Year – 2019
Decade – 2010s
Cinematographer – Erik Messerschmidt (imdb link) (Instagram feed)
Director – David Fincher (Ep 1-3), Andrew Dominik (Ep 4-5), Carl Franklin (Ep 6-9)
Aspect Ratio – 2.2
Distributor – Netflix
Genre – Drama
Camera – Red Helium 8K S35
Lenses – Leica Summilux-C
Format – Digital
Season 2 of Netflix’s based-in-fact series finds the FBI’s fledgling Behavioral Science unit putting its theories into practice to hunt a child killer in Atlanta.
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Groups of Frames
Serial Killer Interviews
Filmmaker: I want to talk about your general approach to shooting the serial killer interviews. How many cameras are you typically using?
Messerschmidt: Most of the interview scenes were shot with two cameras, with an occasional third camera used in very heavy dialogue scenes. I usually operated the third camera.
Filmmaker: What are your rules for camera movement? There are often traveling shots to get Holden and Tench into the interview area, but once the offender sits down the camera rarely—if ever—moves.
Messerschmidt: As filmmakers we use the camera, and specifically the content of the frame, to indicate what we want the audience to understand, [to highlight the elements] that we are saying are important. With Mindhunter we took composition and blocking very seriously. If the shot is about space and environment we might move the camera. If it’s about showing our characters experiencing a space or learning new information, we’ll use POV. If it’s about dialogue and the characters’ experience of a dramatic moment, we usually kept the camera objective. We were very careful in our use of POV and perspective. The second the audience is aware of the handheld or operated camera, I think they start to assume point of view and it affects the perspective from which they experience the scene. So, we were careful. We only moved the camera when we felt it was absolutely necessary or thematically appropriate. It was something we did only with tremendous purpose. I think if a director feels the need to move the camera simply to “make it interesting,” it’s likely an indicator the scene itself isn’t that interesting.
Filmmaker: How do you plan your coverage for those scenes? The interviews are covered from a lot of angles, some just slightly tighter or looser than another similar shot. Do you storyboard or do detailed shotlists?
Messerschmidt: It depends on the director. For our dialogue scenes, many of which are very long, we would usually rehearse, sometimes days in advance, and discuss our coverage plan after we had the blocking worked out. It’s difficult to storyboard dialogue scenes because a lot of the shot structure and design depends on performance and staging. It’s particularly difficult to predict from the script alone the off-dialogue looks between actors and the nuanced performance beats. A scene might have one or two “trick shots” used in the apex of a dramatic moment, but for the most part we stuck to very formal coverage—a mix of overs, profiles and tight eye line close ups. David asks the actors to be very structured and consistent with their movement and choreography. If an actor chooses to smoke, for example, it’s important that they take a drag at the same time in the scene in each take so there is editorial continuity in the coverage. We shoot with primes on the show, restricting ourselves to three or four focal lengths, which also contributes to the formality and consistency of the coverage. Carl Franklin did storyboard most of the action scenes in his episodes. Scenes such as the car chase and cross running were entirely storyboarded, mostly as a communication tool for all the departments as they were logistically complicated scenes.
Filmmaker: Do you run most of the angles all the way through the scene? Or if you have a super wide or a super tight that you know might only be used for one or two beats, do you just pick up specific sections of the scene?
Messerschmidt: That is, of course, the director’s choice, but in general I would say all the directors usually ran the entire scene for each setup, often at the actors’ request. You never totally know what will become useful editorially and sometimes there are nuances in the performance that appear when you least expect it. I think it also helps the actors to work things out. When you run the wide master several times all the way through it’s a good way for the actors to hone their performance and work out the physical action, their use of hand props, pauses and pacing. When we would get one or two prints of the wide masters, whether they were developing shots or static frames, David would say, “OK, we’ll match to that.” Then we would know where the scene’s beats were and how we needed to support them with the camera and the subsequent coverage. It’s a nice way to work.
Messerschmidt: For Berkowitz we wanted the room to feel cool and uninviting. Steve Arnold built a beautiful set where the table is surrounded by a giant cage. It gave us great composition opportunities. We built a large toplight in the center of the room, which I filled with LEDs. We shot some tests in there during the pre-light and David and I liked the color contrast with the cooler toplight and warmer light in the background. We also tested the light with [Berkowitz actor] Oliver Cooper’s prosthetic makeup to make sure we liked the outcome.
Filmmaker: Is it hard to keep track of the eye lines in these scenes? There are moments where you’re intentionally crossing over the 180-degree line.
Messerschmidt: I would say we’re generally pretty dogmatic with screen direction on the show. I think when you have supporting screen direction for each dramatic interaction it makes the cutting sequence subliminally cleaner and smoother. We often shot the interviews from multiple sides of the line, which gives the editors the option to deliberately cross the line in a specific part of the cutting sequence. I think it’s an interesting technique to manipulate the audience’s experience, even if it’s a very nuanced effect.
Messerschmidt: David and Steve Arnold thought it would be interesting if Holden and Tench interviewed Manson in the prison infirmary. The location they found was in a decommissioned prison in Pennsylvania that we used quite a bit in the show. The scene is predominantly lit with cool, soft daylight motivated from the windows. It took two or three days to shoot the scene, so we built tents outside the windows and used Litegear LiteTiles to generate the soft light, as we would be unable to control the natural light across the entire shooting time.
Messerschmidt: Paul Bateson was lit with fluorescents, as many of the scenes in the show are, but this time we hung them very low so they were just above the tabletop. This meant we could keep the background dark as it fell off against the brighter table light.
Messerschmidt: I often worked with mixed color temperatures because I believe the lighting should be motivated from the set. Mixes of fluorescent, sodium vapor, mercury and neon were common sources, but I wouldn’t describe any of them as “sickly” or “less than pleasant.” I take the natural lighting of every set and historical context into consideration before deciding a lighting approach for each scene. It is also, of course, intrinsically important to consider how our lighting and color palette supports the themes, atmosphere and story of the project. David and I take the color palette very seriously, with tremendous purpose and careful planning. Our production designer Steve Arnold and I spent an enormous amount of time discussing paint colors, lighting fixtures, windows and practical lights in every set, specifically in terms of how those sets would exist in reality. Our color palette is supported by costumes, set design, lighting and ultimately the grade. Lighting is just one part of a holistic aesthetic approach to the look of the show.
In terms of working practice, I didn’t use any “colored” light per se, with the exception of some Sodium Vapor colored light in distant backgrounds. In most cases we were working with natural “white” light, endeavoring to use full spectrum sources. In scenes predominantly lit with incandescent lamps the light is warmer. In office scenes lit with fluorescents the light is slightly cooler and greener. Day interiors were either overcast and blue or brightly lit with hard sunlight. It all depends on the context of the scene, the location or set. Lighting is all story and location driven for me.
In terms of skin tones on the Red camera, specifically, I haven’t found any issues getting the color rendition and fidelity I want out of the camera. We found we had tremendous room in the DI to push the color around as we saw fit. We used the “skin tone” internal OLPF with great success.
Messerschmidt: I try to stay away from traditional “smart side key” lighting in dramatic work, as that method often feels a little too “lit” and unnatural for my taste. A lot of the scenes in our show take place in fluorescent-lit offices and interrogation rooms, so the light is predominantly motivated from above. I use a very small LED eye light we call “the puck,” because it’s the size and shape of a hockey puck. In shots where the key light isn’t in the actor’s eye line I use it to add a little catchlight. With this catchlight I can expose the actor’s face darker, as long as we read the eyes. I think it’s very important, especially in dramatic scenes, to see the actor’s eyes and their intensity.
Messerschmidt: We wanted Mindhunter to have aesthetic characteristics reminiscent of anamorphic but without the negative drawbacks those lenses often saddle us with. As a result the barrel distortion, chromatic aberration and horizontal flares were added in post with the help of our VFX team. It was great for me because we could adjust those effects to taste in the DI, which was particularly helpful when it came to distortion. We spent a lot of time on Mindhunter with composition and blocking, so getting the lens distortion just right was a huge part of getting the shot to look as good as possible in the end.