The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Hirschfeld, ASC
Post Focus
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Harris Savides, ASC and director David Fincher plumb the depths of human obsession with Zodiac.

Unit photography by Merrick Morton, SMPSP
Most people remember the San Francisco Bay Area of the late 1960s for “flower power” and the Summer of Love. But as the decade came to a close, a grim nightmare unfolded in the counterculture mecca. On the night of December 20, 1968, two teens in the San Francisco-adjacent town of Benicia were brutally slain by a lone gunman. At midnight on July 4, 1969, another young couple was attacked in nearby Vallejo. On July 31, cryptic letters arrived at three Bay Area newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle; each contained part of a complex cipher. The writer warned that unless his coded messages were printed on the front page of each publication, “I will go on a kill rampage.” A followup letter soon arrived at the newspaper. Opening with the sentence “This is the Zodiac speaking,” the missive detailed the particulars of both crimes. The killer had given himself a name and stated his purpose: to taunt and terrify. The three-part cipher was soon solved, revealing a hate-filled manifesto. In all, he would communicate with such letters and codes on more than 20 occasions.  

One front-line observer to the unfolding story was Chronicle editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who began investigating the case after it became clear that harried law-enforcement officials — hampered by jurisdictional regulations, misleading evidence, and the emergence of more than 2,500 suspects — were powerless to unmask the killer. In 1986, Graysmith published his true-crime book Zodiac, which connected disparate clues for the first time and presented theories on the killer’s identity. This book formed the basis of the recently released film, photographed by Harris Savides, ASC for director David Fincher.  

In the film, Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), SFPD inspectors Dave Toschi and Bill Armstrong (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, respectively), and Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) are sucked into the Zodiac’s vortex. All four try to manage their growing obsession with the case, but soon find their lives inextricably intertwined with that of a madman. The case remains unsolved to this day.  

“I grew up on the East Coast, so I’d never heard of the Zodiac before this project,” says Savides, a New York native who had previously collaborated with Fincher on commercials and the features Seven (as an additional photographer; see AC Oct. ’95), and The Game (AC Sept. ’97). “I loved the Zodiac script, but I was concerned about the amount of non-cinematic information that had to be conveyed onscreen. There was so much exposition, just people talking on the phone or having conversations. It was difficult to imagine how it could be done in a visual way. I told David we had to figure out ways to make these scenes interesting and cinematic, but our solution was the opposite: to simply have faith in the material and present it truthfully.”  

A native of the Bay Area who has distinct memories of the Zodiac events, Fincher was not interested in repeating any of the techniques that he and Darius Khondji, ASC, AFC had used on Seven, a fictional serial-killer drama. “It was our hope not to be another one of those movies,” says Fincher. “Harris and I had done enough work on Seven to not redo that [style]. Part of the approach on Zodiac was to make it look mundane enough for people to accept that what they’re watching is the truth. We didn’t want to hype anything or design anything to be seductive.” To that end, the action in Zodiac is presented objectively, with the camera impassively documenting each scene. Savides notes, “It was hard to be subjective with this story, in part because of the amount of information we were trying to present, and because we never wanted to ‘become’ Zodiac. We never wanted that through-the-eyes-of-the-killer perspective. This movie is more about the men who spent a better portion of their lives trying to uncover the truth about who Zodiac was. So introducing that kind of subjective viewpoint would have been a cheap trick to garner attention.” Fincher concurs, “That would have turned the story into a first-person-shooter video game. We didn’t want to make the sort of movie that serial killers would want to own. Instead, we were interested in a Dragnet style: ‘Just the facts, ma’am.’”  

Zodiac was captured with Thomson’s Viper FilmStream high-definition (HD) video cameras, making it one of the first Hollywood features shot with the uncompressed-HD-to-drive digital-acquisition system. To find out how this process would affect his job on the set, Fincher first used the Viper on a series of commercial shoots. “[The concern] was mostly about workflow and how we were going to ingest the data,” says the director. “It was also about getting used to watching things through a 32-inch LCD HD monitor and being able to direct from that. The image is kind of flat and green, but it offers an immediacy that allows you to hone and shape the image. And it’s all in real time, so when you’ve shot the shot, you know you have it.”  

Unlike Fincher, Savides had limited experience with the Viper before shooting began. “My first use of it was on a Motorola commercial that David and I shot just before we started Zodiac,” he says. “The decision to use the Viper on Zodiac was not mine, but I embraced the challenge. I jumped onboard while David was working with Thomson and The Camera House on the data-storage issues. He wanted the camera to be more film-production friendly so the studio would be more comfortable about using the system on a project with this kind of budget. He also worked on designing the day-to-day tapeless workflow that would take our images through the post process and protect our digital negative. David was instrumental in doing all of that.”  

To familiarize himself and his crew with the Viper, Savides conducted tests designed “to push it beyond what it was capable of in order to understand where it would fail,” he says. “You can’t fully use something if you just work within safe parameters — that’s not a test. I didn’t get into all the minute details of the Viper to the extent that David did, because it was just an insane amount of information, and I’m not that guy. I was more concerned with how the camera would perform under the conditions we’d be shooting in. I just knew that the process involved shooting uncompressed RAW files, and that in the end, I’d be working with Technicolor to get the image out to film. We took our tests all the way through our workflow to release print, allowing us to shape the look of the movie before we initiated principal photography.  

“During the tests, I did as many things ‘wrong’ as I possibly could. I went against everything I was supposed to do with the camera. The first test was all about hard light, with a subject backlit by the sun, grossly overexposed and then underexposed — all the extremes I would do in testing any new film stock.” Another test involved two models, one dressed in white and standing against a black background and another dressed in black against a white background. Savides lit them with an array of key-to-fill ratios and photographed each setup with varying exposures.  

The cinematographer filmed out all of his test footage; one version was uncorrected, and the other was graded by colorist Stephen Nakamura at Technicolor Digital Intermediates (TDI). The footage was then taken to the release-print stage and projected onscreen in the 600-seat theater at the Directors Guild of America in West Hollywood. “That’s a pretty big screen, and I was quite impressed by what I saw,” Savides recalls. “I don’t think anybody in the room had seen what the Viper and the DI process could do with those kinds of extreme images on a screen that size; demos are usually done with very carefully controlled, perfectly shot images on relatively small screens, but this approximated the size of a good theater anywhere in the world. The screening was a great indicator of what the camera could do. I was impressed, but I was still concerned about the Viper in terms of the contrast it could deal with and especially the shoulder, because it did not perform as well with overexposure as it did in low-light situations. To gain more control, I could have dumbed the process down, lit everything very flat and gone into the post suite and played around with the RAW files, similar to what is going on in digital still photography now. In the end, I was happy with the images we were getting with our RAW files at TDI with Stephen Nakamura.”

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