David Fincher and Erik Messerschmidt, ASC target V-RAPTOR to shoot The Killer
April 10th, 2024

In David Fincher’s Netflix darkly comic thriller The Killer, Michael Fassbender is the nameless assassin who goes on an international hunt for revenge while insisting to himself that it isn’t personal.

The film marks the second Fincher-directed feature shot by Erik Messerschmidt ASC, following the Citizen Kane drama Mank, for which he won the 2020 Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

It is also the latest in a long line of Fincher movies since The Social Network to be shot on RED.

“There was not a conversation about using another camera system - there never is with David,” Messerschmidt says. “RED as a partner have been enormously collaborative with us in terms of helping us develop new ideas and solve problems. RED is absolutely creative partners to David’s process and certainly to me.”

David Fincher and Erik Messerschmidt on set

Establishing the film’s visual code

The filmmakers play with the rhythm of having the audience watching the contract killer at work or conceptually being inside his head and seeing exactly what he’s looking at. This evolved into a coded set of visuals to convey the objective and subjective sides to the story.

“On Mindhunter and certainly on Mank the visual grammar was very much about putting the audience in the position of observer,” Messerschmidt explains. “They are not participating in the conversation, they are right behind someone, over the shoulder.

“David didn’t want to do that on this movie. He wanted to put the audience in the position of watching this person go through their process, very objectively, until the moment where the Killer sees something and then we are subjected to his point of view, front and center with him. In the beginning we place the camera just off his eyeline, seeing his point of view, starting off with very long Fujinon Premiere PL zooms. That’s established early on, and we use that throughout the entire film.”

Michael Fassbender on set

A later dialogue scene in an upmarket restaurant where the Killer meets his intended victim (played by Tilda Swinton) would normally have been shot by Fincher and Messerschmidt with a wide, a shot over the shoulder, then the reverse.

“We didn’t do that on this movie. It was very intentionally about subjectivity and what is going on dramatically in the scene. We bring the audience into a space where no one ever gets closer than the character would allow anyone to get to him. In those situations, we have 29mm and 25mm Leitz Summilux-C primes.”

Fincher works with V-RAPTOR

Fincher has been a staunch user of RED’s camera systems over the years, and this continues with The Killer which marked his first use of the RED V-RAPTOR 8K VV.

“When we were doing the initial director’s scouting on The Killer, I was sent a prototype V-RAPTOR. We had shot Mank on the HELIUM 8K S35 [monochrome] and that would have been fine on this film but there were certain things that I wanted in particular for The Killer. For instance, I wanted greater spectral performance in low light. We also wanted to shoot Cinemascope 2.35, to capture the killer and his prey together in the frame.”

“V-RAPTOR was the answer. It is extremely high resolution with fantastic spectral sensitivity. It maintains saturation all the way into the deep end of the exposure - which is a systemic problem with digital cameras - and it allowed us to shoot in 7K with our Super 35 lenses so we could perform an enormous amount of post destabilization for all our handheld work.”

A fight scene in a Florida house involving the Killer and rival assassin ‘The Brute’ has been meticulously “art directed” by Messerschmidt to add more shakiness to the handheld camera work.

He explains, “Brian Wells is just too good an operator, so we needed to screw the work up a little bit. We would cover the shot in 5.5K which translates to 24mm wide on the sensor when you put on the S35 lens. Then we’d put the camera in 6K or 7K mode depending on how much bumper we wanted outside of the frame to allow us lots of room for stabilization or destabilization in postproduction according to the pitch of the scene.”

“The V-RAPTOR is uniquely suited to that type of work. It is something we couldn’t have done on another camera, because there just isn’t that sensor room, unless we were to have a substantially smaller shooting size, which was not what we wanted to do. It’s truly an amazing storytelling tool.”

David Fincher, Erik Messerschmidt and Michael Fassbender on set

It took a week to stage the multiple set-ups for the Brute fight scene. “Most of it was shot two camera although we put three on the more dangerous stunts such as when they break a table. With David it’s almost exclusively a two-camera shoot. We sometimes tease the idea of doing a single camera set up, but inevitably it will end up as two cameras.”

RED KOMODO was also deployed, notably to record plates in Paris for the opening sequence of the view from the killer’s nest.

“I adore the KOMODO. I’ve shot a lot with it. It’s great because the color processing and science, is identical to the V-RAPTOR so it blends beautifully. In Paris when the Killer is staking out the apartment across the street, all the plates were shot from a six-storey window. We had nine cameras stuffed in this tiny window so KOMODO was really helpful because we could get those lenses extremely close to each other. Also, the camera’s global shutter was helpful in creating sharp, solid images for car plates in this film.”

Designing the look

Although the composition for The Killer owes something to the French graphic novel ‘Le Tueur’ source material, the camerawork is precisely framed and controlled to mirror the confidence and movement of Fassbender’s performance. None of it was storyboarded in advance.

“We don’t storyboard unless there’s something that we need to specifically articulate to a large group of people, such as trying to explain which streets are locked off for a car chase,” the DP elaborates. “When I work with David our approach is more nuts-and-bolts. It might be that I’d cover the scene with a 29mm lens, the actor will come in right to left, maybe sit at a table and we’ll get overs, CUs and POVs. That is usually our workflow, and it was the same on The Killer. The scenes aren't particularly complex in terms of coverage the way they were in Mank.

David is also really generous with actors and allows them to run the scene and see where it goes. There’s plenty more flexibility to change the way a scene is built out than people realise.”

The rest of the film’s style and much of the tone and palette emerged during location recces with the bulk of interiors shot on stage in Louisiana.

“Even though the film is stylistic our entire approach came from a place of naturalism and available light. We don’t actually use a lot of artificial light. This came out of our experience with David and [production designer] Donald Graham Burt looking at how the locations were going to work together. David was clear that the audience should experience each one as a discrete and different environment.”

They subdivided the picture into three looks seeking a humidity for the Dominican Republic and a cooler look for Paris. “For me, Paris always looks blue, even in Summer,” he says. “Perhaps it is those sodium-vapor streetlamps. To me, a film’s color is informed by so many different parties from costume and production design to make-up. The DPs participation is ultimately the icing on the cake. That’s not to say we are not actively involved in the conversation, but I rebel against idea that it’s exclusively my jurisdiction.”

HDR workflow

Beginning with Mindhunter, Messerschmidt has developed an on-set HDR workflow and evolved it on every single movie he has shot since in collaboration with post supervisor and Colorist Eric Weidt.

“I have been a proponent of that idea especially if you are going to finish in HDR. It’s a DIT-less workflow where we build the LUTs in advance. For The Killer we built three LUTs depending on location [Paris, DR and New Orleans/Chicago]. They don’t touch the gamma or contrast at all, but they do adjust color hue. Those LUTs were loaded into the REDs and the images given an HDR transform for on-set monitoring so when Eric does the initial grade, he fires up those LUTs as a baseline for us to start from. We monitored in HDR on-set with Sony 17-inch monitors and had HDR dailies – editorial had HDR as well – in DCI-P3 and Dolby PQ Gamma.

“The dailies are made essentially as a one light print. You apply the LUT and process the footage and there is no grading done at all. It’s very similar to film actually.”

For all the kinetic and precision action of The Killer much of the film shows the anti-hero watching and waiting. Messerschmidt says he is proud of the fight scene his favourite shot is one of these silent and still moments.

“I love the car interiors when he is just sitting there such as one outside of the Expert’s [Tilda Swinton] house. His breath is condensing on the window, and I love that.”

Erik Messerschmidt on set