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.
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.”
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.
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.“