When digital cinematography was in its infancy, around 2005, it was like the Wild West; new cameras were appearing seemingly every week, whether from University’ concept’ programs or start-ups with a movie making a revolution on their minds.
In this white heat of technology, director David Fincher started to craft his movie-making skills. He was a risk taker with new technology but driven by the promise it gave him. As much as Fincher and his crew were proud of the films they made, they were also proud of how they made them.
Zodiac’s Digital Gamble
Fincher had already used digital cinematography for his commercials and decided to commit early to this technology for his movies. But his long-time producer Ceán Chaffin brought some hard business sense to brace against his pioneering creative decisions.
Ceán had been involved more in costing this digital workflow out and had looked at introducing digital for a feature before Zodiac but found that it wasn’t cost-efficient at that time; Zodiac was different. “At the moment of Zodiac, storage was so cheap that we could push it; it was also about the savings at that point. The sticking point was really about storage for us up to Zodiac.”
Frame & Reference is a conversation between Cinematographers hosted by Kenny McMillan of OWL BOT. Each episode dives into the respective DP’s current and past work, as well as what influences and inspires them. These discussions are an entertaining and informative look into the world of making films through the lens of the people who shoot them.
In this episode, Kenny talks with legendary cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, ASC about the Oscar Nominated film “Being the Ricardos.” You likely know Jeff from his work on films such as “Fight Club“, “Gone Girl“, “The Social Network” & “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”
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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.
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!”
The Netflix original series Mindhunter is, by far, one of the best new shows currently running. The true story-based, 1977-set drama chronicles the early days of criminal psychology and criminal profiling primarily through the eyes of three people at the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit: eager newcomer Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), somewhat jaded veteran Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), and brilliant psychology professor Wendy Carr (Anna Torv). That this show is immaculately crafted from top to bottom will come as no surprise to those aware that it’s the brainchild of David Fincher, who serves as executive producer and directed nearly half of the series’ first season.
This is without doubt one of the best looking pieces of entertainment released in 2017, regardless of medium, with classical framing, motivated camera movement, and a tremendous palette that gives a mere peek into the darkness inside the minds of the criminals and serial killers who are the subject of the Behavioral Science Unit’s interviews.
So when I got the chance to speak with cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt about his work on the series, I was thrilled. Messerschmidt shot eight of the first season’s 10 episodes, including the Fincher-directed closing installments, and as he revealed during our interview, this was essentially his first major gig as a cinematographer. Messerschmidt had worked previously as a gaffer on shows like Mad Men and Bones, and then later the feature film Gone Girl where he first came into contact with Fincher. Based on their work together on that film, Fincher called Messerschmidt up when they were looking for a new DP for Mindhunter after the show’s original cinematographer exited over creative differences.
This promotion from gaffer to DP is a familiar refrain with Fincher’s cinematographers, as he did the same with his The Game and Fight Club gaffer Claudio Miranda, who was brought on as DP for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and went on to win the Oscar for Best Cinematography for his work on Life of Pi.
Messerschmidt’s rise to the primary cinematographer of Fincher’s brand new TV show elicits similarly spectacular results, as the DP’s work on Mindhunter is elegantly classical and incredibly motivated by character and theme. During the course of our conversation, Messerschmidt talked about the road that led to him becoming the cinematographer on Mindhunter, the specifics of his working relationship with Fincher, what it’s like to serve as a DP in the world of episodic television, how the work of production designers and costumes designers goes under-appreciated, and trying to maintain a consistent aesthetic with multiple directors. He also teased a bit about Mindhunter Season 2, including revealing their extensive shooting schedule.
Claudio Miranda has had an interesting career thus far. After working as a gaffer on films like Se7en and Fight Club, filmmaker David Fincher (with whom he’d worked on a few commercials and music videos as a cinematographer) asked him to serve as the cinematographer for the wildly ambitious 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. That VFX-intensive effort scored Miranda an Oscar nomination and led to him then shooting visually breathtaking movies like Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, and of course Life of Pi, for which he won the Best Cinematography Oscar.
Miranda’s latest film reteams him with director Joseph Kosinski for the third time and also marks something of a departure—the true story drama Only the Brave. The film revolves around one unit of local firefighters who battled the Yarnell Hill wildfire in 2013 to tragic results. Josh Brolin leads a cast that includes Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, and Jennifer Connelly.
With Only the Brave hitting theaters on October 20th, I recently got the chance to have an extended conversation with Miranda about his work on the film. He talked about his working relationship with Kosinski, the challenges of capturing real fire onscreen, shooting on location, and his approach to shooting realistic visual effects.
But I’m also a big fan of Miranda’s work in general, so the conversation veered off into his early days working as a gaffer for Fincher, and we discussed his “trial by fire” experience shooting Benjamin Button as well as what it’s like to work with Fincher and how his gaffer work with other cinematographers like Harris Savides and Dariusz Wolski has shaped his approach. Finally, with Kosinski next set to direct the Top Gun sequel Top Gun: Maverick, I asked Miranda what the prep has been like on that movie so far.
It’s a wide-ranging and refreshingly candid conversation that hopefully admirers of Miranda’s work, or just those curious about cinematography in general, will find illuminating. I certainly had a great time chatting with the talented DP.