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Night Vision: Cinematographer Greig Fraser Captures Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 war drama The Hurt Locker swept the Oscars for its powerfully realistic portrayal of an Iraq war bomb squad unit. Bigelow’s follow up this year, the even more ambitious war-themed feature Zero Dark Thirty, is receiving the same kind of accolades. The film, which starts with the 9/11 attack and concludes with the Navy SEAL’s raid of Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound, is told in a very straightforward way; Bigelow embraces a style designed to make viewers feel like they’re observing real life unfold without the traditional trappings that indicate that we’re watching a war movie.

Jessica Chastain as CIA operative Maya. Photo by Jonathan Olley

For The Hurt Locker, shot by Barry Ackroyd, the effect was assisted by the use of handheld, lightweight 16mm film cameras. Zero Dark Thirty’s cinematographer, Greig Fraser, ACS (Killing them Softly, Snow White and the Huntsman), chose ARRI Alexa digital cinematography cameras. Practical considerations that once gave film an edge, he feels, are no longer an issue. “There was a period of time when digital workflows were more complicated and everybody was figuring out how to shoot with these cameras,” Fraser says, “but we’re at a point now where shooting digitally is just simple, sometimes simpler.”

He also knew that to cover all the action that would be shot in wide spaces of barren desert throughout Jordan and India the way the director wanted, he would need to work at faster speeds (exposure indexes) than any film emulsions allow. “Realism is extremely important for Kathryn,” Fraser says. “If she’s going for a dark scene, then she does not want it to look bright when you walk on set.”

He tested quite a few sensors for their ability to handle extremes of light and dark. “There are a lot of cameras out there that behave very well in the middle range or with just a small amount of light,” he reports, “but you really start to see the differences when you want to work in almost no light at all.”

Based on his tests, Fraser chose the ARRI Alexa, with his Cooke S4 lenses generally open all the way for night work. “I wanted a healthy ‘negative,’” he explains, using the parlance of film shooters to describe the concept of capturing as much information as possible initially. And, while it added a bit of extra equipment, he recorded to the ARRIRAW format. That choice required the use of external drives—Codex recorders, in this case—because the cameras can’t capture raw to SxS cards.

Photo by Jonathan Olley

“Yes, it’s another piece of kit to carry when you’re standing on a Blackhawk helicopter or next to a Ritter Fan, or you’re trying to ram yourself into a house along with a lot of burly men carrying guns, but it was necessary,” the cinematographer says. “There is definitely a difference between what you can record to the cards and recording raw.”

The ACs assembled backpacks with camera batteries, the Codex recorder, a wireless transmission device for the monitors, and a receiver to enable wireless focus. “With good planning and smart design, we were able to record raw without it causing us any problems.”

The audience sees the climactic raid through a mixture of traditional and night-vision photography. Fraser tried as much as possible to honor Bigelow’s desire to light nothing at all of these night-for-night sequences shot in a moonless desert. “If she could have walked on the location and not seen a single light source, she would have been in heaven,” Fraser muses. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t do that. What we did was provide the faintest amounts of illumination possible to these locations.”

Fraser elaborates, “I’ve found that if you’re illuminating big areas at night, you need really big sources. That doesn’t necessarily mean powerful sources, but they have to be big. So for the exterior, we ran two 40×40-foot softboxes with 25 [Kino Flo] Image 80s in each.

“I hadn’t shot a night scene with the Alexa,” he continues. “We’d done testing, but you really don’t know exactly what lighting you need until you’re actually there, so my gaffer and I had to guess how many of these Image 80s we’d need to put inside the softboxes, which would be suspended on cranes 200 to 300 feet in the air. You always want to overestimate—you never want to be stuck on set without enough light to shoot. But we flew the softboxes and turned on the 25 units, and it was way too much light. We often ended up going with just a single Image 80, and we sometimes had to pull tubes from that! So we’re talking about a 40×40 softbox with just three or four fluorescent tubes. We still had a big, broad, soft source, but it was amazing how little light we could use.”

Photo by Jonathan Olley

The effect, he adds, was light motivated not by moonlight, since there was none on the night of the famous raid, but “more like starlight—just the faintest ambience.”

Production designer Jeremy Hindle built the compound from scratch in Jordan with an eye toward even the smallest details of the real Abbottabad, Pakistan, location.

Fraser explains that while sets are normally built with production necessities in mind—ceilings set higher than standard to accommodate lights and high camera angles, for example, or movable walls—“Kathryn didn’t want to do that. She wanted to keep the dimensions the same and the ceilings the same height to make the whole place look identical the real compound. You might say, ‘Build the ceilings six feet higher to put some space lights or Kino Flos in there,’ but we couldn’t do that.

“And she was absolutely right!” the cinematographer continues. “The second you can move a wall, the whole film has a different feel. The second you light from a grid, the whole film has a different feel. Those parameters gave us challenges. We had to figure out a way to create ambience inside these rooms where the ceilings were normal height.”

Fraser explains that his gaffer and best boy spent several nights sourcing various generic LED strips that were accessible in the region and fixed them to the ceilings essentially flat to get some light into the scene. “The benefits and downsides of shooting in Jordan is that you’ve got a very appropriate looking location … but there’s not a Panavision or a Filmtools just down the rood,” the DP notes.

Photo by Jonathan Olley

Scenes of the raid are intercut with the dimly lit interiors shot traditionally and night vision sequences. The filmmakers experimented with some in-camera and post techniques to add the signature greenish tint without actually having to shoot night vision, but it was no use. None of it looked realistic enough. So Fraser’s team got hold of real night vision devices and fashioned a PL mount for them. “This went on the Alexa,” Fraser says, “and your Cooke goes on the front of that. It worked quite well.”

But shooting scenes through the night vision accessory that were lit even with the strips of meager LED illumination still resulted in a very blown out image. To make it work, the scenes would need to be shot under infrared with no traditional light at all.

Fraser appropriated some small security cameras with little infrared lights that had been used merely as props for a scene set in the American embassy. “I borrowed these mockup security cameras,” Fraser says, “and we wired them up and suddenly we’ve got this on-camera light that’s invisible to the eye but looks like its blasting light through the night vision lens. It worked very well.”

Fraser notes that the audience is deliberately never given a chance to take in the meticulously detailed work that Hindle and his team put into this highly accurate replica of bin Laden’s hideout. “They built it as accurate as humanly possible and we only see it in very dark night or through a green tinge. I love seeing great production design in movies, but it just wasn’t appropriate here. The storytelling and the camera needed to be more scattery, less able to study the environment. It would have been great to see the whole thing, but I think that over the course of the raid the audience takes it all in without ever thinking of it as a set. And that’s exactly the way Kathryn wants it to be.”

Seeing in the Dark: Colorist Stephen Nakamura Manages the Film’s Footage

Flying a stealth Blackhawk helicopter, Joel Edgerton (left) and his brother Nash Edgerton play the SEAL Team Six soldiers raiding Osama Bin Laden’s compound. Photo by Jonathan Olley

Colorist Stephen Nakamura of Santa Monica’s Company 3 says Zero Dark Thirty was an interesting film to work on. The production moved quickly, so portions set at night, especially the climactic Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, were shot under a variety of conditions. Significantly, footage included very low light nighttime sections that pushed the limits of the Alexa sensors intermixed with shots captured day-for-night under late-afternoon light. Nakamura’s job in the DI process was to use his Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve to even everything out without giving any of the material a slick, “worked on” feel that would go counter to the complete naturalism that Bigelow and Fraser were striving for.

“Everything I did had to look like this was real footage that was captured during a nighttime raid,” Nakamura explains. “There’s supposed to be no light in there, so that means that if there are highlights, they have to come down. The midtones have to come down. The blacks get crushed and color saturation starts to disappear when there’s no light.”

Nakamura made extensive use of DaVinci Resolve’s Power Windows capabilities to isolate walls or floors or faces to bring everything into the same space—where it all looks natural, not manipulated, but characters and objects are just discernable enough that the audience sees what’s happening in the same scattered way the SEALS might have experienced it. “It’s not usual,” he muses, “where filmmakers want me to make everything as dark as it can possibly be without just having a blank screen.”