Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Impossible Shot

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.

2 comments:

Bob said...

Chris, I'm so happy you (and Ian) are focusing attention on Fincher's impossible shots; for years I've seen his use of visual FX as part of his unique auteurist signature -- as well as a filmmaking tactic that complicates easy assumptions about the supposed divide between spectacular or "visible" FX and the "invisible" FX used in service of MES (or, as Metz and Bazin observe in different contexts, those trucages that never get categorized as FX no matter how "artificial" they are, like wipes, dissolves, and indeed edits).

I first noticed these shots in the sequences of FIGHT CLUB where the camera "x-rays" processes like the explosion of Edward Norton's apartment. PANIC ROOM continued to develop the idea of the impossible shot, especially in the three-minute tracking shot tracing the break-in of Jodie Foster's brownstone. (It was this shot -- actually a stitching-together of several separate shots and digital elements -- that brought PANIC ROOM in for some criticism by those who felt Fincher's style had exceeded his substance.)

As for ZODIAC, my personal favorite is not the TransAmerica building, but one that occurs earlier in the film, just before one of the murders: an overhead shot of a taxi cab crawling through the streets of San Francisco. It's a perfect bird's-eye shot, looking straight down, and as the cab turns a corner, the camera smoothly pivots 90 degrees to keep it centered in frame. For me it immediately brought to mind not only Hitchcock, but Grand Theft Auto.

Great post, and I'd love to hear more of your thinking on these historical-stylistic flourishes, especially as they might be prefigured in classical Hollywood. (Can you imagine how those gorgeous matte paintings of Howard Roark's architectural feats in THE FOUNTAINHEAD might have been accomplished using a 3D digital palette?)

Pacze Moj said...

Another neat "impossible shot" (like that term!) in the film:

The overhead shots of the taxi.

When I first watched Zodiac, I was struck by how much it looked like the first few Grand Theft Auto games. Then, someone commented that the Grand Theft Auto view was actually inspired by helicopter footage (car chases on the news, for example).

Now, thinking about the "impossible shot", perhaps it's the precision, the impossible way of staying directly above the car throughout the shot, that made me think of video games. Or: "What if a perfect helicopter had been there..."?

*laughs*

...and as I "preview" this comment, I notice that the previous commentator, bob has already pointed out the same shot!