Cinematography: Erik Messerschmidt — <I>Mank</i>
Issue: March/April 2021

Cinematography: Erik Messerschmidt — Mank

Mank, which leads all films with 10 nominations at the 93rd Academy Awards, reunited director David Fincher with cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt. The two have collaborated in the past on Gone Girl and Mindhunter, so when the call came to shoot the latest feature, Messerschmidt says he was grateful for the consideration. 

“It was an unexpected project,” he says of Mank. “I didn’t know that this is what (David Fincher) was up to next or would consider hiring me, but I’m thrilled that it happened.”

Mank takes audiences back to 1930s Hollywood, where screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz is racing to finish work on Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, while dealing with alcoholism and an unexpected broken leg. Stars Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried are both nominated for their performances, as is the film’s Original Score and Sound. In addition to Cinematography and Directing nominations, the feature is also in the running for Best Picture. 

To reflect the time period, the film is presented in black & white, which was taken into consideration at the earliest stages of planning, with Messerschmidt and Fincher performing considerable research leading up to the shoot.

“We looked at a lot of black & white cinema, and we did quite a bit of creative testing,” Messerchmidt recalls. “We tried to treat everything as empirically as possible. It was always from a point of intention. David was clear he wanted certain qualities, and we went through the process of trying to find those things.”

Photo (L-R): Fincher and Oldman

Rather than shoot in color and later desaturate the image, the crew decided to shoot in black & white, choosing Red Digital Cinema’s Helium Monochrome camera. 

“It’s a Helium sensor, but it has the bayer pattern removed, so it only shoots a monochrome image,” Messerschmidt explains. “The only camera-original negative that ever existed is black & white. We did that primarily because we were looking for a silver/gelatin print quality to the image that we felt we weren’t getting in desaturated color.”

The Red camera, he says, delivered the high dynamic range, tonal disparity and three-dimensional quality that was desired.

“There were a number of things we were trying to emulate when it comes to classic black & white cinema,” says Messerschmidt. “One of them is film grain, of course, which is something we attenuated and manipulated throughout the edit in post. The other thing we were looking at was gate weave. Gate weave was something we added in post. And the thing that I am most fond of is what we ended up calling our ‘black bloom’. It’s a characteristic of black & white print negative.”

Messerschmidt describes black bloom as a slight defocus of the darker tones of the image. It existed in some degree across the entire film, but was treated differently from shot to shot and scene to scene in Mank.

Colorist Eric Weidt helped develop the look, experimenting with grades using a Baselight system and creating LUTs for the dailies.

Mank was shot over 70 days, and Messershcmidt describes the experiences as both tough and rewarding.

“Nothing good is ever easy,” says the cinematographer. “We were always fighting for more time. We set very high standards for ourselves and we worked extremely hard on the movie. No shoot is ever easy, but it was an incredibly rewarding experience for all of us. It never really felt like work.”

One of the film’s most challenging — and ultimately rewarding — scenes for Messerschmidt features Herman Mankiewicz (Oldman) and Marion Davies (Seyfried), who discuss their lives and careers during a night-time stroll. While the viewer sees it as a casual conversation between the two, lots of prep helped make it a success. 

“That sequence was shot day-for-night,” Messerschmidt reveals, “which is a classic cinema technique dating back pre-1940 and the beginning of cinema. We had done quite a bit of prep work and testing to figure out the best way to do that. We built a LUT to sort of emulate the day-for-night look and that came from the result of testing and R&D in the DI with Eric Weidt. Then, David and I went to the locations and planned every shot, piece of staging and sun direction, and tried to plan around the position of the sun for each bespoke moment. It was heavily previsualized — not in the computer sense, but in the prep sense…I am quite proud of that sequence because we spent a lot of time exploring it and planning for it, and I think, for the most part, we were pretty successful.”

When Post spoke with Messerschmidt, he admitted to not having fully processed his Oscar nomination.  

“I am excited to go with my wife and celebrate with people [who worked] on the movie. It’s a tremendous honor and we are really proud of the film.”