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David Fincher and Jeff Cronenweth Explore Darkness and Light on ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was originally the creation of Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson, and it was brought to the screen in a successful 2009 Swedish production directed by Niels Arden Oplev and photographed by Eric Kress. David Fincher drew the assignment of making a new, English-language version with backing from Sony Pictures/Columbia Pictures.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trailer
Trouble seeing the video above? Click here.

Fincher and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, ASC, were the creative team behind The Social Network, which used digital cameras to tell the story of the founding of Facebook, and Fight Club, a visually shocking rendition of a Chuck Palahniuk novel. The duo has also collaborated on numerous commercials. In 2011, Fincher turned to Cronenweth once again, for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, when things didn’t work out with cinematographer Fredrik Bäckar, who started the shoot.

The film’s taglines—”Evil shall with evil be expelled” and “What is hidden in snow comes forth in the thaw”—are Swedish proverbs. The story follows Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) as he searches for a woman who has been missing for 40 years. Circumstances bring Blomkvist into an unlikely alliance with Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a sullen young computer hacker. The cast also includes Robin Wright, Stellan Skarsgård, Christopher Plummer and Joely Richardson.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo eight-minute trailer
Trouble seeing the video above? Click here.

The production shot over the course of about 160 days at a wide variety of locations in Sweden, as well as on soundstages at Sony and Paramount in Los Angeles. A few scenes were shot in Zurich, Oslo and London.

Cronenweth envisioned a very cool, almost monochromatic palette for the many wintry exterior shots. Interiors are warmer and often feature candlelight or firelight, with a yellow tone at times, to communicate an inviting, nurturing feeling. Composition is often modern and Euro, with a clean and angular balance.

“The story takes place in Sweden, and a considerable portion of it takes place north of Stockholm, which is even colder,” says Cronenweth. “This setting is an important aspect of the movie, and I wanted to be sure the audience felt that. It’s actually not out of line with the quality of light you’d find in Sweden at that time of year. There’s a lot of very soft light.”

As a young cameraman, Cronenweth worked on seven films with the legendary Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist, ASC, as an operator and camera assistant.

“Sven didn’t invent soft light, but he brought a version of it to the U.S.,” says Cronenweth. “He always told me that it grew out of the light he had to work with in Stockholm. When I got there, I saw exactly what he was talking about. Fincher often told me to make it ‘Sven-like.'”

The RED EPIC camera came out around the time principal photography began, but at that time the workflow required sending the data to RED for transcoding, so Cronenweth and Fincher chose to begin the shoot on RED ONE cameras. “Fincher is very hands-on. He likes to cut as he shoots, and shooting RED ONE allowed us to do that. During the course of the shoot, new software came out, and we made a gradual transition to the EPICs.”

The aspect ratio is a widescreen 2.40:1; in the case of the EPIC cameras, that frame is extracted from the 5K chip. The extra image area offers the opportunity for y-axis repositioning in post. The format was REDCODE RAW.

The main interiors, which depict Salander’s apartment and Blomkvist’s cabin, were small and intimate, which led the filmmakers to choose wider lenses. “We had three lenses that we used most of the time,” says Cronenweth. “I’d say we stayed on those focal lengths a good 60 or 70 percent of the time, and that told our story well. We used the ARRI Master Primes, and one of the reasons is that the widest aperture they have is a 1.3, which helps maintain shallow depth of field as a visual tool. The ISO of these digital cameras means that you inherently end up with considerably more depth of field than you want. We often shoot with a lot of neutral density to maintain shallow depth of field.”

For interiors, Cronenweth used a range of tools to light. “There were often candles, but we didn’t really light with candlelight,” he says. “Sometimes we had Kino Flos inside and tungsten or HMIs through windows. There were a lot of bare bulbs, and we made flares into a kind of motif. It’s a murder mystery, and they’re doing detective work, so there are many scenes of people looking over clues at dusk, or even lower-light situations. So we looked up into a lot of practicals and embellished the flares and made that kind of visual statement.”

Asked about the low northern light and extended magic hour that occurs in some seasons at those latitudes, Cronenweth says that these weren’t really factors. “Most of the movie doesn’t take place at those times,” he explains. “Fincher wanted to avoid the notion of things becoming too romantic, with gratuitously beautiful sunrises and sunsets. In fact, for the scenes we did shoot at that time, we used the DI to eliminate some of the color so they don’t become too magical.”

Cronenweth says the RED cameras performed admirably despite the weather. “We had occasional back focus problems, but I think that was more an issue with the glass than the camera bodies,” he says. “We had snow, rain and sleet, and we were on insert cars, motorcycles—you name it. I have shot in Moscow in January, but this was harder became the moisture gets underneath your clothes.”

The 4K digital intermediate was done at Light Iron Digital in Los Angeles with Ian Vertovec serving as colorist, as he did on The Social Network. EFILM will handle the film out, and prints will be made on Fujifilm Eterna-CP 3514DI print stock.

Cronenweth says his goal in the DI is to make sure the audience enjoys the ride. “Knowing the tools as well as Fincher and I do, and what’s possible, you might think there would be a tendency to let things go on the set and fix them later,” he says. “But we don’t. We fight for as much as we can get on set, and when it gets to the DI, it’s pretty simple. It’s just a matter of fine-tuning and matching shot-to-shot.”

In the ongoing debate about film and digital formats, Cronenweth has a nuanced position. “I love film,” he says. “I just shot back-to-back commercials on film, and it was really fun. The magic of film and the photochemical process just doesn’t happen when you’re using a digital capture system. And the quality of the film image can stand up to anything. On a digital shoot, sometimes I still long for the cameras we had when everything was straight up and I could start lighting without waiting for nine monitors to power up. But there is an evolution in the way we capture images, and I am fine with it. My biggest point is the control from beginning to end. Some people argue that it allows too many people into the process. But I agree with Roger Deakins on this point—I think it allows you to have a clearer understanding when you are interpreting somebody else’s story. And that allows you to push the envelope more, because you both see exactly where you are going.”