The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents February 2013 Return to Table of Contents
Zero Dark Thirty
Page 2
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Presidents Desk
Dean Semler, ASC, ACS
ASC Close-Up
DVD Playback

For the dailies, Digilab Services downloaded, processed and backed up the raw data each day in a mobile Codex Data Lab set up at a hotel near each location. During the course of principal photography, which lasted 63 days, three data-lab technicians collated almost 24 million raw images into two separate storage systems, a Codex Storage-10 Diskpack (10TB Raid-3 protected storage) and direct-attached SAS storage. Data packs were cleared and returned to set twice a day, and Fraser and colorist Rob May used Colorfront On-Set Dailies to view and grade the original 2880x1620 ArriRaw images each night. (May then transformed them to 1920x1080 Avid DNxHD MXF files for editorial.) Fraser was particularly pleased by the workflow because it was “a very hands-off digital department, which was important for how we were working.”

He notes that the movie, from a technical standpoint, “is essentially two parts: the raid on the bin Laden compound, and all things not the raid.” The latter include scenes set in CIA offices, at military bases, in interrogation facilities and in various public spaces around the world. For much of this work, the goal with lighting was simplicity. “We didn’t always know what lights we could acquire when we arrived at a location, so we wanted to keep it basic,” Fraser explains. “We traveled with our base set, mainly a Creamsource LED package [from Australia’s Outsight Lighting] that I really like. They are LEDs with a lot of punch — in my opinion, a 2-by-1 Creamsource is as strong as a 1.2K HMI — and they can run off battery power.

“We carried six of those units, and I could just about guarantee that in almost any location, they would give us the light we needed even if no other lights were available. Depending on where we were, we could occasionally get lights from local rental companies to augment what we had, but in general, we used the LEDs quite a bit for those portions of the movie.”

For the raid on the compound, says Bigelow, the goal was to create “the illusion of zero-light conditions for the objective camera,” which shows the action to the audience, and contrast that with the green-hued night vision of the Navy SEALs’ goggles. Thus, Fraser had to first design general night lighting for the exterior and interior of the compound, a set built to scale on location in Amman, Jordan, and then determine how to light and shoot the raid, which is shown mainly from the SEALs’ point of view.

The team shot most elements of the raid twice on location. “First, Greig created very low-light illumination to give the general idea of a moonless night, and that was the objective camerawork,” says Bigelow. “Then, when we switch to the night-vision view, we go to an almost-no-light configuration. That’s why we had to shoot it twice.”

The low-light work was keyed by two 40'x40' light boxes suspended over the compound courtyard by cranes. “Each box held 24 [Kino Flo] Image 80s, which had to be shipped to us by Warner Bros. Lighting in the U.K.,” says gaffer Perry Evans. “We rigged them on a scaffold hung from the cranes with Half Grid Cloth underneath them. We flew them about 70 feet above the set, with only four bulbs on most heads. We wanted to get enough of a glow that you wouldn’t think of it as full moonlight, but you would still be able to see. That allowed Greig to play with the temperature and crush it down a bit more, and he could tweak it even more later [in the DI].”

The goal was “some kind of toplight that would imitate a night ambience,” as if there were stars providing a very dull glow, says Fraser, who rated the Alexas at 160 ASA and 800 ASA for this work. “Cinematographers can create nighttime a number of ways, and we considered all of them,” he continues. “We tested a lot of things, and we looked at many references for low moonlight as well as references for day-for-night. None of it gave us the look we had in mind, so we instead settled on something that was more abstract. Our ‘night’ ended up being on the dim side, and very impressionistic.” He maintained a stop of T2 on these exteriors.

The interior of the compound also presented challenges because the occupants kill their lights when they realize they are under assault. Yet some kind of minimal light was needed to illuminate the action for the audience. “The compound was re-created to scale, foot by foot, without any higher ceilings or wider walls [to accommodate filming],” Fraser says. “It’s hard to put crew and lighting into those places, but Perry and his crew built thin LED sources that we could easily attach to ceilings just out of frame. Most of the time, that was all we used.”

“We built 8-by-4-foot screens of LEDs, frames that were really just chicken wire with LEDs stapled to it,” explains Evans. “There were eight LED strips, and 3 inches under them we added some Lee 216 diffusion so the light would seem directionless. It just sort of glowed. It was enough to give us a small hue in the room, it worked well with the Alexa, and we could dim it down enough that it didn’t look too bright with the night-vision lenses.”

Fraser and his team went to great lengths to devise a night-vision lensing system that would replicate the look and feel of military-issue night-vision goggles. “We tested a few different setups before we managed to source some night-vision devices and convert them to accept a PL mount,” says Fraser. “We weren’t allowed to use exactly what Navy SEALs use, of course, because that’s classified, but this was something similar. The image looks dirty, like there’s a bit of muck in the lens, and that makes the sequence feel quite real.”

The night vision was achieved with a combination of two image enhancers from Panavision and two scopes adapted from rifle night scopes Fraser sourced in Jordan; these were mounted between the camera and the lens. Infrared lights taken from some of the production’s prop security cameras were mounted on the cameras to provide what Fraser calls “invisible light” that the Alexa sensor could read in the dark with the addition of the adapted night-vision technology. “The infrared lights on those prop cameras were real, and we used them as little sources,” he says. “On film, you could not get an exposure rating on that because light meters can only read visible light, but in this format, they worked great. Kathryn and I did not want faux night vision, and this gave us a good image.”

Given the nature and style of the shoot, the DI process, handled by colorist Stephen Nakamura at Company 3, was particularly helpful to Fraser. In fact, he calls it “a lighting partner.” He notes, “We wanted the night-raid footage to be dark but balanced, to feel natural, unlit and moody. Stephen contributed a lot in helping us achieve the right balance for that footage, especially for the wide shots, where we had limited control. Although we had two big 40-bys over the house, they had to cover a very large surface area. In those wide shots, putting big cutters in to take light off entire walls would have been impossible, and getting a scenic artist to paint the wall a few tones darker wasn’t feasible on our schedule. By windowing in the DI, I was able to complete the lighting job I’d started months earlier in Jordan. Often, this was the final few percent needed to cap off the job.” l


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