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.
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?
- Zero Dark Thirty — IMDb
- Cinematographer Greig Fraser Captures Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty — Creative Planet Network
- Zero Dark Thirty — SoundWorks Collection