Director David Fincher teams with first-time feature cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth to craft a tale of modern disillusionment.
Unit photography by Merrick Morton
In his 1996 novel Fight Club, writer Chuck Palahniuk posed this question: What do you do when you realize the world is not destined to be your oyster, when you recognize the innocuous banalities of everyday life as nothing more than a severely loosened lid on a seething underworld cauldron of unchecked impulses and social atrocities?
Director David Fincher is no stranger to this theme. All of his previous films, Alien3 (see AC July ‘92), Seven (AC Oct. ‘95) and The Game (AC Sept. ‘97), have explored the dark side of the human psyche. With Fight Club, Fincher once again demonstrates his affinity for this bleak and foreboding realm, displaying a deft cinematic sensibility and a gift for taut visual execution.
Fight Club opens as its disenfranchised — and nameless — narrator (Edward Norton) feigns illness and begins attending cancer-patient support group meetings in a vain attempt to find purpose within his lonely, mundane existence. Through a chance encounter on an airplane, he meets the enigmatic Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), the organizer of Fight Club, an underground group of young men who take part in bare-knuckle brawls concocted to vent their pre-apocalyptic angst.
Fincher has worked with a score of prominent cinematographers on commercials, music videos and feature films. Interestingly, he began shooting Alien3 with the late Jordan Cronenweth, ASC — who left the production due to his battle with Parkinson’s disease, and was replaced by Alex Thomson, BSC. For Fight Club, Fincher enlisted Jordan’s son, Jeff Cronenweth [ASC], to realize his uniquely dystopian vision.
While working with his father on a number of pictures in various capacities, Cronenweth was afforded the rare opportunity to have a master cinematographer as his personal tutor, mentor and best friend. “I was exposed to filmmaking quite early on,” says Cronenweth. “On summer vacations, I was able to stay with my father on sets, wherever he happened to be at the time. I loved the way the crew interacted, and the collaborations that took place. When I was later presented with opportunities in this business, I thought it would be quite foolish if I didn’t at least make a go of it.”
Cronenweth worked as a loader and second assistant before graduating from high school, and then enrolled in film school at USC, where he studied cinematography. Among his classmates were future peers John Schwartzman, ASC and Robert Brinkmann, as well as director Phil Joanou, who would go on to make three pictures (State of Grace, U2: Rattle and Hum and Final Analysis) with his father.
After graduation, Cronenweth resumed working with his father, joining a core camera team that included operators John Toll [later ASC] and Dan Lerner, and first assistants Bing Sokolsky [later ASC] and Art Schwab. Moving up to first assistant, Cronenweth began to work with Toll, who was just beginning his career as a cameraman, and veteran Sven Nykvist, ASC. “I couldn’t have learned from better people than John, Sven and my father,” Cronenweth relates. “They were all soft-spoken, but very tenacious in achieving their goals. It was a great experience to watch them, learn set etiquette and see how they delegated responsibilities and dealt with producers and crews. I did six pictures with my father and eight pictures with Sven.”
Fostering his son’s development in the craft, the elder Cronenweth would often let him handle much of the on-set “grunt work” — establishing the lighting and camera placement — as well as operate. It was this formative period that introduced Jeff to many of the producers and directors who would later hire him as a cinematographer.
A key figure in this progression was Fincher, a longtime admirer of Jordan’s work who had collaborated with him on a host of music videos and commercials. “Once again, I was fortunate enough to have worked with David through my father,” says Cronenweth. “The first thing my father shot for David was the Madonna video ‘Oh Father.’ A little while after that job, David called and asked me to meet him at Panavision to do some pickup shots. When I got there, he said, ‘Okay, where’s your meter?’ I ended up shooting some inserts for the video as well.”
After a string of projects with the two Cronenweths, culminating in Alien3, Fincher continued to bring Jeff in on projects as an operator after Jordan retired. The young cameraman was hired to operate B-camera on Seven, and several months after that picture had wrapped, Cronenweth was brought in to operate on an extensive 18-day reshoot with cinematographer Harris Savides (later ASC; the film’s primary cameraman, Darius Khondji, ASC, AFC was unavailable). However, when the workload proved to be even more substantial than anticipated, Cronenweth was given his own additional unit to shoot crucial pickups, as well as portions of the film’s striking title sequence. He later served with Savides in a similar capacity on The Game.
When Cronenweth got a call from Fincher to discuss Fight Club, the cinematographer — who by then was shooting full-time on commercials and music videos for such top directors as Mark Romanek, Charles Wittenmeier and Matthew Rolston — naturally assumed he was being considered for more second-unit work. He was wrong. “I couldn’t think of a better movie to do as my first feature than Fight Club,” says Cronenweth. “Although I knew it would be rough, I had so much trust in David as a filmmaker that I had the confidence to do the film. He has such a distinct eye and is such a talented storyteller that the visuals in his films are always a collaboration in the truest sense. His knowledge of the medium allows a cinematographer to go to places that other directors would either be afraid of or not understand.”
While discussing the look of Fight Club, Fincher and Cronenweth elected to continue on the visual path that the director had begun exploring on Seven and The Game. “Fight Club is a reality-driven picture about Edward Norton’s daily nine-to-five doldrums,” Cronenweth details. “In all of the ‘normal’ reality situations, the look was supposed to be fairly bland and realistic. For the scenes when he is with Tyler, though, David wanted the look to be more hyper-real in a torn-down, deconstructed sense — a visual metaphor of what he’s heading into.
“A lot of the movie’s look was planned out early, in collaboration with the production designer, Alex McDowell. We chose to use heavily desaturated colors in all of the costuming, makeup and art direction, and also established that we were going to make as much use as possible of the available light — both natural and practical — that was at the locations.”
Before production began, Cronenweth was given time to perform tests and establish his lighting and exposure scheme. “I encourage anybody shooting a movie to do as much experimentation in the tests as they are allowed,” the cinematographer advises. “As an assistant, I would call the lab every morning and check the printing lights. Having watched the dailies with the director of photography the night before, I’d give the lab any adjustments that needed to be made during the printing. While working as an assistant or operator on 14 or 15 pictures, I got an incredible education in printing. I was away from printing for a few years when I first started shooting commercials and music videos, but thankfully, all of my experience came right back when I started Fight Club. Obviously, you don’t really want to start your first image [on your first feature] on a bad note.”
He explains, “We had quite a lot of makeup and wardrobe tests because of all the prosthetics [cuts, swollen eyes and bruises] being used in the film. There were approximately 33 different prosthetic changes between the two lead characters. Within this time, however, I was also able to test every type of practical used on the film. I tested several different film stocks and processes — like pushing, pulling and flashing — to establish the contrast and tonalities we were looking for. I had portions of the set walls brought in, and we tested the various paint colors in both matte and gloss finishes.”
Cronenweth photographed Fight Club with Panavision Platinum cameras outfitted with Primo prime lenses. He utilized Eastman Kodak EXR 5248 and Vision 250D 5246 for the daylight exteriors and a few select day interiors, and Vision 500T 5279 for all the remaining interiors and night sequences. The cinematographer notes that some of the night exteriors were also flashed about 5 percent in the lab. Rating the stocks at their recommended ISO specifications, he achieved printing lights in the high 30s to low 40s at Technicolor in North Hollywood. The lab will also be treating a number of the film’s prints to an 80-IR level of ENR (see “Soup du Jour” AC Nov. ‘98 for information about this lab process).
Cronenweth’s camera crew consisted of A- and B-camera operators Conrad W. Hall and Chris Squires, Steadicam operator Chris Haarhoff, first assistant John Connor, second assistant Lisa Guerriero (who pulled double duty as the B-camera first assistant) and loader Gary Kanner.
Like Seven and The Game, the film was framed in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio by way of the Super 35 process, a format Fincher favors for maximum flexibility in composition, in terms of both the film’s eventual video release and the increased range of spherical focal lengths available in the Primo series. “David also likes Super 35 because it allows us to use less equipment, light with smaller sources, and expose for practical night exteriors and actually get something out of the existing lighting at the location,” notes Cronenweth. “In fact, some of our practical locations were chosen based on what the city lights did in the backgrounds.”
Cronenweth worked with gaffer Claudio Miranda [later ASC] and key grip Michael Coo, both Fincher veterans from The Game, to incorporate this naturalistic aesthetic into the film’s lighting design. “A good part of the lighting employed some sort of toplight source,” he explains. “Many practical locations are lit by fluorescents in the ceiling, so we purposefully tried to maintain that element of reality. Toplight seemed to help with the prosthetics as well, by showing off the integrity of the wounds without revealing too much.
“If the surroundings of a certain location had a particular color of light, then we’d go with that color and perhaps add to it. We carried a whole array of different fluorescents — Chroma 50s, normal 3200°K bulbs, Cool Whites and Warm White Deluxes—but if there weren’t any specific colors in a given scene, we’d usually use white light or perhaps a little warmer light.”
To model actors’ faces, Cronenweth would often start with his top-light ambience and then add a back edge- or halflight, motivated by any practicals in the scene. “The general game plan was to make sure that the actors separated from their environment,” he reveals, “and then play the actors’s edgelight off of the practicals as much as possible without actually ‘lighting’ them. For this film, we didn’t necessarily want to be able to see directly into their faces. It was more interesting and appropriate to the story to force the audience to pay attention. Faces were generally underexposed 1 and 1/2 to 2 stops, though it depended upon the scene. If the scene called for the audience to really be able to see them, I’d make the faces closer to 1 and 1/2 stops under. In either case, it was still important to feel the presence of their eyes, so we often played with eyelights — everything from Obie lights to Kino Flos taped to the matte-box — which we usually kept 3 stops under.”
“We lit the faces mostly with Kino Flos covered with 1/4 CTO and muslin,” adds gaffer Claudio Miranda. “The angle and direction of that depended on where the practicals were. If it was a door shot, the key may have to come from the top, or if a pillar got in the way, we might bring it in from the side. David and Jeff wanted everything to be as natural as possible and allowed areas to go dark. We then played with creating blacks that you could just read into with hints of reflections for texture.”
The production spent about half of its 138-day schedule on practical locations in and around Los Angeles. The other half of the shoot was executed on soundstages at 20th Century Fox in Century City.
One key setpiece in the film is Tyler Durden’s house on Paper Street. This disintegrating, dilapidated residence was created in two parts: an exterior facade constructed in San Pedro, California, and interiors erected on Stage 15 at Fox. “The interior of the Paper Street house was a beautifully built set designed by Alex McDowell,” submits Cronenweth. “It was well into a state of decay, with ceiling pieces coming down and wallpaper and paint peeling, so we had a wide range of textures to work with. We wanted to get a feeling of the old, decrepit house, as well as the deconstructed world the characters were living in. I played the lighting quite down, usually underexposing the walls by 2 to 2 and 1/2 stops, so that you could just barely see into them.”
Further intrigue was added to the moody visuals through Fincher and Cronenweth’s astute use of compositional detail, and the marrying of texture and tonality to a nearly monochromatic frame. “We played with crosslight, toplight, sidelight and uplight to establish where and what practicals should be placed to bring out the textures of the environment,” Cronenweth explains. “Also, when we’d place a practical, we’d then use an additional concealed raking-source to bring the wall’s texture out and create some contrast with highlights and shadows. The type of instrument we used for this really depended on the situation, and how broad we needed to be with the light, but we mainly used standard tungsten units that we softened with some 216 or 250.”
Another aspect of Fight Club’s visual palette was the conscious use of depth of field to add dimension to the frame. “T2.3 was pretty much the stop for the entire movie,” Cronenweth says. “Whether we were inside or outside, we always wanted to keep a shallow depth of field to keep the audience focused on what we wanted them to see. I’m very confident about shooting with the Primo lenses wide-open, but exposure-wise, shooting at a T2.3 was very comfortable, and I liked what it did to the practicals.”
To light the massive house interiors, Cronenweth had Miranda and his pre-rigging crew surround the two-story structure with an array of 5K Skypans to illuminate the set’s numerous newspaper- and grime-covered windows. “We were originally going to use Image 80 Kino Flos outside the windows, but unfortunately, with a set that large — even on a film with a budget as big as Fight Club’s there were financial constraints,” says Cronenweth. “The Skypans worked out well, and because the window dressing was quite substantial, they had more of the punch we needed. All of the Skypans were on dimmers, so we could move fairly quickly from room to room and instantly have ambient daylight coming through the windows.
“Inside the set,” he elaborates, “we’d continue our ‘daylight’ with specific units lighting the actors. Since we used a lot of wide-angle lenses that were usually down low to the ground, we often ended up having smaller units just out of the frame, or having to walk back larger units. Fortunately, the walls were so dark that the light would fall off nicely. We also added some specific units to help model the actors on a shot-by-shot basis. In those instances, we’d usually screw a baby plate into a wall — that [damage] only helped add to the ‘aging’ of the house.”
A good percentage of Fight Club occurs at night, often in menacingly dark locales. In fact, even during daylight scenes, the frame was often weighted with deeply shadowed areas. For nighttime scenes set inside the house, Cronenweth kept the light from the Skypans outside the windows, but he notes that he “knocked them way down and added some blue and diffusion to them.” An added visual motif of the night scenes was the home’s faulty electricity, which is caused by numerous leaks and water damage. “For the greater part of the film, you’ll notice practicals that flicker every once in a while. The only time you really see a drastic change is during a storm sequence, when there’s a big power failure. That created an interesting lighting dilemma since there was very little ‘moonlight’ coming through windows. In some instances, we had the actors lit by candles, and I shot wide-open at a T1.9 to get as much interactive candlelight as possible.”
The basement set of Lou’s Tavern, also constructed on Stage 15 at Fox, serves as the Fight Club’s ramshackle brawling ring. The set was designed with a low, pipe-laced ceiling and cement floors littered with junk in the corners. Fincher and Cronenweth wanted to lend the set a bit of a boxing-ring vibe, and “played the fights in the center of the room, using four China-hat practicals hanging from the ceiling to create a ring-like setting,” the cinematographer notes. “The China hats were specifically styled lamps that had a kind of submarine-style cage around a PH-212 bulb that we dimmed down. We also had additional Kino Flo tubes, wrapped in muslin and 1/4 CTO, hidden up in the ceiling studs. We knocked those tubes way down with some black paper tape to provide just enough of an ambience over the crowd, which we kept about 1 3/4 to 2 stops under, so the viewers would just barely see them. We wanted to read the crowd in the background, but we didn’t necessarily want to see who they were. We also had an array of practicals placed on various parts of the walls about 20 feet behind the crowd, which helped separate them as well.”
“We lit a lot of Lou’s basement with what we called ‘Budget Busters,’“ adds Miranda. “They were basically small, clamp-on aluminum work lamps that you can get from Home Depot for $2. We had the art department age them down and make them ugly; then we’d just throw one of them up to create a glow in the background, which really added a lot of dimension and texture. We put those all over the place in the film, using standard 60-watt household lightbulbs, and Jeff absolutely loved them.”
The film’s fight scenes also adhered to Fincher’s realistic aesthetic. Deliberately avoiding flashy camerawork and refusing to stylize the skirmishes, the director elected to take a more objective view of the fights, often locking the camera down to a fixed position. However, the filmmakers did want the fights to become increasingly brutal as the story developed. “We come back to the fights several times,” reveals Cronenweth. “The blocking depended on the specific fight and how violent it was supposed to be. At first, the camera was more of an observer. As the fights progressed, the camera took more of the point of view of the fighter. In fact, the last fight in the movie is quite gruesome. There wasn’t a lot of handheld camerawork at shoulder height. A lot of the fights were covered from low angles, from between shoulders or through feet with either a dolly or a static camera.
“We used two cameras on the fights almost all of the time, and we mapped out specific shots for each sequence,” he continues. “The fights were pretty short — a minute at most. We also went with the idea that the fighters would play in and out of the light sources. Occasionally, they’d pop into full lighting when they were directly beneath a practical, but if they were out of the light, they were out of the light. Either way, there was always something in the foreground or the background that provided enough exposure.”
The other significant set constructed for the film’s conclusion was an incomplete interior high-rise office that overlooks a mammoth cityscape TransLight measuring nearly 130' wide by 36' tall. “The TransLight was almost a total disaster,” recalls Cronenweth. “We sent out an 8 x 10 photographer, who shot the elements used to create a ‘skyline’ that we liked. We then shot some tests of individual 1' by 8' strips made with different tones and densities; from those tests, we determined which density and color we liked best. The TransLight was then custom-made in two sections. Unfortunately, the final TransLight was delivered much later than we expected—just two days before we were supposed to shoot the scenes! I then sent Claudio back to shoot a test. We lit the TransLight with 144 5K Skypans aimed through an enormous silk. However, when we screened those tests the next day, we were all horrified to discover that half of the TransLight was two stops denser and a lot cooler than the other, and the entire TransLight was too blue overall. Of course, we found this out the day before we were to shoot that entire sequence!
“As a desperate solution, we had a rigging crew come in that night and change out 86 of the Skypans to 2K globes and add 1/2 CTO to the bluer side of the TransLight. When we shot the actual scene, I used an 81EF filter on the camera to correct for the entire TransLight being too blue, which meant I had to add 1/2 CTB on all of the tungsten sources inside the building. Finally, we hung a net about five feet in front of the TransLight to slightly diffuse it. If the net moved slightly, it gave the appearance that the city lights were twinkling.”
With the TransLight’s color and density issues corrected, the production proceeded to shoot the nighttime opening and closing scenes in the ‘still-under-construction’ set. “Inside, we used these yellow, dual-headed construction work lights with little quartz bulbs in them, as if the construction workers had them hanging around,” says Cronenweth. “Those lights worked out quite well, and we played a lot of them into camera to create flares, or let them play against a wall to silhouette the actors. There was some subtle ambient moonlight coming into the set, generated by 18 Image 80s, covered with full CTB and muslin and hung across the top of the windows. Additionally, we used about six 4’, four-bank Kino Flos with 1/2 CTO on them to simulate sodium-vapor lights from the ‘street’ below. We also had some Kinos inside to accent things here and there, but most of the scene was lit with the work lights on the floor. The idea was that there were no existing light fixtures working in the office space yet, so they just used all of these plug-in practicals.”
Fight Club also features some subtle but effective rear-screen process work. Building upon Fincher’s process experiences on The Game, Miranda and Cronenweth devised a simple yet elegant solution to this age-old cinematographer’s nightmare. Incorporating Fincher’s idea of mapping out each shot’s size and focus prior to the shooting of background plates, Cronenweth photographed the Long Beach background VistaVision plates out-of-focus at the predetermined focus distance of the final shot, using a SpaceCam mounted on a Shotmaker camera-car. “In addition to our rear-screen projection, we had rain pouring down on the process car, and then the actors inside the car,” Cronenweth says. “We achieved a fairly sophisticated look with interactive light by using scenic projectors fitted with rain and water patterns. We aimed the projectors into these Mylar boxes, which we constructed to control the rain effects from contaminating the rear-screen element. The boxes, however, also made the image sort of shimmer as it bounced around in there.”
Miranda adds, “In addition to the scene projectors aimed into the Mylar boxes, we had some hitting the actors directly. Next, on each side of the car we had 15’ cyc-strips controlled by dimmers that we ‘chased’ in series past the car, as if streetlights were passing by overhead. It’s always nice when you can automate and streamline the lighting so that things can be timed out and controlled interactively. It’s much less random than a guy waving a flag or panning a light. In the case of the cyc-strips overhead, we actually had the lights in a hard-to-reach area over a raining set. We didn’t have to have an electrician on a ladder trying to animate the light.
“The cyc-strips had 250-watt globes in them, which could be brought up and turned off reasonably quickly,” Miranda continues. “So when the light chased by, it looked like one continuous streetlight source moving past. We continued that light at the end with a 2K, which we controlled with a scroller. Again, the scrollers were a bit more elegant than moving flags in front of the light. The scrollers, which are fairly primitive devices, had a blackout, a clear section and then another blackout at the end of a roll. After the cycs chased by overhead, the scroller would do a wipeout in front of the 2K and then reset. Between the projectors doing their water-rippling effects, the cyc-strips chasing and the physical rain effects, it was quite convincing.”
While looking for his next big-screen project, Cronenweth will continue to shoot music videos and commercials. Commenting on the path he took to his first feature film, he relates, “I knew that both John Schwartzman and Robert Brinkmann started shooting documentaries, industrials and whatnot right out of film school, while I was a camera assistant working my way up the ladder in a more traditional sense. Even though I wasn’t shooting, I was working on $30 million and $40 million pictures. Interestingly enough, we all sort of arrived at the same place in almost the same amount of time.
“There’s always sort of a toss-up between which is the better way to go. Obviously, the sooner you start shooting, the sooner you gain experience that you cannot get as an assistant. But, at the same time, how does someone who has done documentaries, industrials or even music videos deal with the scope of a $60 million film? I suppose it ultimately depends upon what your goals are and how you want to achieve those goals. Is it important to you to gain the knowledge that you get working up the system, or are you anxious to get in there and do it yourself?”
Cronenweth would later collaborate with Fincher on the features The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — for which he earned Academy and ASC Award nominations for his expert work — and Gone Girl. You’ll find. complete profile on the cinematographer here.
Author Christopher Probst became a member of the ASC in 2018.
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