INTERIORS: David Fincher

Interiors is an online film and architecture journal, published by Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian. Interiors will run an exclusive column for ArchDaily, analyzing and diagramming films in terms of space.

If cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame, David Fincher is an artist who is very much concerned about all four corners of his canvas. In his career, visual effects have always been at the forefront of his films, but his later works have also showcased his level of maturity as a storyteller. In Zodiac (2007), The Social Network (2010) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), visual effects play an integral role in the advancement of the story, as Fincher explores the relationship between visual effects and space.

The spaces we analyzed decrease in size with each film – an entire block in Zodiac, a business establishment in The Social Network and a single room in an apartment in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In each instance, we are dealing with spaces that depend on an effect of some sort. 

Screenshot of Zodiac. Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros.

Zodiac (2007)

Zodiac, the story of the real-life hunt for the serial killer of the late 60s/early 70s known as ‘Zodiac,’ was David Fincher’s first film that was photographed digitally. In this picture, he reunited with cinematographer Harris Savides, who previously worked with the director on The Game (1997), and made use of the Thomson Viper FilmStream camera. In the slow motion murder sequences, however, film cameras were used.

The murder of Paul Stine, the killer’s fourth victim, occurred on Saturday, October 11, 1969 around 9:55pm on the northeast corner of Washington Street and Cherry Street in the Presidio Heights neighborhood of San Francisco, California. 

In the scene in the film, the directions heard through the taxi’s radio are accurate to the location. The scene, however, as well as the crime scene investigation that follows, could not be entirely filmed on the actual location because of filming restrictions. This resulted in a set of the intersection being constructed at the now defunct Downey Studios in Downey, California. The backdrops of San Francisco were created digitally, because the actual street corner and surrounding houses had changed dramatically in the last few decades. David Fincher recreated the crime scene on a large digital scale and only a few seconds of footage filmed in the actual location remains in the completed film.

Courtesy of Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian

The scene opens with an aerial shot of the taxicab. David Fincher planned on following the taxi in such a way so that the relationship to the top and bottom of the frame wouldn’t change as the taxi moved and turned the street corners, resulting in an unusual camera move that makes the audience feels uncomfortable. This is a shot that would have been much more difficult to capture naturally via a helicopter.

The production designer on the film, Donald Graham Burt, designed his rendering of the original neighborhood, and the visual team then constructed a 3D digital version of the surrounding space. This resulted in a “digital set” for the production – a large part of the area was blocked off with blue screens, which were then replaced with backgrounds and buildings from the period. The two-story building on the opposite side of the taxi, which one of the officers points to in the film, was created digitally.

In creating this scene, the artists, from Matte World Digital in Novato, California, had complete control within the frame, from the amount of lighting coming through the buildings and nearby cars to the camera movements within the scene. The people walking on the streets in this aerial image were Matte World Digital employees filmed on a blue screen in a parking lot. These people were later tracked into the shots.

The visual effects team also added in motorcycles, fire trucks and police cars with CGI, where necessary, giving them full control over the space within the frame. The use of visual effects in this film is completely essential to the story, and we are provided with a clear example of how David Fincher uses space and visual effects as a way of recreating a space that no longer exists.

The Social Network (2010)

Screenshots from The Social Network. Courtesy of Sony Pictures

The Social Network showed David Fincher once again adapting to the new developments being made with cameras, as it was his first time working with RED cameras. Jeff Cronenweth, who previously worked with the director on Fight Club (1999), photographed the film using a RED ONE with the Mysterium-X sensor.

The opening scene of the film, where Erica (Rooney Mara) breaks up with Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), who will subsequently invent Facebook, was filmed on location at the Thirsty Scholar Pub on 70 Beacon Street in Somerville, Massachusetts. 

It’s interesting to note that with this film the production didn’t design its own layout for the location. The table layouts in the film are close to the actual layouts of the bar itself. In placing them at the center of the room, Mark and Erica are the center of attention both in the film and in the bar. In addition, David Fincher remains accurate to the layout of the bar – when Mark points to the doorman, the direction he is pointing is the actual location of the door entrance where a doorman would be positioned.

Courtesy of Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian

Fincher also increases the background noise in this public space to force the audience to focus on Aaron Sorkin’s private, witty, fast-paced dialogue. The opening scene draws the audience in, establishing the characters and laying the foundation for the entire film.

The scene opens on a wide shot of Mark and Erica in the pub before moving in for over-the-shoulder shots of each of them. These over-the-shoulder shots were filmed simultaneously because of the overlap in dialogue. This became known as the scene with “99 takes.” In actuality, those takes were spread out over numerous camera set-ups within the scene. 

The film, and this scene in particular, uses split screens and separate performances that are stitched together in post-production. In any given wide shot of the Mark and Erica, their performances may not be from the same take; as a result, the characters are responding to different performances. In the frame itself, the director has pieced together different shots to create a much more refined image. This also shows us how he can ultimately shape and enhance an actor’s performance in post-production. Angus Wall, one of the editors on the film, has commented that editing this particular scene lasted three weeks, but he believes the scene also sets the tone for the film, establishing a sense of authenticity.

In the finale of the scene, when Erica calls Mark an asshole, the sound pressure of the bar dissipates as her words land. The sound design of the film is altered even though we’re in the same space. The use of space and sound offers insight into Mark’s emotions; he feels disconnected from the public space around him.

Screenshot of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Columbia Pictures

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

David Fincher continues his collaboration with Jeff Cronenweth and RED cameras for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, using the RED EPIC for one-third of the production and the RED ONE MX for the rest of the film.

The scene in Lisbeth’s apartment, in which Lisbeth is sitting silently in her apartment, in the aftermath of her being raped, has the camera push in on her from behind and then move over her head, showing her face as if it were upside-down. 

The scene was filmed in Sony Pictures Studios on 10202 West Washington Boulevard in Culver City, California. This was an entirely fabricated set that was created exclusively for the film. This allowed complete control over the look of the scene and the space. In the featurette, as David Fincher directs the scene, he is constantly making changes to the room, adding and removing props and filling up empty spaces. This speaks to the level of detail within his frame and the surrounding space.

Courtesy of Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian

Because the shot starts from a distance, we see Lisbeth isolated, until we move in and see her from a distorted angle. While setting up this camera move, Fincher points out the several planes of focus on Lisbeth – as we push in, we continuously rack focus, from Lisbeth’s back, her hairband, the back of her head, the top of her head, and finally on our end point, which is the shot of her face upside-down. This highly expressive camera movement offers a look into Lisbeth’s fragile state of mind.

Also importantly, in filming this scene in one shot, lighting was done in two different directions – one from our starting point of the back of Lisbeth as she sits and smokes in her apartment and, significantly, the second from our end point on Lisbeth’s face. This key source of lighting comes from a space heater that rests beside Lisbeth. The use of the space heater was accidental – after bringing out the heater because the set was cold, the crew left the heater in for the shot because of the reddish lighting on Lisbeth’s face, which not just illuminates but alludes to her anger (hinting towards her future plans for revenge). Appropriately, in the supplements of the Blu-ray for this film, the scene is titled “Thinking Evil Shit”.

Courtesy of Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian

Interiors is an online journal, published on the 15th of each month, in which films are analyzed and diagrammed in terms of space. It is run by Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian. Check out their Website and Issuu Site and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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Cite: INTERIORS Journal. "INTERIORS: David Fincher" 03 Jun 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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