The televised phone call from the Zodiac (1969)

when watching the film, I was skeptical of the authenticity of the events and how true this telling of the Zodiac killers story is to reality despite the great level of truthiness the film carried. Though I can’t validate much of the movie I was able to find a recording of the actual televised phone call between Sam (the self-proclaimed Zodiac) and Melvin Belli (played by Brian cox)

watching the actual footage makes the reality of these terrible events tangible. To what extent dose a film maker have a responsibility to accuracy of a film and on the flip side how much creative liberty can he take before the truth of the events are obstructed? Were there any scenes in the film that you doubted actually happened the way they were depicted in the film?

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: 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: 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.

Traumatizing Realism in Zodiac

David Fincher is known to be a perfectionist when it comes to creating his movies. He will film hundreds of takes until he gets the perfect take, just like what he imagined it to be like. In Zodiac, Fincher filmed an insert shot of a book falling on a seat for tens of takes until it fell just right. Furthermore, Fincher and his team worked extraordinarily hard to make the 2007 film as realistic and close as possible to the real events surrounding the Zodiac killer. While his films benefit from this demand for perfection and realism, at what point does realism become too real? In a Film Radar interview (  a survivor of one of the real Zodiac killer’s attacks, Bryan Hartnell, describes just how realistic the scene in Zodiac was to the real attack. “What they’ve captured on the film that you see when Cecilia is being stabbed, that’s the flash I saw happening”, Bryan describes. He continues to reveal that the entire scene was essentially exactly what happened in real life, so realistic that it creeped him out. For the average viewer, this realism is beneficial, allowing the story to be told as close as possible to the truth. However, for the survivors of such attacks, these scenes could bring back horrible memories. There have been many movies, both recently and in the past, that have been criticized as being insensitive to the survivors of the real events, as they either bring back traumatic events or show events they would rather keep private and in the past.

At what point is it ok to film/release a movie based on real events. What is the film creators duty when it comes to reconstructing real events for films? When are realistic films too realistic? Are there any historical events that should be left alone?

Source Evaluation, Review of Manohla Dargis’s Article on Zodiac (2007): “Hunting a Killer as the Age of Aquarius Dies” and other thoughts about the Zodiac Killer

Dargis wrote this article  in 2007, around the time the movie was released. Therefore, I believe it delivers great insight on how David Fincher’s <em>Zodiac</em> was initially received. This is interesting because it was one of the first all digital films. The article can be found here:


The digital aspect of the film seemed to have no bearing on the author’s opinion of it. This is an excellent and glowing review of Fincher’s movie. It is detailed and gives examples  that illustrate the author’s thoughts. However, there is not enough criticism and too much plot summary. It seems like it could double as an ad for the movie.  The author focuses  on Fincher’s attention to detail. He focuses on the movie’s accuracy to the depicted time period.  Also, he describes the mise-en-scène well.  The author does not mention this, but I believe that the digital aspect of this film gave Fincher the ability to be detailed oriented and look into the past. His visual effects can be found here: 


My favorite paragraph is here:

The story structure is as intricate as the storytelling is seamless, with multiple time-and-place interludes neatly slotted into two distinct sections. The first largely concerns the murders and the investigations; the second, far shorter one involves Graysmith’s transformation of the murders and the investigations into a narrative. ~ Manohla Dargis.


I believe this paragraph describes the whole movie well. There is a scary, horror aspect to this film. Then it launches into an investigative film. Lastly, it focuses on the Graysmith’s life after the investigation. It fleshes out him as a character further. The movie then focuses more on Graysmith’s condition during the investigation. He quits his job and writes a book while his home life slowly degrades.

The Real Zodiac Killer 

After the movie, I wanted to know if Arthur Leigh Allen was actually the Zodiac Killer.  So, I decided to examine the works of internet sleuths. Here is a current website dedicated to finding the Zodiac killer:

The have a pretty convincing article that points to a man named Gaikowski because the letters GYKE can be found in one of the Zodiac letters.  Also, Gaikowski looks more like the victim’s description of the killer. Also, in 2002, the FBI took a DNA test of the stamp of one of the letters and found it does not match Arthur Leigh Allen. However, it turned out the DNA was from the top of the stamp. So it still can be allen:


David Fincher’s Obsession with Detail in Zodiac

There seems to be two fronts on which Fincher dished out his meticulous deditication to making everything perfectly the way he wanted in Zodiac (2007). The first being during the production phase. Fincher would be able to control the shots through mise-en-scene and cinematography. Getting the framing and the lighting just right, having the right depth of field, and getting the actors to do the right thing (1989). I found a great example that illustrates Fincher’s attention to detail during production by showing every insert shot in Zodiac:

The other way that Fincher controlled the small details of his film was through digital effects in post-production. Fincher strived to make his film look as realistic as possible. Ironically (and very much against the philosophy of Christopher Nolan), he chose to use digital effects over practical effects to accomplish that. I found some (unfortunately very low-res) special features that breaks down the use of digital effects in Zodiac:

These video show the surprising extent that digital effects were used in this film. They also, however, serve to justify this use for certain cases. For instance, the shooting of the couple at the beginning of the film. To do that as practically and realistically as possible, Fincher would have actually shoot people. No one, obviously, can do that. So to film that scene and have it look as realistic as possible, he had the blood resulting from the bullet wounds be inserted digitally. And not just the blood showing on the skin, but it splattering on the seats of the car. This was his way of making this scene look real, because it really did happen. These effects could easily, as in Speed Racer (2008), look fake. But the post-production team worked meticulously to make them look real. And they do. That’s why it is so surprising to see how much digital effects are used in Fincher’s films.

This makes me wonder through, which ideology is better? Fincher’s or Nolan’s? Maybe the perfect balance probably lies somewhere in between.

Viewer: Zodiac, inspirations from film noir and the dangers of information saturation.

I really enjoyed Zodiac, I was drawn in by rich character development, the thrill of the chase for the serial killer and even their weariness after several years of being on the case without any significant results. David Fincher was able to dictate the feel of the movie across the timeline of the zodiac case. Elevating the sense of tension and danger in times of increased activity of the killer and slowing down the pace to a slow and weary crawl during the most passive periods of the case. During the Zodiac’s most active years the film has a film noir quality to it. The gritty detective (Dave Toschi) with odd idiosyncrasies coupled with a more subdued and passive partner. The relentless journalist who is often at odds with law enforcement, Paul Avery and the cartoonist Robert Graysmith who actually doesn’t mesh fit very well with the other characters during the first half of the movie. I felt enthralled by the struggle of these characters as they slowly came to understand what kind of threat the Zodiac posed for the city of San Francisco.  A typical film noir trope has a mystery/crime that generally is solved at movie run-time. David Fincher offers no such gratification and actually subverts the genre by extending the run-time and introducing an element of manic obsession. What happens when the script is suddenly changed and the usual crime case becomes and un-solvable quagmire where information is no longer reliable and often fails to make any sense? The movie becomes a psychological thriller with Robert Graysmith the upstanding cartoonist taking the spotlight as the movie’s main protagonist. We shift tone and focus from the Zodiac killings and the Zodiac himself to the people who struggle to understand and catch him.

An unknown entity, with competing and contradictory information regarding his identity and motivations. This movie strikes me as meditation on the nature and power of information. We are presented with information in different forms, from the mysterious ciphers, to the written letters, vocal accounts from victims, suspects and expert consultants.  Yet with such a staggering amount of information present none of it could definitely lead to the arrest the true perpetrator of the killings. A very interesting thing I noted in the movie was how David Fincher utilized digital effects to show the passage of time through the accumulation and change of information. The Detectives surrounded by the ciphers and letters as the Zodiac killer increased his activity and correspondence with the police and media. The construction time-lapse and the news audio montage show how the city still continues to change even though the nature of the zodiac case remains constant. With our rapidly growing world and how information becomes easily accessible it becomes very easy to overlook important details or  simply choose to ignore information that is seemingly useless and move on to the next. If we obsess on old information the world will eventually leave us behind even though our intentions might be just. Robert Graysmith has to struggle with this fact as he tries to solve the Zodiac murders years after they had been perpetrated and what was now considered “old news”. He had to struggle a system content with moving on and information corrupted through age and time.

In our world today where digital media is ubiquitous and information is easily accessible is it possible that we may have become less receptive to it? Are we taking learning for granted? The news cycle is rapid and there is very little time taken for contemplation or understanding. In the world of Zodiac information is a cherished and valuable commodity. All parties involved struggle on a daily basis to acquire as much as they can regarding the Zodiac killer but when information loses it’s potency or there becomes too much of it people lose interest and move on except for Graysmith who fights against this mechanism. His resolution although seemingly satisfying to him doesn’t strike a very strong accord with me because it wasn’t grounded in concrete and definitive information. This is odd for me to admit because I too tend to be more intuitive rather than focus on hard facts. This leads me to ask, in our data driven world is it still acceptable to make decisions based on our intuitive knowledge or “gut feeling?

The Future of Cinema

After our class Tuesday, I was left with a question: what does the future of cinema look like? I know this class has really opened my eyes up to the amounts of innovation happening in the film industry. It’s crazy to thing that in a relatively short time, special effects in film have transformed from something like this,  with obvious cuts that look silly and unrealistic now, to this, where special effects are used to literally bring an actor back to life to play a role.

Here is an article outlining several more technologies that will continue to change the way special effects are used in film:

(note: I don’t mean to be clickbait-ey, but look at #6! Do we really want to live in a world where computers write screenplays?! Scary stuff…)

Special effects are the most obvious area for innovation, but there are also many changes happening in the way that movies are actually viewed. This article from just thirty years ago predicted that movies will no longer just be viewed in theaters, but will be accessible with just a click. We all know how accurate this prediction is, as Netflix accomplishes this for more than 125 million users. What Ebert couldn’t have predicted, however, is that nearly anyone from any part of the world would be able to watch any movie on a device that can fit in your pocket. Watching a film has become more accessible than ever, which in my opinion is a pretty positive innovation. This article talks about how companies are using this mass accessibility to actually crowdsource what films people actually want to see. I have no idea if this is good or bad for the future of cinema, as sometimes mass support doesn’t really result in the best outcome.

Here’s one final article that has some industry experts weighing in on what they believe the future of cinema will be:

If there was anyone to have a good guess of what the future of the film industry will be, it would be people like Lucas and Spielberg. But who really knows? I just know that I am looking forward to the innovations that are bound to happen in the years to come.

The Effect of a Prolonged Timeline on Viewers

After hearing about Zodiac in class, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. Granted, I can see why people can dislike this film because it feels like it drags at times, and the film is honestly exhausting at times. However, I feel that Fincher tried to bring out these emotions from the audience purposefully through the movie’s endless transitions in time without any resolve in the stories main conflict. Throughout the film, we see several people take on the case of the zodiac such as the cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), and the journalist, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.).  As time passes, shown through an endless number of time skips, we see the case take a physical toll on everyone who was involved. First, it was the handwriting expert, who retired and became an alcoholic. Then, the case began to affect Paul Avery, the journalist. He started to become an alcoholic, and eventually, he quit The Chronicle to live on the sea, drinking his days away. When we see him for the last time in a bar, he looks 10 years older than his age and he’s breathing from an oxygen tank.

After Avery gave out, the case began to take a toll on Inspector David Toschi. One of the most tenacious people (unofficially) gives in after he lost his best lead. His emotions towards the case can be seen in his conversation’s with Robert Graysmith. In his conversations, he expresses that there are more relevant cases to investigate, and the Zodiac case will never be solved after all the years and struggles of investigating. Lastly, after seemingly endless failures to progress the case, we have Robert Graysmith take on the case by himself. As a viewer after an hour and 45 minutes into the film, we think that “Oh, this character is going to miraculously solve the case now. All this build up has to be resolved,” but we have to endure Graysmith’s painful efforts to solve this practically dead case for another 50 minutes. Similarly, viewers are able to see the physical and mental toll the case takes on Graysmith, and as a viewer, the endless amount of dead ends over time starts to really take a toll on us too. For a brief moment towards the end of the film, I thought that we would never have a resolution. Fincher prolongs the film this way to make the viewer truly experience what Graysmith goes through. By the end, we are desperate to have the mystery be solved just like Graysmith.  Finally, after a twenty-two year timeline and after Graysmith releases his book, we have the first victim of the Zodiac killer confirm the identity of his attacker through photos of different suspects. After a grueling 2 hours and 30 minutes, we only get a resolution that spans for about a minute of viewing time. By the end of the film, Fincher makes us truly understand how long and exhausting this case was.

Viewer – Zodiac

Honestly, I was not expecting to like this movie. However, I was pleasantly surprised and enjoyed the movie (even though there was no finality to the case, which can be irritating), and also the length of the movie which I initially dreaded, seemed to go by fairly quickly. The nostalgia of the movie crafted by the mise-en-scène of the film was enticing and it was heightened by the computer effects that were used to create a realism. The film felt authentic in some aspects but then intertwined with a thriller aspect that kept me on the edge of my seat. The movie, in my opinion moved beyond just a commentary on a long ongoing murder investigation, which is what it might have been, to something more interesting because of many varying cinematic techniques. There were shifts in the mood of the film by at the beginning being an almost horror thriller sequence and then changing to an investigation  following the various characters and their relations/connections and infatuations with solving the case. I liked how there were many serious parts where the investigation was in full swing along with the immersive feel of danger as the Zodiac killer was shown and these were paired with quippy remarks made by many of the characters (especially about Robert and his sometimes strange mannerisms). These brief moments of humor allowed a breather from what would’ve been a long cumbersome and intense movie. Some of my favorite parts was when Robert was investigating for his book and he kept sidestepping

and finding loopholes by saying he wasn’t a writer but a cartoonist, and how these were always followed by things like “I wouldn’t tell you to talk to” or “If you wanted to be creative”. (Or even the time when Paul makes fun of Robert’s drink! Things like this were not needed for the movie to move forward, however, the movie was more intriguing and relatable  because there were  included). These created a more human experience because it showed that the officers wanted to bring the killer to justice and they believed it could be done, even with Robert’s roundabout way of writing a book.

At many points all I could think of was this is was a strange vintage Avengers mystery with Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, which for me made the movie more appealing because of the familiarity of the actors. These two men were able to move beyond the characters’ personas they have built for the superhero movies. On that note, I was amazed by how they aged the actors just slightly. There was a strange evolution of the characters (especially  Robert and Paul) as they delved deeper into the case and drifted to the verge (if not going over the edge) of being obsessed. As the movie continues and the years passed by hair became grayer, the bags under many their eyes became more pronounced, and their clothes evolved. I loved how the costuming was slightly and yet visibility changing as the years passed. These subtle hints to the passage of time helped to keep the order of events and also create a realistic world. Also, even the insert texts (the screen shot above left shows the type writer font that was present throughout out the movie) that tell the audience the date/time have a font that is filled to the style of the movie and couple well with the 60s/70s vibe that is thoroughly highlighted throughout the movie. Overall I LOVED how there seemed to be meticulous attention to  detail with all the costumes, all the sets and probs, and especially the paper props from the killer himself (example below of one of the notes from the movie). When there is as much focus on objects like these I personally appreciate the movie more and become more involved in the world that they have carefully taken the time to build.

In the film we saw how the personal  lives of like Robert Graysmith and Paul Avery deteriorated  as they became obsessed with solving the mystery of who the Zodiac killer was. What effect do you think the Zodiac killer had on the families of the investigators? Do you think it was worth it for them to spend that much time investigating? (Especially since they even commented on how there were countless other murders  and investigations happening at the time, which was more impactful than the Zodiac). What is your response to who was the killer, who should we believe? How would this movie have been without the small bits of humor? Would it have been as good and would you have enjoyed it still? There were many times were, because of the lack in technology and ability to connect between stations, information went missing/was not relayed – how do you think this case would have been handled in present day? Would it have been solved? Or would there still be issues of an overload of facts and information?