Directors’ Trademarks: David Fincher

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Fincher’s love for film started at an early age, when, like Steven Spielberg, he made home movies with an 8mm camera. He was able to translate this love for film into a career. In the 1980’s he worked for several production companies, including Industrial Light and Magic. Later he joined Propaganda Films and began to direct music videos and commercials. Propaganda Films was also a starting point for directors such as Michael Bay, Spike Jonze, Gore Verbinski, Alex Proyas, and Zach Snyder. All of these directors, understandably, have a focus on visuals, and David Fincher is no exception. 

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His feature debut was Alien 3 (1992), which did not go smoothly. The production company did not allow Fincher complete control over the film, and the end product did not turn out as he expected. The experience was enough to convince him to go back to directing music videos and commercials for the next few years. He agreed to give another feature film a chance, and this time he was able to have complete control over the entire process. The result was 1995’s Se7en, which had an edgy style unlike anything else audiences had seen before and was a hit among a certain demographic. His next film was The Game (1997) which critics liked but audiences didn’t. His next film, Fight Club, was even more controversial than Se7en. Critics and audiences simply didn’t understand it at first, and as a result, it suffered bad reviews and poor box office turnout. It later became a cult hit on DVD/VHS and since then many critics have changed their mind. In 2002 he made Panic Room, which did well, and then in 2007, Zodiac, which critics liked, but audiences didn’t turn out at theaters. Next was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), which received 13 Academy Awards nominations and ended up being a hit. In 2010, he followed his success with more success. The Social Network won 3 Oscars, including Best Director. His latest film was the American adaptation of the book by the same name, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which received 5 Oscar nominations and was a box office hit. Up next for Fincher is Gone Girl, which releases in theaters this week.   

 

So the question posed is, if you are watching a David Fincher film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Fincher’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:


Turn Up the Black

David Fincher is one of those directors whose films you could identify even if you only saw only one frame. He has a unique visual style where dark lighting is combined with a color overlay/filter and crisp cinematography. Most importantly, the color palette of his films are all very similar. It is black with some other color, usually gold or blue. These colors usually have some sort of symbolism that is related to the topic of the film. In Fight Club, the colors are black and blue, just like the bruises you’ll get as part of the titular club. In Zodiac, the colors are black and yellow. The yellow is used to show warmth, like during daytime when it is safe from the killer, whereas the black is darkness like the night when he strikes. In Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the colors are black and icy blue, just like the cold setting of the film.  


Obscured by Shadows

Fincher likes to cover the faces of his characters in shadows so that we don’t know who they are. This technique allows him to show action that is necessary to move the story forward without giving anything away too soon to the audience. Since most of his films have some sort of mystery element, this is a very fitting technique and keeps the audience guessing until the end. It is worth noting that the obscurance of characters by shadows fits hand-in-hand with Fincher’s obsession with black (see above). As such, it never feels out-of-place or distracting. An example includes the shadows covering Kevin Spacey’s character’s face in Se7en. In addition to obscuring characters’ faces completely, Fincher likes to use shadow to cover half of a character’s face in dialogue scenes. This could be a nod to the “darkness” in all of us or the fact that these characters are a mystery and we truly don’t know if they are good or bad. 


Excessive Fluid Tracking Shots

 

Lengthy tracking shots are used by many different directors as a stylistic element, and a way to establish a scene. Fincher is therefore, not the first director to place emphasis on the use of a dolly or boom for the camera. However, he uses it frequently not just because the movement is necessary to capture the scene properly, but to add a stylistic edge to the film. Fincher takes the well-established method of camera movement and adds another level. Fincher’s camera movement is always smooth, no matter the terrain, and in some cases even travels through walls or solid objects with the help of CGI. In Fight Club, Fincher uses a massive tracking shot where the camera pans down from an office where Tyler Durden is looking out a window down to a parking garage, through a van, and then through another building. With such forceful camerawork, Fincher is allowing the audience a larger perspective without cutting, which could cause some confusion. 


Single Frame Insertion

Before making it big with feature-length films, David Fincher was a director of music videos and commercials. Music videos and commercials need to be catchy, and as an auteur filmmaker, Fincher put a lot of effort into getting the most out of the short format. One thing he liked to do was to insert a single frame, image into his movies. That signature has carried through to his feature length films, where many films feature a single blink-and-you’ll-miss-it frame into a scene or sequence to add additional context. In Fight Club, the inserted scenes act as kind of a subliminal message as a way to continuously assault his audience with obscene material. In Se7en, the images inserted are used to frighten the audience and enhance the emotional impact of the film. In Zodiac, the images are used to remind the audience of details of the investigation that were discussed earlier without significantly disrupting the flow of the film. 


Opposing the “Norm”

One thing that Fincher loves doing is pushing boundaries. Both Se7en and Fight Club were extremely controversial upon release and audiences and critics didn’t really know how to respond. Although all his films are not as controversial, Fincher still shows his rebellious perspective by playing off of typical Hollywood stereotypes, especially the way that movies have traditionally ended. To put it simply, Fincher’s films rarely end happily, and when they do, it comes as somewhat of a surprise. To start with, in nearly all of his films, the climax of the movie revolves around a major character deciding to commit suicide. In both Fight Club, The Game, and to a lesser extent, Alien 3, the imminent death of a major character reveals something even more shocking. In Benjamin Button, the entire film is one big nonsensical twist. Zodiac may be his ultimate statement. In Hollywood, detective movies typically end with the criminal being apprehended. In Zodiac, despite all the detail and effort Fincher devoted to laying out the details for the audience to follow, there is no ultimate satisfaction of seeing the killer get caught. The Social Network is similar to Zodiac, in that although it is a film that recounts real life events, there is no “closure” for the audience, which is usually typical for films recounting historic events (such as Apollo 13, American Gangster, 127 Hours). 


Want more? Check out the last installment:

Directors’ Trademarks: David Lynch