The Oscar-nominated cinematography on The Social Network is trickier than it looks. David Fincher and his long-time director of photography, Jeff Cronenweth worked within various constraints. Shot with the latest digital RED One camera, the film was low-budget for a studio film ($50 million), was aiming to achieve a level of virisimilitude about recognizable people, and was shooting guerilla-style on the Harvard campus, where the cameras had to get in and out fast.
Cronenweth and I talked via Skype from the Los Angeles stage set of Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (exteriors were shot in Sweden, with more to come before the film wraps in March). He first met Fincher as a camera assistant to his father Jordan on the Madonna Oh Father video, shot in Citizen Kane-inspired black-and-white. They shot more music videos and commercials with Fincher; Jeff was the camera operator on Seven, moved to second-unit photography on The Game, and took on director of photography for Fight Club. His father left Alien 3 after he fell ill; Fincher still credits him with teaching him a good deal. Cronenweth eventually left his father's crew to operate the camera for John Toll and Sven Nykvist, and shot K-19: Widowmaker for Kathryn Bigelow.
Harris Savides shot Fincher's first digital movie, Zodiac, with the Viper camera; Claudio Miranda also used a viper for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Cronenweth learned how to shoot digitally with the Viper on commercials and music videos, including Fincher's Lexus spots. The Social Network is his first digital movie, and the first ever to use the newest RED One camera with a Mysterium X chip. "It gave us more latitude and contrast in the camera itself," says Cronenweth, "a higher ISO and ASA." This helped with night exteriors, which they shot practically by adding enhanced over-sized big-watt lights behind existing street lamps, as in the opening sequence as the kids run through the campus past iconic Harvard Square and the campus gates.
Fincher and Cronenweth hammered out ahead of time the best visual approach for the movie, looking at locations and set designs. "It was going back to the college experience," Cronenweth says. "We wanted to get the dorms, small rooms with roommates, lack of furniture, sparse spaces. Harvard itself is the centerpiece: old dorms, bricks. Plus they don't condone shooting on campus, especially this movie, which gives Harvard a black eye. We had to tread lightly. That was the main reason we had to stay compact and small and shoot on the run."
They shot in the dark with small self-contained mobile units with a pick-up truck and generator. They created pools of light to isolate the kids, making the reality of the sets and locations their ally. "We could turn on a dime; we hyper-enhanced," says Cronenweth. "It was reality on steroids. We put a battery pack and two lights inside a cart," he says, so that a mime could walk through the iconic gates with the lighting cart. "We beg borrow and steal to get what we need done."
Needless to say this is not how most studio movies operate. For Cronenweth, the script and dialogue were so tight, it was up to him to shoot the movie without getting in the way: "Let the actors act," he says simply, "and not get complicated with egotistical lighting moves. It would only distract."
The showiest sequences for the lighting team were lighting Sean Parker as Mephistopheles in the Ruby Sky Bar, with background go-go girls. The production designer came up with a table with plastic light boxes as a light source. "Making him look sinister was a story point," Cronenweth says. In the frat party scene, The LED lights were synced to playback of the music track, so that Fincher could make effective cuts.
The Henley regatta race was another showpiece. They used river settings as a set up, then disguised the backgrounds by throwing them out of focus, isolating the rowers in the boat up close, setting the focus with a hand-mount camera at the end of each three-foot stroke, which would slide out of focus and then come back into crispness.
Cronenweth also had to try to keep the long legal meeting room scenes from becoming too dull. "David wanted to see the light through the window transition from morning until night," he says. "We kept altering the sun's position. We had to keep it interesting and real. We used a lot of glass."
Fincher, who started at ILM, is a master of visual effects and the manipulation of a digital intermediate, says Cronenweth. "He takes his time with the digital master. He's a painter. He takes time to analyze the frame. You can stop the frame and make a diversity of color and density choices, use power windows to isolate parts of the frame." You still have to get the right exposure to start with, Cronenweth reminds: "An HD Cam doesn't change those principles. It takes all the same effort." And shooting in the dark is always an aesthetic risk, he says: "Low levels of light is not safe photography. But it serves the story really well."
For more detail, see this and the featurette on the supplemental disc of The Social Network Blu-ray entitled “Jeff Cronenweth and David Fincher on the visuals."