How Mindhunter filmed using a customised camera
Erik Messerschmidt was director of photography on Netflix's Mindhunter - he talks about using a customised camera with David Fincher.
As a hard working gaffer, Erik Messerschmidt has reached the top of his profession, but his ambition has always been to work as a cinematographer.
His break came when David Fincher asked him to join Netflix’s new project. The director had previously worked with the cinematographer on the 2014 domestic thriller Gone Girl and signed on to Mindhunter, a story that traces the development of the FBI’s understanding of criminal science in the 1970s. Fincher directed four of the show's ten episodes and was an executive producer on the full series.
“David pushes everyone on the set to be better at their job and expects each crew member to bring something to the table – I love that about him,” says Messerschmidt (pictured below) in comments to KFTV.
“It’s great to work with a director who understands the process as well as he does. Cinematographers spend a lot of time explaining why we need certain things to directors and producers. David and I could have very short conversations about different technical ways to accomplish a shot and then move on to the more important storytelling stuff.”
Mindhunter was also significant for using the Xenomorph camera, a piece of kit developed specially for Fincher and his team by Red, in line with the director’s design specifications.
The camera features a seven-inch touchscreen, RT Motion lens control, Zaxcom wireless timecode, a built-in Anton Bauer gold mount and a generous 6k Dragon Sensor, which at the time of Mindhunter shoot was the highest-resolution sensor available (RED currently offers an 8K Helium Sensor).
RT Motion is a focus and iris control system designed in the UK that can be operated remotely. The Anton Bauer Gold Mount is a type of onboard battery, while the larger touch-screen size offers technical controls for colour temperature, ISO and shutter speed and also allows multiple crew members to see the camera view at once.
“As long as I’ve known David he’s been talking about this camera concept,” Messerschmidt tells KFTV. “It was born out of his desire to get back to the simplicity of earlier motion picture cameras. The Xenomorph combines and integrates all the aftermarket add-ons we normally add to a motion picture camera, into one turn-key system.
“It used to be we could click a [film] magazine in, put the lens on the camera, attach a mechanical follow-focus and the camera was ready. There is not just a certain elegance to that but also an efficiency and ease.
“These days, assistants put all sorts of aftermarket stuff on the camera – wireless video transmitters, Preston MDRs, timecode boxes and on-board monitors – that turn the camera into a tangle of cables and connectors, and assistants are constantly relocating all this stuff depending on how we’re using the camera.
“It is not uncommon to struggle to find the camera body under a mess of wire and mounting hardware on set, which can be very frustrating and time-consuming. Eliminating cables and connectors was a big part of the design philosophy."
“The Dragon sensor offers fantastic colour rendition and 16+ stops of dynamic range so it’s a substantial improvement over previous digital sensors," says Messerschmidt. "Because of the high resolution we were able to centre-extract a 5k frame from within the full 6k raster, which allowed for some reframing in post as well as digital image stabilisation.”
Camera manufacturers like Arri, Red and Panavision often modify their equipment on demand to suit filmmakers’ needs. Fincher used customised cameras on both Gone Girl and his 2010 movie The Social Network about the genesis of Facebook. In this instance the camera equipment was modified to make it light enough to use in rowing scenes.
“There is always room for improvement in all the tools we use to make movies,” says Messerschmidt. „It’s our responsibility as filmmakers to demand better solutions. Most filmmakers look to companies like Red to make their tools better and more user-friendly.”
While Red’s customised design was ideal for Mindhunter, different productions have separate technical requirements. The end result is that manufacturers deliver practical, easy-to-use gear that contributes to a smooth on-set experience.
For Arri Rentals, customising equipment is a given where outlets worldwide do anything from de-tuning a lens or building a special camera rig to removing a lens coating to create the unique effect creatives desire.
Some products, such as Arri’s Prime DNA series lens range, are the result of ongoing collaborations with creatives. The result is an extensive range that features optics specifically developed for individual cinematographers.
The Alexa camera was development with years of research and the company looked into directors’ needs and the way camera crews and post-production teams operate with digital workflow.
“Everything was approached from a standpoint of efficiency and visual integrity,” says Messerschmidt, of the Mindhunter shoot. “We had some Techno crane days and such, but only if the shots moved the story forward and were purposeful. I would rather someone notice something we did visually on the second or third viewing than on the first.
“The important thing is that they experience the characters first. We tried to approach Mindhunter in a very classical way so almost the whole show is shot from the dolly. Mindhunter is full of long, complex dialogue scenes so it's very much about coverage and performance.
“It can be tempting to design fancy opening shots and complex ‘one-ers’ to keep it interesting, but we tried to avoid that to keep things very nuanced and simple. It’s important for me that the camera work is anonymous and quiet so the performances carry the story.
“My biggest challenge was keeping lighting conditions consistent in scenes that took multiple days to shoot on location. This can be tough, especially in western Pennsylvania where the weather changes quickly.”
Red has no current plans to release the all-in-one camera, so it remains to be seen if the enthusiastically received Xenomorph will ever be commercially available.
Images: Merrick Morton/Patrick Harbron/Netflix