One of the callbacks critics are noting vis a vis Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” is Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 political thriller “All the President’s Men.” Both films detail the minutiae of following a process to an end and how that end impacts the psyche of a nation, never shying away from inherent narrative bogging, unfussy in their visual vocabulary. It’s no surprise, then, that cinematographer Greig Fraser, who shot “Zero Dark Thirty” for Bigelow, finds such minutiae fascinating.
“I think the cinematography in ‘All The President”s Men’ is riveting, actually,” he says, calling from Pittsburgh where he’s currently shooting Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher.” “It”s like lots of offices and lots of fluorescents and all those things, but Gordon Willis is a master framer. He”s a master lighter. He wasn”t afraid to be so flat with the lighting in those offices because he knew, I think — I mean, I”m speaking for Gordon Willis here — but he knew that when you had the opportunity to have visual beauty then it would actually read stronger and it would be more influential in the overall feeling of the film.”
Which is an interesting comment to make, seeing as the procedural whole of “Zero Dark Thirty” — the story of one woman’s nearly decade-long slog through red tape, intelligence and politics to find the location of Osama bin Laden — eventually gives way to a gripping final act, staged with precision, arresting in its execution on every level of production. And it’s not that those final moments resonate for their “beauty,” but that they have such a strikingly unique visual signature compared to the rest of the film. The juxtaposition makes that final build to the raid on bin Laden’s Pakistan compound at the tail-end of “Zero Dark Thirty”‘s 160 minutes all the more exciting and invigorating.
Bigelow was looking for something a little more vital for the sequence. Having already settled on digital photography for the film, due to the format’s sensitivity to light, the director and DP talked a lot about night light, which Fraser says is a passion of his. And they really hoped to capture that, initially.
“If you go out into the middle of the desert right now with absolutely no ambience around you, your eyes can see,” he says. “On a moonless night, you can see. But it”s almost like you”re looking at an impressionistic painting. The rocks are soft edges and the mountains are kind of shapes on a dark horizon and tress are kind of blurry. Things are soft. Not out of focus, but soft. It”s actually quite stunning and I applaud anyone who has that ability to go out and do that because you see the world in a very different way.”
Nevertheless, it’s a difficult look to capture. Shooting day for night — the process of simulating the look of night by underexposing film shot in daylight — was not something Bigelow wanted. The other way to approach it was to create a form of moonlight for the event, which in actuality took place on a moonless night for tactical reasons. That route, therefore, would have been inaccurate.
“This is one thing I will absolutely give credit to both Kathryn and to Mark [Boal] for,” Fraser says. “Their drive to be as realistic as possible in this film. I mean, it makes life hard for technicians like myself. But Kathryn would say, ‘We want to go real. We want the viewer to believe they”re in bin Laden”s front yard walking towards that front door as much as possible.'”
And so, ultimately, a night vision look was decided upon. The scene plays out largely in first-person perspectives from members of the SEAL Team Six squad that executed the mission. But Bigelow wanted something even more vital than the standard processes.
“There are different ways to do night vision,” Fraser says. “You can shoot it for real and put a green cast on it. That”s the most common way to do it. You can shoot it with a high ISO with lots of grain and a green filter. But Kathryn kind of went, ‘Well, why would we do that?’ And here I am cheering her on because it”s the hard path. It”s the path less known that we were trying to go down…to come up with something that was probably more realistic and visually more interesting than it would have been if we”d gone standard.”
What they decided on was infrared lighting. But that presented its own bag of problems because infrared is a military item and the production crew would have faced difficulty importing and exporting it to and from the overseas locations. So Fraser’s camera department found themselves taking the infrared LEDs from prop security cameras used by the art department in embassy scenes and mounting them to the camera (he shot on the Arri Alexa) with gaffer tape to light the sequence.
They then mounted night vision devices to the camera so that the lens could actually pick up the invisible light of the LEDs. The result is an entire sequence filmed in near-darkness (to the point that dailies would arrive for editor William Goldenberg with action that was impossible to make out to the naked eye prior to color-correction). But it had the sense of authenticity to it, which, as Fraser noted, was key for Bigelow and writer/producer Mark Boal.
Another element of the photography that had to be taken into account — given that Fraser operates the camera himself — was that the first-person material meant had to serve as an actor in a way. Each of the camera’s movements in those moments is specific, tailored to trained military personnel.
“It’s almost like robots,” he says. “Like aliens. That was one of the things early on that Kathryn and I discussed in terms of the way the camera should move…[The SEALs are] experts. They know exactly what they”re doing the same way you know exactly what you”re doing when you sit down at the typewriter and I know exactly what I do when I get behind a camera. You still have that degree of creativity and degree of things that change in every job, but they know exactly how they”re gonna behave. And we talked about the camera being the same way.
“The camera should never have felt outlandish or uncontrolled. It needs to feel human. And that, I guess, is the underlying principle of the way this camera moves. It”s human but controlled. So rarely did it ever go on a dolly. It was always generally on the shoulder. There were no zooms or running. The camera always just walked – a very methodical sort of simple pace.”
The cobbling together of all these elements for the sequence painted it in such stark contrast to the rest of the film’s aesthetic, but it was a delight for the cinematographer, who’s having a busy year with “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “Killing Them Softly” in addition to “Zero Dark Thirty.”
“It was very much a guerrilla-style shoot in most respects,” he says, “even though it had, you know, the weight of history behind it and we had the amount of days we needed to shoot this. Still, in some ways it felt very guerrilla, like we were a team going into a situation, achieving our goals and then quickly getting out.”
Still, he thinks more on that initial instinct, to capture night time the way the eye sees it, and how difficult it is to represent. But he notes the quickly evolving technology of the day, that when we first spoke three years ago about his work on “Bright Star,” the Arri Alexa was still but a pipe dream. And he’s hopeful that one day maybe he’ll satisfy his own quest.
“Night time is an elusive thing still for us to capture in all its beauty,” he says. “And, you know, you have films coming out like ‘Drive,’ for example, that captures amazing city nightlife in a way that hasn”t been done before. And ‘Collateral,’ that captured this light in a very unusual sort of way. It”s hard to find reference for desert night lighting. I found it really hard. And I”ll keep my eye on looking because I still want to get better at that craft.”
“Zero Dark Thirty” opens in limited release on December 19.