WWI: Cinematography of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’

Director of Photography Cronenworth has developed his own unique palette of cinematographic techniques and approaches throughout his career leading to the development of a specific visual style and technical approach. In my eyes it was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo which marked the turning point in his career where he found his niche. The desaturated colours and dramatic lighting alongside the dabbles of strong reflection alongside a looseness to his use of  shot types and approaches characterise his visual style. This approach makes him a perfect collaborator for director David Fincher. The dark material alongside the creatively dark and grounded visual style make this blend of distinctively different roles perfect for delivering an atmospherically rooted and brooding effect. The film is a very modern-day Fincher movie with a highly evolved lighting style. This essay will focus on the technical approaches by DP Cronenworth in creating this visual language in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

The typical set-up for almost every scene was a camera A camera B setup which is a typical Fincher approach Cronenworth could accommodate. This informed their lighting approach. The camera used for the majority of the film was the Red One MX 4K camera with an American Fisher dolly. Midway through the film they changed to the Red One Epic. Interestingly Fincher used a lot of visual effects and green screen during the filming process in such a way as that was unnoticable yet completed elements of the final product in terms of mood and environment.

Cronenworth is obsessed with getting very precise shots with a particular set-up and angle. The framing is an essential element in his filming. When he requires a shot to be positioned somewhere it must be at the exact point and height at which he requested otherwise the feel is changed and the scene undermined. During the outdoor scenes a grip point 40×20 was used to diffuse the sunlight. When switching back to indoor scenes Cronenworth uses a stage with a green screen very discreetly. Moreover, the lighting known as a Kino-flow used in this feature is a perfect example of this lighting style. It has a very low light level and a soft glow to create gentle lighting with a subtle amount of white fill added back over after.

At the start of the film Craig’s character is feeling oppressed so Cronenworth uses a crane for an elevated shot which puts him below the horizon and to build narrative. When indoors Fincher uses 210 composition and a centred framing with a heavily blocked approach. The lighting in very French bistro while the outdoors feels more Swedish in it’s lighting. The Tungstun circular based lights as a practical with natural lighting achieves this feel. The warmth on one side with the Kinoflow on the other motivates the simple approach.

When Elizabeth is introduced we see her ear-rings which are shaped like a spiky spiral reflecting her damaged past. The body-language tells us that she is hiding herself behind the table and her glance is directed away from the other people in the room making her seem defensive. The square practical in the background gives the scene a very corporate feel. The composition of the production design makes the scene feel square and orderly and black and white. Later, back at her apartment a very soft light is used from the window with a tinge of green colour correct. The backlight and the edgelight are both green in a shot of her on her computer to make her feel cemented in by her environment.

By contrast, Craig’s character is reintroduced with a very Cronenworth approach by introducing a new scene with a wide shot which the character walks into which helps to give context to the scene by virtue of it’s background. The Kino flow used again with a small ambient colour light on the foreground to articulate his location in the room. The reverse shot is similarly framed and has ominous dark water practicals as Craig find’s his new case. Switching to a scene of a new character awaking from their bed, a door in the background slightly ajar, Fincher uses practicals from the other room to light the character. The Kino flow is boxed in and edge lights her. The length of the four foot single tube keeps it soft and understated.

The exterior work is very proficient. Much of the snow is CGI so as to achieve the colour  30% desaturated blue of the snow and the blacks of the trees. Fincher is really interested in the green screen car setup with a huge LED wall for the light of streets going by or the light shifting. This is better for avoiding the problems of weather and sunlight. The soft lighting of the faces with the tree reflections edited in post creates an ambience to the scene which is very effective. The introduction of the mansion uses a great deal of symmetry which adds power and order as they push in over the course of three or four shots using a 100mm telephoto lens. The effect of this is to make the figures seem tiny alongside the massive structure has a sense of oppression yet again. This is a very deliberate choice to highlight power and order. The snow used on the bridge next to the house is rendered as one can see judging from the practicals used in the cottage in the background.  This subtlety is important.

Returning to the mansion we use a screen replacement and green screen for the windows. This is convincing and pulled off professionally. Fincher and Cronenworth are known for using a lot of takes so that parts which one would expect to finish in half a day will be done over three days. The stage makes this approach easier rather than being subject to natural lighting conditions. Towards the end of the film when Elizabeth is chasing down Craig’s character CGI is used again with a dark realism. During the flashback sequence you can tell that the colour correct arrives in post and it is shot in neutral. The highlights are grabbed and shifted towards yellow and the midtones toward warm with the sky brought back down for a skin tone. This contrasts with the green-blue of the reality. The symmetry in the set dressing at the dining table during this sequence plays into the characteristics of the characters with the candles and fancy practicals.

A lot of the time one person is blocked to be leading another person often using a bare lightbulb in the background as they move from the back to the front. The camera in one particular part of the sequence pulls them forward using a nice circular window to complement the ominous tone in the background. We are unaware of what Cronenworth is bringing us into. When they turn on the light-bulb to light the room a the light is bright white with a flare added in post for a coldness. The very hard bare light hitting Craig’s face makes us wonder what happened to the shade and adds tone to the sequence. Pulling the camera allows us to see the reaction before the reveal setting up the question in the viewer’s mind – what are they looking at? This creates drama and tension.

Switching scene the social cue of accepting an offer of a drink is revisited time and again throughout the film. This is expanded upon when Craig’s character declines another drink but is poured one again instigating the same social fear. The passing of drinks becomes more and more important as we draw to the end of this movie. Each shot builds on the previous of one character offering the other a drink in such a way as that changes the subject from the individual to the drink to the other individual as the thought process progresses. This social etiquette becomes a push and pull of personalities perfectly crafted by the visual style. When we shift focus to the main antagonists introduction at his modern hosue we are instantly struck by the contrast of his white modern hosue and the ugly yellow lighting which helps to set up the reveal. Again he is offered a drink which comes to represent his manipulation and their deflection throughout the course of these scenes.

As a demonstration of Cronenworth’s shot-type approach he quickly shifts from a conventional shot following Elizabeth’s rape scene to a more alternative one so as to underline the gravity of the previous scene and the scars it leaves on our anti-hero. The camera pans forward at her level and then raises over her sitting form until it passes over her head at which point it goes inverse to reveal a flipped close-up of her damaged soul through her eyes. Cronenworth likes to drop in these more notable shots alongside the seemingly more conventional. However throughout his features Cronenworth uses a variety of shot types to dissect the purpose of each segment of a scene with a wide variety of framing and motion approaches. This particular shot was executed with a techno-dolly with a motorised technocrane on every axis. In the background is a Freno and Kino  4×4 light. Fincher meticulously keyframed out this shot to make sure every stage of the arc was perfect. This was achieved by saving several locations across the set in such a way as that the technodolly copies this sequence.

Overall, Cronenworth is a very talented cinematographer, whose distinct visual style and ability to collaborate visually with Fincher has resulted in a fantastic-looking feature with the essence of each scene made clear by the lighting, framing and approach to symmetry as well as what is revealed and kept secret throughout the process of a scene. We can contrast this approach to the lighter, more consistent directorship of other cinematographers who misinterpret the correct approach to each theme, motif and character or fail to synthesise the narrative and script to the visual scope.

WRITING WITH IMAGES: ‘THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO’ CINEMATOGRAPHY

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