Erik Messerschmidt on the set of Mank
In 1941, a 25-year-old Orson Welles made one of the most promising cinema debuts of Directing, taking notes, starring in Citizen Kane and producing. With Mank – David Fincher's view of the development of Kane's script – the cameraman Erik Messerschmidt himself creates an impressive arc.
After he had worked his way up through the ranks of grip and electro players in the shows Legion, Mindhunter and Fargo and earned DP credits, Messerschmidt's very first feature film landed him in the middle of the Oscar talk. Now that Mank has streamed on Netflix, Messerschmidt spoke to the filmmaker about depth of field, high ISO values and painting in lens effects. and how you yourself “compromise when you get out of bed” when working with David Fincher.
Filmmaker: Let's start with the cameras you used on Mank. Red has built a customized version of your monochrome sensor for you?
Messerschmidt: We had a helium monochrome sensor and Red made a couple of Red Ranger housings for us with this sensor. This is a camera housing that was built for rental houses and contains some other features that are more geared towards the rental market, such as additional SDI outputs. It's a slightly larger camera, but a bit more productive than its DSMC2 version. We had three of them, then a couple of DSMC2 guns with monochrome sensors that we used for stripped-down camera positions or in the gimbal with the Ronin.
Filmmaker: Why did you choose the monochrome camera instead of shooting on a normal red and desaturating? Was it technical considerations or was their appearance less quantifiable?
Messerschmidt: At first I actually had the assumption that the color camera in DI might be better for us because we could pick up certain colors and evaluate them independently of others. We ran a series of tests and checked them – the red (color) camera versus the black and white camera – and there was an overwhelming difference within 10 seconds of the images appearing on the screen. It was very, very clear that the black and white camera was reproducing images that were much more like what we wanted to see. The black and white camera has a depth of color that the color camera just didn't have. Even when we tried to rate the color camera as being where we wanted it to be, it just wasn't comparable. The monochrome camera looked like a gelatin silver print and had this three-dimensional quality. It also has a much wider dynamic range than the color camera. Not sure why, maybe it has to do with the Debayer process (which the color camera has to do), but there is a notable difference. So we chose the black and white sensor purely empirically. We just looked at it and said, "Well, yeah, we'll do that."
Filmmaker: In all of the behind-the-scenes shots that Mank has seen with monitors, the camera is always set to ISO 3200.
Messerschmidt: We tested it on 1600, 2000 and 3200. We mostly shot the film in very deep focus – usually on a T8 or an 11 – so I really wanted to push (ISO up to 3200) because it would lighten the load in terms of lighting. And we really liked the properties that the camera gave us at this ISO setting. It becomes a bit more contrasting. In the shadows you can see a bit of noise, which we really liked and which looked a bit like film grain. We shot 3200 for the outdoors too because we liked the grain structure we got. So we used a lot of ND for outside, then I shot outside with some color filtration – a Harrison Orange # 2 filter and sometimes a red filter.
Filmmaker: With the early red cameras – back in the epic days – I remember people talking about how you had to expose the histogram on the right because if you were underexposed you had problems. Don't you have to worry as much about the lower end of the curve as the reds unfold?
Messerschmidt: No, I only protect the highlights. I feel like the camera has details in the shadows for days. However, I generally agree with the suspension of law approach. I didn't use this before, but I turned around just because I felt color fidelity is superior if you put a little more light on the sensor. I have the same opinion for any digital camera, not just red.
Filmmaker: I spoke to James Kniest about his work on the black and white episode of The Haunting of Bly Manor and he said the biggest difference for him was that he could use harder, more powerful sources. How did you discover that you were lighting differently with Mank?
Messerschmidt: I would agree with that statement – I think black and white accept more harsh light – but it's also because the audience accepts it more. They are used to seeing black and white illuminated in this way, as this lighting technology is most associated with classic cinema. Soft light has become very fashionable. It's now in fashion to light the entire set with three foot candles and work really deep in your toe. It is next to impossible to illuminate with hard light when you illuminate with these luminous levels. It's a lot easier to work with hard light when you have 150 or 200 feet of candles.
I think the lack of color separation in terms of explaining depth in the frame means you have to rely on other techniques to explain depth and shape. High-contrast light sources and light sources with more texture are incredibly helpful for this. Explaining three-dimensionality in black and white with soft light is much more difficult because the envelope and smoothness of soft light tend to blend, especially foreground and background, and especially when you are in shallow depth of field.
Filmmaker: I'm going to read for you a quote from Fincher from an interview on Vulture: "(Visual) Our idea was that we would take super high resolution and then we would degrade it. So we took almost everything and did it to an absurd extent softened to try to match the look of the era. ”Tell me about this“ humiliating ”process at your end of things.
Messerschmidt: David and I did a lot of tests and looked at different methods to prepare the (digital) negative for the things we wanted to do. We knew where we were going, we just had to figure out how to get there. One of the things we did was use a DI technique that our colorist Eric Weidt developed at David's request. We ended up calling it "the black flower". We essentially felt the blacks and blurred them very slightly, and it creates that kind of softness and betrayed feel that we associated with the duplication process of publication prints.
We also really enjoyed the lens flare painting we did in Mindhunter, so we did that with Mank again. It's an exciting thing to be able to make direct torches. We usually accept torches as that lucky accident. Even if you choose lenses that will flicker on purpose, you can never predict how they will flicker. So it was cool to say exactly what we wanted. We did some tests and took some reference pictures of the torches that we liked, sent them to post and they worked those ideas out.
Filmmaker: So all of these unique torches that we see from the internship period were made in the mail?
Messerschmidt: Almost all of them, yes. Lens technology has gotten to the point where the coatings on modern lenses are so good they are very difficult to flicker. Something like the Leicas or the Master Primes, they are almost flicker-free. But we shot at deep stops and needed the resolution of modern lenses. All lenses, including modern ones, fall apart in terms of resolution at a resolution of 11. They range from 200 line pairs of resolution all the way up to 60 or 70. At that moment, you lose a tremendous amount of resolution. So if I had picked up vintage lenses they would have been even worse (at those deep stops). I even tested some Cooke Panchros and they had a resolution of 40 line pairs at an 11. So the vintage lens wasn't an option. We landed back on the Leica Summilux lenses (which we used at Mindhunter).
I had seen these torches – especially in films like (The Noir from 1955) The Big Combo – that happen to the glass of the time when you get these torches around peaks, these very different halos. It's not like a spherical aberration that we all do now with diffusion on the lens or detuned lenses. It's a very distinct ring. I thought it was kind of cool and looked like that time. I sent it to Fincher and said, "I think we should do that." So all those ring torches were painted in, like the torches around the fresnels when we're in (William Randolph Hearst's estate in) San Simeon and when we're at MGM when Louis B. Mayer talks to (the studio staff) about one Wage cut caused by depression).
Filmmaker: Is it difficult to work with multiple cameras on a Fincher project? Cinematographers often talk about the tradeoffs that come with lighting and camera position when shooting with multiple cameras. Maybe it's just his reputation for being very specific about what he wants, but Fincher doesn't seem like the type of filmmaker who likes to compromise.
Messerschmidt: Well, we make compromises all day. You start compromising when you get up in the morning. (laughs) David wants coverage in many cases. He wants pieces to be cut together, but it's never like, "Take the B-camera and find another angle." Everything is done on purpose. All of the B-camera and C-camera footage we took is part of the coverage that we wanted to use and that we needed. We don't find any recordings, we build them. In general, I don't light a kit until we know where we're going to put all the cameras and what the coverage plan will be. And there are compromises. There's no doubt that when you're shooting with a single camera, you'll be focusing on that one image. However, this is slow and will affect your output. This is just one of those decisions you will make.
Filmmaker: There's a depth of field that caught my eye during a Mayer birthday party in San Simeon. Herman Mankiewicz (Mank's co-author Citizen Kane) and his wife are sitting in the foreground and Mayer – on the other side of this huge room – clink glasses. Everything in the frame is in focus. How did you achieve this deep focus?
Messerschmidt: We shot this scene when we were 11, I think. It was a deep stop. In general we set the lens to hyperfocal to get the maximum depth of field in front of and behind that particular focal length. So this is a calculation that we can easily do. I think we shot this on a 25mm. We usually stuck to 21, 25, 35 and 50. That came a little from the desire to stick to the focal lengths available at the time (the film is discontinued).
Filmmaker: Conversely, there are a few moments – most of which involve Welles – when you opt for shallow focus.
Messerschmidt: We discussed whether or not the audience should even see Welles until this last showdown with Mank. In the end, David decided the audience had to see him, and Tom Burke is so good we said, "We have to show his face." I think the first thing we shot with him was the hospital scene where he walks down the hall in this cloak. That was actually a playful decision. I think we took a close look and then I don't remember whose idea it was but someone said, "Should we look at it on a T2?" So I put four ND apertures in the camera and looked at them again.
We also used this tool called cmotion Cinefade. It is a motorized polarizer that you synchronize with the iris so that we can effectively capture the depth of field. It's pretty extreme. You could draw five stops of depth of field. So we could switch from a T8 to a 2. The thing somehow lived off the camera. There were times when we said, “It's too much. Let's look at this at 5.6.” So if you set the iris to 5.6, the polarizer compensates and now you see the same scene, but with a shallower depth of field. So it was nice to be able to use focus and iris as a storytelling tool instead of just an exposure tool.
Filmmaker: Mindhunter was the first time I read about the use of LED screens to project background plates onto the stage for driving shots. How did your approach to this develop? Now have the screens you use evolved to be photorealistic and no longer have you swapping those backgrounds in the mail?
Messerschmidt: We have now reached the point where we are at what we call the "final pixel". So yes, we are a real photo. There are technical restrictions on how close it is to the screen as you get moiré in some cases, but it's absolutely in a place where you can photograph it and that's exactly what we did.
In terms of driving sequences, it was very similar to Mindhunter. We looked at the cars and figured out what the lens height should be, what the pan and tilt angles should be, and we would split the scenes in terms of coverage, how many angles we needed. We would shoot the panels at these angles and then, when we put the car in front of the screens, adjust the camera to match those lens heights and pan and tilt angles.
Filmmaker: Most of the scenes in the film's presence take place in a remote ranch bungalow, where Mank recovers from a leg injury and begins work on the Kane script. How did you go about lighting this room?
Messerschmidt: The bungalow is mainly lit from the windows and with practical means. It glows softly. These scenes in particular have more to do with contemporary lighting technology than the rest of the film, and part of that was that we wanted to differentiate a bit between the modern Mank world and the Flashback Mank world. So it is illuminated with a lot of soft light – soft light through the curtains and the transparent and upper soft boxes with LEDs and bounce light. The night scenes there are illuminated almost exclusively with the internships.
Filmmaker: Back in San Simeon, towards the end of the film there is a scene in which a drunken Mank is laying out the bones of the plot for Citizen Kane in front of Hearst at a dinner party.
Messerschmidt: David described Hearst Castle as that cavernous room, almost like a crypt. I lit it up with light for that kind of boring ambiance. Marion Davies (played by Amanda Seyfried) is really the only person lit up. She put that slightly softened spotlight on the entire scene. Part of that is the idea that Mank effectively revolves around them. He walks around the room but the subtext is that he walks around her and I thought it would be interesting if she were that kind of beacon in the middle of orbit. There were very few shot-to-shot shots in this scene. We'd tweak Amanda's keylight a bit depending on which eye line we were in, but you could light Amanda with a car headlight and she would look great. It's not difficult to light Amanda.
Filmmaker: A turning point for Mank is an election night party in which Democratic nominee Upton Sinclair is defeated in a race for the Governor of California with the help of propaganda from Louis B. Mayer.
Messerschmidt: This scene is illuminated almost exclusively by the practitioners. (Production Designer) Don Burt and I liked this idea of silhouetting people on stage in front of something dramatic. We also built the table placements on which the champagne buckets sit. This is a kind of classic cabaret room technique – you put the light in the middle of the table and everyone has a key light on it. As long as we thought about where to put the camera, we would have shape. Part of that came from the need to be responsible for the lighting that we had. I didn't have time to re-illuminate every shot considering how much coverage we needed to shoot and how long we had to shoot it. So there isn't a lot of film lighting going on in this scene. There are a couple of Source Fours and that's it.
Filmmaker: You've talked a little about it, but Seyfried has that shine in Mank that I associate with leading women in the 1930s and 1940s – Hollywood glamor lighting.
Messerschmidt: We did some make-up tests with the make-up department – Gigi Williams and Michelle Kim were the (main) make-up artists in the film – and looked at different basics to get Amanda with slightly reflective make-up -up to add a little shine. That's part of it. There's no filtering on the lens at all, it's just good makeup. And Amanda is always a little more lit up than anyone else. It was a place where I could immerse myself in the glamor of the 1930s and it felt appropriate. We didn't go as far as adding Mitchell Diffusion in front of the lens, but we certainly lit her up a bit more, and in scenes where everyone else isn't really lit, she is, too.
Filmmaker: At the end there is a scene in which Mank – a compulsive gambler – is betting on the outcome of a coin toss in the writer's room in Paramount. The coin lands on the floor and spins right in front of the lens. Is this just a digital district or is there a story behind it?
Messerschmidt: I got the Optex snorkel lens for this shot and David said: "We'll just shoot a plate and put in a CG quarter." But I said, "Let's at least get a reference with a real quarter." So we put the Optex down and the lens has to be shot at an 8 anyway – I think it's only 5.6 wide open or so, but it really should be shot at an 8. So we shot the neighborhood, like the fourth shot, we got one that looked pretty good and David said, "Oh, maybe this one will do the movie." It existed forever in the cut, then in the end it was replaced with a CG quarter. (laughs) It was one of those things that I thought we'd get away with for a minute.
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog, Deep Fried Movies.