analysis of ‘Mank’, winner of the Oscar for Best Cinematography 2021

‘Mank’ is the David Fincher film with which Netflix wanted to triumph this year at the Oscars 2021 gala. In the end, of the ten nominations, it has been left with two awards: Production Design and Best Photography. Erik Messerschmidt has managed to follow in the footsteps of Greg Toland, who photographed ‘Citizen Kane’, the film featured in this Fincher masterpiece.

It is striking that in just three years two black and white films have won the Oscar for Best Cinematography. ‘Roma’ in 2018 and now ‘Mank’ in 2020. And it is that a good black and white photograph manages to attract attention in the time of saturation marvelita.

Erik Messerschmidt has a short career but hasn’t stopped working. He is known for his work in some of the television series that have had the most impact lately, such as Fincher’s ‘Mindhunter’, an episode of ‘Fargo’ or the science fiction series by Ridley Scott.

With this film I had the obligation to pay tribute to Greg Toland, the legendary cinematographer of Orson Welles who made ‘Citizen Kane’, but also ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1939),’ The Grapes of Wrath ‘(1940),’ The wolf ‘(1941) and’ The best years of our life ‘(1946).

So let’s analyze Erik Messerschmidt’s work within David Fincher’s film, a true wonder but only for those who know the whole story behind ‘Citizen Kane’. If you have never seen this masterpiece, it will be difficult to follow the thread of ‘Mank’.

‘Mank’, a film with a photograph that accompanies the story shot by shot.

This film talks about ‘Citizen Kane’ from the perspective of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. The story doubts the participation of Welles in the writing of the script and gives all the credit to this man who was living one of his hardest moments at that time, drunk and trying to recover from a car accident.

David Fincher chose Erik Messerschmidt for his collaboration on the Netflix series. The reason is simple, they got along and considers him a flexible professional who thinks about the end result, not his personal appearance. And that he is capable of following the devilish rhythm of the director.

35 films and documentaries with, by and for photographers

The two were looking for a classic look and the reference is undoubtedly the work of Greg Toland. As we discussed in the article that we dedicate to him, his photography stands out for:

  • Depth of field
  • Using the wide-angle lens
  • The use of light
  • The frames

But Erik Messerschmidt did not stop there. He himself confesses that he looked for references in many of the films with the best black and white photographs … and the funny thing is that those behind ‘The night of the hunter’, ‘Rebeca’, ‘The apartment’, ‘In blood cold ‘followed the path of Toland.

The technicalities of ‘Mank’

Messerschmidt’s work is a continuation of the work of the great masters of black and white photography. It used RED Ranger HELIUM 8K S35 cameras with a black and white sensor, so it took immense pre-production to see which colors would look best with direct conversion.

They decided to work high sensitivity to achieve a texture, an interesting and classic noise. And to get Toland’s depth of field, they closed the T number (real light reaching the sensor) of the targets to the maximum. They used the Leitz Summilux-C goals.

Lighting was another challenge. They tried to use, whenever the scene allowed, justified and realistic lighting to achieve those striking backlights.

Mank Netflix

Film frame

But, as he himself tells in an interview, there is a scene in which the two protagonists are walking at night. And they had to hang 800w bulbs to achieve that contrast … in return they had to put lenses on the actors so they wouldn’t be dazzled

The movie is shot in HDR. Before it could seem an aberration but everything depends on the logical use of technology. Thus they were able to fully exploit the sensor and achieve the exact contrast of each scene.

As Fincher himself says, digital cinema allows you to see everything with more clarity and precision. And Messerschmidt was able to give the director everything he asked for. In the end, the technique is important not for itself, but because it can offer you everything you ask for.

It is a pleasure to look at the photograph of ‘Mank’. Black and white blends in seamlessly with the plot. And for those of us who love cinema, it takes us directly to the times that it counts … Break with

The ASC publishes the list of the 100 best films, according to their photography, in the year of its centenary

The film, in the times of current pandemic and because it is from Netflix, had little travel in the big screen cinemas, dark room and silence. In return we can see it already on Netflix, in pajamas, on our favorite sofa and with the occasional interruption … But the cinema will always teach us new things.


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