Behind the Look

Writing the look for Mank

Erik Messerschmidt, ASC channels cinematographic legend Gregg Toland, ASC to recreate classic era Hollywood for David Fincher

Shot in black and white and often in deep focus, David Fincher’s Mank evokes 1930s classic cinema with rigorous attention to digital detail. Made for Netflix, this biographical drama stars Gary Oldman as Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he races to finish the Kane screenplay for Orson Welles.

Famously, Fincher was among the first A-list directors to embrace digital filmmaking. Since the groundbreaking production The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), he hasn’t deviated from using RED cameras and Mank was no exception. Fincher had always envisioned the screenwriter’s story being told in black and white.

“It would be a crime not to make this movie in black and white,” says Erik Messerschmidt, ASC, who recently earned an Emmy® nomination for shooting Fincher’s Netflix series Mindhunter. “Digital was just right for this project for all manner of reasons.”

“It would be a crime not to make this movie in black and white”

He continues, “David and I needed to be able to look at a monitor and get very specific about everything that exists in the frame - the set dressing, the composition, the lighting, the overall tone. Being able to see the image on the monitor and make those creative decisions analytically is crucial to David’s process. In contrast, there is an imprecise nature to composing a shot with a film camera. It just doesn’t provide the same level of control we need.”

There were additional editorial reasons why digital was appropriate for Mank.

“For this movie we wanted to shoot very deep focus photography for most of the film and then be very specific about where we used shallow focus,” Messerschmidt says. “Shooting on film would have significantly limited our creative choices, particularly with focus and depth of field.”

Deep focus keeps everything in the frame in focus – foreground to background – and requires a small aperture and lots of light. It’s a technique pioneered by American landscape photographers like Ansel Adams in the 1920s, adopted for cinema in the ‘30s and popularized by Citizen Kane.

In prep, the DP evaluated a number of RED cameras including a prototype of KOMODO, a RED DSMC2 WEAPON housing a color MONSTRO sensor and both a DRAGON 6K and HELIUM 8K MONOCHROME sensor in a RED RANGER body. Recent arthouse hits like Roma were shot in color and converted to black and white, but this route would not offer the range of control the filmmakers required.

“I was keen to learn if having color information in the digital negative would give us expanded freedom in the DI or tonal control we would otherwise lose if shooting just in black and white,” Messerschmidt says. “What we found was that the 8K HELIUM black-and-white camera was superior in tonal quality. It gave us a silvery platinum print quality and tonal depth that we didn’t we see from the color cameras. It was overwhelmingly clear to us when we sat in a theatre and screened the tests.”

“Shooting on film would have significantly limited our creative choices, particularly with focus and depth of field.”

Monochrome sensors are capable of higher detail and sensitivity because there is no color filter (no Bayer Pattern) of the incoming light. A color sensor would filter the light to match the primary red, green, blue pixels. RED’s monochrome sensor effectively records three times as much light from the scene, which in turn translates into a 1 to 1.5 stop improvement in light sensitivity.

Having decided on the RANGER HELIUM Monochrome, Messerschmidt made further tests against charts and then in real world settings with stand-in actors in wardrobe, comparing day and night interior and exteriors, filtration, lens resolution, and depth of field.

“The aim was to see how far we could push the camera to where the balance of speed and grain (digital noise) was where we wanted it,” he explains. “We wanted to shoot as deep an f-stop as we were comfortable with so speed was very important. We found the camera recorded a very clean image at 1600 ASA but we actually preferred the grain at 3200 ASA. That changed the contrast slightly. You got more noise in the shadow and a bit more highlight retention.”

Working with colorist Eric Weidt, Messerschmidt took footage through a rough grade, examined it projected on large screen in 4K and in 4K on an HDR display in the DI suite.

The greater light sensitivity of the monochrome sensor was helpful in meeting the intent to shoot large parts of the movie in keeping with the techniques Toland helped pioneer for Citizen Kane.

To emphasize depth of field, Messerschmidt used a Cmotion Cinefade, an accessory that allows the gradual transition between deep and shallow depth of field in one shot at constant exposure.

Footage was acquired in 8K REDCODE RAW at a 2:1 aspect ratio but framed by a 20% reduced center extraction in 2.2:1. The resulting capture has a resolution around 6.5K. This gave enough latitude to help with some reframing and shot stabilization before delivery to Netflix at 4K HDR at a 2.21:1 aspect ratio.

Method to the Monochrome

“We restricted our tools to what would have been available in the 1930's”

With Panavision and Keslow Camera, Messerschmidt tested dozens of different lens options on exterior and interior sets before selecting the Leica Summilux-C, the same primes deployed on Mindhunter.

“They seemed to perform best in terms of resolution and also apparent depth of field. Other lenses technically held more resolution at T11 but their apparent depth of field was also less.” With Weidt working on FilmLight’s Baselight, Messerschmidt developed a similar workflow to the one they devised for Mindhunter S2, notably monitoring on set exclusively in HDR, only this time in black and white.

“We took LOG3G10 out of the camera and monitored on a Canon 24-inch professional display in Dolby PQ (Dolby Vision). In post, Eric applies the same LUT so it’s empirically extremely close to what we saw on set. The beautiful thing about this was being able to see images that were very close to the dynamic range of the sensor’s capabilities. When the sensor was clipped, the monitor and waveform was clipped so we were in a good position to protect highlights while being confident the images we captured on set would be replicated in Eric’s DI suite.”

In keeping with the classic Hollywood look, Messerschmidt’s camera is relatively static on a dolly or crane, with no handheld or Steadicam work.

“We restricted our tools to what would have been available in the 1930s,” he says. “We tried very hard to stay true to long takes and holding on two shots.”

Day-for-night challenge

A singularly challenging scene where Hearst walks with Davies through the gardens and zoo of Hearst Castle was shot day for night outdoors.

“Any day exterior is always challenging and day for night just makes it more complicated. It’s all about controlling contrast, often by adding a tremendous amount of light onto the actor without pointing lots of 18KW HMIs at their face and making it uncomfortable for them to perform.”

DP and colorist built a day for night LUT into the camera for the scene which was shot at Huntington Botanical Gardens near Pasadena, California. Often the biggest ‘tell’ that a scene has been shot day for night is if the car headlamps or street lights are not bright enough. They’ve been noticeably underexposed in relation to the front light. To counter this, Messerschmidt deployed 400w bulbs in specially built practical fixtures.

Other night scenes in Mank are shot night for night. The decision in this case was partly in homage to 1930s filming when common production techniques included hiding light bulbs behind a candle, painting shadows on a dark wall and shooting day for night.

“Mank and Marion enjoy a platonic romance and in this scene she opens up to him about her relationship with Hearst,” Messerschmidt explains. “Fincher wanted the scene to have a bit of a magical quality to it. This is enhanced because we’re showing them walking among Heart’s zoo of elephants, giraffes and monkeys, all of which required some visual effects help.”

“…in black and white you are more reliant on light and texture to tell the story”

To enhance the picture’s contrast and period look they added effects such as flare enhancement and distortion around highlights in post.

“I really love the circular halation lenses of the period produced around highlights,” Messerschmidt adds. “In the release prints of the period you got this very subtle bloom in the blacks – a kind of halation around the darker parts of the frame. That was something David really wanted to bring out. So, with Eric we worked out a way of keying the blacks to a certain level and added a bit of blur. We’re kind of art directing each frame.”

In another subtle nod to cinema’s photochemical heyday, Fincher simulates ‘gate weave’ caused when 35mm release prints advanced through the sprockets of a projector. The artifact is most noticeable during title cards and dissolves, which is when, in Mank, a similar effect is applied digitally.

“Color cinematography relies heavily on focus and color separation to guide the audience’s eye but in black and white you are more reliant on light and texture to tell the story,” Messerschmidt says. “It’s been a tremendously rewarding experience.”

A big thanks to DP Erik Messerschmidt,ASC for allowing RED to share behind the scenes of MANK.

RED’s HELIUM 8K S35 sensor delivers 17x more resolution than HD, over 4x more than 4K, and over 16 stops of dynamic range. HELIUM’s unmatched performance offers users benefits such as the flexibility of super-sampling, cropping, and stabilizing in post to produce unbelievable content without compromising their vision.
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HELIUM MONOCHROME is available in the modular DSMC2 or all-in-one RANGER system.

2020 | R | 2H 11M | Biography, Comedy, Drama

1930’s Hollywood is reevaluated through the eyes of scathing social critic and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he races to finish the screenplay of Citizen Kane (1941).

Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins

Watch Mank