David Fincher has developed a very distinct style over the years as he has cemented himself as one of our most impressive technical filmmakers. Fincher has a great hold on characters and story, but he stands out because his mechanical, almost robotic, style of filmmaking is so recognisable and effective. His movies are distinguishable by a number of trademarks and signature moves. Fincher likes washed-out colours with lots of metallic blues and greys along with crushed blacks, which makes his movies seem as though they’re being projected to us on a piece of frozen metal. He also avoids handheld camera work, opting instead for a locked down camera that pans and pivots around a scene with balanced, unnatural movement, which enhances the feeling of an omniscient camera that is operating independently of a human being and not subject to control. He also enjoys locking the camera in place and filming wide, stationary shots as though we are watching the action play out on a stage at a theatre.
Fincher’s directing career began with MTV and the formation of Propaganda films, a production company that was responsible for making some of the best videos MTV would ever make and that worked with Michael Bay, David Lynch, Spike Jonze, Antoine Fuqua, Zack Snyder, and Gore Verbinski. It was there that Fincher would cut his teeth on directing by making music videos for Madonna, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, George Michael, Sting, and Paula Abdul, among others.
For this article, I’ve only looked at his music video work up until he made his big screen debut with 1992’s Alien3 to see how Fincher’s style evolved and how he used his now Academy Award nominated skills to make music videos for Rick Springfield and Johnny Hates Jazz.
Fincher directed over 50 music videos before he made his first movie, but don’t worry; I won’t be going video to video. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention his first foray into the music video world: Rick Springfield’s “Dance this World Away” from 1984. The video for this song cuts between three scenes in which Springfield plays a Mr Rogers-type, a cheesy lounge singer, and himself, but in a burnt out post-Apocalyptic setting. There is a lot of creativity on show and the three settings: children’s TV show, monochrome ballroom, and what seems to be an office in a city that’s been hit by the bomb all look great. However, the technical aspects are miles away from Fincher’s style as we know it now. Throughout the video, the camera is always moving and we cut constantly from setting to setting, angle to angle. This is very much Fincher playing to MTV’s house style, though there are hints at the future, especially in the ballroom setting where the black background feels like it could begin to encroach on the dancers and swallow them up. There is also a playful darkness to the humour throughout the video with the theme of Mr Rogers spoof being nuclear war and the finale in which the ballroom dancers continue to waltz even when a missile rises up in the centre of the dance floor.
Jump to five years later to Fincher’s video for Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up”. By 1989, Fincher had become a pretty big name in music video directing. At both the 1989 and 1990 MTV Music Video Awards he received three nominations for best directing (winning both years for his work with Madonna). With “Straight Up” we begin to see the makings of modern Fincher. While there are still many cuts, they hold for longer and include more wide stationary shots. The video, shot in washed out black and white, is also full of the deep, impenetrable shadows that dominate Fincher’s movie work.
Another hallmark of Fincher’s music video work, especially with Abdul and Madonna, is he knows when to get out of the way. Abdul’s “Cold Hearted” is a great example of this. Fincher can see how talented of a dancer Paula Abdul is so he keeps the cuts to a minimum and frames the dancers front and centre with longer shots to showcase their skills. Too often than not, you will see a pop video featuring dancers that cuts too erratically so the action doesn’t flow from move to move. A director lacking the confidence to just let the shot run can ruin the video when all we want is to see pure talent on display without getting motion sickness from choppy cuts. With “Cold Hearted”, Fincher lets Abdul do her thing, and when he does cut, he cuts on movement so one shot flows into the next seamlessly. With Madonna’s “Vogue” Fincher knows that he has a superstar in front of the camera so he shoots her as though she is Cleopatra arriving in Tarsus. She is at the height of her powers; a pure being of power and sexuality. Fincher is not known for his close-ups with his movie work, holding them in check unless they are absolutely necessary, but with “Vogue” he films Madonna in close-up throughout, filling our screen with her, and making her blonde hair pop on an inky black background.
Controversial upon its release for its themes of violence and sexual abuse, “Janie’s Got a Gun” is one of Fincher’s more narrative-driven music videos, most resembling his films. The story of “Janie’s Got a Gun” is that the titular Janie, after years of abuse, finally cracks, gets a gun, and kills her own father. The song and video tell the same story as we see Janie’s life in flashbacks and the trench-coated detective trying to work out why Janie would feel the need to get a gun. Violence, murder, and a mystery. It’s all very Fincher on a narrative level, and on a technical level too we get his washed out colours, his love of rainfall, and his mechanical, clinical camera work. We also see big wide shots that centre a character amidst huge empty spaces to show their loneliness and helplessness. The final shots where we zoom out of the chest wound of the rapist and into the sky is also very reminiscent of the opening to Fight Club where we start in darkness and zoom out and out until we realise we started in the narrator’s brain.
Few directors give us this kind of roadmap to see their talents and trademarks develop. With Fincher, we can go back nearly ten years before he started making features and watch his skills develop with practice until we hit the ’90s and see that he is ready to get into the big chair to start making movies. There is a sense that Fincher is still at that same level of hunger as when he was making Rick Springfield videos, and he continues to grow as an exciting and innovative filmmaker and one of the best directors working today.