Last week, I kicked off something I thought would be incredibly fun to do, and that was to showcase a cinematographer and his work every week. I started off with Roger Deakins, and I may have to apologize now- that guy is such a legend that I’m afraid the next few posts I do won’t gain as much interest. But I can say that today’s cinematographer is one of my absolute favorites. His name is Jeff Cronenweth, and you definitely know his array of work.
“People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden.”
You probably know these opening lines. The film that they start off is now a cult classic and a good example of what kind of style the works of Jeff Cronenweth follow. Since 1999’s Fight Club, David Fincher’s main cinematographer of choice has been Jeff. Films by the duo since then have included The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the upcoming Gone Girl. The work Cronenweth has done with David Fincher is already half of what his resume consists of, so by no means is he a Roger Deakins. But quantity doesn’t equal quality, and the style Cronenweth takes on with Fincher is something that’s entirely their own now.
David Fincher’s films don’t have much saturation. Instead, their colors are typically tinted with a greenish tone, shots that are almost entirely monochromatic, and yellowish hues in place of pure white. The colors taken on by the duo are a representation of the thematic elements of every single one of their films. And with the stories Fincher tackles, the themes all come down to the same thing: the lower levels of the societies we live in. We’re shown the most self-destructive human beings possible in Fincher’s adaptation of Fight Club, submitting themselves into violence in order to escape the lives that they suffer living in. We see the outright betrayal, corruption, and sense of self-worth each the Harvard students in The Social Network face when thrown into a world of big business. We witness the horrifying abuse Lizabeth Salander endures behind closed doors from her rapist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In each one of these films, the cinematography is a character, complementing the electronic noises and imagery, and flowing flawlessly into Trent Reznor’s humanity-damning soundtracks. Recall The Social Network, and ask yourself if the film would have impacted you as much as it did, had the look and sound of the film not been as heavily worked on as they were.
This film is what sets the precedent for the style we see coming from Jeff Cronenweth. Along with being his first film with David Fincher, this is his first film credit ever; Fight Club was shot at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on Super 35 film.
“David also likes Super 35 because it allows us to use less equipment, light with smaller sources, and expose for practical night exteriors and actually get something out of the existing lighting at the location.” (ASC, Nov 1999)
If you’ve ever suffered from depression, then you know that color changes around you. Whether you walk outside down a busy street, or inside the aisles of a grocery store, things lose their saturation. Your environment is pale. The lighting that Cronenweth and Fincher implemented into this film had to maintain a goal of keeping everything looking like reality- like it could be anyone’s hated 9-to-5 office job.
“Many practical locations are lit by fluorescents in the ceiling, so we purposefully tried to maintain that element of reality. Toplight seemed to help with the prosthetics as well, by showing off the integrity of the wounds without revealing too much.” (ASC, Nov 1999)
Fight Club is a story by Chuck Palahnuk that revolves around that depression, and centers around a man that envisions everything he wishes to be; it follows his path to self-destruction as a means of escape. And the cinematography is what those themes are themselves: bleak and psychotic.
One thing you see in this film as a precedent for Cronenweth is his use of wide-angle shots with shallow depths of field. He preferred using close-up long shots, and it’s become a signature style of his to this day.
“T2.3 was pretty much the stop for the entire movie,” Cronenweth says. “Whether we were inside or outside, we always wanted to keep a shallow depth of field to keep the audience focused on what we wanted them to see. I’m very confident about shooting with the Primo lenses wide-open, but exposure-wise, shooting at a T2.3 was very comfortable, and I liked what it did to the practicals.” (ASC, Nov 1999)
Spoiler incoming here. You don’t realize until the third act of the film that Tyler Durden and Edward Norton’s character are the same person in a schizophrenic fantasy. The brilliant and absolutely subtle thing about this is how the cinematography was shot to give that vibe the entire time beforehand. In scenes without Tyler, the man in the character’s imagination, everything is desaturated, faded, pale, and usually tinted in green- scenes of places that would suck the happiness out of us. In scenes with Tyler Durden, the pale colors are blasted with contrast and definition. dolly shots take over, and life has a certain thrill added to it. Tyler is everything the main character of the film would like to see himself as, and the colors follow that idea. The dolly shots invoke an even stronger feeling of tension and vertigo; Cronenweth convinces you that you’re watching the film through the eyes of an insane human being.
“In all of the ‘normal’ reality situations, the look was supposed to be fairly bland and realistic. For the scenes when he is with Tyler, though, David wanted the look to be more hyper-real in a torn-down, deconstructed sense—a visual metaphor of what he’s heading into.” (ASC, Nov 1999)
The Social Network
This film had the difficult task of making a story about some college students making a website be interesting. By the year this was released, David Fincher was well known for making the look of his movies a living and breathing character in their stories. Jeff Cronenweth was back on board with the director for the first time since Fight Club eleven years back. And along came back his methods, which ended up being exactly what The Social Network needed.
What any moviegoer will notice after even one watch of the movie is the use of symmetry. You won’t ever get much rule-of-thirds action out of Cronenweth, really. Both him and Fincher had their minds made from the beginning on what they wanted: a stylized, sleek, and modern shot of down-to-earth reality.
We don’t get any of the grinding, distorted imagery that Fight Club had, because we’re dealing with a story now that has absolutely no action at all. But the hues come back, the greens and yellows ever-more present; the tones and saturations of every shot take us back to that same feeling of tension Cronenweth’s first film invoked. Every dorm room scene was bleak and yellowed, and every party, classroom, and row boat race was tinted in greens.
There was a constant feeling of corruption throughout, to where even if the characters in the film are celebrating, you can almost see the downfall about to jump out and bring everything down. The cinematography of The Social Network was what the people in the film themselves were: young, wild, sharp, and sinister.
David Fincher has always been someone who likes keeping up with the new advancements being brought forth in film. Naturally, up to this point right before the end of the 00’s decade, he and Cronenweth already made the move to digital: in this case, with the RED One.
Jeff Cronenweth still, however, made it a priority that he gets those shallow depth of field shots he coins, and HD digital cameras brought a pretty difficult challenge to that goal. The lens that Cronenweth chose were picked keeping that in mind. And the depth of field did its job. With a film consisting entirely of conversations, that shooting style played a vital role in making sure every single one of them was shot in the most intimate manner possible.
“So, what we did is we used a series of prime lenses called Master Primes. They open up to 1.3. Unfortunately for the camera assistants it made their lives very, very difficult, but we shot the entire film at 1.3. And when we did go outside we used massive amounts of Neutral Density (ND) filters to keep the exposure wide open, allowing yourself, still, the depth-of-field choice.” (The Black and Blue, Jan 2011)
Before Jeff Cronenweth started on Fight Club, he had a second-unit job for David Fincher on the film Seven. After that, he began to work on music videos; and throughout the places his career took him to, David Fincher was a constant. Cronenweth is known today mostly for his collaborations with David Fincher. Considering his father was the late Jordan Cronenweth- the man behind the cinematography of the sci-fi classic Blade Runner- it’s clear that Jeff’s made a name for himself that will influence filmmakers for decades to come.