The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents February 2013 Return to Table of Contents
Zero Dark Thirty
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Presidents Desk
Dean Semler, ASC, ACS
ASC Close-Up
DVD Playback

Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and shot by Greig Fraser, ACS, dramatizes the hunt for Osama bin Laden with a run-and-gun style.

Unit photography by Jonathan Olley. Photos and frame grabs courtesy of Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Cinematographer Greig Fraser, ACS emphasizes that director Kathryn Bigelow “really excels at the run-and-gun” method of filmmaking, and he experienced this firsthand on Zero Dark Thirty, which documents the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden and the 2011 covert op in Pakistan that successfully ended it.

Bigelow says she knew early on that accurately re-creating the events, particularly the nighttime raid on bin Laden’s compound, would be “no easy feat,” and she wanted a cinematographer “who possessed enormous confidence to go along with his skill.” She found that in Fraser, whose recent credits include Killing Them Softly (AC Oct. ’12), Snow White and the Huntsman (AC June ’12) and Let Me In (AC Oct. ’10). “Greig was a real lifeline on a difficult production,” says Bigelow, adding that their collaboration “had a spirited, wonderful, giving and generous quality to it.”

Bigelow’s last film, The Hurt Locker, was shot documentary style, mostly on Super 16mm, by Barry Ackroyd, BSC (AC July ’09). When she and Fraser began discussing Zero Dark Thirty, the director said she once again wanted a handheld, guerrilla-filmmaking feel to the production, and she was open to whatever format would work best. “I think the only format we didn’t talk about was Super 8,” recalls Fraser. “We even discussed prosumer cameras. I had tested various digital formats for Snow White and had a good idea about the pros and cons of each for a show like this one. Production was not going to be a linear affair; we would be shooting in India and Jordan largely without local support staff or a studio system nearby — in fact, we would be as far from technical support as we could get! So I wanted a tried and tested system that would be simple to use on location in a run-and-gun situation. Film is tried and tested, of course, but we were going to be in heat and dust and far from labs, often shooting in locations we hadn’t been able to scout, and often in very low light.”

These considerations led the filmmakers to opt for digital capture with Arri Alexa Plus and M cameras, which they rented from Panavision U.K. “In testing, we found the low-light capabilities of the Alexa to be quite amazing,” Fraser says. “The camera has a reach into shadows that film does not have, and a key portion of this movie takes place in the dead of night, with no motivation for light whatsoever. The raid on the bin Laden compound actually took place on a moonless night.

“We also had to deal with the harsh light of the Middle East for many scenes that are set in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so we had to be sure our format would work suitably well with highlights,” he adds. “The Alexa just made the most sense for this show because it works so well in both extremes.”

In choosing a format, Fraser had another important requirement: “an idiot-proof workflow” that would not impede the filmmakers during the shoot. He planned to run four handheld cameras for many scenes, and he believed a sophisticated video village was neither feasible nor conducive to the cracking pace the production required. He therefore asked Codex, Digilab Services of London, and video-assist company Video Hawks of Los Angeles to help devise a methodology that would allow Bigelow to view what was being shot in the least invasive way possible.

Video Hawks had just come off World War Z (shot by Robert Richardson, ASC), another Alexa show that also needed to work “light and tight and fast,” says Video Hawks co-owner Glenn Derry, and the company sent one of the custom backpacks developed for World War Z to Fraser’s camera crew in the U.K. so they could try it out. The pack was attached to a diving vest and held a Codex recorder, camera batteries, video transmitters and other accessories, with only one lightweight cable running to the camera head. “We decided that backpack was too heavy for our film, as it was going to be mainly handheld, so we had to come up with a lighter version,” recalls 1st AC Jake Marcuson. “After trying quite a few different packs, we decided on lightweight running packs. Each held a small plywood frame on which we mounted the Codex, two Gold Mount batteries and the transmitter.” The transmitter was either a short-range wireless unit or a longer-range Cobham Technical Services unit that could transmit the camera image to handheld Sound Devices Pix 240 monitors.

The running packs made it possible for the production to record ArriRaw while providing a wireless image for Bigelow and Fraser to view on handheld monitors. “On World War Z, we learned we could remove our camera operators from the video assist and do without an engineering village, and Zero Dark Thirty just took the idea to the next level,” says Derry. “They had four and sometimes five or six cameras going at a time, and Kathryn was able to have a wireless image in front of her at all times without worrying about the traditional video village. She didn’t need a video-assist operator; she could use the monitor in her hand to view [footage from] any of the cameras while she was running around with Greig.”

Marcuson says the running packs, which were worn by the grips and the first assistants, and sometimes by the camera operators, facilitated an impressive degree of mobility. “It was a pretty easy arrangement,” he says. “Keeping the cameras as light as possible was the main thing because the operators had them on their shoulders all day long, often for very long takes.”

Considering that the story covers over a decade and unfolds in several different countries, Bigelow was keen to keep the aesthetic realistic and “rigorous in terms of the journalistic imperative,” she says. “I’m drawn to material that tends to be journalistic, anyway, but in this instance, we also had the weight of reality imposed upon us. So, Greig and I and [production designer] Jeremy Hindle worked closely to find or create environments that were correct and respectful to story, reality and authenticity. To service the story and still maintain a kind of aesthetic coherence was a pretty tall order.”

To help accomplish that, Bigelow and Fraser decided early on to shoot with spherical lenses, mainly Cooke S4 primes. Because the material is so firmly rooted in reality, “it wouldn’t help,” says Fraser, if they went too wide or epic with the frame. He notes, “Anamorphic might have shown too much at times. This movie isn’t just the raid; there’s a narrative that leads up to the raid, and our lensing decisions had to consider both aspects of the story.” Panavision U.K. supplied the Cookes and an Optica Elite 150-520mm zoom lens, and Fraser rounded out the package with his own Optica Elite primes and Angenieux 25-250mm HP zoom.

Overall, says Fraser, his first digital feature was “less complicated than I expected it to be. We had the wireless system going all the time, Kathryn had the video feed all the time, and there was no recabling necessary. It was a simple system: when I had a picture up on the camera, so did the director.”

On the set, images were monitored in Rec 709 color space, and the filmmakers decided against choosing or creating look-up tables for the shoot. “We had other fish to fry!” says Fraser. “We had a lot of setups to get each day, quite a few cameras going, and lots of locations to tackle. Getting an image to the monitor was the priority rather than worrying about whether it was perfect color. Rec 709 gave us a nice image to broadcast, which was all we needed at that stage. Using the camera settings, we made a couple of small tweaks, like dialing out some of the green color temperature, but [Rec 709] formed the basis of the exposure and the look that was applied to the dailies.”


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