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.”
Eric Weidt talks about his collaboration with director David Fincher – from defining the workflow to creating the look and feel of Mindhunter. He breaks down scenes and runs through colour grading details of the masterful crime thriller.
Eric Weidt spent years in Paris working with fashion photographers transitioning from traditional film to digital capture workflows. He created custom film-emulation ICC profiles, and mastered color work and compositing techniques for print stills and fashion films.
Clients included Mario Testino, David Sims, Patrick Demarchelier, Mert Alas and Markus Piggot, Steven Meisel, Hedi Slimane, Karl Lagerfeld. His motion picture work for David Fincher includes responsibilies as VFX artist (Gone Girl), and Digital Intermediate Colorist (Videosyncracy and Mindhunter).
He holds a BA in Theater Arts from the University of California at Santa Cruz and is both an American and French citizen.
Going inside Mindhunter Season 2: there’s a contradiction at the heart of Mindhunter, the highly rated Netflix drama. For all the efforts of creator David Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt to craft a minimalist aesthetic for this ripped-from-the headlines chronicle of the modern serial killer and its FBI profilers, the show itself continues to win plaudits for how it stylistically marries editorial with subject.
Season 1 was lauded for shining a light onto this particularly murky corner of the criminal psyche with its desaturated cinematography. “David and I continued with what we had put together for the first season,” Messerschmidt explains. “If anything, Season 2 is even more structured and formalist. That classical aesthetic is driven a lot by the content. The show is very measured in its approach to a story about serial killers so we felt the photography should be restrained and simple.”
Miles Crist / Netflix
Messerschmidt photographed all nine episodes of the new season which returned to Netflix after a two-year hiatus. Directors Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), Carl Franklin (House of Cards) and Fincher took charge of blocks of three. Before taking responsibility to shape the look of Mindhunter’s first run, Messerschmidt had worked as a gaffer on shows like Mad Men and Bones, and then the feature film Gone Girl where he first came into contact with Fincher.
Definitive if subtle changes were made for Mindhunter’s latest season, the most notable of which was shooting with the custom XENOMORPH with HELIUM 8K S35 sensor and being able to monitor HDR on set.
When David Fincher transitioned from music videos to feature films in the 1990s, the descriptors “glossy,” “slick” and “stylized” were frequently affixed to his work. Those adjectives were often aimed as pejoratives, categorizing Fincher as a technical virtuoso who created shiny but hollow thrillers.
Watching the second season of Netflix’s Mindhunter—executive produced and partially directed by Fincher—the evolution of the filmmaker’s aesthetic is striking. As FBI profilers Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) interview America’s most notorious serial killers, the camera rarely moves. Instead, it unobtrusively observes.
What hasn’t changed over the years is Fincher’s unwavering exactitude, exemplified by the show’s almost mathematically meticulous compositions. Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt is the guardian of that precision, carrying season two’s restrained yet formal style across episodes directed by Fincher, Andrew Dominik (Killing Them Softly) and Carl Franklin (One False Move).
With season two now streaming on Netflix, Messerschmidt spoke with Filmmaker about the necessity of HDR monitoring, creating faux-anamorphic effects, and his hockey puck-sized secret weapon for eye lights.
Filmmaker: It’s been two years since season one of Mindhunter, which you shot on custom Weapon Red Dragons (nicknamed Xenomorphs). I guess it shows how quickly camera technology is changing, because since that time Red has gone to a universal DSMC2 brain and the Dragon sensor is only in their lowest-cost camera. Now the Monstro 8K VV and the Helium 8K S35 are Red’s top-of-the-line offerings. Did you change cameras for season two?
Messerschmidt: For season two we switched to Red’s Helium sensor, shooting in 8K 2:1 with 8:1 compression. Out of the 8K raster we framed for a 6.5K extraction area, which left room for stabilization in post. We did extensive lighting, color and workflow tests prior to the decision to switch camera sensors and ended up loving the results of the Helium. We found the noise floor to be substantially lower, the color fidelity to be better and the sensitivity to be higher than the Dragon.
Filmmaker: Did you have any additional custom Xenomorph tweaks for the new cameras?
Messerschmidt: For season two Red built us a new model of the Xenomorph dubbed the Mark II. The new body included the DSMC2 brain with the Helium sensor. It was upgraded with redesigned cooling, integrated lens motors and the new Teradek Bolt video transmitters.
Ian Vertovec is Supervising Colorist at Light Iron, which he co-founded, a Panavision company specialized in dailies, digital intermediate, archival, and data services for projects originated on file-based motion cameras.
David Fincher‘s knuckle-biting Mindhunter series for Netflix is based on the true-crime book, Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, an autobiography centered around the establishment of the FBI Investigative Support Unit, the foundation of which would become modern day criminal psychological profiling.
Each hour-long show (from the 10-episode run) was graded by colorist Eric Weidt, who navigated between ultra-modern capture technology, the time and place of late 70s cinema and the very specific needs of Fincher. Weidt started with Fincher as a visual effects beauty artist for the 2014 film, Gone Girl. Before that, he had worked in post production in the world of Parisian fashion.
With considerable experience in Photoshop and the Adobe infrastructure, Weidt brought his retouching talents to motion as photography and filmmaking began to bleed together. Weidt even created custom film-emulation ICC profiles and scanned grains for photographers transitioning from film to digital capture.
Colorist Eric Weidt.
Meanwhile, Fincher and his team had been working with FilmLight‘s Baselight color grading tools and plug-ins since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and on the Netflix series, House of Cards. Adding an editorial and visual effects team at his facility in Hollywood, Mindhunter was the first time that the auteur established his own in-house DI. Weidt was brought on to lead color.
“It’s important to note, we had a lot more time to work on this show than most grades,” Weidt pointed out during a special HDR presentation by FilmLight, Dolby, and Red Digital Cinema at the Dolby Cinema Old Vine theatre in Hollywood. He was given a simple brief: The show was set in the late 70s, centered on the FBI interviews of serial killers.
“The 70’s and serial killers backdrop brought to mind David Fincher’s Zodiac, which is an absolutely brilliant movie; a masterpiece in terms of both content and color,” he says. “The 70s has a distinct color palette. You say 70’s’ and everyone already has an image” he continues. Street photographers William Eggleston and Stephen Shore are personal sources of inspiration for initial color grading.
Post and edit began as production rolled in Pittsburgh. Dailies were usually available to Fincher by the following day. The production used FotoKem‘s nextLAB dailies system and the PIX asset and data management and delivery platform.
Due to overlapping shoot and post production schedules, “David looked at things on his iPad for two-thirds of the season,” says Weidt, explaining that he had a complex rendering process that allowed him to manage new HDR footage as well as sending regular corrections from Fincher to view in SDR. The Baselight workflow file was separated into two timelines, one for any creative color adjustments, and another that had stabilizations and lens emulations applied. Weidt would daisy-chain them, run it through the Dolby Vision HDR professional tools, which automatically take his XML trims, and using that, create offline files to view on an iPad or monitor.
“All you really need to do is add a trim pass layer to each shot, then hit analyze. It might take 40 minutes to analyze the whole hour’s episode. You come back, and you have your SDR version. It’s done, except that you are able to then do lift/gamma/gain, or some saturation adjustments on the trim pass. I found that maybe 85 percent of the time it looked like there wasn’t really anything to do. Out of the box, it’s pretty amazing.”
He continues that, “You don’t want to grade with both monitors, because you’ll go nuts. You have to learn to accept that the REC 709 compared to the HDR is going to look more dull.” Weidt says that Fincher’s color design for Mindhunter was heavily influenced by the organic palette of several classic films, such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, All the President’s Men and the more chromatic yet grittier look of The French Connection. They also wanted a low contrast, information-rich picture, and had first experimented with low contrast optical filtration on set but preferred in the end to “set up the digital chain in a way that Fincher was getting the type of image that he wanted.”
The RED Xenomorph custom camera for Fincher.
“Low contrast does not mean low detail,” Weidt carefully points out. That required a camera with outstanding capabilities for the production. Cinematographers Erik Messerschmidt and Christopher Probst, ASC, employed a one-of-a-kind Red camera with a 6K Dragon sensor called Xenomorph, developed by Red to Fincher’s specifications. Weidt’s starting point for dailies, as well as any color work on the master, began with a low-contrast log curve based on REDgamma3 that maintained as much of the dynamic range provided by the Red Xenomorph as possible, and gave the SDR monitoring on set an approximation of Weidt’s HDR workflows.
“When you grade something, the tone curve can be your initial contrast,” says Weidt. “It’s a bit like choosing a film stock. With Red, at that time, the most current tone curve was REDgamma4. It’s a nice, contrast-y curve, but David wanted to go back to a previous tone curve, which was REDgamma3. It’s a softer curve, and it rolls off quicker and easier in the highlights and also in the shadows.”
With the Dolby Vision HDR toolset, custom color transforms helped manage the monitoring during production. From 6K .R3D files to linear OpenEXR files, they were able to go straight to grade in Weidt’s and Messerschmidt’s preferred ‘flat’ log. For Dolby Vision HDR mastering, Weidt used the Dolby Pulsar 4000-nit professional reference display, while the Rec709 passes were done with automated mapping to SDR from Baselight. For SDR, they used a Dolby PRM monitor at 120-nits.
The HDR look was developed in post production: “In HDR, we initially came across a lot of scenes where the light sources were taking too much prominence,” Weidt says. “David and his post supervisor Peter Mavromates really wanted an elegant balance. Mindhunter‘s HDR is not trying to strike you or slap you in the face. Just like the sound mixing, or cutting, it is not trying to blow your mind, but rather convey the story content. The latter is really what’s going to punch you.”
Areas of focus circled using PIX.
After the grade.
Many of Fincher’s notes require simple dodging and burning, performed primarily through Weidt’s use of shapes, masking and tracking in Baselight. Using PIX, Fincher would circle subjects or areas of a frame, giving suggestive chromatic terms like ‘sallow’ or ‘ruddy,’ and ‘equidistant’ or ‘symmetrical’ in regard to reframing. Mindhunter used a 5K working area extracted from the full 6K frame, ultimately downconverted to a 4K deliverable, a Netflix requirement. As a 2.2:1 center extraction, the editors were able to reposition the image subtly, as needed. The image was stabilized further as necessary by using sophisticated tracking for repositioning and resizing without loss of resolution upon deliverable at 4K.
“David is famous for having a visual style where he is going to stabilize two-thirds of the shots in an episode, or in a movie, so that everything is absolutely perfect,” says Weidt. “What he wants is that the camera, the gaze into the image, is totally unconscious, and you’re really in there without distractions that most people take for granted.” After Fincher returned to Los Angeles, their standard workflow on a scene together would start with a master shot that incorporated the characters as well as background, timing color and light levels for other shots and angles in scenes to be timed from that reference.
Fincher’s eye for detail goes far beyond that, though, and Weidt noted several corrected items that would have escaped his attention, like plants outside a prison that were too vibrantly green, or highlights in reflections that needed to be turned down to match light sources. “There are certain colors that David needs to suppress, and that’s mostly pink,” he continues. “Pink appears in people’s skin tones, and if you get it wrong in the grading suite and ends up on a monitor outside of that environment, it’s going to appear like they have pink faces and it looks really bad. David wants to control that.”
Before / After
Using Summilux-C primes from CW Sonderoptic, XML information was created for every focal length. This was a requirement on Mindhunter as simulations of grain, lens barreling and chromatic aberration in Baselight were tailored to the specific focal length throughout the show. Weidt even created anamorphic effects for the spherical lenses.
“David wanted to refer to 70’s in what could be called ‘the anamorphic wide-screen era,'” he says . “Unfortunately, that focal length is not something that’s carried through in metadata. It’s tallied by the camera assistant with name of the clip and the focal length and put into a database. I had to find a way to apply the right settings for every single clip, in the absence of metadata.”
Weidt was able to merge this information by teaching himself the Python scripting engine for asset management adding the focal length as a variable in the comment field. That enabled him to classify and organize shots by telephoto, standard and wide, then multi-paste effects into an alpha-numerically sorted timeline which came in handy throughout the production. “It worked beautifully,” he says.
He also added pseudo chromatic aberration “on every shot and every episode of Mindhunter,” which he developed himself, as the vast majority of plug-ins and filters will simply shift one of the primary color plates, stretching from center, resulting in bi-color aberrations. These created results that Fincher found lackluster, when for example given a cyan-red, he’d really only want the cyan. “I found the solution in Baselight, which essentially took 20 layers, using blending modes that are usually the purview of a compositing tool,” Weidt says.
Creating a specific ’70s look.
is graded on Baselight.
“David directed four episodes of Mindhunter, but he’s the executive producer for the show, and he’s definitely the director of the DI,” he adds. “All of the color, he directed himself, with contributions from Erik.”
Weidt notes that next season will be shot using a Helium sensor, and HDR monitors will be on set along with a new ACES color space workflow. “We’ve got 20 layers just for chromatic aberration. We’ve got lens warping. We’ve got three different types of grain as well, because you couldn’t just have one,” Weidt adds, regarding the final rendering process.
“Season 2 is going to be just like a real walk in the park compared to season one. We learned so much.” Season 2 of Mindhunter is currently in production.
On this episode of the colorist podcast, I talk with Ian Vertovec, Co-Founder, and Senior Colorist at Light Iron.
Ian has colored major films “The Social Network,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and “Gone Girl.” And more recently, he has colored the TV shows “Baskets” for FX and “Glow” on Netflix.
Originally from Chicago, Ian focused on photography, then moved on to digital compositing. He later co-founded two post facilities in Los Angeles: Plaster City, then Light Iron. Out of necessity, he moved on to color at his company. He found his combination of photography and compositing matched perfectly for a career as a colorist.
In this podcast, we talk about:
Coloring David Fincher films and working with extremely dark images
The challenges of working on VFX heavy projects
Making HDR look both cinematic and realistic
Advantages of working with high-end systems like Quantel Pablo
The difference between working on TV and films
How experience with compositing served him as a colorist