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.”
Has any cinematographer had so fast an ascendancy as Erik Messerschmidt? While no newcomer—his IMDb dates back to 2001, his first cinematography credit from 2003—work on Gone Girl earned the attention of David Fincher, by whom Messerschmidt was then enlisted to shoot his Netflix series Mindhunter. (Impressive then, all the more sterling since as an example of streaming television that doesn’t look or move like streaming television.) Which led into Mank which led into The Killer, Fincher’s much-anticipated thriller arriving next year.
Somewhere along the way Michael Mann called. I talked to Messerschmidt at ENERGACamerimage, where he was promoting the new feature Devotion and mere weeks from wrapping Ferrari, Mann’s first feature in longer than you’d believe and a passion project of equal gestation—nothing you leave in the hands of an amateur. Certainly not if you’re as obsessive, fastidious, demanding as Michael Mann. Meeting in Toruń’s CKK Jordanki, we were quick to start.
“A place to unload all my cinematic truths.” —Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC
How do you cultivate a career in Hollywood? What does it take to make iconic work? There’s an art to everything in life and the Art of the Shot explores the answers to those questions and more through deep-dives into the minds of master filmmakers. Join host Derek Stettler, young filmmaker and writer for the ASC and SOC magazines since 2016, as he learns from the artists behind today’s most strikingly-shot projects. Enjoy compelling conversations on the craft, insights from successful careers, tips, techniques + more!
In this episode, you’ll hear from both the cinematographer and the “A” camera operator of Mindhunter, who worked together throughout Season 1 and 2 to shoot every single episode. Please enjoy this exclusive interview with Erik Messerschmidt, ASC and Brian Osmond, SOC!
Brian Osmond, Gaffer Danny Gonzalez, and Erik Messerschmidt (Nikolai Loveikis)
In this episode, you’ll learn:
– Erik’s career path (00:04:06) – Erik’s favorite part of the job (00:06:42) – What DP’s should know to best work with their gaffers, from Erik’s experience working as a gaffer before becoming a DP (00:07:02) – Unique skills Erik gained from his experience as a gaffer (00:07:56) – How Brian got his career started (00:11:19) – Brian’s favorite part of his job (00:12:19) – What other directors can learn from how David Fincher treats his crew (00:18:39) – The thought process & techniques behind Mindhunter‘s precise camera movement (00:22:50) – The strategic use of handheld camera operating (00:34:27) – The collaborative nature of the Mindhunter set (00:37:34) – The importance of having a dedicated camera operator on set, especially on a David Fincher set (00:41:19) – Erik’s role as “quality control supervisor” (00:44:21) – Why a monitor on a David Fincher set is covered in smudges (00:46:57) – Why there’s no such thing as a B camera “bonus shot” on Mindhunter & how shots are planned out for multiple cameras (00:48:23) – What Erik thinks is the hardest shot to do well (00:52:04) – How Erik lights & shoots with 2 cameras simultaneously (00:53:41) – Erik’s approach to lighting Mindhunter & techniques used (00:56:55) – Erik’s preference for real fluorescent lighting (01:03:30) – Mindhunter‘s production design and how much of the locations were built (01:05:01) – Favorite set of Season 2 (01:06:26) – How getting scripts in advance helps them work better (01:10:44) – The innovative car process shooting on Mindhunter & how it works (01:12:38) – How virtual production helps realize every filmmaker’s dream, stopping time, & how Erik used that to shoot a 9-minute dialog scene at dawn (01:18:02) – How the car process shooting on Mindhunter evolved from Season 1 (01:22:37) – How the custom RED digital cinema camera, dubbed the Xenomorph, evolved from Season 1 (01:27:22) – Why Brian prefers a fluid head over a geared head to achieve those smooth, precise shots David Fincher loves (01:37:34) – How to shoot a scene & why “Fix it in prep!” should be every filmmaker’s mantra (01:42:08) – All about the lenses used on Mindhunter & how Erik art directed the artifacts & nuances of every optical aberration (01:48:10) – Tips from Brian on getting really precise shots with a fluid head, what operating technique Erik has learned from Brian, & how being self-critical is a key to his success (01:56:42) – What Erik & Brian feel is the most rewarding part of working on Mindhunter (02:02:47)
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Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt expanded the visual aesthetic of David Fincher’s “Mindhunter” in Season 2, as FBI profilers Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) investigate the notorious Atlanta Child Murders, and, as a result, he earned his first Emmy nomination.
“Our aim was to continue what we had developed in Season 1 while considering location with a bit more depth,” said Messerschmidt, who also shot Fincher’s “Mank,” the Netflix black-and-white biopic about “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman). “David expressed to me in the beginning to never forget what Atlanta is like in the summer. I tried hard to consider that whenever we were telling that part of the story.
“We really wanted our agents to be visualized with location in mind,” he said, “so I used more hard sunlight, atmosphere, and contrast to contribute to that hot, muggy feel. I think you could make the case that the lighting of Season 2 has a bit more gesture and shape to it, in part, because I used more contrast, which was a conscious choice. With that in mind, however, it was always a top priority to make sure the look and camera style of the series not take centerstage. I wanted the photography to be as non-invasive and invisible as possible so the audience could fully appreciate the story.”
Messerschmidt upgraded to the 8K RED Helium sensor for Season 2 after testing a prototype in the first season. This provided better sensitivity and higher color fidelity for the new Dolby Vision HDR workflow. “I found I could be much more minimal with my use of artificial light even at relatively low ISO ratings,” he said. “The intention was to consider every lighting choice with motivation in mind and use as much natural light and practical light as possible.”
Format:Redcode RAW .r3d in 8k Camera: Custom Red Xenomorph Mk2 designed by the team at RED. The camera uses an 8k RED Helium sensor. Format: Both seasons of “Mindhunter” were shot using Leica Summilux-C series Prime lenses. The majority of the show was shot using only three focal lengths, the 29mm, 40mm and 65mm.
Erik Messerschmidt: The visual style of “Mindhunter” is really about restraint and nuance. We wanted the storytelling to be very objective and simple with a limited use of POV. I think limiting ourselves to these focal lengths forced us to be meticulous with our coverage. All of our visual choices revolved around camera direction, blocking, and composition. David [Fincher] and I built the visual language around three distinct types of shots; wide masters, overs and singles; we moved the camera very little. This type of methodical camera direction lead to the rhythmic cutting sequence of the interview scenes which is really the visual foundation of the show. Shooting on prime lenses requires a bit more discipline than zooms when you’re lining up a shot, as you have to consider camera placement as it relates and composition.
In this 60-minute video, Erik Messerschmidt, ASC discusses his Emmy-nominatedcamerawork in the disturbing and insightful Netflix crime series Mindhunterwith interviewer Charlie Lieberman, ASC.
Based on the true-crime book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit and set in the early 1980s, this period drama depicts the investigations of two FBI special agents from the Behavioral Science Unit (Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany) tasked with furthering the understanding of serial killers and their motivations, with the hope of using this research to solve cold cases or stop active predators.
Shooting in Mindhunter in 8K for 4K delivery with a 2.2:1 aspect ratio, Messerschmidt generally employs multiple Red Xenomorph Mk2 8K Helium cameras paired with Leica Summilux-C Primes and Fujinon Premiere Zooms, often with Mitomo IR TrueNDs. (More about the show here.)
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.