Beyond the two windows at the end of the room there seems to be a bright light. Outside it must be sunny, but in the grimy room, on the other hand, everything is dark. We are in a prison full of dangerous characters and, perhaps, even the light doesn’t want to enter this place. Two men in black, sitting on one side of a table, are interviewing a young man in a prisoner’s outfit. They are Holden Ford and Bill Tench, the FBI agents of the Netflix series Mindhunter. They are talking with Montie Rissell, an unsavoury character who is in prison for having raped and killed five women. The camera frames them against the light, with a dark wall in the background, making it difficult to distinguish the outlines of their bodies.
Light is one of the fundamental tools for telling stories in cinema and television, and Mindhunter is a perfect example of this. Let’s compare two scenes from the fourth episode of the first season: the two meetings between the FBI agents and the serial killer. Even though they are shot in the same location, the same light conditions have been used to create two completely different situations, that reflect a radical change in the relationship between the characters. During the encounters the point of view of the audience is the same as the agent’s, who want to convince the prisoner to talk about himself, so that they can trace his psychological profile. The atmosphere of the interview is as we described at the top of the article: Montie is impervious, even hostile towards the two detectives, and the shadow across his face highlights his closure and his determination not to reveal himself. Backlit, the chiaroscuro effect renders him as a thorny character.
Montie is impervious, even hostile towards the two detectives, and the shadow across his face highlights his closure and his determination not to reveal himself.
The second time Holden and Bill change approach: they are more indulgent with Montie and try a softer approach to convince him to open up. Here the key word is ‘softer’: from the way the light strikes Montie, we can see a new attempt that will produce results. The prisoner’s face is lit with diffused lighting, that softens the features and suggests a different mood.
Light is one of the fundamental tools for telling stories in cinema and television, and Mindhunter is a perfect example of this.
The skill of the director and the director of photography lies in obtaining a different effect, without changing the ambient lighting conditions, but in working on the position of the characters and the camera. During the second interview Holden is sitting on the short side of the table, so that Montie can face the windows, whilst maintaining a natural posture. A sideways movement for Holden and a step forward for the narrative of Mindhunter.
(Screenshot from Netflix)