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The Social Network
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Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Post Focus
ASC Close-Up
David Fincher and Jeff Croneneweth, ASC help beta-test Red”s Mysterium-X chip on The Social Network, which chronicles the founding of Facebook.


Unit photography by Merrick Morton, SMPSP, courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Director David Fincher declares that his team employed “a righteous workflow” for The Social Network, a digitally captured feature that details the development of the Facebook website by Harvard University students in 2003. According to Fincher, his team, which included cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, ASC, managed to simplify while significantly advancing the data-based workflow methods employed on Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (shot on high-definition video and 35mm; AC Jan. ’09) and Zodiac (shot on HD video; AC April ’07).  

Fincher had used Thomson’s Viper on Zodiac, and the Viper and Sony’s F23 on Benjamin Button, but when he started prepping The Social Network, he made an early
decision to adopt Red One cameras and data-management techniques for the project. Friend and fellow filmmaker Steven Soderbergh offered Fincher the use of Soderbergh’s own Red cameras, and around that time, Red was preparing to introduce its new Mysterium-X 4K sensor. Fincher persuaded Red to upgrade Soderbergh’s cameras with beta-version MX sensors, and he and Cronenweth shot The Social Network with them, recording mainly to 16-gigabyte CF cards.

“Viper technology was a few years old by the time we started this project,” explains Fincher. “I was comfortable with it and liked the bandwidth and the pictures I got, but … Steven [Soderbergh] let me use his Red Ones on some Nike commercials, and I just felt the Red was future-compatible. It’s light and small, and I could walk away from the set at the end of the day with a wallet full of CF cards, take them to the editorial department, download them, and go back and use them again. I call it a righteous workflow.

“Red’s new chip was in the beta stage when I started prepping Social Network, and I felt that if the company could guarantee the chip’s stability throughout our shoot, it was a risk worth taking,” continues the director. “[Red CEO] Jim Jannard did that, so the decision was easy. When I brought Jeff Cronenweth in, I said, ‘If you don’t like the tests, we can discuss making a change, but otherwise, this is how I want to go.’ We went into a digital-intermediate suite, and the 4K images we saw made Jeff happy.”

Cronenweth had previously shot music videos and the feature Fight Club (AC Nov. ’99) for Fincher, and had also shot second unit for the director’s films Seven (AC Oct. ’95) and The Game (AC Sept. ’97). When Fincher offered to bring him aboard Social Network, Cronenweth had not used the Red One with the new chip, though he had digitally captured commercials with the Red, Thomson’s Viper and Sony’s F35. Cronenweth says he quickly became comfortable with the MX chip after testing, and he believes the Red suited the “reality-based” aesthetic of the project at hand. He also felt the Red would help the production work around the fact that it had no access to the Harvard campus, where much of the story takes place. “We had to tread lightly when shooting near Harvard, while at the same time maintain high standards,” says Cronenweth. “I was confident that the Red would allow us to work light, move fast, handle low light and still get rich visuals. We could still monitor and regulate exposures, if you will, but our footprint was very small — we didn’t even have a DIT [digital-imaging technician]. We had a video-playback tech to record data, and one camera assistant managing data and sending everything to editorial. The video-playback tech received the normal 720 out signal for video assist via normal cabling.”

The production carried two of Soderbergh’s Red Ones (Build 21) upgraded with MX chips and outfitted with Arri Master Prime lenses. Keslow Camera supplied the team with the Master Primes and a third Red One. (A second unit, which focused on crew-race footage, was outfitted with two lightweight Kevlar Red bodies that Red made specifically for the filmmakers.) Soderbergh’s cameras were run most of the time, with Peter Rosenfeld operating the A camera and Cronenweth on the B. The production utilized the Redcode 42 compression scheme, but Red also upgraded software so the production could go as high as 36 fps and still stay within Redcode 42. The movie was shot 2:1 (4096 x 2048) for a final aspect ratio of 2.40:1.

Most of the time, the 4K images were recorded directly to CF cards. For long dialogue scenes or data-eating speed-change sequences, however, the team also used Red-Ram and Red-Raid drives. The filmmakers visualized what they shot “rather simply,” according to Fincher, on a pair of Panasonic BT-LH 1760 HD focus monitors. Rather than calibrating the monitors with a variety of look-up tables, they relied on the basic Redcolor default LUT, saving their fine-tuning for the digital grade. Cards were sent to editorial each day and offloaded, with an editorial assistant backing up each card to two separate hard drives and LTO tape before returning the cards to set. No physical media were used for dailies; instead, the production relied on the Pix System online media platform, staying in the data realm throughout.

Cronenweth says there were several advantages to having MX-configured cameras at his disposal. “Dynamic color range, improvement in latitude, highlights not vanishing as quickly into clipping areas, and actually extending the toe area — those things were beautiful,” he enumerates. “Most of this picture, like many of David’s movies, takes place in low-light situations, so those things were helpful to us.”

Rosenfeld also enjoyed his first encounter with the Red. “We pretty much used it as if it were a film camera,” says the operator. “It’s a digital movie, but there were no laptops in the camera department, no DIT, and we were never burdened with having to dub or copy cards on set. We rarely viewed playback through the camera, as the video-assist operator handled shot evaluation in a traditional fashion. The only cables were the traditional ones used on any video-assist tap; they ran to David’s HD monitor.

“Also, I liked the eyepiece, because with the bigger chip, I could really sign off on focus, which is hard to do with digital cameras,” continues Rosenfeld. “There’s an area operators call the ‘lookaround,’ an area that isn’t recorded in the aspect ratio. It’s useful for spotting intrusions or violations, like tracks or booms or stands. With most other camera systems, if you see it in the eyepiece, it’s too late, but with the MX chip, there is a little lookaround built into the format. This was the first digital-cinema system I’ve used where the eyepiece monitor was sharp enough for me to actually see focus.”

Cronenweth notes, however, that manipulating depth-of-field remains a challenge. “If filmmakers shooting digitally choose to use depth-of-field as a storytelling tool, then it’s imperative to control the exposure to control focus,” he explains. “We shot with the [T1.3] Master Primes wide open most of the time. When we went outside, which was rare, we had to really stack ND filters to get the exposure down and achieve a comfortable amount of depth-of-field. When shooting digitally and stacking filters, one must always remember the sensitivities of the chip or sensor and what the effect of those filters might be. We used IR neutral-density filters to control the warm effects that the NDs inherently bring, and to give our blue-light-sensitive chip a better chance at capturing the images the way we wanted them.”

Fincher’s goal was straightforward photography in real-world light. “What David wanted was evident right away,” recalls Rosenfeld. “He likes symmetry — balanced compositions, strong lines, level frames, zero keystone effects. He favors [dolly] track and avoids cranes as much as possible. I believe there is only one handheld shot in the entire movie. David was so clear on what he wanted visually that camera placements and focal-length choices were easy to make.”

 

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