One DP just won his first career ASC Award—on the strength of his work on The Crown (Netflix).
Another made key contributions to the heartfelt Strong Island (Netflix), which was nominated for this year’s Best Documentary Feature Oscar.
And a third DP has spent a recent stretch focusing on spots after getting a career break from David Fincher on the TV series Mindhunter (Netflix).
Here are insights from DPs Adriano Goldman, ASC, ABC, Alan Jacobsen and Erik Messerschmidt.
Adriano Goldman, ASC, ABC
For Adriano Goldman, ASC, ABC, winning the ASC Award last month for the “Smoke and Mirrors” episode of The Crown (Netflix) was “a dream come true.” He described being invited two years ago to become an American Society of Cinematographers member as “a high honor.” And now he affirmed that to be recognized by his colleagues at “that special club” with his first ASC Award nomination and win “means everything to me.”
“Smoke and Mirrors,” episode 5 of The Crown, earned nominations at all the major competitions for best cinematography—from Camerimage to the BAFTA Awards, the primetime Emmys, and the British Society of Cinematographers (BSC) Awards. His sole win this awards season came from the ASC.
“Just getting nominated across the board was gratifying,” said Goldman. But there was something quite special about The Crown being fitted with the crown jewel for cinematographers on the awards show circuit, the ASC Award, besting such esteemed nominees as Gonzalo Amat for The Man in the High Castle, Alasdair Walker for Outlander, and Robert McLachlin, ASC, CSC, and Gregory Middleton, ASC, CSC, for their respective episodes of Game of Thrones.
Goldman said that the awards showing and his positive experience on The Crown justified his proactive pursuit of the gig. He took the initiative by approaching director Stephen Daldry for whom he had lensed the feature Trash back in 2013. Trash told a story set in Brazil where three kids make a discovery in a garbage dump only to soon find themselves running from the cops and trying to right a terrible wrong.
“When Stephen came back to Rio for the Trash premiere, The Crown was in the air,” recalled Goldman. “I had heard about his involvement and that [showrunner/creator/writer] Peter Morgan was prepping for the series. I expressed my interest and Stephen said, ‘If you want to do it, it’s yours.’ I was absolutely thrilled, recreating the period, the history behind all this, the challenge of delivering something that would eventually look different from other period dramas in Britain.”
Based on Morgan’s lauded play “The Audience,” The Crown chronicles the life of Queen Elizabeth II (portrayed by Claire Foy) from the 1940s to modern times. The series begins with an inside look at the early reign of the queen, who assumed the throne at age 25 after the death of her father, King George VI. As the decades pass, personal intrigue, romance, and political rivalries are revealed which played a major role in events that shaped the latter part of the 20th century.
During the first season of The Crown, Goldman shot episodes 1 and 2 for director/series EP Daldry, episodes 3 and 5 (“Smoke and Mirrors) for director Philip Martin, and episodes 7 and 9 for director Benjamin Caron. Though it was the number 5 episode, “Smoke and Mirrors” was the very first episode shot. “I prepped deeply for episode 5, especially given it was my first time working with Philip Martin,” recalled Goldman. “I had to learn his style and we had to establish the overall look of the series with Peter and Stephen’s approval. A less-is-more kind of coverage was our goal. We didn’t need to over-cover everything. There was so much going on—the classy elegance, the Duke of Windsor in Paris watching the ceremony with his friends, jumping from inside the cathedral for the coronation to backstage where the BBC crew is at work. There was so much stuff to intercut. You feel the tension in the episode.”
Among the prime challenges, continued Goldman, “was to shoot our own archival footage, what amounted to fake archival footage, re-creating what the BBC TV crew captured in the cathedral for the coronation. That’s the first time the BBC was permitted access to the coronation, which was shown live on television. “Our doing justice to the history and that broadcast,” said Goldman, “translated to a more humane approach to something that is so holy in a sense.”
There was also a major change in the originally intended approach on how to best lens the actors. At first, the thought was to shoot from a distance, in a documentary fashion, as “if we were hidden in chambers at Buckingham Palace,” said Goldman. “But ultimately the decision was to do the opposite, to be physically close to the actors—and the characters they were portraying. We wanted the audience to feel they could almost read the characters’ thoughts. We wanted the audience to see every pore, to feel the texture of the Queen’s skin, to feel the costumes, the fabrics...Another challenge was kind of a tricky combination. So much about the Queen’s world is about protocol and formality. Yet Stephen wanted to show this world in an organic, believable way. He never wanted a ‘Cinderella’ look. That’s why being close to the characters made sense. We wanted to create a feeling where these characters are accessible, and the tone is more intimate.”
Goldman said he’s proud of the approach to—and the overall look of—The Crown. “We’re working for the actors. Claire and I became close friends. What she does is amazing. The realism that Peter Morgan’s writing delivers and her performance, all the performances, made this job a joy. There’s a real freshness to this show. More than anything it all stems from the dialogue, the sophistication of the writing, and Claire’s performance.”
At first, Goldman thought he would deploy the ARRI Alexa on The Crown but those plans changed with Netflix’s insistence on a 4K workflow from beginning to end. At that time, this narrowed his prime camera choices to include the Sony F55 and F65, and RED cameras. Goldman gravitated to the Sony F55 which he said, “I have grown to really like. Its sensor is gentle, the overall look is what we wanted, the camera is a hundred percent reliable. We have not had one single technical problem throughout two seasons.”
Also key was pairing the F55 with vintage Cooke Panchro lenses and a light diffusion filter called Glimmerglass. “The combination of the sensor and those vintage lenses,” said Goldman, “really almost immediately delivered the kind of romantic period film we envisioned.”
Upon the suggestion of Oscar nominated filmmaker Marshall Curry, director Yance Ford reached out to cinematographer Alan Jacobsen, leading to their close collaboration on Strong Island (Netflix), nominated for this year’s Best Documentary Feature Oscar. Jacobsen had earlier lensed two documentaries for Curry: Racing Dreams and Point and Shoot—each received the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival, in 2009 and 2014, respectively.
“Marshall came to know me as a cinematographer who went deep with a director, deep into a story, committed to telling stories in the most cinematic way possible,” said Jacobsen. “Sometimes documentaries don’t get much credit for cinematic technique. Marshall saw that was an interest of mine and hearing what Yance wanted to do with a cinematic experience, he recommended me.”
Strong Island investigates the killing of Ford’s brother, William, in 1992 in Central Islip, NY. A 22-year-old black man, William Ford, was shot and killed by a 19-year-old white man, a mechanic named Mark Reilly, after a verbal altercation. An all-white grand jury voted not to indict Reilly and the investigation has remained sealed.
This story of loss, grief, bias and injustice struck a responsive emotional chord with audiences while attaining critical acclaim, including a Special Jury Prize at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Ford made history with the Oscar nod, becoming the first transgender filmmaker to receive an Academy Award nomination.
“When I first met Yance, we hit it right off,” recalled Jacobsen. “He wanted to create an immersive experience for his audience. He was dealing with heavy ideas and issues but did not want to create a film for straight out advocacy. He wanted to use visuals in a powerful way to give the audience space to bring their own ideas and to experience the story. This makes for a much more powerful way for an audience to almost be a participant in the film, engaging people in a way unlike a typical who, what, where and when documentary. Yance made it clear this wasn’t to be an investigative piece of what went wrong but rather why it happened and the systemic problems behind what went down that night.”
Part of sharing the experience entailed deploying a lingering camera that does not pan or tilt, meaning there’s action that viewers cannot follow. There’s empty space along with unclear or partial glimpses. Viewers are forced to look very carefully, to glean what they can, to not look away from painful details. In ways it was what Yance Ford had experienced, had seen through his eyes. He was confronting what Jacobsen described as “antagonists of the past”—people, systems and history that did not want to be confronted. Ford and Jacobsen were often alone filming for long periods of time, with the camera showing Ford when he was in anguish and suffering. It’s a tension that was important to the truth of the film, living his experience, feeling the frustration involved in not getting to see the whole picture, to have facts withheld or twisted to make the victim seem like the guilty party.
Jacobsen found most helpful the use of a still photo tripod head, the Gitzo 405, Unlike a fluid head, the Gitzo 405 cannot smoothly pan or tilt, making for what at times can be a non-accommodating, uncorrected frame. This made it easier for Jacobsen to resist the temptation to correct a frame. At times, an empty frame would appear with action occasionally moving into it. This unpredictability added a feeling of suspense.
On the flip side, with a camera that was often static, a scene can become all the more impactful when there’s any movement; Jacobsen and Ford tapped into that dynamic at key junctures. The DP cited a turning point where the mom Barbara talks about her son being killed and finds out that the justice system has let them down. “Barbara talks about her realization that what she taught her children—to judge people by their character, not the color of their skin—was a mistake. Barbara admitted to herself that she did a disservice to William with this ideal which may have contributed to her son being killed. When she shares that with us, the camera starts to move, almost imperceptibly at first.”
Jacobsen built a motorized motion control tracking system that would dolly the camera ever so slowly. “There was no way to push the dolly slowly enough to get the effect we wanted. We moved about five feet over three minutes, giving the audience the feeling that things are shifting but we don’t know why.”
Jacobsen shot Strong Island with mostly Canon cameras, including the Canon 5D Mark III for very low-light nighttime exteriors, the Canon C300 for many of the interviews, the C300 Mark III at 4K for reframes on the photographs that Yance Ford manipulates by hand. Jacobsen also shot an interview and a smattering of scenes with a Sony F3 camera.
Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt has spent the past year focused on commercials but his career progression is the reverse of what is typical. Instead of spots serving as a springboard to TV series and theatrical features, it was Messerschmidt’s work on the TV series Mindhunter (Netflix) which established him as a DP, leading to spotmaking opportunities.
Messerschmidt’s commercial lensing exploits have included Taco Bell’s “Web of Fries” cinema, web and TV fare directed by Joseph Kosinski of RESET, Buick and other automotive ads from director Kevin Berlandi, and a pharmaceutical spot directed by Mark Pellington of Washington Square Films. Messerschmidt also shot for Pellington the Debbie Lovato music video “Tell Me You Love Me.”
Messerschmidt had been a gaffer who worked extensively on commercials that were lensed by such notables as Claudio Miranda, ASC, Tami Reiker, ASC and Jeff Cronenweth, ASC.
On the feature front, Messerschmidt served as a gaffer on the David Fincher-directed, Cronenweth-shot Gone Girl, a project which proved pivotal. “David knew I had a still photography background and I ended up doing promotional still work with him on Gone Girl,” related Messerschmidt. “David too me under this wing and moved me up to shoot his series Mindhunter.” (The alluded to still photography chops date back to when Messerschmidt worked for still shooter Gregory Crewdson.)
Season one of Mindhunter had Messerschmidt lensing multiple episodes for directors Fincher, Andrew Douglas, Asif Kapadia, and Tobias Lindholm. The thriller series chronicles an FBI agent’s quest to track down serial killers in the late 1970s. “David changed my life in a major way,” said Messerschmidt. “I owe him a tremendous amount in helping me have a career as a cinematographer.”
Mindhunter sparked interest in Messerschmidt from the commercialmaking community, yielding perhaps most notably the aforementioned Taco Bell campaign for Deutsch, the centerpiece of which was a tongue-in-cheek trailer for a movie that doesn’t exist. The piece parodies the suspense feature genre as a means of introducing Taco Bell’s #nachofries. Josh Duhamel plays a father determined to cut through a “Web of Fries” to find the truth about the new menu item.
“Web of Fries” marked a reunion for Messerschmidt with director Kosinski. They had worked together on prior projects, including when Messerschmidt served as a gaffer and 2nd unit DP on the Kosinski-directed Granite Mountain.
At press time, the L.A.-based Messerschmidt was returning to Pittsburgh to embark on season two of Mindhunter. Once that’s wrapped in the fall, he plans to return to commercials. Messerschmidt hopes to ultimately be active in TV, spots and features.
On Mindhunter, Messerschmidt deployed the RED 6K with Dragon sensor for season one. For season two, he’s moving over to RED 8K with the Helium sensor. Messerschmidt thinks of himself as technologically agnostic. For instance, he went with the ARRI Alexa for Taco Bell, and utilized Alexa and RED for his collaborations with director Pellington. Earlier Messerschmidt shot 35mm film for the Jeremiah Zagar-directed In A Dream, which made its way to the feature documentary competition at Camerimage.
As for the biggest creative challenge that Mindhunter has posed to him as a cinematographer, Messerschmidt said it’s maintaining the delicate balance of enabling directors of different episodes to tell stories their way while maintaining the consistency of the overall look and feel of the series. In the case of Mindhunter, Fincher’s directing of the initial installments helped set the visual parameters which other directors on the show were conscious of. Messerschmidt said that as a DP he must make sure all the work—from varied directors—feels cohesive in the big series context.