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Road to Oscars. The Cinematography of "Mank"

Aggiornamento: 5 apr 2021

Let's continue our series while we wait for the magical Night of the Academy Awards.

Today we're talking about Mank.

Mank is a 2020 biopic about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his journey to the writing of the screenplay for Citizen Kane.


Mank is set over the spanning of two decades, 1930s and 1940s in the old Hollywood.

Because of this, Director David Fincher wanted to recreate that atmosphere and to really immerse the viewers in it.


In order to do so, Director of Photography Erik Messerschimdt (a still life photographer in his free time) came up with the final decision to shoot the movie in a "glamour black and white".

Other important technical features of the film are a well-defined but not too strong contrast, an emphasized tonal depth and a deep focus, the latter being an hallmark of Citizen Kane.


Mank is thought in monochromatic tones, it was not converted in post-production.


Fincher and Messerschmidt also considered noir style for the movie, but in the end they decided it didn't go along with the atmospheres of Mank.

Anyway, by not using colours, of course, all issues related to color schemes and palette are cut down to zero.


What is actually funny, though, is that Mank was shot entirely in digital format; in other words, the newest technologies were used to achieve that old-fashion style of Hollywood pre-colour era.


As per the quality of the raw footage, the resolution was very high (8k), but it was later degradated to a lower quality. They were actually looking for grain.

In a second step, some characteristics of the old films were added in post production, such as scratches, sigarette burns and the circles indicating when the reel needs to be changed.

Erik Messerschmidt
Erik Messerschmidt

Messerschmidt, in order to prepare himself for the movie, studied a few milestones of cinema:

- Rebecca, by Alfred Hitchcock

- Casablanca, by Michael Curtiz

- Citizen Kane (of course), by Orson Welles (analysing the work of Oscar winning DoP Gregg Toland)


My analysis wouldn't be complete if I wouldn't mention the sequence where Mank and Marion take a walk in the moonlight in Hearst Castle's private zoo.

And old-but-gold trick was used to shoot this scene: the day for night trick.

Oldman (Mank) and Seyfried (Marion) acted in full daylight because filming at night would have required a lot of lighting equipment such as cranes and heavy gear and this would have ruined the atmosphere in the chosen location.

So, in order to achieve the wanted end result, Messerschimdt massively screened the daylight hitting the sensor of the camera. But there was one problem: by underexposing the shooting, the actors' faces ended up being very dark and the crew had to shine super bright lights on them. This actually led to another issue: Oldman and Seyfried couldn't help but squinting their eyes and that's where the practical ideas come in handy: let them wear sunglass-tinted contact lenses.


Mank (Oldman) and Marion (Seyfried) in the zoo scene
Mank (Oldman) and Marion (Seyfried) in the zoo scene

Speaking of practical, so were the scene transitions. Messerschmidt turned on/off or up/down the lights while moving out of a scene. This is very uncommon, but also very theatrical and met very well the style of Mank.



And last but not least, do you know what's the secret behind the dinner party sequence?

Well, there is no secret. That scene was shot over and over again from different points of view and poor Gary Oldman had to repeat the same exact lines - you guessed it - over and over again.

At the end of filming everybody in cast and crew knew Oldman's lines by heart.

A bit time consuming, right, but totally worth it.


Well, that's it for today. Stay tuned for the next movie: News of the World.

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