Who's to say where, in the creation of an artistic work, the work comes in? In film, we find that some filmmakers work very hard at plotting, creating vast architectures that are miraculous in their completion (think Spielberg, Lucas, Lumet, Hitchcock). Some invest incredible energy in visual detail, creating sumptuous, sensory feasts that stick in our memories more than any twist or turn of their story (think Malick, Kubrick).
Others, however, seem to be polymaths, perpetually working in all directions, making films that deserve examination for any number of reasons because they operate on so many different levels. David Fincher is one of those. Say what you will about Fincher's films, they bear the weight of repeated conversations and speculations on points both minute and grand.
One of those points, as veteran video essayist Evan Puschak, aka The Nerdwriter, shows in his latest piece, is the camera work in Fincher's films—but not simply the cinematography in general. Puschak focuses on one particular goal Fincher achieves through careful camera work: getting viewers attention locked on a figure, and holding it there. It's not done through persuasion, but through mechanics. And studying it could teach anyone a lot of about storytelling in general, and filmmaking in particular.
Follow the character
Fincher's technique at the center of Puschak's analysis is making the camera follow characters' movements exactly. Fincher's DPs, from Jeff Cronenweth to Harris Savides to Erik Messerschmidt, use a number of shots to do this: the tilt, the pan, and the tracking shot. Sometimes the movement Fincher is tracking is very subtle, showing a character leaning back in a chair, or walking across a crowded train station, and you wouldn't notice it unless you were looking for it. And so why not look for these shots, the next time you're watching one of his films?
Reveal behavior through movement
But why do this? Why pay such close attention to a character's motions? Can't the same information be transmitted with broader, more expansive shots that might add other information to the mix? Fincher shadows his characters with the camera to teach viewers about their behavior. The way a character moves shows a great deal about who they are. Think of the rash, dramatic way Fincher's version of Mark Zuckerberg moved in The Social Network, or the plodding, apprehensive way Morgan Freeman's Detective Somerset moved in Se7en. The camera followed those characters as if it were part of their bodies, and as a result, viewers understood their motivations more clearly. This kind of attention is especially important to Fincher's series Mindhunter, currently streaming on Netflix. If your story relies on a character's ability to inhabit another character's mind, as Mindhunter does, shouldn't the camera help out in some respect?
Think about behavior over time
The relationship of behavior to movement figures prominently in House of Cards. Puschak offers a very telling clip from Robin Wright Penn, in which she details how Fincher always stresses that the actors must understand how a character's behavior changes over time to portray the character effectively. Similarly, the camera has to track that character's behavioral changes and represent them visually. As Frank Underwood's goals become more, er, expansive, the camera must also match that development, sweeping more, zooming more, showing how the mind and body of its subject work together.
Build viewer empathy through camera movement
One of the most salient points Puschak makes here is that, while Fincher might have a reputation for cinematic coldness and detachment, he is in fact quite the opposite, at least in this aspect of his work. The way his camera stays in sync with characters does a couple of things simultaneously. These camera movements show Fincher's understanding of, and investment in, these characters. The camera's synchronicity with character movements also makes viewers feel the action of the film along with the characters. Ultimately, this translates into higher viewer empathy. In a film like Gone Girl, this technique is especially interesting, given that both of the film's central characters exude moral instability, and so being empathetic with them carries risks.
Nevertheless, taking a close look at the way Fincher uses basic shots like the tilt, the pan, and the tracking shot could teach any filmmaker a considerable amount about both characterization and aesthetics.
Who are some other directors whose camera work does a lot of storytelling work? Let us know in the comments.