Rewatching Zodiac, I was struck by this shot:
One of the grad students here at Temple, Ian Markiewicz, pointed my attention to David Fincher's impossible shots, those CGI shots that I'm sure Fincher fans and scholars of contemporary cinema alike are already atuned to. In any case, it strikes me that Fincher exemplifies two primary uses of CGI in non-spectacle-oriented cinema. First, there's the cost-saving or verisimilitude-creating measure for historical/geographic setting; where a classical film would build backlot sets or use glass painting, the CGI film can "create" objects, buildings, and scenery. Second, there's the stylistic flourish. The camera can go places and present things which the spectaror knows to be impossible. What's striking to me about the TransAmerica shot is how it does both. CGI lends historical "veracity" to the period piece in a way impossible before CGI; in that sense, this shot is not too different in function from the use of composites to capture San Francisco neighborhoods now changed. (The hegemonic practice for the historical film is to find locations whose physical appearance holds minimal markers of more modern periods - it made it easier for the makers of Control that residential Manchester probably looks today a lot like it did in the 1970s). But the transamerica shot is different in form: rather than the static visual presence of a historical marker, the film flouts CGI's advantages over previous special effects, "tilting" the camera up and in time lapse no less. Not only does the shot substitute for the fact that cameras weren't there to record a time lapse of the building's construction (at least not in a visual style capable of being subsumed to the overall visual look of the film and its coherent storyworld), to have shot a similar time lapse of the building's actual construction would have taken unbelievable (impossible?) coordination and effort. As a reminder, the shot collapses three time frames: the building's erection, which took about 3 years, the light and weather cycle of a 24-hour day, and the projected cinematic time that it takes to view a tilt of a few second duration.
So we're also in the realm of stylistic flourish. But it's a stylistic flourish for which historicity is important. The shot encapsulates the frisson of the possibilities that CGI presents for the historical film - even more than touchstones like Forrest Gump. I like the way the shot functions as both foreground and background. Its spectatorial meaning may in fact vary by viewer. I presume that the rough historical and geographical placement of the TransAmerica building is common but not universal knowledge. (I myself am too young to have any lived memory of its construction, and in any case did not grow up in the Bay Area, as Fincher and to some extent the interpellated spectator of Zodiac did.) For some viewers, the shot will mean "time passed, even enough time for a skyscraper to be erected, before we heard from the Zodiac again"; for those with more knowledge is more specific: "three years passed, while the TransAmerica building was being built, and it wasn't until after 1972 before the next Zodiac letter arrives." That difference gets at the local color ethos of the film, but also at the contradiction in the use of CGI in the shot.
The people have spoken
9 hours ago