David Fincher is one of my favorite directors. At first glance The Social Network doesn't seem like his style- no one dies, nothing crazy happens, and there's no great plot twist. But diving into this film, I found that it fits his style and look. The film is about social networks- a coming of age story following Mark Zuckerberg as he creates Facebook, moving from Harvard student to billionaire. The film is dialogue heavy, but Fincher and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (ASC), keep the audience engaged and compelled.
Cinematographer - Jeff Cronenweth, ASC
Camera & Lenses - Red One MX and Arri Master Primes
Acquisition - Redcode RAW, spherical
Aspect Ratio - 2.40:1
The opening scene of any film is important and sets the tone for the entire film. What attracts me to the film is this scene. I love the lighting! The dialogue is a perfect banter introducing the characters and setting up the rest of the story. The inciting incident happens at the end of this scene: Erica rejects Zuckerberg, sending him on a tirade. Zuckerberg's goal is clear and becomes the driving force of his actions throughout the film: get with Erica. He wants social acceptance, whether it's from Erica, final clubs, Eduardo, or Sean. His obsession over this helps him create Facebook, but also destroy his personal social network in the process. He isolates himself in the beginning and at the end of the film is still isolated.
Cronenweth keeps this opening scene mysterious through a dark image. The scene is under 50IRE, with skin tones between 30IRE (in the WS) and 40IRE (in the CU). Yellow plays a huge role in this film, which begins in this scene. Fincher utilizes depth in his films, usually having elements in the foreground, middle, and background. We can see this in the OTS shots. The coverage of the scene is a simple three camera setup (this can be seen on the lighting diagram below. The CU was probably captured from the same camera position as the OTS, just with a longer lens).
This scene, along with the rest of the film, is dialogue driven. To the left is a break down of each cut in the scene. It's only five and one-half minutes long, but contains 115 shots. That is fast cutting, especially for dialogue! The pace keeps it visually engaging and matches the speed of the conversation. Dialogue pertaining to the final clubs is important for the whole film, which is why Cronenweth covered it with CUs. The only other CU in the scene is Erica's honest, but colorful description of Zuckerberg (the inciting incident).
The lighting looks natural, yet dramatic. It's a bar so darkness makes sense, but this works for the story as well. Below is a BTS photo from the DVD extras along with a lighting plot I put together to understand the scene's lighting.
Most of the color scheme comes from the production design of each location, but Cronenweth continues the look in the lighting. He employs a warm, yellowish light, matching the heavy use of yellow in the production design.
The color yellow is associated with warning and obsession. These are fitting reasons for using yellow as part of the look. Zuckerberg is obsessed the whole film, trying to build social networks (relationally and digitally) trying to get back together with Eric. It's his driving force. His obsession. The yellow warns the audience: be careful obsessing about what you don't have as it may destroy what you do have. That's the theme of this film. Zuckerberg obsessed over creating a digital social network, destroying his relational network in the process.
Brown reminds the audience of the realism of this film. It's an adaptation of the true story of Zuckerberg. Greens and browns are natural, showing up in nature, and thus are associated with realism. Brown tends to be considered an ugly color, which works in this context of telling the ugly truth of relationship and real life. Though this film is fictitious, it's based in reality.
Midway into the film, Sean Parker is introduced, bringing a new vibrancy and success to Facebook by thinking outside the box. This is shown in the use of brighter colors, namely red and blue. At the climax of the film, Fincher uses this bright color scheme as irony. Zuckerberg, surrounded by bright colors, is confronted by Eduardo who is livid that he was aousted Eduardo from the Facebook. The scene itself is vibrant, but inside Zuckerberg is devastated at the severing of his relationship with Eduardo.
The film purposely does not look lit. Fincher loves this simplistic style. He does many takes, therefore needs ample time working with the talent. In the BTS features, Cronenweth says the lighting setups only took 20-25 minutes. At the end of the day the story is king, more important than the lighting. Cronenwth respects this, therefore lighting the set quickly. He moviates light from practicals and windows, typicality using Kino Flo units to ugment the natural light. He also likes to light for the turn around or for 360 degree coverage if he can. This also speeds up the lighting process. He often utilizes eye lights to bring life in the eyes of the characters, especially in CUs.
When lighting talent, Cronenweth tends to keep skin tones around 20-30IRE in this film. During the deposition scenes, however, he exposes around 45-60IRE. This creates a bright, searchlight feeling in the audience as characters are being interrogated by lawyers. The contrast ratio throughout the film is typically a 2-3 stop difference between key and fill. This keeps the film contrasty and dramatic.
Black levels are pulled up from true black a majority of the time. This is a modern look, perfect for a modern story of computer programmers. The highlights are protected, never going beyond 95IRE. Most of the highlights fall at 80IRE.
I thought the lighting in this shot was interesting. It's dark. And I mean dark. The whole scene is under 10IRE, yet we can tell what's going on. I've always been interested in dark images and sometimes push the boundary too far. This "darkness" was created by a soft, top ambient as can be seen in the BTS image.
Fincher uses camera height and movement as a storytelling element in all of his films. He typically changes the blocking in the scene as thematic elements change. While Spielberg changes the blocking, but continues the shot, Fincher tends to cut after or during blocking changes. A majority of the time he'll cut back to the original camera and at that point the shot is very different.
In the shot to the right, we subconsciously sympathize with Zuckerberg as he's alone, outside, looking in on others as they celebrate the success of Facebook. It's his own company, but Zuckerberg feels isolated and joyless.
Near the end of the film I found the camera height interesting when Eduardo faces Zuckerberg in the climax. The camera on Eduardo is low, making him towering in the frame. As an audience we feel his strength and are intimidated. Zuckerberg's MS is higher than his eye line, making him feel small and weak in the frame. This is basic camera height "rules" but Fincher is a master with them.
As I was preparing this breakdown, I stumbled upon this video, which explains more of how Fincher uses the camera to tell story in The Social Network.