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Better Living Through Containment: Andrew Curries Zombie Love Story

Fido, a common name for a dog and also the name of one of the main characters in this film, suggests the way society treats a subjugated and neutered minority in this morality tale from Director Andrew Currie and Director of Photography Jan Kiesser, ASC, CSC.

In Fido, the most obvious minority being enslaved is this society’s assortment of dead people (dead zombie people), though the film is open to other interpretations of who is actually being domesticated.

Touching on themes of xenophobia, fear and love, the story takes place in the idyllic suburban town of Willard, whose manicured lawns and saturated Technicolor atmosphere recall the long-ago American dream of the 1950s. The film begins with a black-and-white public service announcement that explains how an organization called ZomCom rescued humanity from the Zombie Wars by barricading towns and giving zombies “domestication collars” that turned them into docile servants.

Fido, which premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, stars Carrie-Anne Moss as Helen, Billy Connolly as her Fido (Helen doesn’t want to be the only housewife on the block without her own zombie), K’Sun Ray as Timmy, who befriends Fido, and Dylan Baker as Bill, Timmy’s dad, Helen’s husband and the patriarch of the quintessential 1950s American family. Fido is now playing in limited release in the United States.

“In Fido, I wanted to explore melodrama, social satire, comedy, boy and his dog films, and the zombie film genre, all within a ’50s-style Technicolor world. And, although it felt like a risk, it was so clear in my head that I felt that others would connect to it as well,” explains the director.

Like Pleasantville before it, Fido uses the rendition of color as a motivator for the story. The director and cinematographer realized full control of the film’s color and contrast through a digital intermediate process performed at 2K resolution at Motion Picture Imaging, an in-house DI facility at Warner Bros. in Los Angeles. Fido was shot primarily on 3-perf 35mm Kodak color film, though some scenes were shot on 4-perf 16mm black-and-white stock.

Currie and Kiesser were inspired in part by the films of Douglas Sirk, who specialized in creating a veneer of normalcy that plays in opposition to a disturbing, dysfunctional society. Sirk’s style influenced Kiesser’s choices about everything ranging from the color palette to composition and camera movement.

Kiesser and Currie controlled colors and contrast by leveraging digital intermediate technology. Production Designer Robert Gray collaborated with them on the development of a limited color palette that helped express the town’s normalcy. With Kiesser’s encouragement, Gray designed sets with layers and depth in mind.

“I knew Andrew wanted the look to be very Douglas Sirk, very Technicolor, with that color saturation so important to the look of the 1950s,” explains Gray. “We also wanted a very minimal palette, really no more than three main colors, because if you control the color, you control the world. This world of Willard is almost the preamble to Doris Day singing from every window.

“When the bottom starts to fall out of the Willard world, the colors begin to shift and drop out, too.”

“I love that Technicolor look,” admits Currie. “The influence for Fido was to make this bold, colorful, widescreen film with an orchestral score, but at the same time have a subversive quality of zombies and the boy and his dog storyline.

“Visually, that meant a lot of crane and dolly shots, very smooth, very controlled and composed images. That was important to me, to pull off a world you hadn’t seen before, to pull off something unique. And I think to capture that unique, odd world, it needed a unique, odd style-at least unique for a modern film.”

A Melodramatic Shooting Style

“It depends on the dramatic intentions for the story, but I generally approach a film by considering the environment almost as a character,” says Kiesser. “That was particularly applicable in Fido, since the colorful and idealized environment is juxtaposed to the dysfunction in the community. To facilitate this inclusion of environment, I gravitated toward using wider-angle lenses. Wide-angle lenses combined with the right framing enabled us to capture the body language of the characters, which was important to the comedic undertones of the story.”

Kiesser worked to combine the feel of the town with technical cinematographic attributes designed to showcase a surface cover-up of the character’s emotional trauma and dysfunction underneath.

Kiesser filmed primarily with ARRIFLEX cameras with 3-perf movements and Cooke S4 prime lenses. “We shot a 2:35 ratio in Super 35 with spherical lenses rather than anamorphic for the widescreen look. In addition, we shot black-and-white 16mm for the industrial propaganda film-within-a-film, à la Reefer Madness [a cult classic Kiesser also shot].”

He recorded the faux classroom educational film with a 16mm ARRI SR-2 loaded with B&W Kodak film. For the majority of the film, he chose Kodak color negative stock with high color accuracy, which was crucial given the importance of the color palette to his visual strategy.

“For me,” continues Kiesser, “it’s all about understanding the color palette, the emotional curve of the characters. It’s all about storytelling. I loved this script for that very reason; there is so much below the surface. Through the characters and their dialogue, the story becomes very thought-provoking. My style is to have a lot of camera and actor movement motivated by something emotional or physical. It pushes the tension a bit.

“It’s one of the three things I wanted up front,” confirms Currie. “One, push the colors even further. Two, we’re transferring from the widescreen film to a 2K digital process that allows for no degradation of image as you play with it. At that stage, I’ll push those colors even further. And three, reduce the color palette. Green grass. White picket fence. Red dress. That’s all. If you had too much of a color palette, it becomes the ‘Technicolor Yawn.’

“My process carries on to the framing,” Currie adds. “Jan and I used a really wide frame, even on close-ups. It allowed me to see a lot more behind the characters; it’s a way to see more of the landscape and be a part of this world more.”

The DI Process

The filmmakers tested a variety of DI facilities before deciding on a 2K scan at Motion Picture Imaging. The DI combined with 3-perf film enabled them to avoid the need for an optical blow-up and the inherent loss in image quality. It also made combining the various formats simpler and gave Kiesser distinct control over shades of colors. Kiesser also used DI tools to adjust for slight variations in the gray zombie makeup. He made adjustments over the course of about eight days.

The digital intermediate process at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging was headed by Supervising DI Colorist Jan Yarbrough and DI Colorist Ray Grabowski.

“The color manipulation in the DI process worked out well,” says Kiesser. “We were able to intensify the saturation of certain colors and intensify the idealized nature of the environment by greening up the foliage without adversely affecting skin tones. We had erratic weather, and while I was often able to effectively control exposure on the set by riding the iris, I used the DI to adjust for cooler color temperatures as the sun dipped behind clouds and the ambient sky light became prominent.”