Master storyteller David Fincher proves his penchant for the zeitgeist with his new film The Social Network. Fincher digs deep into the past of Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to examine how something that began between friends at college quickly descended into bitter acrimony and litigation once billions of dollars were at stake. The film is an acute examination of 21st-century culture, specifically the angst of society migrating from the real world over to the virtual sphere. With almost one in 12 people worldwide signed up to Facebook, the picture should pique the curiosity of a wide enough demographic come release time.
Fincher turned to cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, ASC (Down with Love, K-19: The Widowmaker), who came to the profession through his father Jordan—probably best remembered for his iconic work on such films as Blade Runner (1982) and Stop Making Sense (1984). From a young age, Cronenweth was introduced to the intricacies of cinematography and never looked back.
“I knew I wanted to be part of the business when I saw him as a kid,” admits Cronenweth. “I learned early on by watching him, and soon discovered that I wanted to do exactly what he did. I inadvertently absorbed and learned this craft through him.”
Cronenweth worked his way up the ladder as a loader and 2nd assistant before graduating high school. After graduation, he joined his father on set and met many skilled professionals such as John Toll, ASC, Dan Lerner, László Kovács, ASC, and John Schwartzman, ASC. He soon became 1st assistant and worked on eight pictures with veteran cinematographer Sven Nykvist, including Chaplin, Sleepless in Seattle and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
“As you go through the journey—as you call the lab, take light readings and all that—you become more educated on how it all happens,” says Cronenweth. “You’re learning because it’s not by virtue of trying to learn an art form, rather you’re fulfilling the obligations of a team. It’s less about ego and more about collaboration.”
Fincher and Cronenweth had previously teamed up on another era-defining feature called Fight Club back in 1999. They crossed paths again last year on an international iPhone commercial and discussed the possibility of partnering on another feature in the near future.
“I think that job rekindled the notion of working together again,” recalls Cronenweth, who notes Fincher’s remarkable acumen in choosing partners on projects. “I’m sure David went through all the incarnations of who would best serve The Social Network before coming to me. He’s very shrewd at matching style and subject matter to the cinematographer.”
Cronenweth was impressed with writer Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay and began discussions with Fincher on the look of the film. “David and I talked about what the film could be and what it wanted to be visually,” says Cronenweth. “It’s a very straightforward story and, in many ways, unusual for David because there are no chases, no killers, no depravity or any huge special effects.”
Thematically, the film bounces back and forth in time between university dorms and deposition rooms. Flashbacks show the audience what really happened or how a specific situation came to unfold. In essence, it’s a courtroom drama without courtrooms.
“It’s a masterful, magical word game,” adds Cronenweth. “A chess game of words between people and the energy that’s created through situation and language. We needed to figure out the best way to shoot the story.”
The production used the RED ONE system with its new Mysterium-X sensor. Cronenweth was familiar with the system, having shot spots and promos, but it also was the first film testing the new Mysterium-X sensor at 2:40 aspect ratio and 4K resolution.
Every decision we made visually and lighting-wise was based on the environment with logical motivation for light sources that allowed everything to be as rich and contrasty as possible.
—Jeff Cronenweth, ASC
“I’ve worked on commercials and one-day music videos using the RED system, but you don’t get to push the camera,” notes Cronenweth. “You lock in your goals to get it done. With David, we started using look-up tables for every environment to be sure we had what we needed and shot RAW throughout. We also didn’t have a DIT on set. The images that came off the sensor were beautiful.”
Cronenweth rated the Mysterium-X at ASA 500, mostly because of the comfort level where he likes to expose images, but also notes that production could have pushed as far as ASA 800 if required. This echoes the company’s claim that its new Mysterium-X sensor possesses the same effective noise characteristics at ASA 800 as the older Mysterium does at ASA 250, even though the pixel size is exactly the same for both.
Six weeks of prep led to a 70-day shoot where Fincher and Cronenweth created a pragmatic approach to filming the story. “A combination of elements dictated the final look,” notes Cronenweth. “Shallow depth of field on [ARRI] Master Primes was a big storytelling element. We’d shoot everything as wide open as possible and favored Pancro IR ND filters on exteriors to keep exposure wide open and minimize depth of field. The IRs were a necessity because of the warmth inherent in ND filters and the sensitivity of the sensor. It was difficult for the camera assistants at times, but the film really shines. It looks good and doesn’t look HD at all.”
Cronenweth notes that the dorms felt like a modern-day computer lab that nicely juxtaposed the wooded surroundings of the university. “The university surroundings add a classical touch to the image,” he says. “Every decision we made visually and lighting-wise was based on the environment with logical motivation for light sources that allowed everything to be as rich and contrasty as possible.”
Red Studios Hollywood
The Social Network was graded by LightIron Digital at RED STUDIOS HOLLYWOOD (the old Ren-Mar Studios) where Mysterium-X footage was projected real-time, full debayer through the Quantel Pablo 4K on the latest Sony SRX-T420 4K projector displaying 4096×2160 pixels, perfect for examining the image before delivering 2K for final product in theaters.
“The image from the projector looks beautiful up on the 45-foot screen,” says post supervisor Carey Smith, who came aboard The Social Network a few weeks before wrap. “We see firsthand how the image looks through the Pablo. You spot any anomalies, which is especially important for this director. Being my first digital film, I have to say I’m really impressed with how it looks.”
Working with DPX files (Digital Picture Exchange, a de facto file choice in post houses for some time now) provided Fincher and Smith with a great deal of flexibility. DPX files store color information, color space and color planes, plus lack “fixed” black and white levels. This gives Fincher the opportunity to polish the look he creates on set.
“Mr. Fincher is big about keeping his whites and blacks at a certain IRE level,” notes Smith. “We kept the mids and saturation under control and made sure there were no pinks or reds in the blacks. It’s interesting because I worked in digital effects on Fight Club, and at first I had the impression the TSN look was leaning toward Fight Club, but it’s further into the yellows and a very beautiful image.”
Fincher also continues his relationship with Reliance MediaWorks, a noteworthy company with a dominant and comprehensive presence in film services. Before transferring the final image over to film, Fincher used the company’s detail enhancement software. Enhancing fine detail in 2K and 4K digital imagery is a discipline not yet widely understood as it can introduce annoying artifacts in the pursuit of stellar definition.
Fincher specifically uses the company’s detail enhancement software because it carefully analyzes each frame to uncover slightly different detail between individual frames. When the best parts of each frame are ascertained, the detail can be enhanced.
“He likes to put his work through this process because, when you go to film from digital, you inherently get a softer look,” explains Smith. “It helps maintain sharpness.”
Some have noted a digital phenomenon that all sensors—including the RED ONE Mysterium-X sensor—can display, specifically a “circle of confusion” where focus can “jump” from one row of pixels to the next, a racking of focus, if you will. This is a markedly different result from film where a gradual focal transition happens due to randomly placed microscopic grains. This wasn’t seen in the post, however, except for one minor incident.
“We were color-correcting a scene of two actors sitting at a table next to each other,” recalls Smith, “and it was hard to see where the camera was focusing because there was a little bit of focal drift that could be what you’re referencing. But we only saw it in that one scene. One thing mentioned to RED was an exterior of a house and pool where the camera blew out the sky. We did some visual effects to bring back the sky and reduce the blowout, but having said that, the rest of the film looks gorgeous. It has a nice look, a darker cyan yellow feel. It’s really pretty.”
Smith says that the Mysterium-X displayed plenty of latitude and range for Fincher to play with in post, echoing the improved sensitivity and contrast range expressed by RED. “Having the new sensor definitely gave us a lot of freedom in post,” she says. “I thought, in all honesty, being my first digital film, it was a fantastic camera.”
After Effects CS5 also came into use during post, specifically for adding split screens of the actors. “If Mr. Fincher wanted an actor’s performance from one take and another actor’s performance from another take in one shot,” says Smith, “he’d split the screen and show the two separate takes of the actor side-by-side in different frames.”
Film Vs. Digital
After shooting The Social Network, Cronenweth admits he enjoys using both film and digital. He witnessed cinematographer Darius Khondji push film to its limits back in 1995 as a camera operator on yet another Fincher film, Se7en. Khondji used extensive bleach bypass and specific lighting on set to create the mood of the film.
“I love what Darius can do,” he says. “He’s an amazing guy, but today with the advent of digital, I like it as much as film. Don’t get me wrong, as I’d like to hold onto film for as long as we possibly can. I like the idea that each story has its own requirements. Some stories need to be told with film, others with digital. Film is still magical and unpredictable, but I love shooting digital and going to sleep at night knowing I don’t have to call a lab at 5 a.m. in the morning. That’s wonderful. But the other side of HD is that if it’s too easy, you can get complacent.”
Whatever the medium, Cronenweth stays inspired by the image his peers create. “Harris Savides is so iconic and always takes unorthodox ways of achieving light,” he says. “His career continues to develop, and he’s getting more minimalist with natural light. I mean, you watch Milk, and the way he works is the hardest thing to do. It looks like there’s no light added. He has mastered his skills so extensively that it’s underappreciated because it’s so hard to do.”
Cronenweth mentions that Fincher directs in the same vein on digital shoots as he does on film. “He likes to simplify the process as much as he can on set, so obviously digital has its merits,” says Cronenweth. “But on either medium, he’s all about lessening the size of the crew, lessening the circus, if you will. He creates an intimate atmosphere, and I think it shows on the screen.”
“Fincher is a man who knows what he wants,” adds Smith on the subject. “He’s really good at implementing his ideas and rallying the crew around those ideas. The movie has already got good buzz and looks amazing. For a talkie, it’s pretty intense.”
After The Social Network, Fincher now moves on to direct a remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a big hit stateside earlier in the year and based on the best-selling novel. Fincher is expected to use RED’s 5K EPIC-X digital camera on the shoot, possibly at the same time as fellow cineaste Steven Soderbergh, who’s using the 5K EPIC-X to shoot the action thriller Contagion this fall.
For more information on The Social Network, visit the film’s website at www.thesocialnetwork-movie.com.