Zodiac: David Fincher’s Commitment to Historical Accuracy

As we discussed in class, David Fincher is a director that has a great attention to detail and this stands true for his work on the film Zodiac. Zodiac is based off of a true story of the Zodiac killer, who tormented Northern California for years.

Here I have linked in an article that goes into how realistic the Zodiac film was and discusses its historical accuracy: http://www.indiewire.com/2018/04/zodiac-david-fincher-accuracy-true-events-1201948258/. Below, I have posted one of the actual Zodiac letters. It is nearly identical to the one shown in the film and the language is the same as well. Fincher did not alter the details that were crucial to the actual crimes the Zodiac Killer committed.

Fincher even went as far as to dress the actors that played the murder victims in the same clothes the real victims wore the night they died.

This article also provides an excellent video clip, which layers Fincher’s film with actual interviews from the Zodiac case. I have linked it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lb75EkzE24k. The realism and accuracy in this film is extremely impressive, yet quite disturbing at the same time. I think that is one of the major reasons the film is as powerful as it is.

Viewer: Common Elements in Mysteries and Thrillers

As a computer science major, I’m a huge fan of The Social Network. It’s a fascinating film that captures the dramatic reality of power and money through elements like friendship, betrayal, and deception. But when I recommended the movie to my girlfriend, I was slightly bothered by her choice to avoid the film solely because it’s “too dimly lit”. However, after watching another one of David Fincher’s films, Zodiac, I’ve come to notice that a lot of his films are in fact ‘dimly lit’ – and that too, for a good reason. The genre of thrillers and film noir rely heavily on a sharp contrast between high-key and low-key lighting in order to convey an intense or dramatic feeling. Mysteries keep a lot of its subject matter in the dark, and therefore use things like shadows to depict secrecy or the unknown. These shadows are created with small, intense lighting at different angles to either lengthen or shorten the area taken up by the shadows. Although I don’t agree with her decision to not watch a movie for its lighting, I do think this sort of dimmer lighting is a tool used by directors in mystery and thriller films to create an artificial feeling of intensity and to keep the audience in a constant state of suspense/fear. This correlation definitely explains her distaste for other mystery/thriller movies that I love, like The Silence of the Lambs and Shutter Island.

A prominent theme in this film (and in the crime/mystery genre) is obsession – specifically obsession to the extent of self-defeat. Common examples of this sort of obsession is apparent in some of the other popular David Fincher films like Seven, Gone Girl, and Fight Club. Seven involves a psychopath who is obsessed with the seven deadly sins (sloth, pride, gluttony, greed, lust, wrath, and jealousy). Gone Girl is one of my favorite movies and it delves into obsession as well. In that film, Amy Dunne is obsessed with the concept of true love and being romantic, and that eventually leads to her own and her relationship’s demise. In Fight Club, the characters are constantly obsessed with the idea of confronting mortality and testing their limits. Similarly, in Zodiac, Graysmith obsesses over the case of the Zodiac killer and spends over twenty-two years trying to find their true identity. His submersion in the case eventually lost him his job, his wife, and many of his friends, which is a common result of obsession in a lot of the mystery and thriller films.

Zodiac and the Reading

The reading this week had a great section about Zodiac, which is the feature for this week (pgs 83 – 87). According to the reading, Fincher uses the rich detail provided by a digital camera as a metaphor in Zodiac. The film is fundamentally about the search for truth, and the lengths people (in this case, the detectives and associated investigators) will go for it.

Though unlike most crime drama type films, the ending is anticlimactic, leaving the viewer without “catharsis” as the reading described it. Most films in this type of genre have the “bad guy” caught—even in a (fantastic) movie like Silence of the Lambs, a murderer is caught (well, killed) in the end. The audience gets to fulfil their sense of justice, while for most of the movie we get frustration, and anxiety about society’s failings: serial killers are perfect for this. How can a good society produce such a horrible situation? Normally, the crime drama reassures this fear: the wrongdoer is punished, killed, justice dispensed and we go home satisfied. Zodiac does the opposite: the only real suspect dies before he can be questioned, and even then, there isn’t enough evidence to draw conclusions.

Going back to digital film… Fincher strategically used the HD/sharpness of digital to manipulate the viewer: more intensely dramatic sequences, where the truth is just out of reach, have a higher resolution, “it makes you study the image more intently…it draws your eye even further into the drama.” As the reading put it. The reading essentially describes how digital film was used in Zodiac to provide further meaning, used as a tool for storytelling, and not just a tool to make pretty pictures look better.

Zodiac is a fantastic example of the power of digital film, and the new techniques available to filmmakers, as not only do we have the film media itself being used as part of the film’s larger meaning—physicality reminiscent of Dogstar Man—but digital film as another, powerful set of tools for compositing images, manipulating the viewer, and increasing “reality” within the film.

The reading discusses this aspect further, but the main idea was: digital film can be used to increase reality in the film, and get us closer to a cinematic “truth”. I thought that perspective was particularly interesting, as it’s in contrast to normal (negative) attitudes towards digital effects.

As a final note on compositing, a lot of concept art nowadays is done through composited images, allowing for hyper-realistic sci-fi art for example. While it’s not like the artist (and in the case of filmmakers using digital compositing) themselves drawing the character’s face, or the scene, they are still bringing to life their vision—getting closer to that total cinema, or the truth of what they want the viewer to see. So, ultimately, does CGI lower the quality of an artist’s craft? Or does CGI enhance it? What is “good” CGI vs “bad” CGI?

Also, here is an example of the composited sci fi concept art I was talking about. It’s just something I find really cool. As you can tell, I’m a bit biased in favor of digital effects.

Sci-fi city – Concept Art (#Photoshop) | CreativeStation Exclusive

Do the Right Thing: Still Reflected in the News

Someone shared this post on my Facebook timeline and I thought it was very relevant to the issues we discussed last week related to Do the Right Thing.

The link to the article is here: https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/04/15/602598119/black-teenager-shot-at-after-asking-for-directions. Unfortunately, it is not that uncommon to see something like this in the news. I thought this case was particularly relevant because it points out some of the serious flaws present in many Americans today. Fortunately, the African American boy that was shot at in the article was not injured, but it is still a heartbreaking event nonetheless.

The boy knocked on the door of a woman’s house to ask for directions to school, as his phone was not with him. Immediately, the woman who answered the door assumed he was trying to break in. It is troubling that so many people have a racist mindset such as this one and it reminded me of many of the characters in Do the Right Thing. The situation further escalated as her husband came downstairs with a gun and the young man had to run for his life.

The escalation of pulling out the gun reminded me of Sal pulling out the bat in Do the Right Thing when Radio Raheem was playing his music. A completely absurd overreaction based on racial profiling and discrimination.

On the tape, you can hear the woman who answered the door says “why did these people choose my house?” This idea of the black community as separate and lesser, as “these people” is unfortunately a view that is still held by many, whether it be consciously or subconsciously. A young boy should be able to ask for help or ask for directions without fearing his life.


Exploring Digital Light with Stephen Prince

Prince begins his article, titled “Painting with Visual Light” by discussing the evolution of cinema and the prediction of modern cinema by cinematographer Leon Shamroy. As new technology emerged,visual effects seemed to be a lot less special to the viewer.

Cinematographer Marvin Rush was set on expanding creative opportunities by taking digital out of the bubble of visual effects and making it more of a concept than anything. He advocated separating visual effects from “fantasy effects”, as he believed they were much more than that. Digital effects can be seamless and reminiscent of real-life as well. They don’t have to be crazy fight scenes, explosions, or evil creatures. The film Forrest Gump is a great example, where visual effects are primarily used to enhance reality, such as the ping pong match or Lieutenant Dan’s missing legs. Which is easier? Recreating reality or developing a fantasy world?

Prince also discusses composting, where two effects in film are layered to create a final image. Before the digital explosion, composting was done with an optical printer. According to Prince, Citizen Kane, on of the feature films, had over 50% optical composting. It can also be seen in Star Wars films such as The Empire Strikes Back, which I have linked a Vimeo clip of here: https://vimeo.com/78956520. Digital composting, on the other hand, allows for finer detail and more precise manipulation of the shot. It is a process that now requires many members of a film’s team and goes into postproduction as well.

The picture in the article from King Kong in 2005 demonstrates how digital composting uses matte paintings, mini models, the digitally created gorilla, and lighting on the actress to create a more realistic visual image.

Digital lighting is achieved through local or global illumination methods. Local uses key light, back light, fill and rim lighting, etc. Global, on the other hand, does not require individual light sources. Digital lighting can be performed on anything, such as the food in Ratatouille, to make it stand out or appear more real. In addition to realism, digital lighting can also help tell a narrative.

Is it possible that the digital image goes too far in terms of manipulation? Does this threaten the integrity of film?







Subtle Digital Effects

When I look at my favorite movies, in general they focus on practical effects. These effects have aged much better than movies using digital effects even five years ago, In addition, movies like The Assassin or The Hateful Eight have opted to use real (70mm) film for much of the production and the beautiful shots from those movies affirms that choice. Whether or not I enjoy these movies more because of their “real” aspect, or because of the type of director that would choose to use these “real” techniques, I have developed a bias towards “real” effects and methods. However, the reading explored some uses of digital effects that changed my view, at least on a little, on their use in films.

For one, there is a very obvious utility in having an incorruptible master copy of a shot via a digital file. Many different effects can be tried out with no risk to prior work done (unlike in the older methods, e.g. optical compositing) . Someone posted a short video of Wes Anderson trying out different fonts and signs in the lobby of the Grand Budapest Hotel through digital editing. I think we have seen directors take more risks in set design and the more subtle effects knowing that they could “fix it in post” and it wouldn’t look bad.

The digital toolkit has also opened up new possibilities of what can be filmed effectively. The reading brought up a very weird but interesting example of this in Ratatouille’s food. Onscreen food has always looked strange and fake to me, which I didn’t even realize until the reading brought it up. Digital techniques have allowed a very fine tuning of minor details like this; I’m sure there are many more examples of completely minor details that were throwing my subconscious off, that we can now fix through digital editing. Even as the large scale effects become outdated and obvious with time, I think the low-key examples of digital effects remain immersive and unseen as a new tool in the director’s kit.

CGI: Does it Help or Hurt

There us no mistaking it. Computer Generated Imagery, or CGI, is now the mainstream in movie making. In recent years it has become cheaper, faster, more advanced, and, most importantly, widely successful. Visual effects have been used since even before computers were used to generate images. As in the reading, Movies as old as Citizen Cane used visual effects to produce unique scenes and shots. In many cases of older movies that didn’t have the luxury of CGI, there was a lot of work that when into creating scene that were unique to those films. Effects were produce by camera angles, costume, and in many cases, extreme uses of mise-en-cine. These days such effects are seen as cheap and uninspired because the modern audience is so used to seeing more realistic images in modern movies. This particularly true for modern day action and Science Fiction movies. Does our dependence on CGI, spoil us to the true effort that has gone into legacy films.

An example of how I feel that CGI has hurt movies is in my favorite movie, The Thing (John Carpenter 1982) which later got a sequel The Thing (2011 Matthijs van Heijningen Jr). From the common viewer both movies have the same mindset and plot in mind. In the isolated and frozen Antarctic, a team of scientist discover a horrific alien with the ability to absorb them. When the alien is discovered as a team member, it “reveals itself,” usually in a gruesome and gory manner. In 1982 these scenes were done with plastic, puppeteering, latex, synthetic slime, and more to create truly gross scenes. The 2011 movie did nearly all of it with CGI and, while still being a typical horror gross-out, was not received as well by the fans of the first. Of course, staying true to the traditions of the first movie would have corny to see in theaters, but without the legendary, and “natural” creature effects of Rob Bottin, there is a major difference in the creature design that made the first movie so successful.  There are few images from both movies below.  Can you tell the CGI from the non-CGI?  Which one do you prefer?


There is, however, an example of when the use of CGI can bring something new to film series. The example I use for this is another classic The Terminator (James Cameron 1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron 1991). In the first movie, unique visual effects weren’t used until near the end where robot is seen chasing Sarah Conner. In most movies where a “hunter” is coming for the “hunted,” it’s usually just a guy in a costume. But for this move, it had already been shown that the “guy” had been stripped away and all that was left was the robotic endo skeleton. To do this, James Cameron employed the use of a puppet and stop motion animation. The took several pictures of the machine, while slightly changing the position of its hands and legs, to create the illusion that it was walking, climbing, etc. Despite how strange and impractical the effects looked, it was successful in giving off the eerie image of a murderous robot hunting its victim. In the second movie in 1991, when CGI was seeing much growth, James Cameron had a different idea of how to upgrade his killer robot. The T-1000, or the liquid, robot was shown transforming from person to person, or creating swords and crowbars from its arms, all using CGI. Such a use of the CGI made the villain of the second movie as iconic as the first and accomplished its goal of introducing the new antagonist.




As movies are becoming more expensive to make and require higher revenue to be considered successful, how far can CGI go. Marvel movies rarely go to locations outside the United States to be made, unlike other iconic movies such as Lord of the Rings, which were filmed places like New Zealand. Will we get to the point where entire “live-action” movies are made with CGI. As facial structures and movement become more refined, will we even need actors in the future?

Escalation (and De-Escalation) in Do the Right Thing

The idea of escalating conflicts is explored throughout Do the Right Thing (dir. Spike Lee) as the day escalates in temperature. Buggin’ Out’s initial dispute with Sal (at least literally) starts with a half-dollar argument over how much cheese he gets on his slice of pizza. It then grows into an argument over Black representation in Sal’s Wall of Fame, and further into an argument over Sal’s treatment of the neighborhood and the ownership of his space. Both Sal and Buggin’ believe at each step to be simply responding in kind to the other’s actions, but are in fact taking steps to worsen their conflict. Buggin’s criticism of Sal’s wall in a different context (e.g. after ordering a slice and not arguing over price and value of that slice) would be taken in a completely different manner. Sal seemingly can’t help but take his criticism as a continuation of their argument over pizza and aggressively tells him to leave instead of staying and causing trouble. This escalation continues until Mookie takes Buggin’ out of the store. Neither aggrieved party is willing to de-escalate the situation, and an outside actor in Mookie has to step in to calm things down.

We see similar situations of escalation throughout the film (Radio and the store owners, Mayor and the store owners, Sal’s sons, Mookie and his sister, and of course in Radio and Sal’s confrontation at the end). In all of these cases (maybe not the brothers’). For these situations, neither person/group is necessarily, completely in the wrong (even the police were shown earlier in the film not to “have it out” for the people in Bedsty, though their treatment of Radio Raheem shows racist tendencies). These morally grey situations seem to leave little hope – if neither party is wrong, how can we prevent situations from arising? However, Lee does depict some scenes of de-escalation.

When Buggin’s shoes get scuffed by the biker, the outside parties actually step in and deliberately raise the tension. The biker escalates the situation by being rude to Buggin’s instead of apologizing. Buggin’ has to choose to calm himself down and take no action, rather than escalating the situation further.
We  see Mother Sister and Da Mayor reconcile after years of hostility through Mayor’s gift of flowers, and Mother Sister’s recognition of Da Mayor’s positive qualities.Other resolutions: Mookie and Tina make up, the Korean store owners avoid damage at the hand of the neighborhood, even Sal and Mookie have some kind of resolution at the end in front of a mural showing The American, Jamaican, and Puerto-Rican flags all sandwiched together. In a sense, even the neighborhood’s burning of Sal’s pizza is a de-escalation relative to the loss of a human life.

This write-up was very muddy, but it is a complex topic and my own thoughts and feelings on it aren’t completely settled. I think the most important take way from Lee is that viewing conflicts like these (especially in the context of racially based conflicts) as tit-for-tat is not productive and is missing the heart of the issue. This is especially relevant today, as conversations about violence against Black people get locked into looking at the specific circumstances of these events and not on the larger issues that enable this brand of violence to occur.

The Duality of Ideologies in “Do the Right Thing”

The picture below is the iconic photo of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X. This picture is shown in portraits, history books and shown many times throughout the movie being held by “Smiley” the mentally challenged man. MLK Jr and Malcom X are widely accepted as two of the most influential civil rights activists in American History. Both are seen as the pioneers to leading African Americans to fight for equal rights in American society. However, despite having the same intentions in mind, their methods where completely different. Even I ask how these two could possibly get along when their morals and methods of achieving civil rights were so different.

Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to fight for civil rights but believed it could be achieved exclusively by non-violent protests. He wanted for blacks to accepted by whites and fully integrated into their society rather than just the “equal but separate” tactics imposed by Jim Crow Laws. Malcom X was different. During his time in the Nation of Islam, a time where he made most of his speeches and teachings, he rejected white society. He promoted the Nations ideals that Blacks were superior and should form their own society and culture to be better than that of whites. He was criticized for advocating violence as a means to achieve his goals, though he would disguise it as “self-defense.” The duality in this movie isn’t immediately shown, but does drive the events that lead to the end of the movie. What starts as a push to get equal representation escalates to riots and destruction of property and the death of community member.

Other examples of duality come up in a few places in the movie like in the scene where Radio Raheem is showing Mookie his new knuckle braces and gives him a speech about love and hate. The speech he gave was about how love and hate coexisted, but did it have a deeper meaning of how one cascades into the other. He says “If I love you, then I love you. And if I Hate you…” He doesn’t finish the line about hate. Is that significant to how he is uncertain of what will happen when he allows hate to take over. I feel that the duality in this movie isn’t just about how whites and blacks go about life separately, but how a clash of ideologies in civil rights leads to disaster. Is there any other meaning one can derive from this?  What was the significance of this photo being held and sold by someone who was mentally handicapped?  Do you think the ideologies of this movie led to its outcome? Professor Zinman said this movie was very relevant today more than ever, and I believe him. How relevant do you believe this movie is?