Expanding the Vocabulary of Film: Cinefade Shapes “Mank” by David Fincher With Variable Depth of Field

Depth of field Mank Cinefade
Variable depth of field with constant exposure | © Netflix

David Fincher’s latest Netflix film, “Mank,” pays homage to “Citizen Kane” and Gregg Toland’s work with depth of field in this work of the century by Orson Welles. For this purpose, director Fincher and his cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt use the new Cinefade system developed by Oliver Christiansen – thus adding a revolutionary, hitherto unseen creative element to visual storytelling.

What was previously only possible with digital effects and a lot of effort in subsequent image processing – if at all – is now possible for the first time in real time during in-camera shooting thanks to an innovative camera accessory: varying the depth of field within a shot. The feature film “Mank” (director: David Fincher; camera: Erik Messerschmidt, ASC) should now help this effect to break through on a broad front.

© Foto: IMDB

Erik Messerschmidt (40), ASC, ran the camera on “Mank.” David Fincher’s film tells the true story of screenwriter Herman Mankiewiczs, who wrote the screenplay for the classic film Citizen Kane alongside Orson Welles. Previously, Messerschmidt shot Raised by Wolves and Fincher’s thriller series Mindhunter. His work earned him an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Cinematography in 2020.

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© Foto: LinkedIn

Oliver Christiansen is the inventor and developer of Cinefade, which he successfully launched. Cinefade is a new type of camera accessory used by cinematographers in high-end films, TV series and commercials that expands the vocabulary of film in a way that is both significant and revolutionary. Christiansen, who graduated from Staffordshire University with a degree in Digital Film and Post Production Technology, was awarded the prestigious Cinec Award for his invention.

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The name says it all: Cinefade, that’s what Oliver Janesh Christiansen calls his innovation. This adds nothing more and nothing less than a new element to the film vocabulary.

The cinefade effect makes it possible for the first time since the invention of film in 1895 for the operator of a film camera not only to shift the depth of field within a shot to a new plane, but also to vary the width of the depth of space while the camera is running. This allows the director and cameraman to switch between a deep and shallow depth of field and vary the amount of depth of field.

This gives the film language a new narrative device in creative image design.

Variable depth of field within one setting

In this exclusive article from Filmpuls, Oliver Christiansen and Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, ASC explain what Cinefade is all about, how the system works to vary depth of field, why it expands the film vocabulary and how it was used at Mank.

Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt is one of the first cinematographers to use Oliver Christiansen’s revolutionary technique in the new Netflix feature film “Mank” by David Fincher(Se7en).

With his camera work Messerschmidt impressively proves that Cinefade is an absolutely style-defining new tool. In the future, this will play a major role in shaping the visual narrative of a whole series of other feature films and series currently in production – as well as commercials and major image films in the future.

Until now, cameramen had to shoot with apertures of T8, T11 and sometimes T16 to accentuate the depth of field. The depth of field remained static: once defined, its scope was given while the camera was running. Therefore, there was no way to use the plane of focus as a dynamic tool for storytelling within a shot or plan sequence.

Cinefade breaks this barrier and thus considerably expands the spectrum of image design possibilities, as the following showreel impressively demonstrates:

Demovideo Cinefade | © Cinefade / Vimeo

Information video of the manufacturer | Cinefade depth of field

Erik Messerschmidt on Cinefade’s role in “Mank”.

“Mank,” new feature from David Fincher tells the story of screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz and his collaboration with Orson Welles in writing the screenplay for one of the most legendary 1941 masterpieces in film history, Citizen Kane.

Actor Gary Oldman in front of the camera: Variable depth of field as a design element | © Trailer “Mank”: Netflix / YouTube

How cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt works with variable depth of field

Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, ASC, used the tool as a formative tool for visual storytelling during the filming of “Mank” by David Fincher. This in order to dramaturgically isolate the characters of the film, including the fabulous Gary Oldman, with variable depth of field within the same shot when framing in space, thus emphasizing them.

Nowadays, focus is rarely used as a storytelling device. In modern cinema, the plane of focus is always on those who speak.
Erik Messerschmidt, ASC

Erik Messerschmidt: My intention was that whoever is not actively looking for it is simply guided visually by the development of the film’s plot. Most of the story has an objective narrative perspective: we watch Mank go through his day. The cinefade effect helps to illustrate the shift in his state of mind because it changes the angle of view slightly and imperceptibly. That’s why I liked the idea of defining crucial moments in the film for the storytelling and then isolating the characters there using variable depth of field in the image. David (Fincher, editor’s note) had asked me for a way to do something like that. In the end, Cinefade, this great new effect visually and in the image design shaped the entire film!

In a scene, for example, in which Mank (Oscar-worthy good: Gary Oldman) receives a phone call, director Fincher and cinematographer Messerschmidt mirror the changes in content that are now taking place in the composition and design of the images:

The depth of field gradually decreases, drawing the viewer’s eye away from Sara (Man’s wife) in the background to the protagonist, so that the viewer must now focus on Man’s conversation and facial expressions. This transition also reflects the change in Mank’s state of mind: concern for his friend has suddenly become an urgent priority, and the depth of field consequently switches back to his wife in the cinematic realization only after the call is cut short.

The trained eye will find a number of crucial scenes in “Mank” in which cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, ASC 1, uses the dynamic change of spatial depth as a visual tool for narrative. Either to isolate certain characters in space in terms of image design or to pull the depth of field 2 as if the focus had been changed in the camera.

Erik Messerschmidt: As a director and cinematographer, you’ve always wanted to work with the depth of space within a shot. This is so that the viewer knows where to look in the picture. This is where Cinefade comes in, this system does it extremely well.

References: 1 The abbreviation ASC stands for American Society of Cinematographers, an association of the world’s best, mostly American, image-creating cinematographers (Directors of Photography); 2 Depth of field and depth of field are used in this paper as synonyms for the measure of the extent of the sharp area in the object space of an imaging optical system.

How Oliver Christiansen invented Cinefade

Oliver Christiansen has always had an interest in photography and film. He worked as a camera assistant for several years and is still involved in film shoots as a cameraman (operator). At the age of just 23, while still studying at university, his vision was born, which today, as under the Cinefade brand, has a decisive influence on films such as “Mank” by David Fincher.

Filmpuls:Oliver, 126 years after the invention of film, you have added an entirely new visual element to the vocabulary of storytelling with Cinefade! How do you explain that no one before you came up with the idea of making depth of field variable?

Oliver Christiansen:I ask myself this question every day! The basic concept of Cinefade is cinematically very simple. I don’t claim to be the first to come up with this idea. In the years I’ve been developing Cinefade, I’ve talked to several filmmakers who had the same intention. However, they did not pursue this further.

Filmpuls:But you were able to successfully realize the project despite your youthful age. How do you explain that?

Oliver Christiansen:What’s special about me is that I not only saw the potential for a new kind of storytelling tool, but also took the initiative and invested a lot of perseverance and work. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’m half German and half Indian who grew up in competitive London. I was persistent and simply wanted to develop a system that would allow filmmakers to achieve this effect in the most reliable way possible, and then successfully market this system as a camera accessory globally in the film industry. Because without marketing, how is anyone supposed to know what they want if they’ve never seen it?

I knew: as a 23-year-old college graduate, I wouldn’t be taken seriously with an idea for a new product and no experience.
Oliver Christiansen

Filmpuls:Did you ever doubt that your idea could be put into practice?

Oliver Christiansen:Throughout the development of Cinefade I always thought that I would reach a point where others had failed before, and that I would not be able to overcome any technical or visual problem. But fortunately, that never happened. Don’t get me wrong: the development wasn’t easy or straightforward! But I persevered.

In a feature film shoot like “Mank”, there is no room for error. That’s where a system like Cinefade has to work the first time, every time!
Oliver Christiansen

Film Pulse:How do you have an idea like that? Was this a long, systematic process of deep thought? Or a flash of inspiration in the shower? Or over a beer?

Oliver Christiansen:I still remember the moment when I had the idea: I was on a remote island in the Philippines, where I lived and worked for a year. I was nearing the end of my stay there and knew I had to return to university in England to complete my thesis. With no internet and no distractions, I began brainstorming. I wrote down some ideas that interested me. Among them was one for a variable depth of field system. Initially, I thought of using the shutter angle to compensate for the exposure change – which was actually possible to some degree with an ARRI 435. But since I didn’t have the internet, I couldn’t research it further. So the idea stayed in my notes app until I found the entry again at university.

Film pulse:You have the idea on an island, it gets forgotten and you discover it again: If this were a film, nobody would believe it!

Oliver Christiansen:It was rather hard for me to believe that I could find very little information on this topic when researching on the Internet. So I did some initial, very rudimentary experiments by hand with existing equipment to prove my concept would work. I just did not stop to improve the concept and method. The idea had grabbed me and most of the people I told about my intention and initiated gave me positive feedback and encouragement, which certainly helped.

Filmpuls:How do you get such an innovation to be used by top-class talent like Erik Messerschmidt, ASC, and accepted by a guru like David Fincher?

Oliver Christiansen:Coming up with the idea is one thing, yes, but there are several steps I knew I had to take to get it accepted by the top professionals in the industry. I knew I would need credibility because as a 23-year-old college graduate, I would not be taken seriously. And indeed, it was difficult to get a foot in the door. The first step was to work with a reputable company. cmotion in Vienna was ready for this. The company had a lot of technical expertise. Then I had to produce a showreel and get testimonials from well-known camera people. Then my first, big break was The Commuter, directed by Paul Cameron, ASC.

Film pulse:What happened next?

Oliver Christiansen:Developing the Cinefade into a system that is easy to use and quick to set up and use was the next step. Because with a project like David Fincher’s “Mank” there is no room for error, the system has to work the first time, every time. The next steps are to knock on people’s doors, get feedback and implement it, and wait for word of mouth to take its course. I consider myself lucky because when I show someone the Cinefade for the first time, they are usually really impressed to see something new and happy to share it with those around them. By the way, the Cinefade system for “Mank” was designed by Keslow Camera in LA, who have been early adopters and big supporters of the Cinefade since my first visit to Hollywood.

My baby Cinefade has grown up. It left the family home.
Oliver Christiansen

Filmpuls:Are you always present on set during the shootings?

Oliver Christiansen:In the beginning I always tried to get to every set. I wanted to see how the cameraman used the effect. But since the system has become so simple that anyone on the camera crew can learn it and operate it, and since we started selling the Cinefade VariND to companies that rent film equipment, it has taken on a life of its own – my baby has grown up. It left the parental home, so to speak. However, I vividly remember being on the set of“The Commuter” and hearing the camera assistant call out for a “cinefade shot” for the first time – it gave me a thrill. Even today, it gives me great pleasure every time to see everyone, from the director to the actors, gather around a monitor to see the new effect in action.

Filmpuls:Is it true that during the shooting of “Mank” Cinefade was also used for other tasks that were not visible to the viewer?

Oliver Christiansen:Cinefade was used by Erik and his team not only for the variable depth of field effect as a storytelling tool, but also as a variable ND filter to control exposure. So, if it was shot outdoors. Or when the camera was inaccessible, such as on a crane. This allowed Erik and his camera assistant Alex Scott to maintain a consistent deep T-stop setting of, say, T11, and use the VariND to quickly and remotely adjust exposure in changing cloud cover without having to lower the crane to change traditional ND filters. This saves valuable time and time is always money.

Erik Messerschmidt:In a way, the Cinefade VariND lived on the camera for the entire duration of our shoot!

Filmpuls:How did you experience the exchange with Erik?

Oliver Christiansen:Erik had nothing but praise for the Cinefade. He was very supportive, talking about his experience with the Cinefade in his interviews during awards season. By the way, Erik is currently using the Cinefade again for his next feature film, which is being shot in Georgia and is called Devotion.

It’s incredibly gratifying to see filmmakers using the Cinefade system creatively.
Oliver Christiansen

Filmpuls:Did he also give you feedback on improvements?

Oliver Christiansen:Erik mentioned that there is a bit of a learning curve required for camera assist, as the Cinefade is not yet compatible with other lens control systems besides the cmotion cPro. In the US market, the ARRI WCU or Preston LCS is mainly used. But still, Erik’s crew was able to clear up any questions on their own with the included Cinefade user manual.

Filmpuls:What are your next plans with Cinefade?

Oliver Christiansen:There is still a lot to do to make Cinefade a permanent part of the film vocabulary and to expand into other countries. My goal is to give as many filmmakers as possible access to the system and experiment with the effect, as it is still a new tool and there are many ways to use it creatively in storytelling.

Filmpuls:What is the best thing about Cinefade for you?

Oliver Christiansen:It’s incredibly gratifying and satisfying when I see how different filmmakers use the Cinefade system creatively.

It will be interesting to see if Oliver Christiansen does not receive a technical Oscar for his Cinefade system one day. After all, it’s not every day that someone comes along who successfully adds a defining stylistic element to the film’s vocabulary. For those who have read this far, it should be clear by now: The banal, interchangeable designation camera accessory falls short for the Cinefade system – the creative scope that the new tool has opened up for film is too great for that.

Possible for the first time as an in-camera effect with Cinefade

Cinefade is the first and so far only professional solution on the market to use depth of field in a film narrative. The technical functioning of the groundbreaking innovation explained in a few words and as simply as possible:

Cinefade, the lens control system couples the motorized variable ND filter to an aperture motor and automatically holds the exposure constant while the camera operator opens and closes the aperture to vary the depth of field.

cmotion Cinefade VariND consists of a motorized polarizer and a static polarizer, which are connected to each other and located in a mat box. The high quality round polarizers use the concept of cross polarization to attenuate light by 5+ f-stops (ND0.4 – ND1.9).

Cinefade VariND is currently the only one worldwide that can be bought or rented directly from the inventor Oliver Christiansen. The system is compatible with any professional film or digital camera and cine lens.

Depth of field: Wide range of applications

Besides the cinefade effect, the VariND can also be used for other practical applications. It can also be controlled separately, giving the cinematographer precise, dynamic and remote exposure control when the camera is positioned on a crane, for example.

A significant advantage over conventional ND filters in this constellation is that the camera assistant can change the neutral density quickly, easily and remotely, which saves a lot of time on set during shooting and also allows greater flexibility and precision in setting the exposure.

When the camera moves from a dark to a bright environment, VariND dynamically adjusts the ND value. This keeps the depth of field and look of the scene consistent.
Oliver Christiansen

Oliver Christiansen is convinced: “The VariND function makes the AC’s life easier and especially now that there are remote productions and Covid restrictions, it is helpful to have a remote VariND to control the exposure more precisely and set the ND values much faster than with conventional ND filters, all at a safe distance from the actors. There’s still a lot of education to be done about these features, which, while not as sexy or flashy as Cinefade’s variable depth of field effect, are extremely helpful.”

It is now also possible to avoid aperture jumps when shooting indoors or outdoors with the Steadicam. With VariND, the ND value can be dynamically adjusted when the camera transitions from a dark to a bright environment. This way, the depth of field and the look of the scene remain consistent and the exposure change is compensated by the variable ND filter. Finally, the RotaPola feature provides a plug-and-play solution for automotive shooters to remotely control reflections.

Other film productions follow the example of “Mank”

Later this year, in the wake of “Mank,” a slew of other films and series will follow, all working with Cinefade, well-known of which are already Blonde (Netflix), The Witcher (season 2) and The Morning Show (season 2, Apple TV), and the feature film Devotion.

A big thank you to Oliver Christiansen of Cinefade and Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, ASC, for information on this article. Click here to visit the Cinefade website.

This article was automatically translated into English using AI. If you would like to help us improve the quality, we would be happy to hear from you.

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