In the late ’60s northern California was terrorized by a serial killer that came to be known in the media as the Zodiac Killer. Starting in 1969, Zodiac taunted the police with letters that included cryptograms and claimed to have killed as many as 37 victims. These letters were signed with a symbol of a circle and cross that was dubbed the Zodiac by one letter writer to the San Francisco Chronicle, though the killer never actually named himself that. He is generally believed to have killed five victims, though some writers have theorized that the murders might actually have done by several persons, rather than a single serial killer. Thousands of suspects were investigated over the years, but the case remained unsolved.


The hunt for the Zodiac Killer is now the subject of director David Fincher’s (Alien3, Se7en, Fight Club, Panic Room) latest film. Zodiac is an adaptation of Robert Graysmith’s books about the events surrounding the investigation and the subsequent media circus. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Chloe Sevigny, and Brian Cox. Fincher, who started his career with a stint at ILM and then as a commercial and music video director and cofounder of Propaganda Films, is hardly a typical Hollywood director. Some of Fincher’s commercial clients have included Nike, Pepsi and Levis and he’s directed music videos for such artists as Madonna, the Rolling Stones, the Wallflowers and Nine Inch Nails.


As a director who’s moved to features from short form genres, he combines interesting commercial sensibilities with cinematic storytelling. He is also willing to challenge the status quo of traditional filmmaking technology. Like Michael Mann (Collateral, Miami Vice), Fincher is a fan of the Grass Valley Viper FilmStream digital cinematography camera. The Viper captures scenes similar to a digital still camera in the raw mode, with three 9.2-million-pixel Frame Transfer CCD sensors at a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels. A characteristic of the Viper is its FilmStream mode, which retains the image fidelity as an unprocessed, 10-bit log 4:4:4 signal. Unlike Mann, who chose to record onto Sony HDCAM-SR tapes, Fincher opted for a totally tapeless workflow. In fact, this will be the first major Hollywood digital film with a totally uncompressed, tapeless path from production to the creation of a digital intermediate master. By staying uncompressed until a film negative is struck after the DI grading, the image quality will theoretically rival or surpass the image quality of camera film negative scanned at the 2K resolution (2048×1556 pixels).


A Fresh Approach to Feature Post


Like Fincher, editor Angus Wall is not your typical film editor either. In 1992 Wall and Linda Carlson founded Rock Paper Scissors – a respected West Hollywood creative editorial house known for its commercial work for such clients as BMW, HP and Nike – and later in 1997, visual effects house A52. Angus Wall took some time out of finalizing the trailers for Zodiac to discuss the post on the film with me, as well as his collaboration with Fincher. “I knew David from when I worked in the vault at Propaganda and had always aspired to work with him. He has been very generous to me and I have been lucky enough to work on a few commercials and videos with him. My first film experience with David was doing the titles for Se7en. Seeing them on the big screen at Mann’s Chinese really ‘put the hooks in me’ to do more movie work. I have since worked on Fight Club, Panic Room and now Zodiac. With David’s support, Rock Paper Scissors was able to design and set up the post production workflow for Zodiac. If technology can only be as good as the people working it, we had ‘the perfect storm’ on Zodiac. Andreas Wacker brilliantly designed the data workflow and wrote the software to make the whole thing work.  Joe Wolcott created budgets and provided the liaison with S.two, Thompson, Camera House and production to ease ‘where the rubber hits the road.’ Assistants Wyatt Jones, Pete Warren, Brian Ufberg, and Brad Waskewich did their usual jobs, plus what the labs, neg cutters, and finishing houses are normally supposed to do. I can’t say enough about their efforts… And David really went to bat for us to be able to do it.”


You’ve probably already read a few articles about the Zodiac production methodology, but Angus filled in the gaps on the post side for me, “On set, Viper footage was recorded to S.two DFRs. These are essentially fast hard drives that store footage as uncompressed DPX sequences [and hold over three times the number of minutes as a 35mm film magazine]. These drives were shuttled to editorial and loaded onto an Apple Xsan. Two copies of these files were archived to LTO3 media for back-up. A stringent verification process was performed to make sure there was no data corruption in either archive. With film, if frames are damaged you can cut around or repair them; if a file is corrupt, you may have lost the entire take or worse… It’s a binary world.  So in many ways, copying and verifying files is one of the most critical aspects of this workflow. The LTO cartridges really became the equivalent of the camera negative, because once the data was verified, the D.Mags were sent back to the set for reuse. Since we were in effect acting as the lab, we had to be able to turn around the D.Mags and generate dailies on the same sort of nightly schedule as a film lab working with 35mm negative.”


When Viper is used in the FilmStream mode, the 10-bit log images have a greenish cast, since you are viewing a raw image from the sensors. Often DPs and directors will add special look-up tables (LUTs) to correct this image for the on-set monitor. Angus continued, “We created nine LUTs with David using Final Touch software for on-set and dailies use. After verification, the footage was processed for editing and dailies. We used Apple’s Shake to downrez the DPX files to QuickTime movies using the DVCPRO HD codec, which included rendering the applied color-correction from these LUTs. We called this ‘Shake & Bake.’ Andreas created a script, which preserved the metadata of these files, essential for tracking them through the database he designed and for various uses, such as the later conform.  Our render farm was the six G5s used to edit.  In the second week when David went to two cameras, Mac Minis were added to handle the extra load!  To stay tapeless, the secure PIX [Project Information Exchange] system was used to post dailies online and later to post review versions of picture and sound.”


Footage Galore


From our conversation, it was obvious that Wall had to deal with more than the typical amount of footage for a feature. Fincher shot the equivalent of almost three million feet of 35mm film, deleting about half of that on set, keeping just his selected takes – an important aspect of a digital production workflow. According to Angus, “In total, David’s ‘printed’ takes amounted to 18,220,156 frames. That’s around 210 hours of footage.” Nevertheless, Wall was happy with their tapeless workflow. “This approach offers great opportunities in terms of efficiency and simplicity. Once you remove the linear component of film or tape, scaling is made much easier. Efficiencies are realized by dealing with files and it’s environmentally friendlier, since there is no chemical component and there are fewer expendables.” 


Wall completed the first assembly of Zodiac two weeks after production had wrapped, and spent 11 1/2 months total editing the film. The first assembly was about three hours long, based on the 190-page script. The final length is projected to be under two hours and forty minutes. Rock Paper Scissors has been involved in the finishing as well.  “Andreas wrote software to do the ‘virtual conform’. This takes XML from Final Cut and pulls the relevant uncompressed files from the archives using an LTO tape robot. For the first test screening, Iridas was used for color correction and the resulting uncompressed file sequences were rendered in Shake for use in Final Cut. There, the picture was double-checked, titles and sound were added, and the whole thing output to D5. The final DI is being done at Technicolor, who will use the conformed, uncompressed file sequences for final grading.”


Desktop Tools To The Rescue


Those who’ve checked out the Fincher profile on Apple’s website know that Angus Wall is a strong proponent of Apple’s Final Cut Pro. “Multi-clip sequences were really the tipping point for me. In Zodiac, there’s a scene that takes place on a TV talk show. David had Digibeta camcorders placed in the three old studio camera bodies. Each of these recorded the scene and was later upconverted to HD in Final Cut. The monitors in the control room were blue-screen, so we were able to comp the Digibeta camera shots into these monitors. This allowed us the flexibility of controlling what image needed to be in the monitors. David covered the scene with three Vipers as well, giving us six multi-cam streams of HD running in real-time. That’s pretty amazing. Most of the final composites were completed in Shake. In all, there are hundreds of shots – lots of split screens – that were done in Shake – many in-house.”


As we wrapped up the interview, Angus finished up his thoughts on Final Cut Pro, “Rock Paper Scissors is now all-Final Cut and that transition happened in about six weeks.  Everyone simply warmed to it as a better way. I prefer the interface because it’s more customizable and flexible.  On Zodiac we cut with 30″ and 23″ Apple displays, and it was great to be able to have several timelines up and to move pieces of the interface around where we wanted them. Our Apple PowerMac G5s were equipped with AJA Kona 2 cards, so David could see the cut on a 65″ plasma screen in HD resolution. I like that Final Cut is resolution agnostic. You don’t need any specialized gear to work with HD inside the computer, so it really embraces newer technology. Besides, it’s what the ‘cool kids’ are using! [laugh] Seriously, most of the film students are learning it in college, so they come out familiar with the interface already.”As more directors investigate the options offered by a tapeless, file-based workflow, movie fans will get a chance to see new and unique ways of storytelling, wrapped in some of the best-looking footage to ever hit the screen. The economies that this workflow will offer ensure that more directors than ever will be able to tell those stories.


Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)