Painting Out Religions And Changing Day To Night – The FX Work Of Zero Dark Thirty

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Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

This is a film that wears its authenticity, rawness and grittiness on its sleeve, depicting the US military’s hunt for Osama Bin Laden* without making concessions to simple crowd pleasing. Remember those concepts: authenticity, rawness and grittiness.

I recently spoke to the film’s VFX supervisor, Chris Harvey, about his work on the picture, about collaborating with Bigelow, and about the effects’ contributions to the storytelling. Here’s some of what he had to tell me.

The first time I met Kathryn Bigelow was in India. It was my first trip out to the location to meet everybody. Our first chat lasted for about an hour, about the film and what she saw as being important.

She told me that she’s not a big fan of visual effects for the sake of visual effects, she wants effects that are there to support her story. She wanted to stress that the keywords were authenticity, keeping it raw and gritty. She wanted it to feel like the audience were right there, and the visual effects must not take anybody out of the film. They would have to add to the authenticity.

And then these ideas were what we would talk to the crew about, and what Bigelow would talk about in footage reviews. It was kind of a mantra. Authentic, raw, gritty.

Everything was hand held, nothing was ever locked off and the light levels were incredibly dark, very difficult for us to work with. I really like the choices made to shoot the film this way but it really made challenges for us, and for the digital intermediate too. One bump in either direction could make the image totally disappear.

Another issue came up for us was when we couldn’t film our helicopters in that same light. Some of the helicopter work was platchris harveyes that we filmed at night but the flying helipcopters were real Blackhawks that we shot on location. We had to film these in the day for safety reasons and we had to regrade these plates to look like they were night shots. It was quite a challenge to make these shots look consistent.

On this film I’m less proud of any specific element than I am the overall finished piece. We had three hundred and fifty or so shots, the helicopters accounted for eight or ninety of those and the others, people will never know that they’re there. I’m proud that we were able to move the story forward throughout without drawing attention to ourselves.

I was adamant about the need to shoot real Blackhawks rather than shooting empty air. This really helped the cinematographer, the actors and everybody to get a really natural performance.

Kathryn gave me the responsibility of going out and shooting all of the journey sequence in California, with a great DP and a pilot as a kind of a second unit. We shot all of the exterior work for the travelling portion of it. I was told “Go bring me back some great footage,” which was pretty cool.

There’s often a moment in visual effects where you really have to help the story. The crash sequence went under a heavy redesign after principal photography. Kathryn managed to get her hands on new information about what actually happened so we had to change what had been filmed. I went down with her and some pilots who described what would have happened and we had to strip the sequence back and come up with the crash.

So we had to come up with new shots, new beats in the story of how the crash happened. And we worked together with Kathryn and the editor in a very collaborative way, to create a part of the story that we were heavily involved in. But ultimately it’s the director’s story and we were happy to help her in anyway we can.

Nothing in this film is “cutting edge” but it was about integration, about making elements really fit and integrate into the plates through a whole variety of means. Part of this was through particle effects, volumes and dust simulations, but a lot of it is just the subtlety of integration. It’s not necessarily cutting edge technology, it’s attention to detail.

There were all sorts of things being down through removal. For example, soldiers were wearing a red patch on their soldiers that we discovered later was the wrong colour so those all had to be painted black. Then after the explosion in the hotel went off, there were a few tables where the glasses and wine bottles didn’t fall over, so we went through and painted the bottles and glasses out.

And in huge crowd shots we were worried about the authenticity of the different religions represented in different regions, and different religions wouldn’t wear certain colours so we had to go in and change the colour of hats, dresses and shirts, little tiny things on thousands and thousands of people, changing colours and fixing the shape of turbans.

Thanks again to Harvey for taking the time to chat with me. Zero Dark Thirty is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Ultraviolet now and it comes very highly recommended.

*A version of it, anyhow. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s version. I’m not daft enough to consider this documentary fact.

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