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?

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 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.

The Identity of the Zodiac Killer

The principle suspect in both the book Zodiac and its film adaptation of the same name, Zodiac (2007 Fincher), Arthur Leigh Allen, was heavily implicated as the Zodiac Killer. The film’s closing credits make note that Allen may have been exonerated by a partial DNA mismatch. I’ve linked a story from the San Francisco Weekly disputing this story.

It is also worth noting that the handwriting matches which helped stop the investigation into Allen, courts of law have been mixed as to whether handwriting analysis can be considered as substantial evidence. I’ve linked an interesting article discussing this.

I’ve embedded a series of interviews concerning him from the Special Edition of the film Zodiac. As a forewarning, I found this a bit disturbing. The descriptions are at times graphic.


In Defense of Arthur Leigh Allen, there is no clear evidence he is guilty. The most important thing to remember when discussing whether Arthur Leigh Allen is that all evidence against him is purely circumstantial.

I’ve linked to stories with several other potential suspects:

Earl Van Best, Jr.:

George Russell Tucker:

Louis Joseph Meyers:

For even more, visit:

All-in-all, I doubt the Zodiac killings will ever be solved definitively. I’ve attached a sketch artist’s sketch of the Zodiac Killer and a picture of Arthur Leigh Allen to help you draw your own conclusions.

To help you draw better conclusions, I’ve attached compelling evidence that Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer.

As a final note, the misspellings and strange grammar in the Zodiac’s cryptogram are not unusual as is shown by the Kryptos Sculpture at the CIA’s headquarters.

Information and Technology in Zodiac

While watching David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) there were a few main points that stuck with me. The first was how information is represented in the film. As Robert, Avery, and David all work to uncover the mystery of the Zodiac killer there are varying levels of information available to them. Once the killer starts receiving more intention from the news, hundreds of calls come in to try to give tips to the police. As time goes on they have to work to sift through the countless amounts of unreliable sources in order to find a lead worth chasing. During this time there is a lot going on, making the action harder to follow. The idea of information is brought to the forefront again when the detectives run out of leads. Once the information slows down the excitement of the film slows down as well. To me it seems that this is done on purpose. Fincher subtly uses digital techniques to heighten the realism of the film. However, he doesn’t go overboard with trying to fill the screen with distracting effects. Could Fincher be highlighting these events to make a comment on the use of digital editing in films? How does the amount of visual effects enhance or detract from the quality of a film?

Another idea that Zodiac illustrated was the way the detectives were limited by technology. In one of my favorite scenes of the film the various police departments are trying to work together and share the information they have. Due to their differences in technology, however, they are unable to do so effectively and have to rely on the old technology of mail. Once again it seems as if Fincher is using the plot of the film to send a message about making movies. Are the detectives, and thus filmmakers, too reliant on technology? Or does technology offer the solution to the problems faced by film?

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