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Trend Spotting-Harris Savides

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For veteran cinematographer Harris Savides, ASC, talking about his work is “painful”—in fact, it’s a bit like asking a veteran about the war.”It’s such a difficult, painful process to go through on a daily basis—because you want to do it well, and there are so many things that get in the way, so rehashing it is so hard for me,” he said. He reported that he doesn’t pay attention to the film reviews, and prefers to put his work out there and let it stand on its own.When Below the Line caught up with Savides he was in Prague shooting a commercial, and he hadn’t even seen the final cut of his recently released film Zodiac. Directed by David Fincher, the film centers on the detectives and reporters covering the case of San Francisco’s infamous Zodiac killer, who taunted Bay-area police with cryptic letters in the late 60s and then vanished without a trace.This is Savides’ second outing with Fincher, having lensed the 1997 feature The Game. He reported that Fincher is always pushing the technological envelope, and that “David is the most meticulous director I’ve ever worked with. He expects everybody around him to be on top of their game and prepared. He’s very precise.”For Savides, a long-time film buff, Zodiac posed some unique challenges, as it was his first time using the Thomson Grass Valley Viper, as well as a new, and relatively untested, uncompressed tapeless workflow. The cameras, rented from The Camera House in LA along with a set of Zeiss DigiPrimes, recorded uncompressed 4:4:4 Filmstream data on to S.two Digital Film Recorders (DFRs).”We were definitely guinea pigs for the whole process,” said Savides. “This is the prototype process.”And while much has been written about the pioneering “Zodiac workflow,” overall, Savides reported that, “I still think film is a better capture medium. The process of capturing the images isn’t any easier. It’s great on the post end. It makes things easier in post. But for me, right now there are still things that get in the way of the normal process of shooting.”For example, he cited the black-and-white viewfinder, and the requisite presence of a digital imaging technician on set. “I don’t want to sound negative,” he said. “I’m being real and pragmatic. The film makes me look good, and the camera looks good, but it was hard work. I’m just being honest.”He explained that a month before shooting began, he did extensive testing with the camera and, “I was able to get it to a place that I was happy with, but it still had its limitations.”Also not having had the experience with the raw data and the manipulation of the raw data under my belt, I was a little skeptical of the capabilities of the camera,” said Savides. “It’s very a different way of working, and my struggle with it was trying to make it look period and not so hard-edged and not have the digital feel.” On set, Fincher and Savides watched the uncorrected raw images, and since they could play back footage right off the hard drives, there was no need for dailies. He explained that he was going for an authentic, early ’70s look. “We wanted it to be banal, and not have much of our stamp on it. We didn’t want to be flashy here.” During the shoot, the one thing he always had to watch out for was highlights. “We had to be careful not to shoot against a strong backlight, so you always had that over your head,” he said. But he added that, “It responded very well in the toe—in the underexposure.”As Savides was busy shooting Ridley Scott’s upcoming feature film American Gangster, Fincher himself oversaw color timing session at Technicolor Digital Intermediates, working with colorist and long-time collaborator Stephen Nakamura, who also timed Se7en, The Game, Fight Club and Panic Room. Fincher is currently in New Orleans, shooting his second feature with Viper, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with cinematographer Claudio Miranda.

Written by Scott Lehane

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