Written By: David Geffner, ICG Magazine
In their first theatrical re-teaming since Fight Club, Jeff Cronenweth, ASC and David Fincher recount the founding of the world’s most successful online network.
Facebook may well be the biggest social innovation since the invention of the town square, but the online social network’s roots were anything but auspicious. Founder Mark Zuckerberg was a 19-year-old computer science major at Harvard when, despondent and intoxicated one night after getting the boot from his girlfriend, he struck upon the germ of what would later earn him hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as contentious lawsuits from the college chums who helped him create the website. Throughout its meteoric rise, Facebook (named after the college books given to students at the start of their academic year) has managed to get banned in at least five countries and its privacy controls compromised by hackers. It’s made no friends with American employers, where otherwise productive work time is frittered away by, as one media outlet described, “stalking our exes and bugging our friends.” The new Sony feature, The Social Network, directed by David Fincher and lensed by Jeff Cronenweth, ASC, recounts this improbable tale of how Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) changed the way and speed with which people across the world interact, earning 500 million friends, and more than a few enemies along the way.
With a dialog-heavy script by The West Wing scribe Aaron Sorkin (see Exposure – this issue), The Social Network is, like its namesake, deceptively simple, and yet revolutionary. It’s the first feature shot with RED’s new M-X sensor capture system; also, the RED M-X footage was used in conjunction with an advanced DI process to simplify and expedite the film’s production and postproduction workflows. While big-budget 3D films are showing how advanced digital technology is aiding spectacle, The Social Network provides a real-world example of how that same technology can be employed for more modest, character-driven dramas.
What’s Your Status?
It’s been 10 years since Cronenweth and Fincher worked together on the controversial, visceral Fight Club, but the cinematographer said that their working relationship picked up where it left off. When Cronenweth joined the production team for The Social Network, he says that Fincher had a clear visual plan for the picture, but the “painting was half done,” giving him room to move creatively and adapt, a necessity when dealing with difficult or last-minute locations and changes on set.
Among the pieces already in place was the choice, by Fincher, of RED’s new M-X camera. According to the cinematographer, Fincher has wanted to explore using the RED system in production. Helping cement this decision was his friend and fellow director Steven Soderbergh, who loaned the production two RED cameras. Cronenweth had already used RED cameras on commercial shoots, so he knew what to expect.
The M-X gave his small camera team a number of distinct advantages. For instance, much of the movie consisted of interiors and night exteriors in controlled situations where the RED excels in both color range and toe end, or bottom of the scale lights wise. In addition, the camera’s small, consumer-like size helped the crew keep a low profile shooting around Boston and iconic Harvard-related spots.
Increasingly smaller and more efficient camera and production teams have been a hallmark of Fincher’s style in recent years, which, in turn, has provided the visionary director with more creative control.
Cronenweth reflected this keep-it-simple mentality by shooting the picture with ARRI Master Primes and setting the RED to ASA 500 throughout the film. The latter setting resulted from much set testing and then again in some DI test sessions.“I just felt that with the way I like to expose and what feels comfortable to my eyes, this ASA gave me the latitude I was comfortable with; although I have many friends who have had great success rating the camera higher or faster, if you will,” he recalls. “I was thinking, ‘Why couldn’t I just look at the camera as having one film stock with one ASA and one look-up table. Isn’t it all about what I’m doing with the light anyways?’ and the RED representatives said, ‘Well, yeah.’ So we did. Essentially, we just used monitors as a set guide knowing that we were recording the RAW data and exposed it to have full latitude later in the DI.”
You’ve Been Tagged!
Cronenweth says Fincher wanted The Social Network, which takes place in a relatively short timeframe (about seven years ago), to feel as real as possible. To that end he and his team made use of in-scene practical lighting, adding in sources as needed.
“We used a little bit of everything,” Cronenweth explains. “Around Harvard, they use a lot of sodium vapor streetlights – they’re kind of orange-ish – so we created our own gel packs to match those sources. Because Harvard is an old school and has a lot of dark wood, the interiors were going to be a challenge no matter what camera we used. You have to take advantage of practical lamps and add highlights to bring out the texture of the wood, so they don’t go black. We used covered wagons tucked up in the corners – they fall off like a practical, so they simulate an organic situation. In the more contemporary settings, like computer labs and lecture halls, we used mainly Kino Flos. It was all about not trying to change too much, but make it aesthetically appealing by blending existing lights and our sources.”
Lighting schemes were drawn up in advance, either by scouting the location or consulting with an overhead set plan. Cronenweth and his team would discuss how the scene would be blocked and what the coverage needs were and then develop a lighting strategy. When it came time for rehearsal, he made sure everything was covered, the blocking was correct, and the lighting plan facilitated production.
Perhaps the biggest difference between The Social Network and past Fincher shows was the use of visuals to, first and foremost, underscore Sorkin’s words on the page. Zuckerberg is the quintessential outsider and this is visualized by using subtle camera movement to isolate him within the frame. Cronenweth says that the simplicity with which he shot The Social Network belied the advanced digital technology that afforded such a high level of creative control.
In fact, The Social Network’s digital negative was RAW and all file-based. Each day, camera assistant Paul Toomey handed off 16 GB CF cards and RED-Ram drives to the editorial team, which stored, duplicated and archived the images onsite during location shooting. Archiving began with the day’s Redcode 42 files ingested to a local vault. All clips went through quality control processing using RED Rocket in HD SDI. The clips were then cloned and verified to Xsan RAW volume in a current day/marked-to-print directory, with those marked for deletion moved to a delete folder. The Xsan RAW data was then prepared for archiving to LTO-4 tape, for delivery as .dpx files to the effects facility and Cronenweth, and as a ProRes 422 (LT) for editorial. The Xsan edit files were compressed, given clip names, set at a 2.4:1 window, and a watermark was electronically inserted over the picture. The edit files were then uploaded to a secure Internet site (pixsystem.com) and the local files were then deleted.
According to Cronenweth, having immediate access to the images that looked equivalent to what he saw on set meant his team could catch any problem areas during production. “What’s great about it is that we were able to make sure that no visual aberrations came up or there weren’t any dropped frames or any other digital glitch,” he explains, adding that he enjoyed a “peace of mind” never fully present in a traditional film workflow. “I had very few sleepless nights on The Social Network, and was confident I’d have a job when I woke up each day,” the DP laughs.
The RED M-X, coupled with Fincher’s notoriously precise planning, helped provide for what Cronenweth describes as a “trouble-free” 68-day shoot, with the show wrapping a few days early. The DI process that then followed was even more efficient, breaking new ground for digital post workflow.
Writing on the Wall
When LIGHTIRON Digital colorist Ian Vertovec received the edited version of The Social Network as uncompressed 2K .dpx files, he had a product that was fully conformed and stabilized by editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, allowing Vertovec to move right to the demanding work of color correcting, reframing and sharpening. However, Fincher was in Europe preparing for his next project (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) for much of the digital intermediate process, which threatened to imperil Sony’s October 1 release date. “Holding up the DI was not an option,” the colorist insists.
The workaround was unique and would not have been possible even a year or two ago, given the advances in digital technology. Vertovec matched the screens of his and Fincher’s Apple laptops, allowing them both to view the same images at the same resolution and quality no matter where they were located. This allowed the DI process to keep moving with Fincher accessing the film from the secure PIX website, where he could make annotations that Vertovec, half a world away, used to correct the images on his Pablo workstation. He then uploaded the corrected scenes on the PIX website for Fincher’s review.
Working so closely with the director gave Vertovec the insight to make what he calls “informed decisions” about changes. For example, if he received several of the same notes about the skin tones in similar scenes, he would apply those changes to others prior to Fincher seeing them. By the time Fincher returned from Europe for the final stages of the DI, the film was still on schedule. And unlike the earlier part of the process, which was conducted through the Internet on small computer monitors, the final product was graded in the most ideal of situations, a 40-foot screen at RED Studios (formerly Ren-Mar) in Hollywood. This unprecedented DI setup allowed Vertovec, Fincher and Cronenweth to view the film via a Sony 4K projector under the same conditions it would later be projected in theaters. On a recent visit, Vertovec could be seen 7 feet off the soundstage floor, changing, shaping and transforming the images on the screen as the director and DP gave notes.
As with Fincher and Cronenweth, Vertovec says his primary goals were to create a finished product that would capture Sorkin’s dense script. “There are a lot of visual effects and they’re all happening on the screen, but you don’t notice them,” he remarks, noting that there are about five to 10 tracking color correction windows in every shot.
Some of these visual effects are impressively seamless – stitched together images with an effects-produced camera move, or a pair of twins played by the same actor, for example. Others are much more subtle: those dark woods that Cronenweth carefully lit to have texture were given a bluish feel, to look even more Harvardesque.
Vertovec explains that when he made a change, his Pablo system saved a reference frame for quick access. This allowed him to manipulate any image, tearing it instantly back down to its original RAW form and just as quickly re-applying all of the changes. (The Pablo system would render in the background while Vertovec moved on to the next shot, saving significant time and money.)
When they started Facebook, Zuckerberg and his Harvard pals never imagined their online network could one day transform global connectivity. After all, Web portals like MySpace and Friendster were there first, with negligible impact and success. Similarly, the radically nimble digital workflow pioneered on The Social Network may well one day transform the film and television industry. Certainly all the creative players polled for this article think so. Vertovec estimates that within the next three to five years, virtually all productions will employ a similar digital workflow because, as he concludes, “The irony is that it isn’t really about the technology. It’s about simplifying the process to make it easier for filmmakers to tell their stories.”
Cronenweth – who cut his feature filmmaking teeth on celluloid – has a more cautiously pragmatic view about the rapid march toward digital. “I think both film and HD are great,” he concludes. “They’re both tools that are separated by what kind of story we want to tell. I do have an application preference, however, and you don’t cut paper with a hammer and don’t hammer nails with scissors.”