don’t smoke.”
The 30-second spot was produced for the American Cancer Society by a talented and relatively untapped group of San Francisco Bay area filmmakers, modelmakers, and computer specialists brought together by producer Joseph Vogt (Rick Springfield’s “Bop ’Till You Drop”). With a film and conceptual design education behind him, Vogt organized the majority of his film crew from the ranks of Industrial Light and Magic. It was with the abundant talents of these production people — director David Fincher, Midland Productions, and Monaco Labs — that Vogt brought life to a most creative and technically challenging public service announcement.
Director of photography Michael Owens at the Mitchell GC ready to shoot the prepped sculpture.
Jerry Angert, director of broadcasting with the American Cancer Society, described the ad as “one of the most powerful we have done… We considered the fact that it would be controversial and the networks might not show it, but counted on the local stations to take it.” And that’s exactly what transpired. NBC and CBS chose not to air the graphic spot while CNN (Turner Broadcasting), ABC and its affiliates and affiliates of NBC and CBS elected to show it.
CBS and NBC claim the spot is too graphic. An NBC spokeswoman cited “general taste considerations” as a deterrent to airing the spot. “It was the sight of the fetus that was especially shocking and we felt it was potentially offensive to our viewers,” she was quoted as saying. A CBS spokesman said the network agreed with the “importance of the intent of the message,” but said that the spot was “far too graphic for broadcast on CBS.” An ABC spokesman, however, said the message put forth by the spot was “important for pregnant mothers to understand.” The network felt that. while it was “different visually” from the usual fare viewed on TV, it contained no material that warranted its ban from the airwaves.
In this 85-minute episode, interviewer Caleb Deschanel, ASC talks to cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, ASC and director David Fincher about their stylish black-and-white period drama.
Written by Fincher’s father, Jack,Mankdepicts the turbulent life and career of self-destructive Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) — focusing on his writing of the script for the iconic 1941 drama Citizen Kane. He and director Orson Welles shared an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
While the filmmakers sought a period look and feel contemporary to their story — in part inspired by Gregg Toland, ASC’s Oscar-nominated camerawork in Citizen Kane and The Grapes of Wrath — they embraced every modern tool to accomplish their creative goal, shooting with Red Ranger monochrome Helium cameras and Leitz Summilux-C lenses while employing virtual production techniques to facilitate recreating a vintage Los Angeles and other locations.
Mank frames the origin story of Citizen Kane from the perspective of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he’s hit a low point in life. Alcoholic, world-weary and hobbled by a broken leg sustained in a car crash, Mankiewicz is trundled off to a dusty desert cottage in Victorville, Calif., accompanied by a nurse and a typist tasked with keeping their cantankerous patient off the bottle so he can complete a screenplay for Orson Welles — a script that will serve as the foundation of Kane.
Pressed by Welles to finish the project, the bedridden “Mank” (as he’s known to his friends and colleagues) struggles to find creative inspiration, eventually drawing upon his memories of businessman, newspaper tycoon and politician William Randolph Hearst. Flashbacks transport us back to Mank’s headier days as a handsomely paid Hollywood scripter. After amusing Hearst with his barbed wit on a movie location, Mankiewicz is invited to mingle with members of the mogul’s inner circle and renews a friendship with Hearst’s mistress, actress and comedian Marion Davies. Mank’s Hollywood career is thriving, and his social standing is on the rise, but his proximity to power allows him to observe its corrosive influence firsthand — souring his worldview, but ultimately informing the plot of Citizen Kane and the sardonically unflattering portrait of its Hearst-like protagonist, Charles Foster Kane.
The script for Mank was initially fashioned by director David Fincher’s father, Jack, a journalist and screenwriter, who empathized with Mankiewicz’s plight and leaned into the controversial assertions of film critic Pauline Kael, whose 1971 essay in The New Yorker, “Raising Kane,” maintained that Mankiewicz was almost entirely responsible for the Citizen Kane screenplay, with little input from Welles. (That thesis has since been partially debunked by Welles supporters, including director and former film critic Peter Bogdanovich.)
Following his father’s death in 2003, Fincher retooled the Mank script with the help of screenwriter Eric Roth, making it less antagonistic toward Welles. “I never felt that the film should be a posthumous arbitration — that’s never been of interest to me,” Fincher told AC during a 90-minute Zoom interview that included Mank cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, ASC. “What was interesting to me was that it’s [essentially] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead — here’s a guy in the wings, and it’s his experience of this situation. What I found fascinating about Mankiewicz was [that] 30 percent of his output as a professional screenwriter in Hollywood was uncredited. And for one brief, shining moment — on a movie he did when he was old enough to sign a contract and understand the terms expressly — he said, ‘No, no, no — I don’t want this one to get away.’”
Erik Messerschmidt, ASC (foreground) on the set with (background, from left) boom operator Michael Primmer, B-dolly grip Mike Mull and A-camera 2nd assistant Gary Bevans. (Photo by key makeup artist Gigi Williams, courtesy of Netflix.)
We speak with Beverly Wood, former Executive VP at Deluxe and Managing Director at eFilm. We discuss the transition in Hollywood from Film to Digital with one of the industries foremost experts on the science behind it all. We discuss how film emulsion actually works, color science, her work with Roger and James, and films like SkyFall, O Brother, Where Art Thou and more.
She’s been with us through our journey from film to digital and is a great source of information in general!
Although mainstream audiences may not be consciously aware of the use of special processes when they watch a film in a theater, they certainly felt the effect while watching David Fincher‘s horrific thriller Seven (AC Oct. ’95), which was photographed by Darius Khondji. A number of the film’s release prints were treated with Deluxe‘s Color Contrast Enhancement (CCE) process to heighten the film’s blacks and add a palpable texture and tonality.
Made in between Seven and Fight Club, David Fincher’s edge-of-your-seat thriller The Game remains arguably his most underappreciated film, bolstered by an exceptional star performance by Michael Douglas.
Despite his large mansion and intimidating bank balance, multimillionaire Nicholas Van Orton is haunted by the childhood memory of his father’s suicide. On the day he reaches the same age his father was when he died, Nicholas receives an unconventional birthday present from his estranged brother Conrad (Sean Penn): an invitation to play a mysterious “game”, the aim and rules of which are kept secret. As the game unfolds, Nicholas suddenly finds himself in a fight for his life, assisted by the enigmatic Christine (Deborah KaraUnger, Crash) but unsure of where to turn and who to trust.
Presented in a director-approved remaster available for the first time in the UK, the twisty mysteries of Fincher’s pulse-pounding paranoiac puzzle are explored in an exciting array of new and archive bonus features.
TWO-DISC LIMITED DELUXE EDITION CONTENTS
Limited to only 3,000 units
Deluxe packaging including a 200-page hardback book housed in a rigid slipcase, illustrated with newly commissioned artwork by Corey Brickley
200-page book exclusive to this edition includes a newly-commissioned full-length monograph by Bilge Ebiri, and selected archive materials, including an American Cinematographer article from 1997, a 2004 interview with Harris Savides by Alexander Ballinger, and the chapter on the film from Dark Eye: The Films of David Fincher by James Swallow
Arrow Academy Blu-ray including new bonus features and UK home video premiere of director-approved 2K restoration
Universal Special Edition DVD featuring archive extras with cast and crew
DISC ONE – BLU-RAY
2K restoration from the original negative by The Criterion Collection supervised and approved by director David Fincher and cinematographer Harris Savides
High Definition Blu-ray™ (1080p) presentation
Original 5.1 & 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio
Isolated Music & Effects track
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
New audio commentary by critic and programmer Nick Pinkerton
Fool’s Week: Developing The Game, a newly filmed interview with co-writer John Brancato
Men On The Chessboard: The Hidden Pleasures of The Game, a new visual essay by critic Neil Young
Archive promotional interview with star Michael Douglas from 1997
Alternatively-framed 4:3 version prepared for home video (SD only), with new introduction discussing Fincher’s use of the Super 35 shooting format
DISC TWO – DVD
Standard definition DVD (PAL) presentation
5.1 Dolby Digital audio
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Audio commentary with director David Fincher, actor Michael Douglas, screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris, director of photography Harris Savides, production designer Jeffrey Beecroft and visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug
Behind The Scenes featurettes – Dog Chase, The Taxi, Christine’s House, The Fall (with optional commentary by Fincher, Douglas, Savides, Beecroft and Haug)
On Location featurettes – Exterior Parking Lot: Blue Screen Shot, Exterior Fioli Mansion: Father’s Death, Interior CRS Lobby and Offices, Interior Fioli Mansion: Vandalism, Exterior Mexican Cemetary (with optional commentary by Fincher, Savides, Beecroft and Haug)
Theatrical Trailer (with optional commentary by Fincher)
Teaser trailer CGI test footage (with optional commentary by designer/animator Richard Baily)
Erik Messerschmidt, ASC had a childhood dream of becoming a cinematographer, which he began pursuing at Emerson College, where he studied film production. While in school, he hit the ground running, working on film sets as an electrician, which then led to work as a gaffer in features, television and commercials. Before he graduated, he was able to join the IATSE Local 481 in Boston. During this time, he also served as a lighting technician and lighting director for many well-known photographers, including Gregory Crewdson, Mike and Doug Starn and Larry Sulton.
Following graduation, Messerschmidt relocated to Los Angeles to further his career in the industry. Shortly thereafter, he met Mark Doering-Powell, ASC and Mark Weingartner, ASC, who served as early mentors. Doering-Powell hired Messerschmidt on several smaller feature projects as a grip and later gaffer, which allowed him to join Local 728 as a gaffer. He developed relationships with numerous ASC members, including Claudio Miranda, Jeff Cronenweth and Tami Reiker, who Messerschmidt calls his “closest mentors.”
Gordon Lonsdale, ASC hired Messerschmidt as his gaffer on the television series Bones, and the two worked together for six seasons. During this time, Messerschmidt also gained experience as a director of photography, shooting several commercials, short films and documentaries.
Erik Messerschmidt, ASC on the set of the Netflix series Mindhunter.
Cronenweth hired Messerschmidt as his gaffer on David Fincher’s Gone Girl, and subsequently encouraged the director to hire Messerschmidt to photograph his next project, the Netflix series Mindhunter. Since then, the cinematographer has shot the bulk of episodes on both seasons. (See story here.)
Messerschmidt has also photographed several episodes of the television series Legion as well as second-unit work on the feature Sicario: Day of the Soldado, shot by Dariusz Wolski, ASC. On the recommendation of Wolski, Messerschmidt was hired to photograph the HBO Max series Raised by Wolves.
His upcoming credits include Fincher’s latest feature, Mank, depicting the life of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and the writing of the script to Citizen Kane.
Some might consider high-dynamic-range (HDR) displays a technology of the future, but the reality is it’s here now and very much a contemporary delivery format. At the forefront of this delivery is Netflix, the streaming and production giant, which reports that roughly a quarter of the devices used to access its service monthly — more than 165 million — are configured for HDR. As a result, Netflix is making a concerted effort to provide HDR content and currently has more than 1,000 hours of such programming available.
One of these titles is David Fincher’s gritty, period procedural Mindhunter, which earned Christopher Probst, ASC an ASC Award nomination for its pilot in 2017. The series is photographed by Erik Messerschmidt, who notes that production incorporated HDR into the second season. “With Mindhunter, we try to be very subtle with the photography,” says Messerschmidt. “The story and themes of the show are complex and nuanced, so it’s really important that the photography never draws attention to itself. HDR helps because it enables me to be very subtle in my use of color and contrast, particularly in the toe of the exposure. Everyone likes to talk about the bright whites in HDR, but I think perhaps the added range in the shadows is more interesting and more important than added range in the highlights.
“I think cinematographers have always advocated for a better experience for the audience, whether it’s fast film stocks with tighter grain, better projection technology, or higher quality digital-capture and display technologies,” he continues. “HDR is just another step in that direction. Standard-dynamic-range video distribution can only show a narrow exposure band of the modern digital sensor’s dynamic range. The opportunity to use more of the sensor’s range when we want to is a very exciting development.”
Alex Thomson, BSC — one of Britain’s premier cinematographers — creates images of dazzling perfection, richness and clarity, images which have graced some of the most exquisite-looking films in recent memory: Legend, Ridley Scott‘s epic fairytale; Eureka, Nicholas Roeg‘s influential retelling of Citizen Kane; and Excalibur, John Boorman‘s visually magnificent approach to the King Arthur legend.
Though Alien3 is ideal subject matter for Thomson’s rich photographic style, he might never have lent his expertise to the project had it not been for one of the greatest triumphs and tragedies of his career. Late in 1990, Thomson had been chosen by one of the world’s undisputed filmic masters to photograph what promised to be his final masterpiece: the director was David Lean; the project was Joseph Conrad‘s Nostromo.
Unfortunately, Lean took ill and died, Nostromo shut down and a saddened Alex Thomson returned to London, wondering what he would do next. “I came back from France on a weekend and they called me on Monday to see if I could take over on Alien3,” Thomson recollects. “I started work on Tuesday, which was about a week and a half into production. I was happy to do it; it kept my mind off what might have been.” (There is a certain karmic irony to Thomson’s twist of fate. As fans of the first Alien film will recall, the spaceship in that picture was dubbed the Nostromo.)
Behind the camera, Alex Thomson, BSC watches intently as operator David Worley lines up a shot on Charles Dance as Sigorney Weaver stands by.
The production history of Alien3 is a troubled one. Before Thomson joined the film, its first director, New Zealander Vincent Ward — one of a slew of directors who had been attached to the project during its lengthy pre-production phase — had been replaced by rock video director David Fincher. Thomson was hired when the film’s original cinematographer, Jordan Cronenweth, ASC (Blade Runner) left the production.
Many cinematographers might feel stifled by a production where the original look had already been determined, but not Thomson. “I had no problem with following in Jordan’s footsteps because his approach was so right,” he enthuses. “It was marvelous to be pointed in the right direction by a man of his caliber.”
First-time feature director Fincher, for his part, is an award-winning rock video director with a background in visual effects storyboarding at ILM. “To take something over like this at 28 must’ve been quite awe-inspiring, but he handled it as if he’d done 20 pictures,” Thomson relates.