ZODIAC, which just scored two VES nominations (Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects and Outstanding Created Environment), is now available in a new director's cut on DVD and HD DVD (Paramount Home Ent., $34.99 and $39.99). Although the director's cut is only four minutes longer (a two-minute passage-of-time sequence and a search warrant negotiation), it illustrates David Fincher's meticulous approach to cinematically exploring the notorious serial murders that rocked the San Francisco Bay Area in the late '60s and early '70s. Like it or not, ZODIAC, which appeared on dozens of top 10 lists, is an ambitious undertaking.
Matte World Digital and Visual Effects Supervisor Craig Barron were called in to create more than 40 establishing shots of San Francisco as it looked during that tumultuous era. Several of these shots, including flyovers, required building complete 3D environments. Parallel to this effort, Digital Domain was asked to focus on the exact recreation of the actual murders. The team was led by Visual Effects Supervisor Eric Barba, VFX Producer Lisa Beroud, CG Supervisor Karl Denham, Compositing Supervisor Janelle Croshaw and Matte Painting Supervisor Wei Zheng.
"We had to reproduce very precisely the way the killings occurred, and the environments in which they took place," Barba told VFXWORLD. "We did more than 100 shots, but most of them will go unnoticed by the viewers. The bulk of our work, in terms of man-hours, involved set extensions. We recreated specific areas in San Francisco as they looked [at that time]. David was very adamant that everything looked exactly as it was at the time the murders occurred. He wanted to shoot his movie as if a camera had really been there. To start with, he decided that, whenever possible, we would shoot the plates at the actual location of each murder. Obviously, the environments had changed quite a bit in the last 35 years, so that's where we came in, to digitally bring them back to their original state."
One of the most complex sequences was the murder of taxicab driver Paul Stine in the affluent Presidio Heights neighborhood. The plates were shot on a minimally built set of a couple of doors and steps leading to the doors surrounded by bluescreens. The art department drew up architectural drawings of the neighborhood to give the matte painting department a starting point.
"The murder took place at intersection areas of Washington and Cherry streets," Zheng explained. "The sequence involved a couple of dozens shots, which covered 360° of the neighborhood. To achieve realism, we chose an approach of camera projections to create 3D matte painting environments. It involved modeling 3D geometries, painting camera maps using actual photographs of the neighborhood and then projecting maps back to corresponding models. Today's Washington and Cherry neighborhood provided us good references in terms of architectural styles, look, size relationships, etc. Using 3ds Max, we modeled 19 houses matching the real ones, and also built streets, sidewalk of the late '60s and early '70s, cars and a fire truck, power lines, stop signs, trees, etc. The camera projections technique allowed matte painters to utilize his or her painting skills and take advantage of real photo references at the same time. We then used 3ds Max to project the maps onto the geometries."
Making up for the bare-bones first DVD, the new two-disc set doesn't skimp on extras. These fall under the headings "The Film" and "The Facts." The former is comprised of a seven-part doc, ZODIAC DECIPHERED, which includes, among other things, "The Visual Effects of ZODIAC," detailing the transparent use of CGI. There's also a trio of previs sequences depicting some of the murder scenes, as well as extensive cast and crew commentary. "The Facts" includes a feature-length doc, THIS IS THE ZODIAC SPEAKING, which is a crime procedural in its own right.