It was dirty, repugnant and in your face but baby it was it good...
Fight Club was Jeff Cronenweth’s first feature film as cinematographer. After working almost two decades as an assistant for notable cinematographers such as John Toll (The Thin Red Line, Cloud Atlas), Sven Nykvist (Fanny and Alexander, Crimes and Misdemeanors), and his father, Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner, Peggy Sue Got Married). The experienced Cronenweth was a natural choice for director David Fincher, who Cronenweth had also worked for as a second-unit cameraman for Fincher’s Se7en and The Game. The two set out to design the film’s memorable gritty, desaturated look that has come to categorize the movie while bringing to life the dystopian universe of Chuck Palahniuk’s seminal novel.
For the camera department, pre-production on Fight Club lasted more than two months. Previs and storyboarding were key as Fincher wanted to combine computer-generated imagery with live-action to produce “impossible” shots.
The film’s cinematographic prowess is on display early as the tracking shot from the top floor to basement parking sets a high bar from the onset. According to Cronenweth, Fincher belongs to the Hitchcock school of filmmaking, where pre-production is paramount since “you make the movie before you start shooting.” Test shoot sessions were also crucial for Cronenweth and closely collaborated with the film’s production designer Alex McDowell to test different paint colors and finishes on set walls. Cronenweth’s visions for the “Fight Club” world were clear and concise, so he went to great lengths to guarantee the right look. He tested out various film stocks and processes like underexposing the print or stretching contrast to achieve the film’s grimy dystopian look. For Cronenweth, pre-production presented the perfect opportunity to craft a master blueprint for the grueling shoot.
While shooting, maintaining an element of realism throughout Fight Club was a continuous challenge for Cronenweth and his gaffer Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Cronenweth, as much as possible, wanted to recreate the ambient light found on location. Top-lights were thus deployed for the majority of the shoot to mirror the ambient lighting of fluorescent ceiling lights. Through a variety of fluorescent bulbs, Cronenweth was able to reproduce on film the color of light seen on location. During dialogue-heavy scenes, however, the top-light underexposed the actors’ faces. Still, Fincher and Cronenweth felt the underexposure was an appropriate comprise that piggybacked on the dark tone of Palahniuk’s story. So for most of the film, faces were ½ to 2 stops underexposed. Cronenweth decided only to use a rear edge light or half-light (which matched the ambient lighting from practicals). In cinema, it is essential to make good use of practical lighting and use the natural light sources to aid other lighting decisions. During filming, a shallow-focus of T2.3 allowed for such a style of lighting. An open iris diaphragm naturally allows more light to enter the sensor and requires less light within the scene, making shooting on a low f-stop an obvious choice given the desired look.
To bring out tonality and character from the sets, such as Tyler Durden’s crumbling Victorian mansion or the basement of Lou’s Tavern, Cronenweth experimented with various practical lights. He used different lighting angles and levels, turning them into rake lights to texturize the grubby walls, or sometimes using ambient light to illuminate sections of a scene while allowing fall-off areas where shadows were predominant. By crafting a vital identity-defining lightning plan, they achieved the desired outcome of augmenting the film’s sense of realism.
In terms of camera movement, with the sole exception of several CGI shots, Cronenweth deliberately avoids fancy camera movements, usually locking the camera in a fixed position to capture an objective perspective of the action onscreen. Even in the film’s brutal fight scenes, dollies and static low-angle shots were preferential while also using some subtle handheld camerawork. By keeping a detached point of view, Cronenweth adheres to Fincher’s penchant for realism, while providing a gloriously simplistic view of the characters and their environment.
Fight Club is a masterclass of cinematographic realism. Through intensive planning and methodical camerawork, Fincher and Cronenweth brought to life the dark vision of Chuck Palahniuk’s cult bestseller, and in return, made a cult classic of their own. It’s no wonder the two of them have collaborated for three more films (The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl).
Apple Podcasts (2020). Fight Club cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. [podcast] Candela: Photography & Cinematography Masters. Available at: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/fight-club-cinematographer-jeff-cronenweth/id1496526751?i=1000464910704 [Accessed 22 Feb. 2020].
Probst, C. (1999). Fight Club: Anarchy in the U.S.A. - The American Society of Cinematographers. [online] Ascmag.com. Available at: https://ascmag.com/articles/flashback-fight-club [Accessed 22 Feb. 2020].