This week marks 15 years since “Zodiac” was released in theaters, and save for the actors looking 15 years younger than they do now, the film still feels like it could be released today. If anything, “Zodiac” feels more like a product of 2022 than 2007. The country is more obsessed with serial killers than ever before, with true crime podcasts and documentaries continuing to draw massive ratings, Zodiac killer memes being used in presidential primaries, and the latest Batman movie taking the form of a serial killer drama.
That makes it a great time to revisit “Zodiac,” as well as a good opportunity to take a deep dive into the making of the film. “Zodiac” attracted as much attention for its painstaking production process as it did for the finished product, as the always detail-oriented David Fincher went above and beyond to make sure everything in his film was historically accurate. Sometimes his methodical process hurt his relationships with the cast, but one thing is for certain: They made a great movie.
“A place to unload all my cinematic truths.” —Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC
How do you cultivate a career in Hollywood? What does it take to make iconic work? There’s an art to everything in life and the Art of the Shot explores the answers to those questions and more through deep-dives into the minds of master filmmakers. Join host Derek Stettler, young filmmaker and writer for the ASC and SOC magazines since 2016, as he learns from the artists behind today’s most strikingly-shot projects. Enjoy compelling conversations on the craft, insights from successful careers, tips, techniques + more!
In this episode, you’ll hear from both the cinematographer and the “A” camera operator of Mindhunter, who worked together throughout Season 1 and 2 to shoot every single episode. Please enjoy this exclusive interview with Erik Messerschmidt, ASC and Brian Osmond, SOC!
Brian Osmond, Gaffer Danny Gonzalez, and Erik Messerschmidt (Nikolai Loveikis)
In this episode, you’ll learn:
– Erik’s career path (00:04:06) – Erik’s favorite part of the job (00:06:42) – What DP’s should know to best work with their gaffers, from Erik’s experience working as a gaffer before becoming a DP (00:07:02) – Unique skills Erik gained from his experience as a gaffer (00:07:56) – How Brian got his career started (00:11:19) – Brian’s favorite part of his job (00:12:19) – What other directors can learn from how David Fincher treats his crew (00:18:39) – The thought process & techniques behind Mindhunter‘s precise camera movement (00:22:50) – The strategic use of handheld camera operating (00:34:27) – The collaborative nature of the Mindhunter set (00:37:34) – The importance of having a dedicated camera operator on set, especially on a David Fincher set (00:41:19) – Erik’s role as “quality control supervisor” (00:44:21) – Why a monitor on a David Fincher set is covered in smudges (00:46:57) – Why there’s no such thing as a B camera “bonus shot” on Mindhunter & how shots are planned out for multiple cameras (00:48:23) – What Erik thinks is the hardest shot to do well (00:52:04) – How Erik lights & shoots with 2 cameras simultaneously (00:53:41) – Erik’s approach to lighting Mindhunter & techniques used (00:56:55) – Erik’s preference for real fluorescent lighting (01:03:30) – Mindhunter‘s production design and how much of the locations were built (01:05:01) – Favorite set of Season 2 (01:06:26) – How getting scripts in advance helps them work better (01:10:44) – The innovative car process shooting on Mindhunter & how it works (01:12:38) – How virtual production helps realize every filmmaker’s dream, stopping time, & how Erik used that to shoot a 9-minute dialog scene at dawn (01:18:02) – How the car process shooting on Mindhunter evolved from Season 1 (01:22:37) – How the custom RED digital cinema camera, dubbed the Xenomorph, evolved from Season 1 (01:27:22) – Why Brian prefers a fluid head over a geared head to achieve those smooth, precise shots David Fincher loves (01:37:34) – How to shoot a scene & why “Fix it in prep!” should be every filmmaker’s mantra (01:42:08) – All about the lenses used on Mindhunter & how Erik art directed the artifacts & nuances of every optical aberration (01:48:10) – Tips from Brian on getting really precise shots with a fluid head, what operating technique Erik has learned from Brian, & how being self-critical is a key to his success (01:56:42) – What Erik & Brian feel is the most rewarding part of working on Mindhunter (02:02:47)
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On October 1, The Social Network turns ten. The RED Mysterium X sensor (also turning ten) that rendered the film is now outmoded, but The Social Network thrives due to, not in spite of, the marks of its time. The limited latitude of the once cutting-edge camera sensor pushed David Fincher and DP Jeff Cronenweth—who also shot Fincher’s Fight Club, The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl—into the darker bends of The Social Network’s imitation Harvard dorms. The camera struggled with highlights, so they avoided hot windows and sunny exteriors. It also strained to digest warm tones, so they chose a cooler palette that was easier for the RED to chew on. The sensor’s limitations had implicit limitations with the story of Facebook’s origin, the first of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s two tech mogul reprimands (Fincher’s Zuckerberg was follow by Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs)—individuals he believes pioneered our doom out of spite, envy, inceldom.
When The Social Network initially released, an anecdote about Fincher hiring a mime to distract Harvard campus security was often iterated in the press. Fincher and Cronenweth stitched three shots captured by three REDs on a roof across the street and did a “pan and scan” in post to get a move they couldn’t have otherwise. But they needed light on some of the dark arches, so Fincher hired a mime to push a battery cart full of lights behind them, the impetus being that “by the time [security] got him out of there we would have already accomplished our shot.” Fincher adopted digital in its nascent stages to limit the compromises caused by the erratic nature of the film set. What remained to be compromised on he’d have more ways of fixing in post on digital than on film.
Filmmaker: What have you been watching?
Cronenweth: Eh, I don’t know. Mostly movies. I tried to do the Ozark series, which I like, but it starts to get redundant: same bad guys doing the same things. The only problem I find is that the first week we watched maybe 50 movies, so now we can’t separate the good scenes and shots from the others because we’ve watched so many in a row. That can be a handicap. I’m 58. This is the longest I’ve had off since I graduated from college. So, there are a lot of things I’ve been putting off for twenty years that have been good to get done with.
Filmmaker: Have you rewatched The Social Network recently?
Cronenweth: No, I tend not to. You see them so many times when you’re making them, in the edit, the color correct and the screenings. I would like to, though. It’s such a cleverly written script and Fincher did such a great job at bringing Aaron’s dialogue across. Everytime I watch it, regardless of how tied into it I was, it always amuses me how quickly it feels like it went by. You never have a chance to get off the rollercoaster, which is one of [Fincher’s] mottos. But by the end you go “Really? That’s the whole movie?” It feels like it just started.
Filmmaker: You guys were the first feature film to use RED’s Mysterium X sensor.
Cronenweth: It was my first experience shooting something long form with a digital camera. I had shot music videos and commercials on an array of different formats and cameras. Obviously Fincher had done Zodiac and Benjamin Button digitally. I can’t remember what they shot that on?
Filmmaker: I think they were both shot on the Viper. [Benjamin was a combination of the Viper, Sony F23 and some 35mm on the Arriflex 435]
Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, ASC lensed his first feature, “Fight Club,” in 1998. He earned Best Cinematography nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the American Society of Cinematographers for two more collaborations with director David Fincher, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (2011) and “The Social Network” (2010). Cronenweth also shot Fincher’s “Gone Girl” (2014), Kathryn Bigelow’s “K-19: The Widowmaker” (2002) and Sasha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock” (2012). He recently completed director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s “A Million Little Pieces,” based on the literary hit.
In addition to his feature career, Cronenweth is known for his stylish and CLIO Award-winning music videos and commercials. In the last two years he shot music videos for Katie Perry, Jennifer Lopez, Pink, Maroon 5 and Taylor Swift. A native Angelino, Cronenweth studied filmmaking at the University of Southern California (USC) and began his professional career apprenticing to some of the industry’s greatest cinematographers, including Sven Nykvist, ASC, John Toll, ASC, Conrad Hall, ASC and his father, the late Jordan Cronenweth, ASC.
Cronenweth, behind the camera A on left, and his crew set up double coverage for a scene between Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and the film’s nameless narrator (Edward Norton). On the right, B camera operator (and future Panic Room cinematographer) Conrad W. Hall. (1999, Merrick Morton)
What was your pathway into this field?
“My great-grandfather owned a photo store in Pennsylvania. My dad’s dad won the last Oscar given for portrait photography: He was a staff photographer for Columbia [Pictures]. My grandmother was a Ziegfeld Follies dancer. My dad [Jordan Cronenweth, ASC] won a BAFTA for ‘Blade Runner’ (1983) and got an Oscar nomination for ‘Peggy Sue Go Married’ (1987). So as a child I often visited sets and went on location for extended stays. I felt like I wanted to be part of that great experience, that camaraderie. Each day was like a military unit battling to bring back great images.
“I knew I wanted to do something in the industry: I had been around it all and found it all so exciting. I made many Super 8 films in high school and decided USC (the University of Southern California) was where I wanted to attend film school. But two years into school Film Fair, a commercial production company my father had collaborated with, had a position open for a staff loader and that job offered the opportunity to get into the union. I visited my dad as often as I could when he was shooting ‘Blade Runner’ and assisted him on other movies as a camera operator and on second unit. A lot of relationships I formed then carried over when my dad retired.
“I met [director] David Fincher on a Madonna video my father photographed and I shot second unit for in the heyday of music videos – it was a very creative and innovative time, and I was grateful to be there. I was his camera assistant on the documentary ‘U2: Rattle & Hum’ (1988) and the film ‘State of Grace’ (1990), both directed by Phil Joanou, a former USC film school classmate. Then I got my first feature as a cinematographer, ‘Fight Club,’ with Fincher. Not a bad credit for the first time out of the gate!”
With Mindhunter, Netflix reunites with director David Fincher for the first time since he helped the streaming service launch into original programming with their first series, House of Cards. In Mindhunter, Fincher’s attention to detail proved a perfect match for creating the dark world of obsession and intrigue that is the true story of the origin of the FBI Behavioral Science Unit. Based on the real-life experiences of FBI special agent, John Douglas, who pioneered the practice of psychological profiling, Mindhunter takes place in the 1970’s and follows two FBI agents who radically expand criminal science as the study the methods and motivations of serial killers. But getting so close to real world monsters has consequences, and their encounters with the darkest of humanity begin to change them and the way they work.
Over the last few years, 8K has become accepted as an acquisition format for 2K & 4K delivery. Michael Cioni, of Panavision & Light Iron, believes that it is time to start pushing 8K as a distribution format. Listen as he challenges common misconceptions about the validity of 8K exhibition.
Cioni uses Moore’s Law to explore the idea that the resolution of our capture and delivery of video will continue to grow far into the future. In the early years of Light Iron, Michael and his team faced many challenges in moving from a 2K to 4K digital intermediate for their customers. But they overcame those challenges and are now working toward supporting 8K distribution.
Presented live at Camerimage 2017, this provocative presentation examines the psychology, physiology, and physical relationships between resolution and sharpness. Panavision and Light Iron experts Michael Cioni, Dan Sasaki, and Ian Vertovec present a fresh perspective on how the pursuit of cinematic smoothness is tied to the race for resolution.
The first masterpiece from filmmaker David Fincher was his feature film Se7en, a procedural featuring one of the most memorable serial killers ever committed to celluloid. Ten years ago he returned this dark territory with Zodiac, an adaptation of the true-life case involving a still-unknown killer who struck repeatedly throughout the San Francisco Bay area. In the years since, Fincher helped launch House of Cards (an adaptation of the successful UK series) for Netflix. He comes back to the crime investigation genre with Mindhunter, a 10-part streaming series that launched on Netflix on Oct. 13.
In addition to serving as co-executive producer for Mindhunter, Fincher directed four hours of the 10-episode season, with Christopher Probst shooting the pilot installment. The other directors were Asif Kapadia, Tobias Lindholm and Andrew Douglas.
Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt shot part of episode two, along with the remaining eight episodes. Messerschmidt had served as gaffer on Fincher’s most recent feature, Gone Girl. He pulled double duty on this fall’s Granite Mountain, gaffing and shooting 2nd unit—the latter a duty he performed for next year’s Sicario follow-up, Soldado, as well. “Fincher was very involved in the process, which is to be expected. He was there every day,” Messerschmidt says.
When mere mortals gear up for a job, they are restricted to selecting cameras currently in existence. Not David Fincher.
Fincher has long hated all the gak required to make a digital cinema camera functional: a wireless transmitter to get signal to video village, the add-ons to provide wireless iris and focus control, the assistant camera’s onboard monitor hanging off the side — all the things that turn a small, lightweight camera body into a labyrinth of cables and breakout boxes.
Red Digital Cinema responded by making Fincher his own set of custom Weapon Red Dragons for use on the new Netflix series Mindhunter—each with the features listed above built into an ergonomically friendly camera christened the Xenomorph. Put a lens on the front and a battery on the back and the Xenomorph is ready to rock and roll.
On Mindhunter, cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt reaped the benefits of that smaller camera footprint. Messerschmidt spoke to Filmmaker about his work on the new series, which follows the fictionalized story of the agents (Jonathan Groff’s Holden Ford and Holt McCallany’s Bill Tench) who started the FBI’s psychological profiling program in the 1970s by interviewing incarcerated serial killers.