Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt expanded the visual aesthetic of David Fincher’s “Mindhunter” in Season 2, as FBI profilers Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) investigate the notorious Atlanta Child Murders, and, as a result, he earned his first Emmy nomination.
“Our aim was to continue what we had developed in Season 1 while considering location with a bit more depth,” said Messerschmidt, who also shot Fincher’s “Mank,” the Netflix black-and-white biopic about “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman). “David expressed to me in the beginning to never forget what Atlanta is like in the summer. I tried hard to consider that whenever we were telling that part of the story.
“We really wanted our agents to be visualized with location in mind,” he said, “so I used more hard sunlight, atmosphere, and contrast to contribute to that hot, muggy feel. I think you could make the case that the lighting of Season 2 has a bit more gesture and shape to it, in part, because I used more contrast, which was a conscious choice. With that in mind, however, it was always a top priority to make sure the look and camera style of the series not take centerstage. I wanted the photography to be as non-invasive and invisible as possible so the audience could fully appreciate the story.”
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Messerschmidt upgraded to the 8K RED Helium sensor for Season 2 after testing a prototype in the first season. This provided better sensitivity and higher color fidelity for the new Dolby Vision HDR workflow. “I found I could be much more minimal with my use of artificial light even at relatively low ISO ratings,” he said. “The intention was to consider every lighting choice with motivation in mind and use as much natural light and practical light as possible.”
There’s a lot more world building in Season 2, with production designer Steve Arnold’s Atlanta Task Force headquarters serving as the set piece. “The real task force was a converted car dealership very similar to the set Steve built on stage,” Messerschmidt added. “He wanted to paint the windows to obscure the view from outside just as the [Atlanta Police Department] had done during the real investigation. At first, I was worried about this, but when he first showed me the paint samples he had picked, I immediately fell in love with the way the light looked through the painted windows.”
In particular, the cinematographer liked playing with hard sunlight on the windows as a light sound, creating a nice oak tag color. “We tried to stay true to time of day as it would have related to the real location and experimented with different amounts of the windows being lit. At night, I used more of the interior practicals and sodium vapor street light on the windows. It is my favorite set of the season.”
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Meanwhile, Tench gets more attention in Season 2 when his son, Brian (Zachary Scott Ross), witnesses the accidental murder of a toddler, which disrupts his family life and leads him to wonder if Brian is developing a serial killer profile. The lighting of the scenes in the Tench Virginia home offered another visual layer: “Americana gone wrong” with a noirish vibe.
“Steve built a beautiful set that kind of reminded me of my grandparents house as a child,” Messerschmidt said. “I imagined it to smell like Marlboro Lights and Folgers coffee. I like the flawed romanticism of that period of American suburban life, and we looked at the Larry Sultan and Joel Sternfeld still photographs as references for how the scenes should feel. To me, those types of homes always feel a little darker and little more musty than their owners would like. Again, in those sets I tried to light them as much through the windows and with practical lights as possible. The house has light walls and carpet, and is difficult to light with a lot of shadow without severely limiting the directors’ choice for camera placement. In the end, I was really pleased with where we landed.”
Courtesy of Netflix
An even darker moment occurs with the riveting interrogation of Paul Bateson (Morgan Kelly) by Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) and special agent Gregg Smith (Joe Tuttle) at Rikers Island. Bateson, a radiographer who appeared in the disturbing spinal tap scene from “The Exorcist,” was convicted of murdering Variety film reporter Addison Verrill, and was also a suspect in the unsolved Manhattan gay “bag murders” (which served as the inspiration for “Cruising.”) Bateson toys with them (particularly Smith) by recounting the thrill of sex and violence and flirting with death, but they can’t coax a confession to the serial killings.
“David Fincher really wanted that scene to feel claustrophobic and obviously a bit spooky and uncomfortable,” Messerschmidt said. “The location, with its cavernous boiler room aesthetic, supports that idea a bit, I think, almost like they are interviewing him in a submarine. Bateson is also very much in control and doesn’t move much in the scene, so the [low fluorescent] lighting could be very moody but still institutional.”