Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt is no stranger when it comes to being at the forefront of digital moviemaking technology. David Fincher’s “Mank,” a biographical drama about “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is without exception.
Visually, viewers are transported to Old Hollywood, where an alluring black-and-white visual palette blankets the screen, a look that ties in production techniques traditionally not used on modern movie sets.
Though the film was destined to be black and white, rather than shooting on a camera that produces color images to later convert to monochrome, the picture was recorded on a RED Ranger Helium Monochrome, an 8K digital camera that only records black and white.
“While testing, from a purely aesthetic point of view, the black-and-white camera almost looked three-dimensional where the color camera looked dull and lifeless,” says Messerschmidt, who’s been nominated for an Academy Award for the film. “We wanted a platinum print look and that’s difficult to achieve even shooting on film. This camera gave us much more tonal fidelity and dynamic range than if we would have shot in color.”
Messerschmidt also framed scenes with deep focus, a technique in which the foreground and background elements are in full view. The decision affected his approach to composition and lighting as well as collaborations with key departments to research the right color paint for sets and shade of lipstick for characters. Scenes required more lighting than he would normally use, a special orange filter to balance skin tones for daylight exteriors and other camera tech to control the depth of field within a shot.
“It was an exhaustive and deliberate approach where all the decisions we made came from an empirical place of testing and discussion. Our crew is a big family at this point who’s incredibly collaborative and supportive. We have a thing called fix it in prep,” he says. “Having someone like David, who cares so deeply about the work and making sure the conditions are right to do good work, is certainly rare. I wish more directors were like him in that way.”