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Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth on Gone Girl, Digital and Working with David Fincher

Gone Girl

Gone Girl marks d.p. Jeff Cronenweth’s fourth feature film collaboration with David Fincher, a stretch that began with Fight Club in 1999 and has continued through The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (He also worked 2nd and 3rd unit on Se7en and The Game.) It’s a partnership that has transitioned the pair to digital cinematography, with Cronenweth creating cool, precisely visualized environments for stories plumbing the complexities of life in our globalized, media-saturated information age. To speak with Cronenweth, we asked Jamie Stuart, whose short films have frequently appeared on this site, and who has interviewed other legendary cinematographers in the past. In this wide-ranging discussion, they discuss not just Fincher and Gone Girl but the work of Harris Savides, Gordon Willis and Cronenweth’s father Jordan; adapting to changing technology; and cameras ranging from Gone Girl‘s RED Dragon to the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. — SM

Filmmaker: One of the reasons I wanted to talk with you was that I did an interview with Harris Savides about eight years ago, when Zodiac came out. The whole point of the piece was that digital was just coming into its own, but was digital really there yet? And now, here we are eight years later, and digital is the standard. I want to try and bridge the gap between then and now. When did you first start shooting digital, and what were you using to shoot on? I assume it was probably for commercials…

Cronenweth: It was commercials and music videos, a few years back. And it was everything — it was the RED One, the Sony F23, people started using the Canons (DSLR’s), too, but that was a little bit later. We were using lipstick cameras for rock concerts, and occasionally sneaking in the very first GoPro’s. That kind of stuff. But before that, with Fincher, I had shot commercials where we used the Viper, which David used on Zodiac, and he had Claudio [Miranda] use that on Benjamin Button, too.

So Harris and he, doing Zodiac, they were really there at the beginning, taking a major studio theatrical release and presenting it in a digital format, including all the hurdles. Obviously, David takes ownership, it was David’s battle, and he convinced these people that are very grounded in insecurity that their investment would be protected 10 or 20 years from now, that there would still be a market for it, and it wouldn’t vanish in some magnetic field or solar flare, or some kind of digital decay that we’re all not aware of yet. It was pretty amazing and pretty bold.

The process to get to the finished look was not nearly as convenient as it is for us now. You still don’t really get to see what you’re shooting, because you’re not looking at a 4K monitor with a 4K live feed. But considering what Harris and David had, looking at a RAW image with a really bad Rec.709, it was phenomenal. It was a huge leap of faith and a show of confidence. You’re riding that line where you’re trusting your light meter, cause that’s where we came from, but you’re dealing with this new technology and the contrast latitude and where you can go. And the color science was fairly rudimentary by today’s standards. You’re talking about two extremely talented guys — Harris being one of my favorite cinematographers ever, and one of the nicest guys you could ever talk to. I always felt he was so under-appreciated, in part, because he was so talented that he could be invisible.

Filmmaker: I remember when he did Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. I had gotten into a press screening before it came out, and he wanted to know what I thought of it. And my response was that it looked like he hadn’t done anything at all. That was where he had gone with it. I’m sure he was using tons of fill light, but it looked like he hadn’t lighted it at all.

Cronenweth: In some ways he was his own worst enemy. Some people didn’t appreciate that. You listen to people talk about Milk, which was photographed absolutely beautifully, and people would go: well, there’s so much available light. No there wasn’t. You idiot. There was no available light. That’s why it’s so good. It’s really frustrating. But you know, that happens to everybody. And certainly, those of us that know, appreciated his work. He always took the most unorthodox approach to things. He always tried to do things that were a little screwed up or off — a source that no one else had used. You gotta respect that.

Filmmaker: Mark Romanek always talks about how when he and Harris started working on music videos in the ‘90s, Harris would find these strange lights that you wouldn’t necessarily think of to light something with. And he wouldn’t think twice about just using available window light, which people didn’t really do at that point. You had these big studio lights that you used, and that’s just what it was.

Cronenweth: But also, you have to be around a director that’s going to allow the performances to come to fruition within the time limits that you have with available light. If I ever tried to do that with David, it would last about an hour, and I would be in a corner — because we’re going to cover a scene with multiple takes, but also with multiple angles. It’s a rare occasion that we go into a location that might be more reliant on the sun. It’s not in his nature.

Filmmaker: Yeah, you’re not going to do 30 takes of something if the light is only going to be like that for a little while.

Cronenweth: Exactly.

Filmmaker: It has to be controlled. But back to Zodiac… One of the interesting things I remember Harris telling me was that at a certain point, he stopped using his light meter. He began lighting the scenes just by looking at the monitor. The other thing I thought was interesting was that digital projection wasn’t yet the norm. Even though they were shooting it digitally, they were shooting it for a 35mm release print.

Cronenweth: Absolutely. Yeah.

Filmmaker: I went to see it at the Ziegfeld, and they had top of the line 2K digital projection at the time. I had never seen anything that clean and crisp and steady. I remember I told Harris that afterwards, and his response was: “I was afraid of that.”

Cronenweth: Yeah, of course.

Filmmaker: Then, last year, they did a screening of Zodiac at MoMA for a tribute series to Harris, and Fincher was there to intro it. I still had this memory in my mind from when it first came out. But now, with all the progress that digital has gone through since then, I could see the limitations of that image and what they were able to do at that time. It was interesting.

Cronenweth: Sure, sure. Absolutely. In some ways, to compare it to today with 6K down-rezzed to 4K on a 4K projector, you’re almost wishing for that original 2K. I say that in the sense of texture, noise structure, that kind of stuff. I saw Gone Girl in 2K, and I was totally fine with it because you couldn’t see as many of the human flaws as you do in 4K.

It had been a number of years since I could remember seeing a digital projection next to a film out print, but there were trailers being shipped to other parts of the world that don’t have digital projection yet. And it (film) was so remarkably soft. It was incredible to see the two side by side. What the standard was for us for the last 75 or 80 years looked so out of focus. But if you sat there for 20 minutes and watched it, you’d get into it, and you’d think it was beautiful, and you’d appreciate the nuances, and people look great. There you go.

Filmmaker: I think 35mm for 35mm is one thing. But the thing I just don’t get — and this is my own personal preference — I find a lot of movies that are shot on 35mm, projecting in digital…there’s something about it…like they’re trying to mimic a look that isn’t native to digital. It doesn’t feel right to me. There are certain people who just think of images in terms of what 35mm looks like, and they can’t separate from it. It’s really a pet peeve of mine. I just don’t get it. But I also think a lot of the people shooting 35mm are insulated from the projection part of it. Christopher Nolan — not to say anything bad about him — he’s probably not even dealing with the digital end of things, the projection and DI. He’s just looking at the film print, and that’s his thing.

Cronenweth: They have to do all those visual effects. They have to have all those different formats combined together. They do a DI, and then they do a film out again. You just kind of scratch your head a little bit. I guess I get it. But…

Filmmaker: You know, Inherent Vice played at the New York Film Festival as well. I saw it at the press screening where they screened a DCP, even though the main screening was in 35mm. But they actually DI’d it to have 35mm artifacts. It had the presentation of a 35mm print that had maybe been playing already for a week.

Cronenweth: Wow, that’s fantastic.

Filmmaker: When I first went digital, it was actually in the middle of a short film I was making on 16mm. This was 2001, everything was going digital, so I was going to shoot it on film and cut it on a Steenbeck. Just to prove a point. But then, I couldn’t afford to finish it on 16mm and wound up finishing it in Mini-DV. Digital was so much easier and quicker. I never looked back. So how has the transition on that end — the technical, not the aesthetic — how has that affected you?

Cronenweth: On set or post?

Filmmaker: Yeah, on set. Just the process.

Cronenweth: Unless we’re doing a huge place or I have to pre-light something days before I get a camera, you do the same thing. You light by eye a lot. I think, in a way, it’s more efficient now because normally things that you would double or triple check (in film), you see the first time. Something that you might think is really worth taking time to finesse may not need finessing so much. And then, in the back of your mind, if there’s something that’s impossible to deal with — say, a sign that they refuse to turn off for you or something on location that’s out of whack — rather than spending the time to deal with that, you get comfortable in the notion that that’s something you can fix later.

It adds tools to your arsenal. I still don’t think you can take short cuts. I think if you do, it’ll probably bite you in the ass later. David and I really strive to do everything that we can in camera — and then use in our case Light Iron to fine-tune what we’ve done already. But that’s enormous fine-tuning.

Filmmaker: When I saw Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I suggested it was basically a live-action animated film, because there had been so much image manipulation in post — combining different takes of the same shot or adding elements. Things like that. How do you feel about that aspect of digital filmmaking? Shooting in 35mm years ago, what you shot was basically what you got. Post-production I now describe to people as “Photoshop at 24 frames per second.”

Cronenweth: Yeah, that’s probably a fair statement. I think it depends on the individual director and what his aesthetics are, what he wants to put into it. There’s a lot of visual effects in Fight Club — a lot of added layers and whatnot, reflections that wouldn’t normally be there. All the things that I get the benefit of. But it’s part of David’s tenacity in making sure that every image supports the story and nothing ever unsettles an audience member unintentionally. In other words, you see everything you’re supposed to see, and it’s pretty smooth — so anything that’s elicited emotionally from the visuals and from the performances and the shot choices and all that is intentionally chosen. I think that’s just the evolution of where we are, and audiences have become so sophisticated that you owe it to them, not to manipulate images, but to give back the best opportunity to experience whatever the story is you’re trying to tell.

Yeah, he does a lot of split-screens, and in Dragon Tattoo there were a lot of snow elements that were added, of course, but I never looked at that movie as a heavy visual effects movie. Mostly, it’s just the car crash at the end that has the most elements and layers added to it. Other than that, it was just smoke control if it felt inconsistent at one point or another. Maybe some blemishes here and there. But I don’t remember it being as heavy-handed as The Social Network, which had to deal with the twins — though that was mostly done in camera without motion control. But nonetheless, you had to affect all that.

In that movie, there’s all kinds of opportunities to overcome obstacles like the fact that Harvard didn’t want us anywhere around their campus. For one shot, we came up with this plan to put three cameras together to make this tiled image and scan through it to make that move.

Filmmaker: And there was the mime with a light…

Cronenweth: Oh yeah, exactly. The infamous archway. That’s one of the more iconic symbols of Harvard, so we got a mime to walk on campus with a light and thought we’d get a few takes before security kicked him out, but that never happened.

But then with dorm windows and all these different things, because they’re sets and stages, and we used Johns Hopkins instead of Harvard — putting those things back in (digitally) just gives so much integrity to the images, it really allows you to take audience members to all those different places.

From L to R: Camera operator Peter Rosenfeld, David Fincher and Jeff Cronenweth, behind the scenes of “Gone Girl” Merrick Morton
From L to R Camera operator Peter Rosenfeld David Fincher and Jeff Cronenweth behind the scenes of Gone Girl Merrick Morton

Filmmaker: I re-watched Gone Girl over the weekend in preparation for this, and there were certain things I didn’t notice the first time because I didn’t know what to expect. First of all, it doesn’t necessarily look like a Fincher movie in the sense that I don’t think he’s ever done a movie with this many daylight exteriors. Just sunny daylight exteriors. And they’re bright, not even underexposed. Also, I started noticing things like when we see her diary entry flashbacks during the first third, you guys were doing very subtle things with the lighting like added rim light, or camera moves that made it feel heightened like a commercial — because we later learn this isn’t exactly a realistic view of what happened. Then, at the end, I noticed in the final scenes, there was a bit of a bloom to the image, a low-contrast filter kind of softening. But it was all done in a very subtle way. Maybe you’d like to talk a bit about how you approached things like this.

Cronenweth: Well, the montage is really interesting because, one, it’s a montage, and it’s kind of out of the context with the rest of the movie, in that you have a fairly open palette to play with. And the idea was, up until this point she’s been kind of reserved — not necessarily a Stepford Wife, but she’s certainly not the woman she was in New York. She’s been with other guys that you learn about later. She’s been kind of suppressed and contained. She’s started this — she’s enacted this plot that a sociopath would so enjoy. She’s in her moment. And she is living life. And she’s smarter than the world, and all the pieces are coming together. It was a perfect opportunity to show her in the most complimentary and pristine candy images we could. They’re still dark, but they’re rich — there’s more light in the room, there’s always contrast and there’s always direction and stuff. But it’s the most flattering we photographed her throughout the movie. They’re not scenes, it’s a shot or two or three at the most, so it’s really kind of easy to paint a different cosmetic image for that montage.

And then, you start appreciating all the different entries and moments in the history that you have to tell. It just became a really fun experiment to change up the style. Within the context of the movie, it does pop out a little more than anything else. And it was extremely like Ridley and Tony back in the day, with the commercials they were producing.

Filmmaker: Yeah, the thing I was thinking was, toward the end, it had a kind of soft filtered quality to it. It brought me back to the types of images I’d see in commercials in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Even the videos David would do where everything was smoked up. That super soft-focus look.

Cronenweth: Sure.

Filmmaker: It’s funny, cause I was one of these kids, maybe 14 or 15, in ’89/’90, and I would go home and watch MTV just to see David’s videos at that point. Before anybody else knew who he was. I was this total geek watching this stuff.

Cronenweth: That was really good stuff. They would overlap two images, slightly shifting them, and you got this halation and glow, like in the early Madonna videos and all that.

We didn’t go to that extreme. We didn’t actually use any glass on the lens for those scenes, but we did use more smoke, and we did use softer light that would bloom at that point in the story.

Filmmaker: I don’t think I noticed it the first time I saw it, but I definitely noticed it the second time. That was the thing — it almost seemed like a subtle nod to that style back then.

Cronenweth: Also, you made a point. There are more day exteriors than just about anything else I can remember David doing in his previous pictures. You know, there’s story elements about being in Missouri in the middle of summer and leaving New York and the consequences, the pressures and realities that that puts on them both as people and them as a couple. So it was imperative for us to impute that on everybody. We did use glass for the first time, we did have a slight warmish-greenish hue to everything in the Midwest. It’s uncomfortable and humid there.

Some of the sequences that take place at the house were up for debate. But part of it is, that house serves as such a great iconic image in the middle of this neighborhood and suggested so much more than it actually was. Once you get inside, you realize it’s really a McMansion that’s impersonal and has no character and there’s too much space. It’s a perfect place for them to spiral. All of their narcissism just builds up to a point where they can’t stand each other. We kind of just embraced it, and went for some of the harsh things in some of those scenes.

In a way, if it was too candy, it might not have the same impact. They were all backlit. When she arrives in the bloody outfit, it might just be too much on top of what you’re actually forcing an audience to kind of accept as reality anyway. The fact that she killed Desi, drove home, crashed her car, gets up and collapses in his arms… It’s such a great moment in the movie. I’ve only seen it with an audience twice, but when he learns over and whispers in her ear, “You fucking bitch,” it’s one of the highlight moments in the movie as far as a sense of humor and letting people off the hook — giving them a subconscious laugh or not. We kind of went more with the harshness of it. I don’t know, I think it worked.

I’m trying to think of some of the other day scenes. Obviously, her ambling around in the Ozarks is unavoidable. She meets the bad guys, and her world falls apart when she thought she had everything under control and things turn.

Filmmaker: As we’re talking about the look of the movie, it seems like your approach to lighting in general now is different. Film stocks got faster. Now you’re using a RED Dragon, which, I guess has a native ISO of about 2000. I don’t know if you were shooting at 2000…

Cronenweth: We had it at 800. That’s what we shot with.

Filmmaker: But if you go back to something like when your father was shooting Blade Runner, what was he using 100 ASA stock?…

Cronenweth: Yep. Yeah.

Filmmaker: So how has the process of lighting changed? You can base things a lot more around practicals, then add fill or kickers. Maybe you can talk a bit about how your approach has changed over the years…

Cronenweth: Well, I think there are two answers. One, for me in particular, out of everybody else — and this hasn’t been a conscious choice — but most of the movies I’ve done have been based in a contemporary reality. I haven’t had a chance to do a real period piece or something that’s blatantly out in the future like Blade Runner. So within that, the movies are based more in reality — so that’s what I kind of try to do. I try to support the stories with the visuals and be as dramatic as possible without one’s ego getting in the way and taking people out of something.

As far as the speed now, it’s about working hand in hand with the production designer in the construction of sets, the use of practicals, whether we leave them on or off or if it’s windows. With us, a majority of the interior work is done on a stage, so that’s all really thought out to give us the best opportunities and the most expeditious ways to have the most amount of control.

What happens at night is, in general, you end up having to take away a lot of light in order to still control your contrast and direction and everything. Street lights that used to be fantastic with 500 ASA or 400 ASA now are becoming problematic in lighting areas that you don’t want lit and washing out whole zones. If you want to continue to own all that, then what you give up in having to use huge sources you now either have to have rigging crews or Condors with you at all times and take out street lights and block out light and think about these places, because if you don’t, it very easily becomes a reality TV program where it looks like whatever is handed to you, and there’s no real concept or continuity to the images.

Filmmaker: For the End of the Road DVD that came out a year or two ago, Soderbergh interviewed Gordon Willis, and they were talking about how Willis was using 100 ASA stock in the ‘70s, or whatever he had, but now, the dynamic range is so extreme, Soderbergh is being forced to use a lot of negative fill all the time just to get the images darker.

Cronenweth: Absolutely. It’s funny. My dad always used to say, “It’s not what you light, but what you don’t light that separates the men from the boys.” But that statement in and of itself has become so much more relevant with, like you say, the latitude, the dynamic range and the speed of these cameras. With some noise reduction, you can shoot at 2000 ISO and still have these beautiful images.

Filmmaker: My primary camera right now is the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. It’s perfect for a lot of the stuff I’m doing. I got it with a Speed Booster, which is giving me an extra 1 2/3 stops, and then…

Cronenweth: Is that done with gain or… how does it do this?

Filmmaker: It’s all optical. The Speed Booster does two things: it optically gives an extra 1 2/3 stops, and then, because the sensor is so small — between Micro Four Thirds and Super-16 — if you’re using full frame lenses, there’s a native 2.8 crop, and it opens the crop up to something like 1.75, so it’s closer to Super-35. But then the bulk of my lenses are T1.5, So if I’m shooting wide open at T1.5, then with an extra 1 2/3 stops, I’m shooting at like T0.9. It’s like Barry Lyndon.

Cronenweth: Right.

Filmmaker: It’s all being done on the optical end, so I can maintain a clean image, because the ISO doesn’t have to go past 800. But back to Gone Girl: this is kind of a small thing, but it seems like Fincher is starting to prefer using wider lenses. Am I imagining that?

Cronenweth: Let me think about that…

Filmmaker: I think he’s always loved the 32mm, but it seems in general his lenses are on the wider side now.

Cronenweth: Yeah, that’s fair, and we’ve done that on the last three movies. Obviously, we carry a whole set of glass, but we never ever, except for…I think there’s one or two shots in the movie that are on a long lens. One or two, in particular, on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, where we went long. Really, somewhere between 21 and 40 is at least 2/3 or more of the movies. And they’re always two camera setups. He’s really smart about it. He never puts me in situations of compromise. They’re usually almost on the same axis, as much as one can get two cameras next to each other and still have shots that are different and support cuts.

I think in fairness, in a movie like this, in particular — and I could argue the same thing for Dragon Tattoo, in that we needed to see all these amazing places we’re at, and how isolated and alone these people were up in these cabins — I could use almost the same analogy to go: we needed to see these people in these environments to see how they’re spiraling out of control and where their non-linear separate journeys are taking them until they actually come back together again and compromise on this horrific existence they’re going to share.

So I think that by being in complimentary positions, at 32 or 35, and seeing enough environment around where they are, you really get to play in that psychological world. Some people might say that using a compressed lens and seeing their eyes take up the whole screen would let you really get into it, but I think that’s shoving something down your audience’s proverbial throats in order to accomplish something where, if you can hold a really interesting frame and still allow them to unravel, then you’ve done a really good thing.

Filmmaker: I also noticed you used the Leica Summilux-C lenses on this. For the past few movies, you guys had been using the Zeiss Master Primes. What was the decision-making in that?

Cronenweth: Well, several things… The availability of these lenses coming out and being intrigued by them — the Leicas were fantastic. The Leicas are essentially the Primo glass of the ‘90s — when Panavision presented the Primo series of glass, it was all Leica glass. The thing that was always so amazing about them was, unlike some other companies, they still had all the sharpness and resolution that you’d want, but they were kinder to faces. They kind of somehow took in the unevenness and non-flatness of a human face, and with the lenses being inherently slightly warmer, and this being a psychological drama or a mental chess game, and this taking place in the Midwest where I wanted to introduce some warmth anyway…

Also, they’re small. From day one with David, certainly with every movie, we continue to try and achieve the smallest footprint, use the smallest cameras, so we’re never limited by an angle or shot because something’s in the way or we’re too cumbersome. Every movie and every location has its own dilemmas… But they’re small, they’re all the same size, and they fit and filled the 6K image all the way up to… I want to say the 16, but maybe the 18 — the 16 might’ve started to vignette, but the 18 did not. So that was really important too. That eliminated a lot of lenses. The Master Primes covered it as well, but at the time that we started the movie last year, there wasn’t a whole lot of glass that would cover the 6K format. All of those things combined made it a really easy choice for us.

Filmmaker: I think the first time I was conscious of those lenses was… a couple of years ago, Harris shot a test with the Alexa using those lenses. It’s actually online. That’s why, when I saw that you’d used those lenses, it immediately popped into my head: oh yeah, that’s where I know those lenses from.

Cronenweth: What was the test for?

Filmmaker: I think it was soon after the ALEXA came out.This was like late 2010, because I think he was planning to use the ALEXA on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close before he had to drop out. This was just some test he had done, but for some reason it was put online.

Cronenweth: What did he use on Bling Ring, do you know? Was that Alexa?

Filmmaker: Bling Ring? They used RED.

Cronenweth: Oh, they used RED.

Filmmaker: I was surprised that he had shot RED, because I knew that he preferred 35mm.

Cronenweth: True.

Filmmaker: For whatever reason, he liked the look for that particular movie.

Cronenweth: Didn’t he use a small chip camera on something with Gus Van Sant? He was always out there pushing the proverbial buttons.

Filmmaker: When I learned that we’d be speaking, I knew you would be the perfect person to harken back to that older piece I did with Harris, cause I knew you guys were close.

Cronenweth: I was lucky. I met him through David and Romanek. I got to do things with them side by side. We went back and shot several weeks of additional footage for Se7en.

Filmmaker: The finale, right.

Cronenweth: I shot 3rd unit, cause Harris was 2nd unit, and then we did the title sequence together — all that really cool insert photography of the fingers and all that. We did Romanek’s Scream video with Janet and Michael, which went down in history as the biggest of all, I guess.

Filmmaker: Which Mark disputes. He claims there’s another video that cost much more than that.

Cronenweth: Of course, he would do that. It’s funny, Ceán, David’s wife, producer of all his movies since The Game, produced that music video.

Filmmaker: Thank you for talking with me.

Cronenweth: Of course.

Videos discussed:

Delta Ad, directed by Mark Romanek and shot by Harris Savides.

Madonna “Oh Father” (photographed by Jordan Cronenweth, Jeff’s father, and directed by Fincher).

Harris Savides Leica Test.

Leica Summilux-C w/ Harris Savides, ASC from Band Pro Film & Digital on Vimeo.

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