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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“When it came time to do close-ups, I tried to go with the mood of the scene, so I was often keeping the characters in silhouette or half-light,” he continues. “I usually try to avoid toplight because it’s not really pleasant on any actor’s face. I always try to get a modeling quality from my key light. Many times I would use a 45-degree angle for my key light, or a 90-degree sidelight. I hardly ever use backlight, because it looks unnatural unless the sun is directly behind the actors. I use fill light almost all the time, and I’m a great believer in it. Many people feel that with today’s film stocks, you don’t have to use fill because your ambient light basically gives you fill. Sometimes ambient light can look good, but sometimes that kind of light is not so great because it’s coming from the wrong angle — especially if it’s coming up from the floor. If the effect of ambient light isn’t good on the faces, then I would rather use fill light that comes from the direction of the camera. The nice thing about fill light is that it also gives you a little eyelight; even a very small amount of fill will show up in the actor’s eyes. To create fill on this picture, I would usually use a big source, like an HMI or a tungsten 5K or 10K, coming through a 4'x4' piece of diffusion material in a frame, like Rosco 216 or 250.”

To create moonlight effects for night scenes, Zsigmond usually used gelled HMIs, but he did employ a lighting balloon for one scene in which Bleichert hunts for clues around the Beachwood Canyon bungalows beneath the vintage “Hollywoodland” sign. The balloon, which contained six 1.2K HMIs, was gelled with 1/2 CTO. “To tell you the truth, it’s rather difficult to work with a balloon because it’s very hard to control the light,” Zsigmond opines. “If you go too high with it, it doesn’t give you enough light, and if you’re low, it can create too much light in some places.” In creating moonlight with standard fixtures, “I like to go just halfway toward a blue effect,” he says. “If I used an HMI, I’d warm it up with 1/2 gel. If I used a tungsten light, I would only put a 1/2 CTB on it. Using half correction on HMIs and half on tungstens makes it easy for me to avoid using filters on the lens. I don’t like to use filters in front of the lens too much.”

Zsigmond did apply some lens diffusion to scenes involving lead actresses Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank. Johansson plays Kay Lake, a woman living with Blanchard who becomes increasingly interested in Bleichert, and Swank plays a bisexual femme fatale who lures Bleichert into a series of torrid trysts. “I couldn’t possibly shoot such beautiful actresses without a diffusion filter on, because lenses are too sharp today and people don’t want to see raw faces,” he maintains. “My favorite diffusion filter is the Tiffen Soft/FX. I would go with a strength of 1/2 or 1, up to a maximum of 2, because that’s already very heavy; I try to be careful, because I don’t like the look of diffusion. If you watch any of my movies, you’ll never detect that I have the diffuser on. That would be bad, because we’re not in the Doris Day era! Many times, to make the cut better, I even use a bit of diffusion on the male actor, because otherwise the shots will not blend together.”

According to A-camera focus puller Alexander Bscheidl, Zsigmond’s primary lenses on the show were Angenieux’s 24-290mm and 17-102mm zooms, although he also employed an Arriflex Lightweight Zoom, as well as Zeiss Ultra Primes for situations involving multiple cameras, longer-lens compositions or Steadicam work by operator Jaromir Sedina. “I like zoom lenses — I have since my days with Robert Altman,” says Zsigmond. “You have all of the lenses you need in a zoom; I don’t like changing lenses all the time, so it’s very convenient. Also, there are many times when I like to change the size of the lens during a shot, especially on dolly shots. When you use a zoom, you don’t have to build the dolly track so precisely to suit a particular lens. Many times when you’re shooting with a standard lens, you’ll make a little mistake and realize the dolly should have ended up a bit closer to the actor. With a zoom lens, I can accomplish everything easily, because I can start at 24mm and go to a 27mm or 30mm. Or I can keep the dolly and zoom moving and end up in a close-up. For me, all the conveniences of using a zoom are unbeatable. Some of the directors I’ve worked with never liked the zoom before we worked together, but they started to like it when they saw how convenient it was and how much faster we could work. Plus, the lenses are so good now that zoom lenses are really almost as sharp as standard lenses. Some of them are even so sharp I have to use diffusion on them!”

As an aside, Zsigmond points out that The Black Dahlia includes a number of split-diopter shots, one of DePalma’s favorite special techniques. “Brian doesn’t like to use techniques that are very obvious, and I don’t see that particular technique as being manipulative because in real life, the human eye can see both foregrounds and backgrounds,” he says. Getter adds, “Split-diopter shots are always a bit tricky, especially when you’re shooting moving actors from a moving dolly and you want to keep two different focal planes sharp at all times. Those particular shots took a lot of time and calculation, but we always managed to pull them off.”

Because the show’s main production company, Nu-Image, had its own supply of Arriflex cameras, Zsigmond shot with Arricam Studios and Lites and used Arri 435s for high-speed work. He encouraged DePalma to shoot in 3-perf Super 35mm (2.35:1) for both practical and economic reasons, and used Kodak Vision2 500T 5218 as his sole film stock. By opting for Super 35 over anamorphic, he could employ spherical lenses, which gave him a bigger stop for the film’s low-light situations. Zsigmond also knew 3-perf would save money in terms of film costs and developing, savings that could later be applied to the show’s 4K digital intermediate (DI) at LaserPacific. “I realize now that if we hadn’t done a DI, I could not have done as good a job with the period look,” says Zsigmond, who adds that The Black Dahlia was his first experience in a DI suite. “With the DI, you don’t lose anything [in the final transfer] like you did when it was an optical step. Another advantage of the DI is that all of the dissolves, fade-ins, fade-outs and special effects can be incorporated when you’re actually doing the scanning, which means you’re not losing a generation when you go from regular footage into the opticals.

“The 4K scan was the selling point for me,” Zsigmond continues. “I told Brian that the only way I would do the movie in Super 35 was if we could go 4K; I didn’t think 2K would be good enough because Super 35 has a smaller negative size than anamorphic. Brian really loves the anamorphic format, so I had to convince him we wouldn’t lose much image quality by shooting in Super 35 with a 4K scan. That’s how we ended up at LaserPacific — they were willing to give us 4K at a good price. The DI was absolutely a budget consideration; I had to promise I wouldn’t get too fancy, and that I wouldn’t spend five or six weeks doing the work. I knew that if I lit the movie properly, I wouldn’t have to spend as much time on the DI. In the end, the grade took about 14 days.”

Colorist Mike Sowa confirms that LaserPacific was eager to tackle the 4K process on Dahlia, not only because of the project’s prestige, but also because it gave the facility the chance to streamline its DI workflow. “At that point, we had only done 2K projects,” says Sowa. “We had some limitations in terms of 4K — data storage, rendering time, and the amount of time it takes to record to negative, which is a very slow process when you’re dealing with 4K files. On Black Dahlia, we were able to smooth out some of those issues.”


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