Mindhunter and the power of smart shot rhythm

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Mindhunter shows how simple shot and editing techniques can elevate a series above a routine crime procedural. For this post we’ll look at one standout scene in the final episode of season one. Subtle changes in shot length, distance, and angle heighten emotions. David Fincher directs, Erik Messerschmidt serves as DP, and Kirk Baxter, who’s been Fincher’s primary editor for almost a decade, edits. (Mild spoilers follow.)

On paper the scene is a conversation between two characters that turns threatening. FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) profiles and studies serial killers. Incarcerated mass murderer Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton) is Holden’s interview subject early in the season. This last scene serves as a reunion after many episodes apart; Kemper tried to kill himself, and Holden visits him in the hospital.

For the first two minutes of their talk, the camera follows a shot reverse shot pattern you’d see on many other shows. Messerschmidt sets up the camera behind the shoulder of each actor. We cut between the two based on dialogue, sticking entirely to wide and medium shots.

After this opening stretch the conversation becomes tense. Kemper “wants an explanation” for what Holden has done with their previous interviews. As emotions run high, we see a shift in camera usage for the next 18 seconds. The camera holds closeups on Kemper and Holden to key in on their heightened emotional state. We also cut away from both characters for the first time. One shallow focus shot on Kemper’s legs underlines his size and foreshadows the physical confrontation about to happen.

There’s also a quick two second cut – the shortest shot in the scene so far – over to the hospital staff, unaware of what’s happening between Holden and Kemper. That shot brevity and shakeup in subject matter is a wake up call for the audience. Kemper may be restrained, but with the staff distracted, it’s an open question if Holden is in physical danger.

Beyond shot length and distance, as illustrated in the examples below, we’ve also shifted camera angle. We see Holden from a more obtuse angle perpendicular to his side that parallels the character’s attempt to withdraw from conflict.

Kemper’s motivations are less clear. The camera’s high angle makes the room’s overhead lights reflect against his glasses. His eyes and attention are obscured. Yet as the cut away shot reveals, Kemper has taken notice of the hospital staff.

However, for the next minute or so of conversation, the shots snap back into the familiar shot reverse shot pattern: over the shoulder, mostly at medium length, cutting on dialogue. Fincher and his crew have let off the gas for a moment, letting the scene breathe.

This respite is short lived. The tension ramps up again as Kemper asks Holden to see wounds from his suicide attempt up close. As Kemper shifts to the front of the bed, a once static camera dollies towards him. Again we see a change in shot rhythm with three rapid fire cuts in under two seconds: on Kemper’s feet as they hit the ground, Holden glancing backward at the hospital staff in alarm, and the staff oblivious to what’s happening.

It’s the camera equivalent of a slap to the audience’s face. Kemper is an active threat and neither the staff nor Holden are clued in. As Kemper talks sitting up, the camera slowly dollies in again, foreshadowing movement ahead. Kemper stares past Holden at the staff area, all but confirming he’s looking for an opening. A reverse shot reveals the staff has left, and with a few rapid fire cuts Kemper jumps up, now blocking Holden’s exit.

We’re near the end of the scene. Some extreme low angles aside, it’s left on the actors to carry the final moments through more conventional shot reverse shot patterns.

If we review the camera techniques and editing choices in this scene, little calls attention to itself. A camera turns 30 degrees or cuts to new subject matter. Instead of a slower cut to follow the script, we cut rapidly based on movement and character attention. Yet there’s a precision to this work – the blocking, the cuts, the rhythm – that’s emblematic of Fincher’s talented feature length work.

Furthermore, it’s precision that’s largely consistent throughout Mindhunter. Between work here and other series like The Handmaid’s Tale and Mr. Robot, we’re at the point where TV shows regularly match (if not outclass) big budget movies in the editing and cinematography department. I’m all for it – better work raises the bar for everyone.