“I Had to Figure Out the True Latitude, Speed and Color Science”: DP Jeff Cronenweth On The Social Network Ten Years Later and the Mysterium X Sensor
On October 1, The Social Network turns ten. The RED Mysterium X sensor (also turning ten) that rendered the film is now outmoded, but The Social Network thrives due to, not in spite of, the marks of its time. The limited latitude of the once cutting-edge camera sensor pushed David Fincher and DP Jeff Cronenweth—who also shot Fincher’s Fight Club, The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl—into the darker bends of The Social Network’s imitation Harvard dorms. The camera struggled with highlights, so they avoided hot windows and sunny exteriors. It also strained to digest warm tones, so they chose a cooler palette that was easier for the RED to chew on. The sensor’s limitations had implicit limitations with the story of Facebook’s origin, the first of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s two tech mogul reprimands (Fincher’s Zuckerberg was follow by Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs)—individuals he believes pioneered our doom out of spite, envy, inceldom.
When The Social Network initially released, an anecdote about Fincher hiring a mime to distract Harvard campus security was often iterated in the press. Fincher and Cronenweth stitched three shots captured by three REDs on a roof across the street and did a “pan and scan” in post to get a move they couldn’t have otherwise. But they needed light on some of the dark arches, so Fincher hired a mime to push a battery cart full of lights behind them, the impetus being that “by the time [security] got him out of there we would have already accomplished our shot.” Fincher adopted digital in its nascent stages to limit the compromises caused by the erratic nature of the film set. What remained to be compromised on he’d have more ways of fixing in post on digital than on film.
Filmmaker: What have you been watching?
Cronenweth: Eh, I don’t know. Mostly movies. I tried to do the Ozark series, which I like, but it starts to get redundant: same bad guys doing the same things. The only problem I find is that the first week we watched maybe 50 movies, so now we can’t separate the good scenes and shots from the others because we’ve watched so many in a row. That can be a handicap. I’m 58. This is the longest I’ve had off since I graduated from college. So, there are a lot of things I’ve been putting off for twenty years that have been good to get done with.
Filmmaker: Have you rewatched The Social Network recently?
Cronenweth: No, I tend not to. You see them so many times when you’re making them, in the edit, the color correct and the screenings. I would like to, though. It’s such a cleverly written script and Fincher did such a great job at bringing Aaron’s dialogue across. Everytime I watch it, regardless of how tied into it I was, it always amuses me how quickly it feels like it went by. You never have a chance to get off the rollercoaster, which is one of [Fincher’s] mottos. But by the end you go “Really? That’s the whole movie?” It feels like it just started.
Filmmaker: You guys were the first feature film to use RED’s Mysterium X sensor.
Cronenweth: It was my first experience shooting something long form with a digital camera. I had shot music videos and commercials on an array of different formats and cameras. Obviously Fincher had done Zodiac and Benjamin Button digitally. I can’t remember what they shot that on?
Filmmaker: I think they were both shot on the Viper. [Benjamin was a combination of the Viper, Sony F23 and some 35mm on the Arriflex 435]
Cronenweth: That’s right, so Fincher had more experience with [digital] than I had. When The Social Network came up we did due diligence and tested a few different systems, but his friendship with Soderbergh, and Soderbergh being way out in front with the digital format and the RED—he loaned us his cameras for his shoot. They recently had been upgraded from the Red One to the Mysterium X chip and we were the first guys to shoot a film with it.
There was a little bit of exploration and discovery on the way and making workflows, getting used to the new approach to making films. But so far as technique and style, once you learn the nuances of that sensor, it was very much like introducing a new film stock and knowing what that stock can do. Then you can apply yourself to get to the aesthetic level you want by virtue of what it can deliver.
Filmmaker: I just want to clarify, shooting on film was never in the cards?
Cronenweth: No, not at that point. David was committed to that. First, he’s an absolute technical genius. Second, he’s always been about pushing the envelope and getting to a new place. RED was very hands on and supportive so that we could customize and create what we expected. It was a kind of easy and uneventful experience, really.
Filmmaker: What were tests like?
Cronenweth: I had to figure out the true latitude, speed and color science behind it. How it responded to certain colors, what lights were problematic and what weren’t, things like flashes, interactive lights. What does this shutter do? How fast can you pan? What is motion blur? We were defining what this new world was that this new technology delivered. Then we tried to accommodate to best tell the story.
Filmmaker: But you and Fincher have a conversation and acknowledge that, with this early digital camera, you can and can’t shoot in certain situations and that it is in some ways dictating what you can and cannot see in the film?
Cronenweth: Obviously, today the cameras have evolved so much that it’s a non-issue. I shot something last year called Tales From The Loop, and it takes place in the winter. Not unlike Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, there are some day exteriors in the snow. We did our best to avoid those. We wanted to embrace overcast fog and clouds. It helps lessen the contrast, which is something you were fighting in the past. You did that with film too—snow is so hot and people’s faces can be so dark. That’s always a dilemma. So, with The Social Network, we would mitigate the day exteriors as much as we could. We found a time of day that worked for us, brought a little more fill in to create a more balanced ratio between the back and the front and avoid hot sidewalks and those kinds of things. You don’t have as many exteriors or you do it in low light. Those are all things we embraced.
Filmmaker: Did you have any issues with infrared pollution outdoors?
Cronenweth: We had to be aware of it and use IR filters. We learned early on in testing that if you didn’t have that you could really overpower and thin out your images.
Filmmaker: What attracted Fincher to early digital?
Cronenweth: Control. Not being vulnerable to chemical baths, vulnerability of film with processing and scratching. The ability to get a sense of what you have already, from an aesthetic, ratio standpoint and compositional standpoint. The simplicity of it. The transfer and data storage, erasing takes that you don’t like. Also, just being deconstructive of something that has been set in stone for a 100 years and pushing boundaries. Those were things he was initially interested in, then eventually it became more economical from a lot of standpoints.
It’s environmentally more friendly. You’re not using chemicals in film and making 3,000 release prints. Security-wise it’s a no brainer: you have a digital lock, you send it to a theater, you know when it’s there, who watched it, how many times they’ve played it and it has watermarks so if it comes up somewhere you know where and when as opposed to someone copying a film or a print being lost or scratched or broken. There are so many reasons from a pragmatic standpoint and a production standpoint that it made more sense.
You can argue that the tactile experience film gets resonates with us and is why we loved it for so long. The biggest compliment we got when The Social Network first came out is that people couldn’t tell what it was shot on. That gave us the confidence that we’d achieved something beyond the traditional separation or loss of shooting on the digital format. We had texture, we used light to emulate it. We put it back in a place that felt comfortable.
Filmmaker: Though it fooled some people into thinking it looked like it was shot on film, I think you and David are one of the few who actually embrace and make the most of the “digital” look.
Cronenweth: We want to bring it back to where it’s not the clinical image you might want to see on Super Bowl Sunday—that doesn’t feel like what we’re used to, that doesn’t really relate to the human experience. You want images somebody can be a part of, not too distant from our life. I come from the same train of thought as Fincher: you start with as good an image as you can get with the most resolution, color and contrast ratio, then go back and are able to step on that in any direction you want, as opposed to starting with something that’s already degraded and underwhelming and trying to turn that into something else. With that camera, and certainly its evolutions—in the Monstro you get an 8K resolution and a 4K release and can do enormous things with it—give you room for changing compositions, stabilization, repurposing things. In the end, it’s better to have too much and make it less than not enough and try to catch up.
Everybody has different approaches. Some other cameras give you a much closer look to some of the artifacts of film from the onset, but then you’re limited to that. He and I work in a pure world, to the point where I use a single look up table and treat it as a single film stock and manipulate everything with the light, color, lens choices and all that as opposed to a lot of different inside/outside, daylight/nighttime. Depending on the visual language of the project, we may or may not use filtration for some shots or throughout the whole thing. In commercials I tend to use a little bit of diffusion because I want to take it back to something that’s a little less clean.
Filmmaker: I know that Mysterium X chip has some quirky color biases. Were there colors you had to avoid?
Cronenweth: It definitely preferred cooler blue tones in the color spectrum. Shooting in Harvard in dorms that were all wood with tungsten practical lights, we had to be careful and use an 80A [filter] —which would add blue to the image—to make sure the sensor captured the full range of it. It got pretty muddy in the warm tones, especially in areas that were pretty low lit. We didn’t want to clip because it all goes to nowhere. That more or less stands true today, but the dynamic range is so much greater now.
Filmmaker: It really took to that sodium vapor light.
Cronenweth: It did. Again, that’s not really an aesthetic we went to find. That’s what Harvard had around it and what neighborhoods in Cambridge looked like. We wanted to stay as close and true to the story as we could, so it was something we embraced. In something like Fight Club a long time before, it was a mixture of sodium vapor and metal-halide and that’s just dependent on the worlds they happen to be in at the time. You’re not going to change out a mile of streetlights.
Filmmaker: I think the buzz that Fincher wants everything under his control can be misleading in certain respects. Here he is embracing what his tools and environment dictate.
Cronenweth: You have to pick your battles and know what supports the story and what doesn’t, where you can make changes and where you can’t. Of course, you can change everything there is, nothing has to be real, but is that really what you want to use all your resources on?
Filmmaker: This is a two-camera movie but it doesn’t feel like one.
Cronenweth: We utilized a lot of two camera set ups sometimes opposing each other, which is not the most productive way of doing something from a photographic standpoint. Traditionally it means you’re compromising, but we were able to do it in a way where the visuals didn’t suffer for it. The dialogue was so fast and the technique that Aaron Sorkin employs is people talking over each other quite often. So we’re trying to preserve all of that interaction to give David cutting choices. Usually if people improv or miss words it demands that you have two shots opposing each other often in these confrontations. There were a couple of times I remember we even had three-camera setups.
Filmmaker: You do the traditional master and close up coverage, but occasionally do two more closeups near the actors’ eyelines.
Cronenweth: Exactly. That would always ensure we got two sides of any conversation.
Filmmaker: Did you always shoot those closeups near the eyelines?
Cronenweth: No, but especially in that opening sequence in the bar. That’s 8 pages long, that’s a lot to ask of actors. You have to be able to go with it. You can’t go back and say you missed this word out of eight pages. So we did two masters at the same time, one tighter one wider, then did cross coverage as best we could.
Filmmaker: David moved away from previs for The Social Network, or at least to the extent he used it in Fight Club. Did he keep moving away from it in The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl?
Cronenweth: He was moving away from it in general for scenes and coverage. But whenever there’s a special effect or a stunt that involves multiple departments delivering multiple layers of energy, everyone needs to be on board and know who’s delivering what when and where. In general, we know the coverage when we’re scouting.
Filmmaker: In The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl you’re doing a lot of stagework with greenscreen at the windows to render bright day exteriors with VFX. When you render those, does it have to match the camera’s dynamic range or can you extend beyond what the sensor’s able to do?
Cronenweth: I think that you probably could but we didn’t need to. It fit well within the latitude of the camera sensor. Especially on stage, you have all the control you want, so that was never really problematic.
Filmmaker: You’ve said you were afraid the many deposition scenes might be visually boring. I’m grateful you don’t feel the camerawork compensating for that in the film. How do you make it interesting without making it “interesting”?
Cronenweth: There were quite a few [deposition scenes] and they took place in places that were both sets. It’s just a matter of keeping the audience engaged visually and compositionally. There’s a lot of banter. so having cameras that allow you to bounce back and forth in the tempo the dialogue’s being delivered in keeps it exciting. But you have to give yourself the best chances of capturing all of it and not getting completely lost in how many people are in these rooms and what everybody’s doing. It becomes this logistical eyeline puzzle to put it all together. You have 12 people in a room all talking over each other. You have to give yourself the flexibility of editorial choices. In those situations we knew what the page count was and what we wanted to get out of it. The lighting approaches were accommodating and somewhat simplified but still interesting and beautiful.
Filmmaker: Later in Gone Girl, when the REDs had gotten better, you were starting to shoot some bright day exteriors. But characters are backlit or in shades, or the day is overcast.
Cronenweth: There are very few hard sunlight exteriors in that movie. That was intentional because that’s what the story’s set in. For the most part we avoided those. When you get caught you do try to mitigate it as best you can. You shoot the right direction, you add enough fill so you can step on it later and bring things down.
Filmmaker: Was it always RED for you and David for its resolution? The Alexa took longer to get to 4K.
Cronenweth: Part of it. Also the latitude that camera has. I think it’s up to 16 or 17 stops [of dynamic range] or even more now. If I remember correctly, the Red One was about seven stops.
Filmmaker: There’s all of those before/after VFX videos of Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl where you see how they painted in clouds, buildings, etc. Was there any of that on The Social Network?
Cronenweth: There’s quite a bit, more than you’d be aware of. In Social Network there were reflections, background highlights in the city, cloud cover, flares of lamps and different nuances that we layer an image with to look so much better. Eye candy.
Filmmaker: What’s a specific example?
Cronenweth: In the opening sequence after the initial dialogue, Jesse Eisenberg runs back to his dorm with his idea and crosses in front of the Harvard campus. Harvard isn’t really fond of people filming there in the first place, and especially us telling the story of students conflicting with each other. They didn’t want us to shoot on campus, so we shot that at night and stayed until the sun came up and shot background plates. So it’s a combination of day for night, night for night, and adding elements of practicals and lights and towers in the skyline to give it the depth you see in that shot.
Filmmaker: You were a camera assistant and camera operator for Sven Nykvist.
Cronenweth: I met him on Chaplin with Robert Downey Jr., directed by Richard Attenborough. I think he was 67. I had worked for my father [Jordan Cronenweth] for years, but eventually he became ill with Parkinson’s. I found myself helping Sven in much the same way I assisted my father. Within the first week, Sven was having me read all the light and take measurements.There was a trust that grew right away. In working with Sven and my Dad I really learned their craft.
He and my Dad had different styles, both beautiful, Sven brought this Scandinavian soft light motivated by windows and whatnot. We used to discuss his style; it’s very motivated by what winter light means in Sweden. So 20 some years later, when it came time for The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo,those conversations came back to life and I immediately understood what he was talking about.
Filmmaker: What are you using to shoot Tales From The Loop?
Cronenweth: We ended up shooting with 70mm glass on the Panavision DXL2, which of course has the Red sensor.
Filmmaker: Are the new sensors limiting you or making any choices for you as they once did?
Cronenweth: No. The camera has considerably more latitude and they’ve evolved the color science, which I was already fond of before but it keeps getting better. You have more choices and the nuances are all there if you want to search and find them. They continue to open the door for more latitude and more creativity. The speed and low light that you can shoot creates amazing choices. There are new challenges: street lights are now way too bright, iPhones are too bright. There are other things you have to mitigate. But that’s a good problem to have.
Filmmaker: Are you shooting anything on film?
Cronenweth: I shot a commercial or two last year and the year before on film. It’s amazing and I love it, it’s what I grew up on and what I shot my first four of five features on. It’s a different world and medium, and I think that they’re just different ways of telling stories. If you take out the environmental and financial concerns, the notion that there’s less choices now, less labs, less technicians that have the experience to do things right— if you make them all equal in that way, then I think they’re both just compelling tools to tell different stories with.
Filmmaker: This was your first time on a Scott Rudin picture. What was it like being part of the awards season with that machine behind you?
Cronenweth: The Social Network and Dragon Tattoo were new experiences for me. The industry was changing and people were getting more behind promoting films for award seasons, which is much bigger now than when I shot Fight Club. There are more shows that are broadcast and publications that contribute to awards season. Absolutely, if you don’t have the machine behind you it’s harder to get your film recognized enough to be appreciated. It’s definitely an advantage to have someone like Scott Rudin, an effective machine to get your film noticed. If it can survive on its own weight all the better.
Filmmaker: It can be hard to tell if what you’re working on is any good on set. But on The Social Network you knew it was something special as soon as the first scene on the first day, the eight-page dialogue scene that opens the movie. Is The Social Network the one people always bring up to you?
Cronenweth: They do and they always talk about that first scene. I remember at one of the screenings— I think before the Tribeca Film Festival or NYFF—we went to make sure the production was good, the sound was right. Fincher said “Watch tonight. The way it’s mixed in the opening sequence it’s hard to hear at first.” You watch an entire audience lean forward when the dialogue starts. The idea was that the train is leaving the station —or the rollercoaster— and he’s not letting you off ‘til the movie ends. You lean forward like you’re going to be able to hear what’s happening better, then it slowly mixes back up to where you can articulate what they’re saying and never lets you go.