David Fincher and the Art of Crafting Music Videos

How Madonna and Aerosmith helped create the director’s signature aesthetic.

Like Athena, Greek goddess of intelligence and wisdom, was born fully-grown, so too was David Fincher introduced to the world as a completely realized director. Even though Alien 3 wasn’t the best debut – which wasn’t Fincher’s fault, it’s owed to studio bullshit – the industry and audiences alike were still excited by the arrival of this dark new talent with his noir-like use of light and tension, and his cold, almost mechanical dissection of characters. Se7en was a grade-A, indisputable home run, this time because Hollywood had figured out that Fincher was no mere journeyman, he was an auteur and as such his films should be left as much to his sole discretion as possible.

But how does something like this happen? Most directors, even the greats, take years to hone their personal aesthetic. The Kubrick who made Fear & Desire is not the same as the director who made Full Metal Jacket, like the Scorsese who made Mean Streets isn’t the same director who made The Departed. But Fincher’s filmography has had an aesthetic and storytelling consistency he’s maintained from his first film to his most recent, which is not to say he’s a one-note director, not at all, rather he’s a conductor who stays with the same visual and narrative orchestra because he’s tuned it so finely across the decades that he can coax masterpieces from it every time it plays.

According to Patrick Willems, the secret to Fincher’s big screen success comes from the years he spent working on a smaller stage, specifically in the realms of commercials and music videos. Me personally, the first time I remember being affected by the style of Fincher it was the “Janie’s Got a Gun” video for Aerosmith: off-kilter angles, seedy subject matter, flashlight beams cutting through the darkness – I didn’t know what I was looking at but I knew it wasn’t a music video, it was a short film. It would be years before I knew the name of David Fincher but when I saw Se7en for the first time, I knew I was watching the same guy.

Willems has put together the following, absolutely outstanding video essay tracing Fincher’s small-screen legacy and examining the craft he applied there and how it transferred to Hollywood so effectively. Most of us know of Fincher’s origins, but Willems employs an expert’s eye to explain why they are so very, very important. This is must-watch.

More to Read: