The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents September 2006 Return to Table of Contents
Black Dahlia
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The interior sets built within the former factory included a police station, a portion of City Hall, several nightclub interiors, the houses and apartments of various characters, a seedy motel, and many offices. Exterior sets built at other locations in Bulgaria included the murder site, a stretch of Hollywood Blvd. (which did double duty as a street in East L.A.), six Beachwood Canyon bungalows, and two boxing rings (one of which was built in an ice-hockey arena). Back in L.A., the production built a diner on a beach in San Pedro and newspaper-office interiors, and also lent a Forties look to a block of the real Hollywood Blvd. in front of the Pantages Theatre.

The Black Dahlia opens in spectacular fashion with a sequence depicting the infamous Zoot Suit Riots of June 1943, a vicious outbreak of hand-to-hand violence on the streets of East L.A. that pitted U.S. military soldiers and sailors against Mexican-American youths. Ferretti and his team built the “East L.A. street” in an unfinished development just outside Sofia, where only the sidewalks had been completed. (This set was later converted into a stretch of Hollywood Blvd., and the opposite side of the same street was redressed as the murder site.) The riot scene begins with a shot of a burning palm tree and glides down to street level to sweep viewers right into the fighting. After dollying down the street through the action, the camera zooms into a side alley, where hard-nosed cop and former boxer Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) rushes to the aid of Sgt. Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). Their friendship — and partnership —ensues.

The riot and other scenes afforded DePalma prime opportunities to cover action in one continuous shot, a tactic he generally prefers to traditional coverage. Zsigmond enthuses, “What I like about Brian is that he has the courage to do a shot that’s two minutes long, and if it’s well-choreographed you end up with a really classic sequence. As a cameraman, you enjoy doing those shots, because when you’re finished you’re so proud that you managed to photograph something that was so difficult to do. It also looks great on the screen, because there aren’t so many cuts; I hate watching movies that have lots of cuts. If Brian can do something in one shot, he will. He never does the usual, boring stuff. He knows when he needs an extreme close-up, but over the course of an entire movie he’ll only go to an extreme close-up maybe 10 times. That way, they have more impact.”

To capture the riot scene, the filmmakers dollied a SuperTechnocrane along a track that ran the length of the street. When the shot reached the end of the track, they took advantage of the crane’s telescoping arm to move the camera into the alley with the two hero cops. Gaffer Nimi Getter, who has worked with Zsigmond on and off since 1992’s The Long Shadow (the cinematographer’s only attempt at directing), estimates that 40 percent of the film’s scenes were done as continuous shots. He expresses admiration for DePalma’s free-flowing style: “We were only supposed to use the SuperTechnocrane for the riot scene and one other scene, but Brian liked it so much that we kept it until the end of the shoot, since we only had a few days left in the schedule — and he took full advantage of its unique capabilities. Some people have a lot of equipment lying around the set, but often they won’t use it or will use it for things you could accomplish more easily with simpler methods. On this show, we used equipment to do things that only those pieces of equipment could do, which was nice.”

In lighting this street set, Getter says he and Zsigmond “exhausted the entire equipment supply of Bulgaria” and also employed additional lighting equipment that had been shipped from Mole-Richardson and other facilities. “We had lots of Dino lights, lots of cranes, miles of cables, you name it. The set dressings that Dante and his people created were incredible — all the marquees and neon signs looked completely real. We had to use one generator just for that stuff! Then, of course, we had to bring in our own streetlights, which were numerous. We used Dinos mostly for backlight or three-quarter backlight, but we also used many 10Ks, 5Ks and smaller units to light the sides of the buildings and shape the architecture. There were a lot of fires burning during the riot scene, and we augmented those by creating a variety of flicker effects on the Dinos and on small 1K and 2K units that we hid around the set.”

The SuperTechnocrane is also showcased in a grand reveal of the Dahlia’s corpse, a shot staged as a vertical crane move that culminates in a God’s-eye view of the murder site. The early-morning scene begins with a shot of the two detectives in their squad car. The camera then rises up the side of a nearby building and over the roof to reveal the corpse in the distance. The ambitious shot doesn’t end there, as Zsigmond details: “A woman starts screaming, and we follow her to the next street over, where we see a bicyclist go by. Then we pan to the original street where the cops are, with the crane still high up. The camera eventually drops and tilts down to show a truck driving by and a couple of principals walking in the street. Taken as a whole, the shot establishes the entire geography of the scene, and it goes on forever; it’s a beautiful, beautiful shot. Everything had to be just right — the timing, the choreography, the driving. The 1st and 2nd ADs had to give cues while Brian was watching the video monitor, and it took us about six tries to get it just right. Someone other than Brian might have shot the scene in the standard way, with a wide establishing shot and then a person walking by the body, but we don’t even go close to the body in our shot.”

No less ambitious were the scenes shot on Ferretti’s interior sets, which presented a variety of logistical difficulties. The production designer notes that the cavernous space was often “freezing cold,” and Getter reveals that the structure was hardly an ideal place to create a soundstage: “When we saw it for the first time, it was completely run-down. The windows and skylights were broken, and we had to use miles of black plastic to cover them. Also, there wasn’t really any way to hang lights. Fortunately, we didn’t really have to do that, because most of the sets had hard ceilings that we rarely removed; if we did hang anything, it was inside the sets themselves. Sometimes we cut holes in the ceilings to accommodate lights, but most of the time we just let them be.”

One of the most important sets was the spacious police department, which was dressed with Venetian blinds that allowed Zsigmond to create the hard slashes of light that have always been a classic motif of film noir. “The fixtures you see in that set were not really lighting anybody in the day scenes,” notes Zsigmond. “They were just decorative, because we needed much more light than they could provide.” Getter and his crew lit the set through the windows with a row of HMIs of varying intensities that included 18Ks and 12Ks; when lighting from inside the room, they deployed 6Ks or smaller units. Smoke was added to enhance the shafts of light. “For the night scenes, we based the lighting on the practicals that were in the set,” Getter adds. “There were fluorescents hanging overhead that we fitted with good Osram tubes, and lamps on all of the desks. Those were our main sources of light.”

“On this picture, I used directional light as much as I could, and that allowed me to create shadows because I could cut it more easily,” says Zsigmond. “We mainly used Mole-Richardson lights with Fresnel lenses in them. I used the barn doors on the fixtures to create soft shadows, and flags to create hard shadows. Many times we used dimmers when we had characters moving from one room to another.

 

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