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Netflix Delivers a Killer Serial Killer Series: Production on David Fincher’s ‘Mindhunter’

In addition to serving as co-executive producer for Mindhunter, Fincher directed four hours of the 10-episode season.

The first masterpiece from filmmaker David Fincher was his feature film Se7en, a procedural featuring one of the most memorable serial killers ever committed to celluloid. Ten years ago he returned this dark territory with Zodiac, an adaptation of the true-life case involving a still-unknown killer who struck repeatedly throughout the San Francisco Bay area. In the years since, Fincher helped launch House of Cards (an adaptation of the successful UK series) for Netflix. He comes back to the crime investigation genre with Mindhunter, a 10-part streaming series that launched on Netflix on Oct. 13.

While the category has been well exploited in the past with Thomas Harris’ Hannibal novels and their various film and TV adaptations, Fincher’s Mindhunter (@Mindhunter) is likely to emphasize procedural aspects. The series follows agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany, @HoltMcCallany) as they develop the field of criminal science in order to profile serial killers.

Getting inside the mind of a killer. FBI Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) speaks to serial killer Jerry Brudos (Happy Anderson) in Mindhunter.
Photo by Patrick Harbron/Netflix

In addition to serving as co-executive producer for Mindhunter, Fincher directed four hours of the 10-episode season, with Christopher Probst shooting the pilot installment. The other directors were Asif Kapadia (@asifkapadia), Tobias Lindholm and Andrew Douglas (@andrewDdouglas).

Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt shot part of episode two, along with the remaining eight episodes. Messerschmidt had served as gaffer on Fincher’s most recent feature, Gone Girl. He pulled double duty on this fall’s Granite Mountain, gaffing and shooting 2nd unit—the latter a duty he performed for next year’s Sicario follow-up, Soldado, as well. “Fincher was very involved in the process, which is to be expected. He was there every day,” Messerschmidt says.

Well before production commenced, Fincher had engaged Probst and Jarrod Land at RED Digital Cinema (@RED_Cinema) to produce a custom camera specifically for Mindhunter—the RED Xenomorph, which from certain angles resembles the head of those monsters from the Alien film franchise. (The filmmaker’s first feature directing gig was Alien 3.) “The Xenomorph concept was born out of Fincher’s desire to streamline and simplify the camera into something as turnkey as possible. The primary goal was to integrate all the aftermarket add-ons we typically strap to the camera into one complete body.”

Jonathan Groff plays Holden Ford (right) and Holt McCallany plays Bill Tench, his more experienced and somewhat reluctant partner in the Behavioral Science Unit. Together they will meet some of America’s most vicious killers and face the cynicism and scorn of the tradition-bound hierarchy of the 1970s FBI.
Photo by Patrick Harbron/Netflix

Featuring a “Body by Fincher” ID plate ornamented with artwork of a fancy antique carriage, the 6K RED Xenomorphs built for this production incorporate Paralinx technology for wireless video monitoring, Zaxcom tools for wireless digital audio and timecode synchronization, the RTMotion Lens Control System and Anton/Bauer‘s cableless Gold Mount. The camera is configured to expedite handheld shoulder-mounted shooting and facilitate maneuvering in low-ceiled environments. Camtec provided support throughout shooting.

With respect to establishing a look for the drama, Fincher, Probst and Messerschmidt felt imposing a period feel through the camera was unnecessary. “The cars and clothes of the late ’70s are so specific and evocative that we didn’t really see a need to push the period much beyond what was happening in front of the camera already,” Messerschmidt explains. “In post, we did add a little gate weave and grain, which was fun.”

Leica Summilux-C series primes from CW Sonderoptic cover the full Dragon sensor without vignetting, allowing maximum recording area for the image to be obtained. “We framed for a 2:1 5K extraction out of the full sensor’s raster to accommodate for post stabilization and reframing if necessary,” says the cinematographer. “2:1 is the Dragon sensor’s native aspect ratio, something David felt was right for the show. It’s a nice ratio to work with, especially with two-shots and overs.”

Working without a DIT, Messerschmidt elected to employ DRAGONcolor2/REDgamma3 for the show. “Our dailies were processed with the [FotoKem] nextLAB system, which our post department had set up on location in the office,” explains the DP. “Exposed cards were sent to post twice a day to be processed, [then] archived to LTO; dailies were created and distributed via PIX. We didn’t color dailies on set or in post, choosing instead to process the footage using the camera metadata we had used on set—very similar to a traditional one-light telecine film-style workflow.

“I quite liked the simplicity of working that way,” continues Messerschmidt, “especially because of the speed it offered. It’s also nice to see the footage as-exposed and untouched by a dailies colorist. We usually had dailies by call time the following shoot day, which was really helpful when shooting longer scenes that required keeping the natural light consistent across multiple days of shooting both interiors and exteriors on location. That took a lot of planning.”

Fortunately, the schedule afforded Messerschmidt adequate prep time between episode blocks. He says he was able to “scout with the incoming directors, prep with the art department and of course with grip/electric.” Messerschmidt’s Gone Girl lighting tech Danny Gonzales stepped up as gaffer for the series.

He adds, “That prep time proved to be incredibly valuable and important. Scouting with all the keys was a godsend.”

The cinematographer recalls the shoot as being divided roughly 50-50 between stage and location. “We had a really strong locations department and an amazing production designer in Steve Arnold,” says Messerschmidt. “He was able to find some great locations in and around Pittsburgh that fit right into our visual language.”

That visual style involved keeping the camera work subtle to the point of being virtually unobtrusive, according to Messerschmidt. “The show is very much dialogue-driven, so the approach was to support the performance with the camera, not draw attention to the photography. There are various push-ins and deliberate motivated camera moves, but those sorts of techniques were used sparingly.”

Lighting often required just as subtle a touch. “For me, it’s ideal if the light source that is lighting the actors is also [visible] in the frame,” says Messerschmidt. “There are times when it’s necessary to augment with lights outside the frame, but it all starts with how the set is naturally lit and the staging of the actors and camera. Steve Arnold and I had a constant dialogue about practicals and sets that had integrated lighting fixtures that would support the story and visual tone of the show.”

Anna Torv plays Dr. Wendy Carr, a professor of behavioral psychology intrigued by the possibilities of this improvised study of psychopaths.
Photo by Patrick Harbron/Netflix

The cinematographer exploited a range of sources, including “lots of incandescent bulbs in practicals and on-camera fluorescents mixed with LED motion picture lights. Our favorites were LiteGear LiteMats, ARRI SkyPanels and ARRI L7s. We used traditional HMIs and some incandescent Fresnels as well, but we were probably 90 percent LED.”

With frenetic pursuit sequences a hallmark of many Fincher projects, it comes as no surprise that there is at least one significant car crash on the show. “I won’t get into specifics,” Messerschmidt teases, “but it involved collaboration among camera, visual effects and the art department, [with] stage and location work, plate photography and CG.”

The “plate van” created for the show facilitated acquisition via 11 RED EPIC Dragon cameras, each mounted on Global Dynamics United tilt plates.

Driving scenes were of such importance to the series that Fincher, Probst and Land again collaborated, this time on a custom system for shooting car plates. The resulting “plate van” facilitated acquisition via 11 RED EPIC Dragon cameras, each mounted on Global Dynamics United tilt plates.

Messerschmidt reports he remained “absolutely involved in the DI.” Eric Weidt, who had performed image stabilization on Gone Girl, was the DI colorist on Mindhunter. “He has impeccable taste,” says Messerschmidt of Weidt. “Eric would send Fincher and me color passes of the show periodically over PIX and we would make notes. I also made an effort to stop in periodically to see how post was going. This was great because I was able to review full-res versions in HDR.

“Mastering in Dolby Vision HDR is really exciting, with the added dynamic range in the shadows, particularly [so] for me,” Messerschmidt concludes, “but I think it’s important to be cautious how one uses the extra range in highlights, especially in darker scenes lit by practicals. It’s tempting to stretch the highlights to the upper limit of the HDR waveform—we’ve been limited to 100 units for so long—but that approach can quickly overwhelm the eye and make the shot about the practicals and not the actors. I’m really pleased with how the HDR version of the show came out—it’s the best way to experience it.” 

Read about Mindhunter’s editorial process: Crime Scenes: Evolving the Postproduction Process on Mindhunter, by Oliver Peters, Digital Video magazine, November 2017

Download the November 2017 issue of Digital Video magazine