The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Savides strove to achieve the desired look in camera, as opposed to saving that work for the DI suite. “On this movie, I think that was the right thing to do. We were looking for naturalism. This goes back to the idea of creative restraint. You can’t try to dazzle the audience while characters are talking, so you can’t have the camera spinning around them. In fact, we rarely moved the camera and never used a Steadicam or tried to create any artificial pizzazz. What for? Are we trying to show how clever we are, or are we trying to tell a story? The audience has to listen, and that’s a conundrum: you’re trying to be visually interesting without obscuring the information the audience needs to absorb. There’s even a sort of visual banality that’s appropriate to the story; what the investigators are doing is tough, banal work, not what you generally see in the movies. Nevertheless, after day 30, I was asking myself if we were on the right path! I was worried our approach could result in a boring movie, but we just had to have faith in the script and the dogma we’d designed.”  

Zodiac opens with grand images of Fourth of July celebrations and then cuts to a long, voyeuristic tracking shot filmed from a car cruising through a dimly lit suburban neighborhood. Punctuating the mundane milieu are celebratory barbecues, children playing and backyard pyrotechnics. This shot quickly establishes how night will be depicted in Zodiac, as the shadows are dark but retain immense detail. Even the illumination of a single match lighting a cigarette is enough to reveal far more. “The lighting of that tracking shot was quite simple,” says Savides. “A lot of it amounted to asking the people in the neighborhood to leave their lights on, but we did light some of the houses if we didn’t like the practicals that were there. We used fixtures I like to call ‘covered wagons’: batten strips with porcelain sockets and bulbs covered with chicken wire and then muslin or tracing paper. We also put some lights in the backyards, either bounced or direct. The lighting was also checkerboarded along the street. We basically lit every house and then, while doing trial runs, started turning lights off depending on what looked good. Finally, there was a 20K in a Condor at the end of the run, on camera left, sidelighting the whole scene and giving it an edge.”  

“Harris is all about naturalism,” says chief lighting technician Chris Strong. “Nothing looks lit, and how it registers to your eye on set is exactly how it looks onscreen. Some people try to do this by simply using practicals, but I don’t think that works, because by the time you get a good stop that source will be totally blown out. Harris uses motivation and direction to make the lighting invisible.” Savides adds, “I used to be much more selfish earlier in my career — it was all about me and my lighting! I was just interested in making something look great, but I see now that it’s about what’s best for the story.”  

The perspective of the tracking shot remains a mystery until the car stops and a skinny teen, Mike Mageau (Lee Norris), eagerly approaches. We see that the driver is Darlene Ferren (Ciara Hughes), his companion for the night. They drive to an isolated lover’s lane and park. “As is the case in those kinds of places, the lighting came primarily from a light pole we put up on camera right, topped with an open-faced 2K Blonde,” says Savides. “That motivated everything. For the closer shots of the two inside the car, we used another 2K on a boom arm and brought it in closer and lower. For a little fill, I had another light bounced into a Griffolyn in front of the car and then a balloon flying overhead, just to camera left, to provide some low ambience through the trees. Finally, way down the road that ran across the background, we set up a 10K in a Condor to suggest another streetlight some distance away, hitting the trees.”  

The couple is interrupted by a car that pulls up behind their vehicle, blinding them with its headlights. A dark figure carrying a powerful flashlight approaches. Assuming it’s a police officer, the two reach for their IDs. Suddenly, five gunshots ring out, severely wounding the teens. The gunman retreats to his car, but after hearing Mageau moan in agony, he returns and fires two more rounds into each victim.  

The action moves to the Chronicle offices, where Graysmith, toiling on his daily editorial cartoon, observes as the Zodiac makes his initial threats to the press and, by extension, the public. The newsroom set was built in downtown Los Angeles in the Terminal Annex building, under the guidance of production designer Donald Graham Burt and art director Keith P. Cunningham. “Because the set was so vast and some of the shots we wanted were quite wide, we needed to light it primarily with hanging practicals, using very little fill,” says Savides. “Don supplied us with fluorescent fixtures that gave us a bounced-light quality and some diffused direct light. We used Cool White tubes and then had some controlled daylight coming through the windows, augmented by HMIs.” Strong adds, “We had some huge windows on the south and west sides of the room, and in order to control the daylight our riggers built a large tent over the south windows, and we put in some 18Ks. Because we were shooting in winter, the sun never really got very hard on the western exposure, so we just used some NDs to balance things and then added some lamps when it got dark.”  

“With the Viper, low-angle shots aimed right up into the fluorescents were tough,” notes Savides. “The difficulty was in controlling the look and not letting those sources overexpose. We were shooting with multiple cameras, so I had to figure out how to beef up the exposure around the actors — allowing me to stop down a bit — while staying true to my sources and also keeping fixtures clear in the wider shots. It was a weird, frustrating balancing act. Incidentally, it would have been much easier to do if we’d been shooting on film — the shoulder is a weak spot on the Viper.” Part of the solution was to position show cards below the actors or bounce additional light into the ceiling closer to the cameras. “That got something back into their faces,” says Savides, “but we had to keep it simple, because we had to keep moving and [the light] had to feel ambient. It couldn’t be directional, so we were limited in what we could do.”  

The naturalistic look Fincher and Savides had in mind enabled the cinematographer to dispense with unmotivated cosmetic lighting and focus on lighting the environments. “That’s something I’ve been doing much more of recently. Earlier in my career, I spent a lot more time on cosmetic lighting, but now I prefer to motivate the lighting of the actors based on the room they’re in. We exist in spaces that are lit; you don’t suddenly get special lighting when you walk into a room. That’s my take on reality in lighting, and I start from there.”

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