“Everything seems really simple on paper until you take a camera out of the box.”
Every filmmaker has their list of dos and don’ts and David Fincher is no exception. Producer and director of countless films such as Seven, Fight Club, and this year’s highly anticipated Gone Girl, he has honed a skill that has arguable been very influential.
And if you want to understand his craft, you need to ask yourself this: what does David Fincher not do? To put it simply, there are three things he does not do: handheld shots, close-ups, and camera movement. But it’s not a matter of casting these aside, but using them when the times calls for it.
In terms of handheld operation, Fincher is notorious for having as little to one shot not placed on a tripod or Steadicam. The reason for this is the way he wants the camera to act in any given scene. Camera shake (the most well-known trait of handheld) puts the audience in the scene with the character but a smoothly gliding shot drags us out of the scene. Normally, most filmmakers want to avoid this as they don’t want their audience to become separated from the story they’re trying to tell. But to David Fincher, this is exactly what he wants. He wants the camera to be this omniscient character. It forces you to really look at everything that’s happening on screen. Without the camera shake, you’re eye has nowhere to look but at the action. It’s subtle but a very powerful technique when executed properly.
Close-ups are similarly a need-by basic sort of deal. Excessive close-ups will distract an audience and can potentially exclude too much for to hold their attention. Yet, having only a few close-ups in any given film is a crafty way to tell the audience that they need to look at something. It’s similar to grabbing a person by the face and physically shoving their attention at an object. It’s the equivalent of shouting, “you need to see this!” It’s a subtle way to tell an audience that what’s happening on screen is about to impact the movie in huge way.
And the last don’t on this list, may seem like the strangest. It’s all about camera movement, or the lack thereof. David Fincher, if he can help it, likes to keep his camera in one place. This allows the scene to play out as it might be viewed realistically from a person on the outside (as he sets the camera up to be in the first rule). This adds to the idea that what we’re seeing on screen is important and all of our attention needs to be focused on that specific thing. The lack of movement forces our eye, much like the lack of camera shake, to really look at what’s happening.
All three of these techniques end up creating the same thing: a movie we can’t force ourselves to look away from. They’re subtle, their powerful, and they’re not something to be overlooked. As Fincher said, “people will say ‘there are a million ways to shoot a scene,’ but I don’t think so. I think there’s two, maybe. And the other one is wrong.”