The American Society of Cinematographers

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

Northeast of San Francisco, the sun-drenched landscape surrounding Lake Berryessa provided the Zodiac with an unlikely hunting ground. But on September 27, 1969, clad in black and wearing an executioner’s hood, he bound and stabbed a young couple, Cecilia Shepherd (Pell James) and Bryan Hartnall (Patrick Scott Lewis). This chilling sequence was shot on a small island at Lake Berryessa, and staging it proved difficult; the production had to bring in several full-grown trees and other greenery to properly dress the area. “That was our first week of shooting, so we wanted to keep the crew very small,” recalls Savides. “Also, a large crew can quickly destroy a natural setting like that. It was pretty much just camera and crew and a few nets and diffusion frames to control the daylight. The placement of the camera is different in this scene, however: it’s close to the ground as the people are being stabbed. Most of the rest of the picture is shot almost tableau-style.”  

No fan of screen violence, Savides admits that he found Zodiac’s subject matter troubling. “I sometimes asked myself why I was there or why I even chose to work on the project. Sometimes you don’t know how graphic something is going to be, and you wonder if it could have been done in a different or less gratuitous way. But this film isn’t about titillation or exploitation; it’s trying to represent a story in a realistic way, and the story involves murder.”  

One incident that proved particularly tricky to re-create was the Zodiac’s murder of taxi driver Paul Stine (Charles Schneider) at the corner of Washington and Cherry streets in San Francisco. This was one of the few Zodiac killings to be observed by eyewitnesses, three teenagers in a nearby house. They immediately called the police, but the killer escaped the ensuing manhunt. “San Francisco is a notoriously difficult place to shoot,” says Fincher. “They have a lot of restrictions, especially on night shooting, and especially in the Presidio Heights area, where we were. And filming a movie about the city’s most famous unsolved homicide proved almost impossible. The city didn’t really want us there, and the homeowners on that street definitely didn’t want us there, so it wasn’t feasible to shoot the scene on location.”  

The solution was to shoot enough material on location to set the scene and then re-create the intersection elsewhere. Savides explains, “While shooting in San Francisco, we established the scene with a wide shot looking up the street to the corner where the cab pulls up, then we cut into the cab, and then the rest of the scene was filmed on an outdoor set at Downey Studios in Los Angeles. We basically built the street, sidewalk, corner and the façades of the two houses. We then put up a huge bluescreen and inserted the rest of the city in post.” After the production wrapped at the location, a team from Digital Domain arrived to shoot panoramic images of the area; these were later stitched together to create a 360° backdrop for the scene.  

“That was originally going to be a simple scene done with a locked-off camera, but at the last minute I decided it should all be done handheld,” says Fincher. “This is the only time we show an investigation of a crime scene, so I wanted the audience to be right there, walking through it with Toschi and Armstrong. I also wanted to have as much of it as possible in real time. But as the scene became more complicated, it called for more effects work: CG cars, CG police motorcycles, and all this matte work in the background. And it was pretty successful.”  

“The bluescreen was about 50-by-100 feet, and we shot there for about three nights,” recalls Strong. “Because only the extremely wide establishing shot was done in San Francisco, we didn’t have to closely match any location lighting. Basically, our streetlights were our sources and we just followed that. We put a 2K Blonde on a Condor and created a big pool of light over the cab.” Fincher adds, “Aside from the lighting on the bluescreen, I think the rest of the lighting was just a few of those 2Ks, our streetlights. Harris was shooting a little under, at about a T1.4 with a T1.6 prime, so we really kept that feeling of night.”  

After securing some leads, Toschi, Armstrong and Vallejo Police investigator Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas) confront their prime suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), at the factory where he works. As the officers question Allen, he takes control of the situation, taunting them with oblique admissions about bloody knives and flashing his wristwatch, an expensive timepiece made by the Swiss manufacturer Zodiac. “This is the only scene in which the camera becomes truly subjective,” Savides points out. “We have shots of the detectives looking at the watch, followed by point-of-view shots of everybody. The camera sequentially becomes everybody’s individual perspective. It’s a subtle thing, but it adds immensely to the anxiety level of the scene without us having to resort to more camera movement or quick cutting.” Fincher notes, “I talked a lot to our actors about how the camera would be used in this scene. I said, ‘We’re going to be watching you as you go through your realization process.’ I didn’t want them to have pre-decided anything about Allen. I just wanted the information to pile up and for people to come to their own conclusion that Toschi and Armstrong were hot on the right trail.”  

After screening a nearly finished cut of the picture, Savides observed that Fincher had introduced a degree of definition-adjustment to the interrogation scene. “It was kind of strange to my eye at first, but David might be right on the money,” he says. “It’s not exactly sharpening, but something else. I think it plays into the clarity we were trying to build into the cinematography, in that it makes you study the image more intently. This new vividness enhances this scene because it draws your eye even further into the drama. It’s unnerving and interesting.” This digital sharpening and noise-reduction work “was done with John Lowry at DTS Digital Images,” says Fincher. “It consisted of some up-rezzing of the 1920x1080 anamorphic images from the Viper, which we’d squeezed slightly to a 2.35:1 frame. By interpolating sub-pixel image information from multiple frames before and after each individual frame, DTS was able to able to up-rez and slightly sharpen the footage. HD is inherently a bit soft, and this helped it look a little more like film.” (Ed. Note: More information on this process will be published in next month’s Post Focus section.)  

Though one might suspect a digital feature would exploit the endless possibilities offered by the DI suite, Zodiac was not approached this way. “In prep, I did a lot of preliminary work in terms of what the data would look like after it had gone all the way to a release print,” says Savides. “By the time we got to the DI, we had most of our look down, so there wasn’t a lot of adjustment to be made. We controlled the contrast and did some color correction, but after that we were in the zone. I was away shooting American Gangster in New York by the time David and Stephen Nakamura started working at TDI, but they sent me some material to look at, and I was very pleased. David has a great eye, and Stephen is an amazing colorist.”

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