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The Search for Osama bin Laden, and the Cinematography and Sound Design of 'Zero Dark Thirty'

One of the more controversial films to be released this year (at least according to the news media and members of the CIA and U.S. Congress), Zero Dark Thirty is the story of the search for Osama bin Laden and the people responsible for finding him. The film is the first from Kathryn Bigelow since her Academy Award winning The Hurt Locker. The movie is getting attention for obvious reasons (and we’ve already got to hear from the screenwriter, Mark Boal), but it’s also being made in a way that few other Hollywood projects could even come close to replicating. We’ve got an in-depth look at the sound design, as well as some words from the Director of Photography Greig Fraser, ACS, about shooting on the Arri Alexa with practically no lights on set — plus, a bonus interview with one of the lead actors, Jessica Chastain.

If you haven’t seen it, here’s the final trailer and a teaser trailer for the film:

Here is a scene from the film:


My first thought upon seeing some of this material for the first time a few months ago was that the film was shot on actual celluloid. Since Kathryn Bigelow had shot rather cheaply on Super 16mm for the last film, it made sense that she might choose 35mm for the next project as it is quite a bit bigger in scope. However, upon reading a Creative Planet Network piece on the cinematography, it made perfect sense that this is a film that couldn’t really have been shot any other way on any other format than the Arri Alexa.

Here is Director of Photography Greig Fraser on shooting the film, from a post on Creative Planet Network:

Fraser elaborates, “I’ve found that if you’re illuminating big areas at night, you need really big sources. That doesn’t necessarily mean powerful sources, but they have to be big. So for the exterior, we ran two 40×40-foot softboxes with 25 [Kino Flo] Image 80s in each.

“I hadn’t shot a night scene with the Alexa,” he continues. “We’d done testing, but you really don’t know exactly what lighting you need until you’re actually there, so my gaffer and I had to guess how many of these Image 80s we’d need to put inside the softboxes, which would be suspended on cranes 200 to 300 feet in the air. You always want to overestimate—you never want to be stuck on set without enough light to shoot. But we flew the softboxes and turned on the 25 units, and it was way too much light. We often ended up going with just a single Image 80, and we sometimes had to pull tubes from that! So we’re talking about a 40×40 softbox with just three or four fluorescent tubes. We still had a big, broad, soft source, but it was amazing how little light we could use.”

If you weren’t already convinced about digital cinematography on a Hollywood scale, that should probably be enough right there. This is a movie that would have felt very different with film. You wouldn’t have been able to get away with such little light because there wouldn’t have been as much dynamic range in the shadows, so you would be compensating with lighting that you’d probably have to bring down in post — which was far away from what director Kathryn Bigelow wanted. Every step of the way she put her actors in realistic situations to take away the artifice of filmmaking as much as possible. For example, the building where the final raid takes place, was as close a replica as possible to the real building in Pakistan, and it was built without removable walls and ceilings. Fraser had to compensate for this by figuring out where to put lighting so that it wouldn’t interfere with shooting, and his crew rigged up some LED lights on the ceiling to provide enough illumination just to make the action visible.

They also experimented quite a bit with real night vision effects:

The filmmakers experimented with some in-camera and post techniques to add the signature greenish tint without actually having to shoot night vision, but it was no use. None of it looked realistic enough. So Fraser’s team got hold of real night vision devices and fashioned a PL mount for them. “This went on the Alexa,” Fraser says, “and your Cooke goes on the front of that. It worked quite well.”

Fraser appropriated some small security cameras with little infrared lights that had been used merely as props for a scene set in the American embassy. “I borrowed these mockup security cameras,” Fraser says, “and we wired them up and suddenly we’ve got this on-camera light that’s invisible to the eye but looks like its blasting light through the night vision lens. It worked very well.”

The cinematography wasn’t the only part of the filmmaking process that had to adhere to the strict realism standards (as compared to most Hollywood films). The sound design also had to be as close to the real thing as possible — with some liberties taken for dramatic effect. Here is SoundWorks Collection with the sounds of Zero Dark Thirty:

We’ve also got a great DP/30 interview with Jessica Chastain (who plays Maya) about the film. It’s interesting to listen to Chastain’s process, as it sounds very much like theater-based preparation — creating a full backstory and sculpting a complete character. She also has some great advice for actors about not losing yourself to the character, even when that character is obsessed with their own work:

What do you guys think? Has anyone seen the film yet (it has opened in limited release)? What do you think of the cinematography from the clips provided? How about the sound design? What do you think about the way they are shooting the film and is this something you’ve ever tried to do in your own work?

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  • It does look fabulous. Natural, realistic while still “cinematic”. This, Pi and Skyfall I believe have sealed film’s (and to a large degree the EPIC’s) fate. All three look absolutely incredible in 4K.

    ZDT is a very very good film. Sound work brilliant, music excellent, Chastain off the charts good. Master filmmaking.

    • domenic barbero on 12.26.12 @ 3:55PM

      Alexa only shoots in 2k. And im relatively sure none of these films have had an up res’d 4k master made nor shown anywhere. Epic still outperforms Alexa in almost every arena other than latitude and workflow. Regardless of the camera though, its all about who is behind it. Most Alexa dp’s are guys who have had extensive work with 35mm and chose to stick with Arri, creating great images, while many RED owners/ops/dps, are indie guys with less experience. Though there have been several shot on RED that rival Alexa. Just my two cents.

      • Um, all of the above films were uprezzed to 4k. All of them. Prometheus, the last major film shot in EPIC was posted completely in 2K, then uprezzed to 4k for DCP. We do it all the time.

        The EPIC is a great camera – just as more DPs work to the Alexa’s strengths, I can see more jobs flowing away from it. Compare Deakin’s work on In Time vs Skyfall. He’s got that cam humming now.
        Pi was the big one – 3D was purely PACE/EPIC for a while there. The Hobbit not helping Red’s case either (also 90% posted at 2k).

        DPs/Cam Ops will always try to shoot their favorite cams, but a sentence like the one above (‘we only used one light’) turns producers on like mad. Plus, you know, those films look incredible.

        And quality sadly is only one of the factors – studios tend to follow the money. I know for a fact a spreadsheet exists that totals box-office for every camera and every format and is brought out in pre-prod.

        • the hobbit wasn’t the latest major film shot on an epic? Also I don’t think uprezzed to 4k makes much difference. A dvd in a blu- ray player is still a blu-ray…you can’t create information that wasn’t there to begin with.

          • It makes a big difference. If you sit too close to a 2k projection you can see the pixel structure. It looks digital. If you upres 2k material and project it at 4k the pixel structure becomes invisible. While the resolution on paper wont be better. The viewing experience will be.

          • Jerome – I do reference the Hobbit. How’s the feedback on that going?
            Prometheus I mention as it has gone all the way through its release cycle, and it was thought to look good.
            They are uprezzed for 4K digital projection, not Blu-ray mastering.
            With Prometheus, the Blu-Ray master was made from the 2K file.

            Let me repeat – the EPIC is a fine camera, that has/is making excellent films. Just there are a growing number of visually arresting, successful films piling up under the Arri banner, with DKR and Les Mis the major players keeping film on the table.

            The barrier to 4K, or 6K workflows on major studio pics is effects work. Once that changes (and it is) RED may be back in the center of the game.

            None of this applies to pics under $30M by the way. Less money, more choice. :-)

            Also, see ZDT. Its great.

          • feed back on what going? I was just asking a simple question. I thought maybe prometheus was shot after the hobbit or some weird thing like that. Why would I think that? Mainly because you said “Prometheus, the last major film shot in EPIC was posted completely in 2K, then uprezzed to 4k for DCP. We do it all the time.” So i guess the feedback is that you are a jerk…
            And I know we aren’t talking about mastering to blu-ray. I was merely trying to illustrate a point.

      • I do get you point re owner/operators. You are exactly right.
        But you can get used Alexas now for under $50k. And a lot more will hit the market when the Alexa Studio M is more fully available.
        Personally I love the EPIC. Would I buy one, even with the new price? No.

        • domenic barbero on 12.27.12 @ 3:19AM

          I thought that if you uprezzed 2k to 4k, the picture becomes worse and softer. Creating pixels that werent there to start. Like if you took 480p and blew it up to 1080p, it would look terrible right? Ive never seen anything personally projected with a 4k master, I thought they were only showing true 4k masters in very small numbers.

    • AD Stephens on 12.28.12 @ 3:03PM

      I agree, it looks fantastic, but I don’t see why 35mm can’t co-exist alongside Alexa or Epic or whatever as just another valid filmmaking tool. Surely it’s testament to the quality of film that cameras such as Alexa or Epic are still striving to achieve the same level of quality and the same organic feel regarding skin tones and highlights?

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those ‘I hate digital, FILM4LYF’ people you come across, I love digital. I love working with Alexa, working with Epic is ok but it always throws up some problem where there should be no problem, but there’s still something about how 35mm can look, the way the sharp points of focus roll off into the bokeh, the grain, the detail but at the same time a level of softness, that digital is yet to achieve. Shooting Alexa and throwing on a 1/4 ProMist isn’t quite the same. But then digital has its place as well, you get insanely-close-to-how-it-will-look monitoring with LUT’s (if you choose), you get dailies within an hour or so of shooting, you get an image that’s pretty damn close to film, and now I guess you can get more resolution (although the DP that shot Rust and Bone on Epic wanted a 2K projection at Cannes because it looked ‘too defined, too digital, too hard’).

      It’s good to see a load of features still being shot on film, and I hope it doesn’t fall into obselescence because it’s unnecessary (unless you take into account 3D, which I don’t because I don’t like 3D). Digital may take a tech-spec edge, but if we were going to go down that route then you may ask why people still bother shooting 16mm.

      Anyway, tl;dr, I like film as well as digital. ZDT looks really really good, the trailer kicks ass, and when I saw the teaser a few months back I could have sworn it was shot on 35mm, then I looked it up and saw Alexa, which just goes to show how organic a digital image can look.

  • justaddwater850 on 12.26.12 @ 4:05PM

    Wow. The attention to realism and detail definitely makes me more excited to see this film. After watching the sound design video I’ll definitely be keeping my ears as well as my eyes wide open.

  • shaun wilson on 12.26.12 @ 5:03PM

    Joe, these YT links are not available in Australia, can you post videos that don’t have territory blocks as I’d like to see these particular clips about the film.

  • Same for viewers in Europe. Videos aren’t available to people here. I’d love to comment, but right now I don’t know about what I’d comment ;-)

  • The fact that they lit some shots using only a single Image 80, sometimes with additional tubes taken out, absolutely blows my mind. It seems like we’re approaching some sort of cinematography zenith in which light requirements are no longer a major logistical consideration, but instead a creative and practical one.

    Also, I’m madly in love with Jessica Chastain, and I can’t wait to see this film.

  • So are the bulbs from an Image 80 similar in output to a bulb in a regular kino flo 4×4? I don’t see how they could fly just a few kino bulbs 200 feet in air and get any sort of illumination on the ground…I’ve never used an Image 80 before just the regular kino 2 and 4 banks.

  • I think you could film Jessica Chastain on a RAZR and it would look great.

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