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Contender – Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, The Social Network

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Jeff Cronenweth

“We were the experiment,” cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth says of shooting The Social Network for director David Fincher. By that, he means that they shot the whole film with a Red camera. “David and I shot a lot of HD before,” he noted, referring to his previous Fight Club collaboration with the director, among other things.

The use of the Red came about because “one of David’s best friends is director Steven Soderbergh,” Cronenweth continues, and Soderberg “loaned him a Red.”

He and the director like the Red because of its relatively small size, compared to similar cameras, and there other “experiments” they needed to undertake to capture their movie about the tribulations around that Harvard-hatched internet app, “Facebook.”

For starters, Harvard – somewhat like the Pentagon – frowns on movies that portray it in a bad light. Therefore, permits to shoot at the august Ivy League campus weren’t forthcoming. This required Fincher, Cronenweth and crew to be “as delicate as we could be.”

What that meant, in practical terms, was a kind of guerrilla filmmaking, particularly suited to digital cameras. Digital cameras, and mimes.

The “Marceau” aspect came about during an early scene where a summary break-up drives Mark Zuckerberg – as played by Jesse Eisenberg – back to his dorm, to spitefully invent Facebook’s predecessor in a drunken all-nighter. While heading back to said dorm, the “main campus he runs through is Johns Hopkins,” Cronenweth recounts. Harvard, after all, “wouldn’t let us light anything, or go on campus.”

But they needed a shot of Eisenberg heading past Harvard Yard. So, Fincher said, “Let’s hire a mime.” A mime?

The idea was to have the mime bring his own lights for a nighttime “street performance,” since “no one will arrest a mime,” according to the director. Fincher and Cronenweth then set up on a rooftop across the way, to shoot Eisenberg as he ran by.

Three different Reds were used for the sequence, each framing Jesse, with each digitally stitched together and additional iconography added in later.

The Red was also helpful in capturing seeming “source light” in the cold dorm rooms – coming from open glowing “laptops in the middle of the night.” But Cronenweth cautions, “if you watch a movie and think they just used natural light – well, nobody does.” But the trick was to make the film look like it wasn’t “lit” in any kind of movie-esque way.

This included a shifting lighting scheme to follow what Cronenweth says is “philosophically, a coming-of-age,” story, where the protagonist is “forced to mature.”

For the Harvard scenes, there was a lot of sodium vapor used to give a feel of long-burnished lighting to the “old world dorms,” which also used a lot of practicals. During all this DP and director “wanted to be inconspicuous, leave the smallest footprint we could leave.”

As Zuckerberg, Facebook, and the footprints head west, “more glass” enters the scheme, and that first rented house in Silicon Valley’s Palo Alto even looks like in could be a San Fernando valley house, in terms of its bright, Hockney-like sun dappling, even including a backyard pool

For a scene in a New York restaurant, where Justin Timberlake, as eventual Facebook consigliore Sean Parker, there was a light track placed under the table to give the moment a “more sinister” feel.

Ultimately, the scheme to this “monstrously hard-driven” story was “all about locations, and how we got there.” In Facebook terms, you might think “it’s complicated,” but the success came in making it look quite natural indeed.

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