Zero Dark Thirty

Mon 4th Feb 2013, by Paul Hellard | Production

CGSociety :: Production Focus

5 February 2013, by Paul Hellard


[ALERT: Major SPOILERS ahead]


Zero Dark Thirty is a military term referring to thirty minutes past midnight. ‘Dark enough so you can go in and none can see you,’ someone might say. Director Kathryn Bigelow says, “it refers also to the darkness and secrecy that cloaked the entire decade-long mission." On the night the marines flew over the quiet suburbs of Abbottabad inside Pakistan, there was no moon in the sky and up in the north of the city, it was “quite peaceful.”

Image-Engine dug in and created over 300 shots for Zero Dark Thirty, ranging from digital environments, hard surface animation, and some very deep compositing. There were Stealth Hawk military helicopters, created digitally to mould over choppers filmed on set. The military camps like Camp Chapman and Area 51 were also created, with expansive matte paintings and over 400 digital soldiers and vehicles, weapons, hardware and camp gear that makes up all the activity one would expect at a military outpost. In addition to all this, the dust, exhaust and dirt was composited into the mix to make this a living breathing environment.

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Kathryn Bigelow's brief presented the biggest challenge to the Image-Engine. She wanted, "not night shooting, but no-light shooting". Image-Engine's VFX Supervisor Chris Harvey referred to this within the studio as the light being "without any source", sort of an ambient, all-round ambience, which is kept low-low. Chris Harvey worked this the zone with thinner margins in light than he'd ever worked with. "The crew did a great job making the scenes clear, interesting and technically quite sound in such a narrow band of light," he says.



The production built two full scale 60-foot Stealth helicopters for the sequence in the hangars of Area 51, with removeable tails and rotors. The intention was to use those in the crash-land that happens at the Abbottabad compound, but it was too big and cumbersome, hanging from a gimbal. After the first few days, the cutting room reported back that they’d have to reshoot. This sequence was redesigned and re-choreographed pretty heavily at a late stage because Kathryn received some new research on how that crash-landing actually happened.

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In some exterior shots of the choppers, Bigelow and Harvey used the real Blackhawks as much as possible, for the staging and helping the director of photography Greig Fraser. This was also for the reference of the downwash, the replicating of the mass of the vehicle. The dust and debris blown around the vehicle was a great guide for extra material to be extracted and added in later. There were some instances where they had to replace the helicopter completely.

There couldn’t be light towers to illuminate the area in any way. Not just because there were choppers there and the rotors would be a risk, but also these towers would be blown over in the downwash. “Every single shot on the movie that is shot at night, is digital, replacing the practical model. They did survive to help stage the interiors of the choppers and they were great for that,” explains Harvey. “We still hung them on the gimbal and carried the crew and the Navy SEALS. You could shake it around and do all that stuff to act out the bad landing, but for anything exterior, had to be CG.”


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Flying these Stealth Choppers through the mountains in the dark, on the way from the base in Afghanistan, into Pakistan and Abbottabad was created with a mixture of digital and practical. The ground was practical and that’s where it ends. “I lead a splinter group to shoot this in September and the movie was delivered in November,” says Harvey. “This was shot during a bright sunny day at Lone Pines, California. This is a great location with hugely different terrain in under five minutes flying distance of each other. There was a phenomenal bunch of canyons we went and shot in with a great helicopter crew. We had to remap the Stealth choppers into the shot because the motion wouldn’t look heavy enough. The comp team had a huge challenge to crank that down to make up the night-time shots.


In a camp set out in the desert, at Camp Chapman, there was to be a rendezvous between a messenger of bin Laden and a team of negotiators. This became one of the more unsuccessful meetings of the hunt. All closeups and two-shots of the dialogue while the players waited for the rendezvous were all in-camera. This was out on a military academy, which was used for all three military bases locations: Chapman, Bagram and the forward operating base. “Anytime we had any high angle shots, the vast majority of the camp was completely replaced,” explains Harvey. “Down on the ground, right where the bomb goes off, the small area stays as-is, but everything within a 40-foot radius is all CG. The low angle shot included a lot of compositing and a set extension.”

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There were a lot of cars, vans, people, buildings and tents in and around the area, all replaced and created for the long shots at ground level as well as the huge plume of smoke that is thrown up. “We add all sorts of shattering glass and buildings dusting up when the rocket goes off too,” he adds. ”There was a great practical explosion that filled the frame in the ground level shot, but from above, it didn’t quite get to the size Kathryn wanted so the explosion was replaced.“

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Two CIA operatives are having dinner at the Marriott in Pakistan one night when a bomb goes off outside, bringing some of the building down and killing many. They escape but the blast is recreated and captured with the help of a challenging array of augmented tricks. “There were wires everywhere. Everything was on a ‘jerk-rig’. Tables, people, bottles and chairs and consequently there was a ton of wire clean-up for that,” Harvey describes. “Then there was also a lot of extra debris we could throw in around people which couldn’t be practical for safety reasons. In a bang like that, the shock wave doesn’t miss anything so we had to go in digitally and make sure there wasn’t a wine glass sitting up clean and proud somewhere.”

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The darkness was definitely one of the major challenges for the Image-Engine VFX crew. The visible margin was incredibly thin. They couldn’t for instance fly these choppers at night, for safety and cost reasons. All of that Afghanistan takeoff camp footage had to be shot at either dusk or afternoon. “So we’d have to re-grade everything, and it was all over the map,” explains Chris Harvey. “There was a lot of back and forth cos we’d always have to crank down the levels. I was in the DI constantly, trying to find a balance because if you dipped slightly too low, everything would just get crushed in the process. It wasn’t a numerical value, it was more about what each shot required. It was so sensitive.”

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In a typical situation in a dark scene, highlights around edges and dim backlight would be the way to begin to paint out the primary focus assets in a shot, but in the situation of Zero Dark Thirty, that was just not the way to do it. Bigelow wanted to have the audience not know where the light was coming from. In terms of balancing reflections, there was a lot of angular cheats engaged. There were a lot of fake reflective cards bound to surfaces, and there was even choreography in the dust in the air. “We could wrap the dust around something or go behind something to accentuate what is there,” he explains. “We’d either either use the dust or a wall behind an object to bring it into relief, or anything else we could use to pull the shapes out.”



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