Cinematography is a true art form. To compose a memorable shot is something that one really does need a skill for. That doesn’t even take into account how a cinematographer must work well with a director, have an understanding of their camera, and an infinite number of other assets necessary to help make a movie succeed. Earlier this week, we got a chance to talk with two time Academy Award nominated cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who was able to detail just some of what goes into being a quality DP.
Cronenweth has been cited by the Academy twice. Both times, collaborations with director David Fincher (The Social Network, followed by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) received Oscar nominations in Best Cinematography. Tomorrow, he ventures into television for the first time, collaborating with filmmaker Mark Romanek on an episode of the new Amazon Prime science fiction series Tales from the Loop. Generously chatting on the phone for nearly a half hour, Cronenweth details not just working on the show, but with Fincher as well. He even tells us a few interesting stories about his father Jordan Cronenweth, a famous cinematographer in his own right. It’s an informative and loose interview, so we hope you enjoy it…
Fight Club cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth talks us through this iconic shot and many others in David Fincher‘s masterpiece. We also discuss how the relative naturalism of The Social Network was just as difficult to achieve, and whether something is lost with VFX even when it looks perfect.
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!”
I’ve been Mark Zuckerberg—there are times in my life where I’ve acted that way. There are times in my life where I’ve been Eduardo Saverin—where I’ve gone and made a scene and regretted it and where I’ve been emotional and felt silly and stupid. And there are times when I’ve felt self-righteous and I’ve acted out in this other way… Look, what Mark does is no different than directing a movie—it’s what I do for a living every day. You grow something, and your job is to grow it well and to make sure it gets enhanced and to take care of it. That’s the subject of the movie. And if you have to hurt people’s feelings in order to protect that thing, that’s what you have to do. It’s a responsibility. You want to love every character in the movie. You want to be able to understand them. You want to be able to relate to them. But, as a director, the characters’ behaviors are inevitably related to facets of moments in your own life. You look at the work and say, Maybe I do know what that is. I’ve been the angry young man. I’ve been Elvis Costello. I know what that’s like. The anger is certainly something I felt that I could relate to—the notion of being twenty-one and having a fairly clear notion of what it is you want to do or what it is you want to say and having all these people go, well, we’d love to, we’d love you to try. Show us what it is that you want to do. It’s that whole condescending thing of having to ask adults for permission because the perception is that you’re too young to do it for yourself. And that’s why I understood Mark’s frustration. You have a vision of what this thing should be. And everyone wants to tell you, Oh, well, you’re young. You’ll see soon enough. —David Fincher
The 21st century computer-scribes who work behind the scenes behind the screens, creating culture and beauty with code, got an anti-hero to remember on the silver-screen in 2010 with David Fincher’s 8th feature film. From a once-in-a-generation, “holy shit” screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network is a movie about a 19-year-old Harvard student creating Facebook while losing the relationships in his life. It is an examination of a social outsider who built one of the biggest “clubs” the world’s ever seen, and it’s about the new age zooming past the old. It’s about ignorance in high places, that awkward moment when powerful hired officials prove they have no concept of what simple features on Facebook are in a hearing on Facebook security. It’s about a new language of coding that’s sweeping and running the globe, and about treating coding with the respect it deserves. It’s about coders being taken as seriously as writers, musicians, filmmakers, film producers, painters, costume-designers, photographers, and all other artists and creators. It’s about attaining power even though you’re socially anxious or awkward, and about finding that inner drive that helps you accomplish your goals. It’s about what happens when you lose your humility in your thirst for greatness, and about the fragility of the line between “passionate” and “ass-hole.” The Social Network is simultaneously about a seismic shift in the zeitgeist and your best friend getting your company in trouble for feeding his fraternity chicken a piece of chicken. It’s about creating and solidifying one’s identity, and everything and anything else that goes with what Fincher once jokingly referred to as “the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies.”
In his 1996 novel Fight Club, writer Chuck Palahniuk posed this question: What do you do when you realize the world is not destined to be your oyster, when you recognize the innocuous banalities of everyday life as nothing more than a severely loosened lid on a seething underworld cauldron of unchecked impulses and social atrocities?
Director David Fincher is no stranger to this theme. All of his previous films, Alien3 (see AC July ‘92), Seven (AC Oct. ‘95) and The Game (AC Sept. ‘97), have explored the dark side of the human psyche. With Fight Club, Fincher once again demonstrates his affinity for this bleak and foreboding realm, displaying a deft cinematic sensibility and a gift for taut visual execution.
Fight Club opens as its disenfranchised — and nameless — narrator (Edward Norton) feigns illness and begins attending cancer-patient support group meetings in a vain attempt to find purpose within his lonely, mundane existence. Through a chance encounter on an airplane, he meets the enigmatic Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), the organizer of Fight Club, an underground group of young men who take part in bare-knuckle brawls concocted to vent their pre-apocalyptic angst.
Fincher has worked with a score of prominent cinematographers on commercials, music videos and feature films. Interestingly, he began shooting Alien3 with the late Jordan Cronenweth, ASC — who left the production due to his battle with Parkinson’s disease, and was replaced by Alex Thomson, BSC. For Fight Club, Fincher enlisted Jordan’s son, Jeff Cronenweth [ASC], to realize his uniquely dystopian vision.
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.