Re-creating 1969 ‘Zodiac’ murders

Special to The Times

WHEN a studio picture wraps production, crews often take away jackets or T-shirts emblazoned with the movie’s logo.

But the visual effects team on David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” an exhaustively detailed take on the unsolved crimes of a Bay Area serial killer, said: “Crew jackets? No, thanks.”

“It’s not that we aren’t proud of our work on ‘Zodiac,’ ” said Eric Barba, the visual effects supervisor for Digital Domain, which handled the bulk of the movie’s 200-plus effects shots. “But these people were murdered. It’s not the kind of thing we want to celebrate.”


According to Barba, the crew is averse to flaunting logo-ized “Zodiac” mementos because the work they undertook was so painstakingly realistic. His team was expected to re-create historical murder scenes as accurately as possible, working from crime scene photos and detailed crime reports. Blood spills and bloodied fingerprints were added in postproduction rather than created on location.

For a particularly gruesome murder scene that took place at Lake Berryessa in Napa County, one visual effects artist had to repeatedly play a shot of a young woman being stabbed to death to re-create accurate blood seepage and clothing stains.

“David didn’t want to shoot the blood with practical effects because he planned to do a number of takes,” Barba said. “But he didn’t want to reset and wipe everything down for every take, so all the murder sequences are done with CG blood.”

Most challenging for the visual effects crew: a scene depicting the murder of cab driver Paul Stine, which occurred 37 years ago at Washington and Cherry streets -- now a tony San Francisco neighborhood.

Current residents didn’t want the “Zodiac” crew re-creating the murder in front of their multimillion dollar homes. And a detail-oriented Fincher was concerned that the neighborhood had also changed significantly in four decades -- facades had been rebuilt, crosswalks were painted differently, curbs had been scalloped to provide handicap access and trees had grown tall since the 1969 killing.

So rather than using the real location, the filmmakers shot the whole six-minute sequence on a bluescreen stage in Downey. Production designer Donald Burt gave the visual effects crew elaborate period-accurate drawings of the intersection, and a small team scrupulously documented every possible angle of that intersection with a high-resolution digital camera. With those as references, the effects team then built computer-based geometric models of actual homes, and textured them with period facades.


Once a realistic CG set was built, they added 3-D vintage police motorcycles and squad cars, a firetruck, street signs and street lights with a slight halo effect that glowed in atmospheric fog. In a final overhead shot, a matte painting provides a deep perspective into the distance, far down the street.

The payoff for the attention to detail was more than aesthetic, Barba said. “I think because we are so desensitized to overly violent cinema that when you actually make violence authentic it’s harder hitting,” he said. “This isn’t a film where the body count piles up for fun. The murders have a point. We have feelings for these people.”