Netflix’s Mindhunter series is inspired by true events. Directed by David Fincher, the show focuses on FBI agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench, who try to understand the psyches of notorious serial killers. Mindhunter’s first season debuted in 2017, and the second season returned in the summer of 2019.
Season 2 stars Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Anna Torv, Joe Tuttle, Albert Jones, Stacey Roca, Michael Cerveris, Lauren Glazier and Sierra McClain. While Fincher was the series’ primary director, Andrew Dominik and Carl Franklin also directed episodes.
Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, ASC, had worked with Fincher in the past. He was a gaffer on the filmmaker’s Gone Girl, and was excited to receive a call, inviting him to come onboard to reshoot part of the pilot and second episode back in 2017. The show was already shooting with a Red camera for Season 1, and upgraded to the newer Hellium 8K sensor for Season 2.
Kirk Baxter of Santa Monica’s Exile also has a long-standing relationship with David Fincher. He’s cut The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), The Social Network (2010) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) — all of which won the Oscar for Best Editing, a credit he shared with Angus Wall. He also cut 2014’s Gone Girl (2014), and is currently working on an upcoming Netflix feature with the director titled Mank.
RED is Behind the Look with Erik Messerschmidt, ASC who brings a gentle, elegant visual sensibility to the Netflix series MINDHUNTER. We screen and breakdown pivotal shots from Season Two of this crime thriller, and discuss what it’s like to collaborate with the legendary David Fincher.
The cinematographer of David Fincher’s hit Netflix series, Mindhunter, Erik Messerschmidt ASC takes us behind the scenes the show.
Erik and Go Creative Show host, Ben Consoli, discuss how he created the distinct look of Mindhunter, why David Fincher shoots so many takes, mastering good camera movement, how Erik preps for shoots, and more!
What you will learn in this episode:
Importance of film school and on-set experience (02:22)
What Erik is watching during COVID-19 (12:08)
Visual approach to MINDHUNTER (15:48)
Mastering good camera movement (20:08)
Camera and lens package (22:22)
Why David Fincher shoots so many takes (27:28)
Compositing multiple takes together (42:05)
Approach to lighting (44:57)
Shot diagrams and storyboarding (54:18)
Lighting the prison scenes (01:01:59)
Exposing for dark cinematography (01:04:25)
Color theory and how it affects the audience (01:05:21)
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.
PIX has worked closely with David Fincher and his No. 13 production company since Panic Room in 2001, developing tools and services that have fundamentally changed how feature films and television shows are made. One of the first directors to embrace digital cameras with his use of the Thomson Viper on Zodiac, Fincher and his team are constantly redefining technology as they seek to blur the line between production and post production and strive to automate the mundane and more clearly communicate their creative vision.
On Netflix’s Mindhunter, Fincher again used the latest digital capture technology – custom RED Xenomorph cameras designed to his specifications, integrating all the usual camera components (wireless video transmitters, focus controls etc.) into the camera for a much more ergonomic design. But Fincher’s desire for innovation extended far beyond the camera, so he again turned to PIX.
Working on his current project, the second season of Mindhunter, David Fincher was looking for a way to better convey the thoughts and ideas he came up with during production via annotations attached to the image captured by the camera. In the past, a thought about the grading required for a particular shot might have been conveyed via a phone call to the dailies colorist much later in the day after shooting wrapped. David Fincher required a real-time telestration solution, rather than a delayed response later in the evening or next day. And it absolutely could not delay shooting or increase the footprint or complexity of production.
PIX has built a system that makes the often-used term “Connected Set” real. PIX OnSet creates a clip of the take and immediately presents this clip to the director via a tablet, so that he or she can make annotations and notes on the image right after it has been captured. These notes are then securely uploaded via PIX to all the approved members of the production who can review them along with image files. Other approved production crew – for example, DP Erik Messerschmidt – can also add their own notes. These notes are securely conveyed through to editorial and post production along with the image files and other metadata.
PRODUCTS DEPLOYED ON MINDHUNTER
– PIX for Desktop, Web, iOS – PIX OnSet – The series also utilized the PIX Developer Program for custom integrations.
Real-Time Creative Capture – The thoughts and ideas of the creative team are recorded in real-time immediately after the take. This ensures that their vision and ideas are communicated clearly and without change through the many lines of communication to the rest of the production team, reducing the potential for misunderstanding. For example, the editorial team can easily see any notes the director or DP have made without relying on paper, phone calls or emails sent later in the day. This might be a note that a take needs to be printed down half a stop or a note that something in the frame needs to be removed in post. Having the note linked to the image vastly reduces the opportunity for error and saves valuable time.
Patented Content Security – Along with the rest of the industry-leading PIX platform, PIX OnSet is extremely secure, built on PIX’s patented DRM with dynamic and forensic watermarking and meets the exacting standards of the MPAA.
Minimal Footprint On Set – Rather than adding to the on-set production infrastructure, PIX OnSet actually reduces it by providing immediate playback of takes to authorized devices as they are captured by the camera
No Production Delays – As authorized members of the creative team can annotate the file immediately and easily on their own tablet, there is absolutely no slowdown in the pace of production.
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.
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.
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
Visualizing the daring and often scary world of David Fincher requires new technologies and processes rarely attempted in series television.
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.