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Crime Scenes: ‘Manhunt: UNABOMBER’ Recounts the FBI Investigation

Discovery's 'Manhunt: UNABOMBER' tells the true story of the FBI's hunt for Ted Kaczynski, the deadliest serial bomber in United States history.

Manhunt: UNABOMBER tells the true story of the FBI’s hunt for Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, the deadliest serial bomber in United States history. Discovery’s first scripted series, the eight-episode show follows FBI Agent Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington), who used forensic linguistics to identify and capture Kaczynski (Paul Bettany) in 1996 after a 17-year investigation. The series was shot by cinematographer Zachary Galler with Panasonic VariCam 35 cinema cameras.

After dropping out of film school, Galler got his start in the industry working as a truck driver for a lighting rental house. Working his way up as a gaffer lighting music videos and commercials, Galler got his first big break in 2014, shooting director Mona Fastvold’s indie feature The Sleepwalker, which played in competition at Sundance.

For Manhunt: UNABOMBER, Galler got involved through director Greg Yaitanes (Banshee, House), who directed all eight episodes. “Greg had been talking to me about a couple other projects and when he brought up this one, it seemed like a really great fit,” says Galler. “I created a couple of look books for him and we talked a lot about the themes of the script. It really went from there.”

Galler received outlines of all the scripts before production began. After reading through the first few, Galler knew he would have to create essentially two different worlds. “Kaczynski was an anti-technology hermit who lived in the middle of the woods making sophisticated mail bombs,” explains Galler. “Then you have the main character of the show, Jim Fitzgerald, who’s basically existing within the framework of the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit. Just the way those two stories run concurrently, I felt there was going to be a lot of interesting things we could do visually, especially with scale.”

Paul Bettany as Ted Kaczynski

Galler wanted to play up the differences between the FBI offices, where people sit at fluorescent-lit desks for years, and the Unabomber’s cabin, a 12 x 12-foot box concealed by acres of Montana forest.

In developing the look of the series, Galler pulled several film stills from David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac (shot by Harris Savides, ASC) and Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 drama All the President’s Men (shot by Gordon Willis, ASC). “For All the President’s Men, I was influenced by the look of the office scenes, the way they did a lot without doing all that much,” Galler says. “The scenes are not flashy with tight lenses moving around on Steadicam, but much more controlled with slow dolly shots. Zodiac was more about the lighting and color reference and the way you didn’t feel the camera’s presence. I really wanted to take a cinematic approach and we wanted everything to be about choices.

“The big fear going in was that the VariCam was a camera I had never used before,” continues Galler. “This series was the biggest project I had done, so I was worried about not having my usual bag of tricks. Within a week, I was really psyched about the camera.”

Cool tones on the FBI office set. Sam Worthington as Jim Fitzgerald and Brian O’Byrne as Frank McAlpine
Photo by Tina Rowden/Discovery Channel

Galler shot in UHD (3840 x 2160) in 12-bit 4:4:4 AVC Intra at 23.98 fps. Because he didn’t have a DIT on set designing custom LUTs, he went with standard Rec. 709. Renting gear out of Panavision Atlanta, he mainly used rear-filtered Primo primes with Tiffen Pro-Mist 1/8 filters. Instead of using visual effects, Galler tried to capture specialty shots practically. “There was one episode where most of it was shot with Panavision Ultra Speeds that have a layer of coating taken off so they flare more easily,” explains Galler. “We also used portrait lenses that have a center-weighted focus that falls off on the edges. We used those on the ‘eureka moments’ when a character is figuring something out. And we used a lot of different macro lenses for extreme close-ups.”

To capture typewriter keys hitting the paper, Galler used Innovision Optics’ 6000 Series endoscopic lens system. “The Probe 6000 is an 18-inch long, half-inch thick aluminum metal tube with a small fixed lens opening,” says Galler. “It’s also a T45 with a little fiber optic light on the end. The art department built these perfect replicas of Kaczynski’s mail bombs and we could just stick these things inside it. We could move through the wires and parts of the bomb—there would have been no other way to do this without constructing a giant prop bomb. These bombs were small and all of them were originally made to be mailed.”

For lighting, Galler kept everything motivated as a general rule, doing his best to create a “slightly beautified reality.” He had control over fluorescents in the FBI offices and he did a lot of work with LEDs. “I really like to keep lights away from actors as much as possible, especially when you’re moving fast. We would turn everything on and start taking lights away. My key grip Chris Birdsong had these great things that he had taken from another project—we called them ‘schleppers,’ but they’re basically thick pieces of plastic with magnets on them—that let us quickly take out fluorescent overheads on one side of an actor to add shape.”

Galler would use big lights as far away as he could to create daylight in the offices because he wanted the environment to feel oppressive.

Kaczynski is taken into custody at his cabin in Montana.

They built two sets for the Unabomber’s cabin: one in the woods and the other in a studio on a former Army installation near Atlanta. For daylight scenes, he punched through the cabin windows with HMIs bouncing through interiors. For night shooting, he lit with handheld camping lanterns and LEDs the size and shape of a cigar.

Galler often shot at 5000 ISO and dialed down to 2500 and was very impressed at how the VariCam 35 held shadow detail. Color grading was completed at Light Iron, a Panavision company, by colorist Ian Vertovec. “It was mainly touchup,” says Galler. “Ian elevated things a bit and the LUT he applied was a little more refined than Rec. 709. We started with a Kodak film emulation and took some of the yellows out. I did try to keep it contrasty and sharp. The VariCam has a special thing going on where it looks sharp but still has a pleasing look. I’m of the mindset where I try to embrace digital technology instead of trying to dumb it down with older glass. Aesthetically, I feel the VariCam does that better than other digital camera systems.”

Manhunt: UNABOMBER airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on Discovery.

Download the October 2017 issue of Digital Video magazine