Color Grading Netflix’s Mindhunter

Eric Weidt, Dolby’s Thomas Graham, and Netflix’s Chris Clark.

A look at the show’s unique HDR look and workflow

David Alexander Willis (Twitter, Instagram)
June 2018
Post Magazine

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Each Mindhunter hour-long show (from the 10-episode run) was graded using FilmLight’s Baselight color grading tools 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 David Fincher.

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. “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, Dolbyand Red Digital Cinema at Hollywood’s Dolby Cinema Old Vine theatre.

“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” 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, and create offline files to view on an iPad or monitor.

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.

Weidt’s starting point for dailies, as well as any color work on the master, began with a low-contrast log curve that maintained as much of the dynamic range provided by the Red Xenomorph camera as possible, and gave the SDR monitoring on set an approximation of Weidt’s HDR workflows.

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.”

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.

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Areas of focus

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After the grade

“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.”

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.

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.

“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 Messerschmidt.”

This is an abridged version of the full in-depth article available in the June issue of Post Magazine

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MINDHUNTER: Mindful Operating

Operator Brian Osmond, SOC and dolly grip Dwayne Barr push in on a dialog scene between Anna Torv and Jonathan Groff (Merrick Morton / Netflix)

With Brian Osmond, SOC.

Derek Stettler
May 2018 (Spring 2018)
Camera Operator (Society of Camera Operators)

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.

Read the full interview:

Thanks to Andrew Moore

Bad Lands

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Erik Messerschmidt and Chris Probst, ASC, also have made “smart” use of LED technology, as detailed in our cover story on Mindhunter (page 36). David Fincher, who first started using LED’s for process work on Zodiac, 11 years ago, not only customized a high-resolution RED camera for the show (dubbed the “Xenomorph”), but also devised one of the most ingenious LED-driven plate projection/interactive lighting processes for driving shots TV has ever seen. Messerschmidt’s description of Fincher’s commitment to innovation mirrors those Sundancers bending technology in the service of new ways to tell a story: “For David, the frame is sacred; what we choose to include is intrinsic to what the audience thinks is important. They are one and the same.”

David Geffner, Executive Editor
ICG Magazine

Visualizing the daring and often scary world of David Fincher requires new technologies and processes rarely attempted in series television.

Matt Hurwitz
Photos by Patrick Harbron & Merrick Morton, SMPSP
April 2018
ICG Magazine

In the season 1 finale of Netflix’s MINDHUNTER, a disturbed FBI agent, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), bursts wildly from a hospital room, as a handheld camera gives chase. The move begins as shaken as ford is, but, as it lands with the agent, who collapses in the hallway, it’s as if the camera has floated to a butter-smooth stop inches from the floor, the maneuver executed like it was on a perfectly balanced Jib arm, crane, or even Steadicam. But it’s none of those. What can viewers assume from this?

David Fincher has returned to television.

FOR THIS SERIES ABOUT A PAIR OF AGENTS WORKING IN THE FBI’S ELITE BEHAVIORAL SCIENCES UNIT in 1979, and attempting to understand the mind of a serial killer, Fincher used a number of leading-edge technologies – interactive LED lighting, custom built high-resolution cameras, and, as in the shot with Agent Ford, image stabilization/smoothing in postproduction – to keep the viewer visually embedded. Fincher’s aim with MINDHUNTER, which has no graphic violence, is for viewers to “access their own attics. There’s far scarier stuff up there than anything we can fabricate,” the filmmaker insists. “I wanted people to register what’s going on in [characters’] eyes and where the gear changes are taking place. At what point do I [as the viewer] feel like, ‘OK, I’ve got an insight,’ and at what point do they feel like: ‘oh, I’m being sold something. It’s all about the nuance in how the balance of power is changing.”

Fincher’s longtime postproduction supervisor, Peter Mavromates, says he creates an “experience of omniscience,” similar to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, “where you’re in a straitjacket with your eyelids pinned open, and David’s forcing you to watch these horrible things.” In fact, the show’s unique visual process began more than a year before production started in Pittsburgh (on area locations and on stages at 31st Street Studios, a former steel mill), with the development of a unique RED camera system.

Christopher Probst, ASC – who shot MINDHUNTER’S pilot and second episode – was asked for his input on a RED prototype system, which had been designed by Jarred Land and RED’s Chief Designer Matt Tremblay according to Fincher’s specific needs. “David wanted to take all of the different exterior add-ons that create a jungle of wires, and put them inside the camera body,” Probst explains.

Fincher puts it even more directly: “It just seems insane that we’ve been bequeathed a [camera] layout [dating back to] D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin that looks like some bizarre Medusa. [The camera] should be something that people want to approach, touch, and pick up.”

In fact, the custom system built for Season 1 [Land created a 2.0 version being used in Season 2] had an RTMotion MK3.1 lens-control system, Paralinx Arrow-X wireless video, and Zaxcom wireless audio (with timecode) integrated into the RED body, with the only visible cable being to control the lens. Slating was all but eliminated, with clip-number metadata being shared wirelessly between the camera and the script supervisor, who used Filemaker software to associate takes and clips. An audio scratch track from the mixer was recorded onto the REDCODE RAW R3D files and received wirelessly.

The base camera was one of RED’s DSMC2 systems, the then-new WEAPON DRAGON, with its 6K sensor. The shell design, accommodating the added gear inside, with its angular shape and heat venting fins on top, had a “Xenomorph” appearance (à la Alien), and was dubbed as such by Land and Fincher. “When the camera arrived in Pittsburgh, they had actually engraved “Xenomorph” on the side,” Probst says.

Read the full profile:

Website version of the profile

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Before releasing the beast…

Erik Messerschmidt (Instagram)

“A little late-night Xenomorph Mk2 Firmware Testing”.

RED Xenomorph Mk2 custom camera for David Fincher:

RED Helium 8K S35 sensor
Leica Summilux-C lenses by CW Sonderoptic
RTMotion lens motor control
Paralinx Tomahawk 2 wireless HD video
Zaxcom wireless audio and timecode
7.0″ LCD Touch
Foolcolor Foolcontrol camera control app for iOS & OS X
Extended WiFi/Foolcontrol antenna array
Anton Bauer Gold Battery Mount
Shoulder Mount

Thanks to Joe Frady

Harmonica Cinema: Mindhunter

Excellent article on the cinematography of Mindhunter by Spanish DP, Producer and cinematography scholar Ignacio Aguilar. Time to practice your rusty Spanish or get help from a good web translator.

Harmonica Cinema - Logo

Serie creada por David Fincher para Netflix, basada al parecer en investigaciones y trabajos reales del FBI y que está ambientada hacia 1977. El protagonista es un joven agente (Jonathan Groff), quien tras una operación fallida es relegado a dar clases formativas junto a otro agente más veterano (Holt McCallany) viajando por el país y estudiando casos concretos de crímenes reales. Para intentar resolverlos, los agentes comienzan a entrevistarse con asesinos en serie a fin de estudiar su psicología y tratar de aplicar lo aprendido para resolver los nuevos casos que se van presentando. Pero la cercanía con los asesinos y sus mentes provocarán un fuerte impacto en el protagonista. Hannah Gross, como su novia, así como Anna Torv, como una psicóloga que en principio colabora con el equipo y posteriormente se une al mismo, forman el reparto principal, en el que Cameron Britton, como uno de los peligrosos asesinos que aparecen en los diez episodios de esta notable primera temporada, crea una gran impresión.

Ignacio Aguilar
25 enero 2018
Harmonica Cinema

Fincher se ha hecho cargo de cuatro de estos diez episodios de arranque (los dos primeros y los dos últimos), mientras que Christopher Probst [ASC] rodó los dos primeros y Erik Messerschmidt los ocho restantes. Probst es un viejo conocido de los lectores de “American Cinematographer”, ya que desde hace más de dos décadas colabora con la revista con entrevistas y artículos y, desde hace años, viene siendo su editor técnico. Seguramente en alguna de estas entrevistas conoció a Fincher en los años 90. Desde entonces, en paralelo, ha venido desarrollando una sólida carrera como director de fotografía en videoclips, con trabajos para artistas como Taylor Swift o Eminem entre muchos otros. “Mindhunter” es su primera gran oportunidad en la ficción, como lo es también para Messerschmidt, ya que hasta la fecha su oficio venía siendo el de “gaffer” o jefe de eléctricos. Como ya le sucediera a Claudio Miranda, “gaffer” en parte de Se7en, The Game y Fight Club al que Fincher dio su primera gran oportunidad con “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, Messerschmidt ocupó este cargo para Jeff Cronenweth en “Gone Girl” y Fincher le ha ofrecido con esta serie la oportunidad de rodar una importante serie de televisión.

Desde hace muchos años, en concreto desde los tiempos de “Zodiac” (2007), con la que esta serie guarda bastantes similitudes temáticas y estilísticas, David Fincher ha venido siendo un abanderado de la tecnología digital para adquirir sus imágenes. Desde 2010, Fincher ha sido fiel a la empresa de cámaras RED, habiendo empleado casi todas sus cámaras en sus proyectos: la Red One MX en “The Social Network”, una mezcla de Red MX y Epic MX en “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (2011), así como la Epic Dragon en “Gone Girl” (2014). Incluso también su serie “House of Cards” (2013) empleó los sensores Mysterium-X y Dragon. Fincher, por lo tanto, es uno de los más prestigiosos cineastas del universo RED, de modo que no resulta del todo extraño que la empresa le haya fabricado tres cámaras customizadas (denominadas Red Xenomorph, que recuerdan estéticamente al “Alien” de Giger, saga en la que participó Fincher como director). Estas cámaras incorporan el mismo sensor Dragon que Red Weapon convencionales, pero además de una forma más ergonómica, proporcionan más conexiones, vídeo y motores inalámbricos, etc. En cierto modo, lo que a estas alturas Red debería estar ofreciendo ya a sus consumidores, en lugar de sus cámaras modulares tradicionales con las que nunca parece poder competir con ARRI, excepto para Netflix, ya que sus cámaras son las únicas de “alta gama” (además de las Sony) que cumplen con el requisito de los 4K nativos (que llevan a absurdos como el hecho de que la única Alexa que se puede emplear sea la Alexa 65).

Lee el artículo completo

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Behind the Scenes of Mindhunter with Christopher Probst, ASC

Christopher Probst, ASC (Instagram)

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A monitor grab from a scene appearing in Ep. 3 of Mindhunter @netflix… Scheduling necessities required several sequences for Episodes 3 and 7 to be fitted into the schedule for our Eps. 1 and 2 "pilot block" shooting schedule. This scene takes place in the Sacramento storyline continued from Ep. 2, where our intrepid heroes (@holtmccallany and Jonathan Groff) help catch a killer of elderly women. This scene and others in the detective's bullpen downstairs, and outside (where their car has its wheels removed) were all shot in the former Daily News newspaper headquarters in McKeesport, PA. This shot was lit almost entirely with the selective use of practicals. I had the overhead bulbs switched to legacy Warm White tubes, added some desk lamps and used a fair amount of haze on set… In fact, a little more about the look: During prep, I created master visual bible for the evolution of the series, which will ultimately span three decades, and laid out an evolution in the visual design of the show. The 1970s would use Warm White tubes and Sodium Vapor streetlights outside, as well as heavy use of atmosphere from cigarette smoke. We also had custom 92mm screw-on 1/2 Low Con filters from @tiffencompany made for the @cwsonderoptic Leica Summilux-C lenses to be used throughout the first season… The 1980s in future seasons would see a progression toward Cool White fluorescents, Mercury Vapor streetlights and losing the low cons. The 1990s, would switch to color corrected fluorescents (no green) and neutral street lighting. Resolution and gamma may also evolve as the show progresses… w/ @camgrip @mtnbikethis @alex_w_scott @murnorama @reddigitalcinema. . #mindhunter #davidfincher #reddigitalcinema #redxenomorph cameras

A post shared by Christopher Probst, ASC (@probstdp) on

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Here's another behind the scenes pic from the set of Mindhunter @netflix. This was one our fabulous sets constructed by production designer Steve Arnold on our "tin shed" stages in Pittsburgh. Shepherd's office had the wall located behind his desk built with an invisible track that could raise the wall up, allowing us to get this angle behind the often flabbergasted FBI chief. Outside the windows we had large greenscreens, but in instances where we didn't see the green, I opted to wheel in day-blue frames to provide a more natural color temp coming in through the windows… and do note that daylight often has two components, direct sunlight and sky… you can see this effect play on the vertical blinds… effectively creating the feel of exterior light MUST take all of these ides into account. . #mindhunter #davidfincher #netflix #cinematography #reddigitalcinema

A post shared by Christopher Probst, ASC (@probstdp) on

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This scene from Mindhunter doesn’t appear in season one in this particular environment. Though I quite liked the visual tone of the bar scene, Fincher ultimately decided that we reshoot it in a parking lot (blasphemy, I know) where the characters miss their flight and are stuck in California longer (so Holden decides to see Ed Kemper @cameronbrittonh.) David’s process often involves evaluating his work and having the option to change direction with it if needed. I was sad to see this one hit the cutting room floor. Shot on Red Weapon (Xenomorph) camera’s and Leica Summilux-C lenses. w/ @holtmccallany @alex_w_scott @camgrip, @mtnbikethis @reddigitalcinema @cwsonderoptic. . #davidfincher #mindhunter #netflix #reddigitalcinema #redweapon

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Director David Fincher is known for subjecting his actors to a lot of takes… this scene from Episode One was the most takes we shot during my tenure on the show. The shot in question was a long walk-and-talk between Holden @jonathangroff and his boss Shepherd. The shot begins in a FBI instruction room, pans to our characters on-looking from a hallway, and then they turn and walk through several corridors in the FBI headquarters. It’s well known that David doesn’t like Steadicams and despises a lack of stability and symmetry, therefore we shot this on a free-wheeling Chapman PeeWee dolly (he also hates bulky equipment) pulled backwards by our intrepid A-camera dolly grip Dwayne Barr @camgrip. The floor of our FBI sets were low carpet, so there was a fair amount of drag on the wheels causing resistance AND vibration, so we put a vibration isolator (basically a spring-mounted Mitchell plate) below the fluid head and Dwayne just had to steer and muscle it. I operated A camera on the show so I was riding the dolly and keeping a feather touch on the head to not transfer my own vibrations back into the camera that was been smoothed out to a degree by the shock-absorbing springs. I think we went for 3 more takes after I shot this slate. Fortunately, Dwayne got a weekend break after we completed this scene, he needed it. w/ @alex_w_scott @mtnbikethis I @reddigitalcinema. . #mindhunter #davidfincher #netflix #reddigitalcinema

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Thought Police

Asif Kapadia, director of episodes 3 and 4, with Erik Messerschmidt on the Mindhunter set.

Director David Fincher drove an era-defining aesthetic using the highest-end equipment. Definition spoke to cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt to find out how it influenced the huge Netflix hit, Mindhunter.

Julian Mitchell, Editor
January 2018
Definition (Bright Publishing)

Read the full interview:

Website version of the interview

Thanks to Joe Frady