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Building Obsession & Paranoia in 'Zodiac': Fincher's Masterful Use of the Insert Shot

CropperCapture[30]The basics of the film language are just that, basics. You’ve got your wides and mediums and close-ups, and all sorts of variances in between. You’ve got OTS shots and 2-shots, and of course some cutaways. Then you’ve got the insert, the simple, lowly insert. Usually inserts are used to provide a closer look at some detail in a scene. However, when the insert shot becomes an instrumental part of a film’s individual language, some interesting things can happen. For instance, David Fincher’s masterful and suspenseful thriller Zodiac makes extensive use of the insert shot, and it has a profound and meaningful impact on how the film’s language interacts with and supports the characters and story. 

First and foremost, for those of you who haven’t seen Zodiac, I can’t recommend highly enough that you watch it, as it’s arguably David Fincher’s most accomplished film to date. For the time being, here’s the trailer.

So now on to the film’s use of the insert shot. Josh Forrest recently put together an excellent supercut of every insert shot in Zodiac, and when these shots are viewed back to back, it becomes very easy to see how the film is so deeply unnerving.

For a little bit of background on the film, it’s based on a character named Robert Graysmith, a newspaper cartoonist who becomes obsessed with the case of the Zodiac killer. It’s something that literally consumes his life and destroys his relationships. He scours every piece of evidence, again and again, obsessing over the smallest of details to the point of near insanity.

The repeated use of insert shots provide the audience of the film with a similar feeling. These shots allow the audience an opportunity to examine the details for themselves, thus making the audience active participants in the case of the Zodiac killer. Not only do we get to watch Robert Graysmith sink into a detail-fueled delirium, but, through the persistent use of insert shots of important details, we get an insider’s view of his obsession, while being able to obsess over the details ourselves.

It’s an absolutely genius use of a simple technique. Zodiac serves as a prime example of how the basics of the film language can be manipulated in a masterful way in order to serve the story and drive the emotional impact home to the audience.

What do you guys think of the use of the insert shot in David Fincher’s Zodiac? Let’s hear your thoughts down in the comments!

[via Filmmaker Magazine]


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Description image 24 COMMENTS

  • Awesome look at a simple texture! This use of meticulously composed inserts has always spoken to me in Fincher’s work. Any one of his films could have compilation like this extracted. Great post!

  • All of Fincher’s movies and a great number of his music videos and commercials show the same thing. It’s good to see the world is catching up to his genius.

  • ‘David Fincher’s most accomplished film to date” Really??? What about Se7en or Fight Club? Those were imitated to exaustion…for some reason, right?

    • Those movies were great, but relatively light compared to Zodiac. Fincher brought a real reverence to the killings and was relatively faithful to the events as they happened.

    • Same what I was thinking, zodiac is crap compared to fight club, seven or the game. The downfall started (at least for me) with panic room. And with & after that everything was just aesthetics and no substance (story) anymore. Dragon Tattoo was unbearably bad…

    • Zodiac is definitely most important work (i dare say best) in Fincher’s oeuvre because of the nature of the script. Seven and Fight Club are arguably great movies but what makes them inferior to zodiac (in terms of application of his genius) is that they have entertaining and close ended scripts. Where are Zodiac lacks entertainment aspect in conventional sense. The way he handled the material is nothing short of pure genius. Movie is effing long and as it would have been shallow and boring experience in less talented director’s hands. But the way it grips audience and conveys paranoia of the characters from start to finish is what makes this movie Fincher’s best.

  • VinceGortho on 06.13.14 @ 12:29AM

    I’ve heard a lot that directors eventually ignore their storyboards when shooting. When filming, is there a systematic way of gathering your shots? Always start wide, then punch in close? Some people say shoot what you need, but isn’t that editing in camera? What’s the text book way to capture a scene?

    • That’s something that you learn from shooting a lot (ie: do I need over the shoulders and singles in this scene, or is it shorter enough that I can use one or the other).

      If you’re talking textbook (and most interesting blockings and movies aren’t done “textbook”) then I’d say this:

      Generally you shoot fewer takes of the wide (unless the scene is really setup to play all in the master), because you’ll want to see the actors faces while they’re acting. You’ll usually use the master (wide shot) for geography early or late in the scene, or if the characters move around and you need to show where they’ve moved to.

      You’ll shoot lots of takes of whatever your close shots are, this is where you get different options, as it allows you, but cutting back and forth to piece together performances. If you get a ton of options in the wide, you generally have to pick one of them instead of building, as you can’t keep cutting back out to the wide every other shot, that’d be annoying.

      Comedy plays better in a 2 shot from the waist up most of the time. It also plays better with flatter perspectives, and even lighting, it allows you focus on the jokes, and the character interaction.

      Every time your characters move to a new mark, you generally setup two reverses (over the shoulders or singles) to cover the new piece of the scene. Their geography is established in the master.

      Those are a couple of by the book things. It’s very good to experiment shooting a few things like that, and see that it’s not magic to cover a scene, and then start trying to say something with your shots, and not think about stuff in terms of standard coverage. Standard coverage = what you see on mediocre TV shows, designed shots (not standard coverage) and sequences is why you love Spielberg, Coen’s, Fincher etc.

      Storyboards end up being your safety blanket, you go in knowing “it’ll be at least this good”. With that stability, you feel free to experiment on set. The Coen brothers board everything, and they’re pretty awesome though, so different things work for different people. The good thing about storyboards is they hopefully help you design moments, and figure out interesting things you’ll need before hand (ie: location specific things, props etc.) ie: if you design a shot of a guy looking through the empty chamber in a revolver, and give that to your props person, then they show up with a revolver, not a glock, and you get that shot. If you figure it out on set, you get whatever’s there.

      I know that was kind of all over the place, but hopefully that was helpful.

    • I have found that storyboarding creates a natural flow to capturing a scene. If the drawn pictures are interesting then you will have good visual ideas for the scene.

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  • These aren’t inserts, they’re close ups.