‘Ferrari’ and ‘The Killer’: 1 director of photography, 2 very different perspectives


Michael Mann’s new drama, “Ferrari,” about several important weeks in the life of racing driver and manufacturer Enzo Ferrari, is many things: biographical drama, thriller, period film and also a story about business rivalries, domestic disputes and personal duels. . Adam Driver plays the automobile magnate as a man torn between his obsessive pursuit of professional glory and his strained responsibilities as a husband and father. That is why Mann approaches these two worlds with different, even diametrically opposed, styles. There are intense, fast-paced racing sequences and dark, elegiac domestic scenes, and little in between.

“There are really two different aesthetic sensibilities in the film,” Erik Messerschmidt, the film’s director of photography, said in a recent interview. “Michael wanted the interpersonal dramatic parts of the film to be more classic than the racing.”

Messerschmidt said that for the heavier moments Mann “wanted to reference Italian Renaissance paintings,” with their pronounced shadows and dense compositions; The racing scenes, on the other hand, made use of cutting-edge technology and contemporary techniques.

Messerschmidt also worked as director of photography on “The Killer,” David Fincher’s recent thriller about a hitman dealing with the consequences of a job gone wrong, now streaming on Netflix. A look at the two films side by side reveals the stark contrasts in the directors’ approach.

“Their use of the camera, in particular, is very different,” Messerschmidt said. “Michael tends to look for those spontaneous moments and I think he’s a little more dynamic than David. While David is a very precise and methodical filmmaker, he is unique in that sense.”

Here, Messerschmidt explains how the “Ferrari” look was achieved on and off the track and how it compares to his work on “The Killer.”

“Ferrari” begins with an energetic montage of grainy black-and-white newsreel footage showing Enzo in his youth racing for Alfa Romeo. Mann, who had been trying to make “Ferrari” since the early 2000s, spent a lot of time studying archival motor racing footage from that era, and he and the team watched it frequently to help faithfully capture the look. While filming one of the first racing sequences, Mann had the idea to start with Enzo himself on the track, to remind the audience that he used to be a racer.

The scene is “a combination of actual stock footage and visual effects composites of Adam driving a 1920s racing car,” Messerschmidt explained. Driver actually had to hit the track: it’s not a soundstage or a green screen, but footage of him that’s been rotoscoped, which explains why this shot looks so realistic.

By contrast, Messerschmidt and Fincher spent a lot of time tweaking footage from “The Killer” in post-production to perfect the look of key locations in Paris, the Dominican Republic and Chicago, which they wanted to differentiate aesthetically. “All of those places have a unique look, in terms of architecture, design and the way the light falls,” said the cinematographer. Paris, for example, was depicted with “this kind of split-tone color palette of cool shadows and warm highlights.”

While each location had its own visual identity, Messerschmidt said he was conscious of “keeping them within a cohesive world.”

“I didn’t want it to look like a ransom note for color palettes,” he joked.

The second half of “Ferrari” focuses on their efforts to win the 1957 Mille Miglia, a fiercely competitive race covering nearly 1,000 miles on public roads. To capture its dizzying intensity, Mann got very close to the vehicles, as in this shot of two cars racing side by side on a winding mountain overpass. Messerschmidt said the camera crew was following right behind them in a Porsche Cayenne. “We were driving these cars at real speeds,” Messerschmidt said. “Michael wasn’t interested in faking it or underplaying the camera.”

Like this shot, many of the driving scenes have a rawness that emphasizes how fast and dangerous the race is. The style, Messerschmidt said, “has a very authentic feel,” which adds to the feeling of raw power. “These cars are visceral, noisy, the engines shake and the suspension is stiff. “That was something we wanted to show from the beginning.”

Part of the Mille Miglia race takes place on an open stretch of road in the dead of night. The only source of light is the car headlights, which illuminate the rain-slick road and reflect each other. Messerschmidt said that filming this sequence without conventional cinematic lighting was a matter of necessity, because there was no obvious place to place the lights. “I felt a lot of anxiety about that scene,” he said. “I really didn’t know what I was going to do.”

In the end, he said, “he decided to roll the dice and just do it with the headlights.”

“The Killer” also makes surprising use of the night, in part because the film is about a man who “lives and lurks in the shadows,” Messerschmidt said. “We wanted to work in this murky world. “It seemed appropriate to lean into that in the film.”

When “Ferrari” is not on the track, the camera tends to closely probe the characters, sometimes stopping directly at their faces. In this sequence on the factory grounds, the lens zooms in so close to Enzo that his features become almost blurry. “When Michael really wants to bring the audience closer to a character and closer to you, he will literally bring you closer to the actor,” Messerschmidt said.

To achieve this “very strange point of view,” Messerschmidt employed a “telescopic sight,” which extends the lens about 10 inches from the camera body. That extension “means we can get very close to the actor without the Steadicam hitting the actor’s knees,” he explained.

Fincher also wants to use the camera to understand his characters in “The Killer,” but “the camera doesn’t have a personality like Michael does,” Messerschmidt explained. “Ferrari” has “a very subjective camera,” while Fincher “works with a conversation between subjectivity and objectivity.” The camera “reinforces” the anonymous executioner played by Michael Fassbender.

This is clear in the numerous precise framing and symmetrical compositions, an aesthetic that reflects the meticulousness of the hitman. “When the killer is in control and confident, the camera is very confident, in terms of how we operate it and how the shots are put together,” Messerschmidt said. “When the killer loses control and starts to fall apart, the camera falls apart too.”

A centerpiece of “Ferrari” takes place at an opera, where Enzo has an intense emotional reaction. Mourning the loss of his child, he reminisces about their time together, as the film cuts to brief, steamy flashbacks, including this one, in which the two are playing in a field. The camera is very close to the ground and the sun is just setting on the horizon; The delicate style is reminiscent of the work of Terrence Malick.

“I think I understand now how Malick works,” Messerschmidt said. For this flashback, he and Mann began “working with the actors and the camera, improvising a little bit,” he said, adding that they just captured this interaction. “It was very improvised. “It was not previewed.”

At times, during the racing sequences in “Ferrari,” the camera is fixed to the body of the car, glued to its side as the vehicle approaches at extraordinary speeds. In this shot, we see the bold Ferrari logo against a blurry patch of grass and road. Because they were putting a camera on a car that was pushing its technical limits, “we had to be very conscious of weight distribution and aerodynamics,” Messerschmidt said. His choice for these shots was a red Komodo camera, “which is about the size of a Rubik’s cube.” As Messerschmidt noted: “It would have been a very difficult film to make with a large, cumbersome film camera.”

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