The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Hirschfeld, ASC
Post Focus
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up

A few other aspects of the Viper were of immediate concern to Savides. “I didn’t like the viewfinder, the umbilical cord to the recorder, or the need for a digital-imaging technician just so you can turn the camera on. But someone’s got to start using these systems to help make them better, and, of course, film has its problems, too. Nothing is perfect. But what is the net gain of shooting digitally? So far, from my perspective, any benefit of using digital cameras lies in postproduction, not production. In the future, I see smaller, better cameras; fewer crewmembers needed to service them; and a method of production that’s freer and less encumbered by technology. But that’s not the situation right now.  

“The Zeiss DigiPrime lenses we used were fantastic,” Savides continues. “They’re made for the 2/3-inch chips used in digital cinematography, so they’re supposedly optically superior to normal lenses. I can’t attest to that, but I was impressed. I especially liked the [6-24mm and 17-112mm] zooms in terms of their clarity and light-gathering ability. They performed well wide open.”  

Savides is known for working at low light levels, and the Viper’s increased depth of field was an additional reason to remain at the bottom of the lens. “That was one way to reduce depth of field, so we’d often use NDs and shoot wide open whenever possible,” he says. He didn’t use any onboard camera adjustment to help in the effort. “As I understand it, that would be defeating the whole point of shooting 4:4:4. Any kind of manipulation would have created some level of compression, and we weren’t entirely sure what our post process was going to be, so capturing a clean, full-resolution image and protecting it was vital. The only filtration we used were NDs and a Lee 20 CC magenta filter to compensate for the green bias of the RAW files.”  

Chris Blauvelt, Savides’ 1st AC, notes, “We also played the focus to adjust where our focal range was carrying. In scenarios where we wanted to let a distracting background to go soft — like if Jake was sitting in a restaurant booth and the fabric of the booth was taking the attention away from him — we’d determine the depth of field and just focus some distance ahead of Jake, so his face would be at the outer edge of what was sharp. We did that pretty often. The DigiPrimes’ added depth of field was just something we had to get used to, but I certainly prefer reducing depth rather than having too little to play with.” He adds that the Viper’s ability to employ an Arri follow-focus and other standard attachments also made his job easier. “But another thing we had to pay attention to was the back-focusing mechanism on the DigiPrimes, which needed checking whenever we changed lenses or went from inside to outside. Temperature also affects it.”  

For Blauvelt, who has extensive experience with film cameras, the operation of the Viper “was a bit of a mystery at times, because it’s an electronic thing that has no moving parts. If there’s a problem of some sort, you turn it off to reboot it, and when you turn it back on, it magically works. I felt I had to have a lot of faith in our technical support, which was a little unnerving. But on the whole, the Vipers ran great and we got the job done.”  

Addressing his overall experience with the Viper, Savides offers, “I would advise anyone thinking of using it to test it for his specific project, just as he should any camera. My ideal would be for Thomson to come up with a modular version of the Viper with different imaging-chip sets, one set for highlights and one for the toe, just as we can choose different film stocks for different situations. There is no all-around film stock, so how can we expect a single digital camera to do everything?”  

Asked if the imperative on Zodiac was to make the digital images look “like film,” Savides replies, “That was in my mind’s eye, but I don’t know if I’m necessarily right. Should a movie look like film or like something else? It’s subjective. The Viper does give the images an almost hyper-real quality that might work for this particular film. However, I also tried to go against that look a bit because Zodiac is a period film, and the audience has some impression of what [the Seventies] looked like.” The colors, tones and designs of that period — as documented in the photography of Stephen Shore and William Eggleston — “became our bible. We specifically referenced Shore’s work from the early Seventies, which was more naturally lit. We also worked from a lot of photos in the actual Zodiac police files.  

“To my eye, the Viper’s digital images have a synthetic quality that is at odds with what we were trying to do,” Savides continues. “It’s hard to put an audience in a darkened theater and screen ‘reality’ for them, because the whole thing is a falsehood. But if you have a synthetic image like the Viper’s — which reminds me a bit of the vivid, colorful look of a cibachrome photo — you’re taken right out of the story. I wanted to give the image a patina, to remove the newness. However, that vivid, hyper-real quality may also work to bring a psychological tension to the surface, since we have these characters searching and trying to see something that’s just beyond their vision. With the Viper, the audience will see more than what they normally see in a movie — literally, the pores on people’s faces and every hair on their heads — so it may have an almost immersive effect. Your eye can search the frame as all this information, the facts of the case, come at you.”  

“Harris initially thought the image looked a little ‘plastic-y,’ but I thought that helped us,” says Fincher. “The slight video effect is more synonymous with the nightly news than 35mm anamorphic is, and I liked the idea of having that patina on the faces. Also, we didn’t need to use makeup the same way; we could easily [use Shake in post to] fix microphones coming into picture; and we did hundreds of TV-monitor composites [with bluescreen]. All that stuff was easier than it would have been if we’d shot on film. I think the ‘waxiness’ Harris describes and the problems with the Viper — like having so much daylight coming into the lens that it prevented us from actually making an image — came to support what we were doing with this particular film. It feels like a news report, not a Hollywood movie.”  

In the end, says Savides, “I lit Zodiac just as I would any feature I’ve shot on film. Where the light comes from and how you model it doesn’t change because you’re using a different camera. But the sensitivity of the Viper and how you can learn to light by eye was interesting. Once I got used to it, I rarely used meters and got used to looking at the image on those high-end monitors. The shadow detail was quite good, but the [images] weren’t truly representative of what we were getting, so I had to mentally adjust for the difference based on our tests. I’d liken it to using a Hazeltine monitor to adjust printer lights — you’re not looking at a true image, but a representational one, and you have to learn how to read it to get what you want.”

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