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Ten Minutes With: “The Social Network” Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth

Jeff Cronenweth is a veteran of David Fincher films, having worked a number of positions.  He was the camera operator on “Seven,” the second unit director of photography on “The Game,” and the cinematographer on “Fight Club” and “The Social Network.”  Working once again as cinematographer for the man Cronenweth calls “our generation’s Orson Wells,” on the American adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” Cronenweth recalls the morning “The Social Network” received eight Oscar nominations, including his first Oscar recognition for Best Cinematography.

“The morning of the nominations announcements we were on set,” said Cronenweth.  “David did not want anyone to discuss the announcements.  He thinks the nominations wreck talent.  He didn’t say a word.”

While Cronenweth stayed focused on the task at hand, he is very pleased to receive his first Oscar nomination as well as his first nomination from the American Society of Cinematographers.

“It is just fantastic,” said Cronenweth.  “It’s nice to have my work validated by my peers.”

The task of shooting “The Social Network” was not a simple one.  Because the subject matter is so contemporary and familiar to the audience, Cronenweth had to find a shooting style that blended lighting, rhythm, and clever camera angles to reveal the inner workings of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), the Harvard computer whiz who founded Facebook.

“The story is so relevant and on everyone’s mind,” said Cronenweth.  “Dealing with this type of subject matter, the goal is to find interesting opportunities to push characters to the foreground.  We wanted to allow the more mischievous and sinister situations a darker look, to visually play on the themes, but we had to be careful.  We never wanted to tip our hand.  We wanted to leave that for the audience to decide.”

The first challenge came in lighting.  To maintain the immediacy of the contemporary story, Cronenweth wanted to retain the look of the Harvard campus. Because Harvard would not allow the production to shoot in their buildings, other locations, primarily John Hopkins University, were used as stand-ins.  Cronenweth used the real lighting features found in the Harvard dorms as starting points, keeping the rooms dark with light bouncing off the walls. He also played with the lighting that fell on the characters to modify the mood.  In some cases, unusual devices were used as a light source, as found in the scene when Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) meet Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) at the Ruby Sky Bar.

“There was a jpeg movie we created to match the soundtrack,” said Cronenweth.  “We projected this from a computer embedded in their Lucite table, and it replayed upon their faces.  This really created a sinister environment, and helped to empower Justin’s character.  It really changes the dynamic in the scene.”

The rhythm of the camera work is also highlighted in the Ruby Sky Bar.  The camera makes long pans up and down the building, traveling from the DJ’s console down to the dance floor then up two stories to the meeting in the sky box.  Although Cronenweth enjoyed the challenge of planning out this complicated camera work, his favorite scene in the film resides in the rhythm found in the mixing of the frat party scene and the creation of Face Mash.

“All those shots were specifically shot to be edited together,” said Cronenweth.  “The scenes were all pre-prescribed; we knew they would be criss-crossing.  That opening sequence takes nine pages of dialogue and two distinct scenes, and edits it into four and a half minutes. It is rapid fire and presents a struggle that will continue throughout the film.”

Cronenweth was very happy with the performance of the camera used for the shoot: the Misterium X Chip, the latest incarnation of the Red One.

“When you shoot with this digital camera, it’s hard for the viewer to determine what kind of format it was shot on,” said Cronenweth.  “It has tremendous depth of field, and creates super saturated color.  I like using whatever camera best presents the story you are trying to tell.  The look we received from the Misterium X Chip was exactly how we wanted the movie to look.”

Although filming continues on “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” there will be a break at the end of February.  Cronenweth will be making the trip to Los Angeles to support “The Social Network” on Oscar night.

“It’s very exciting,” said Cronenweth.  “I’m planning on going to watch David win!”