Time and Place: ‘Zodiac’ and the Digital Cityscape

The movie magic behind David Fincher’s re-creation of 1970s San Francisco.
Zodiac Bridge
By  · Published on July 25th, 2017

The movie magic behind David Fincher’s re-creation of 1970s San Francisco.

If I asked you to name the David Fincher film with the most visual effects, which one would you guess? Alien3? Nope, lots of those are practical effects. The Curse of Benjamin Button? You’re getting closer. It’s actually Zodiac, and that’s because Fincher and his VFX team went to great technological lengths to recreate block-by-block the San Francisco of the Zodiac-era, which was the late 70s. A lot of directors would have shot around this, they would have changed a few city blocks, built on a couple of soundstages, but not Fincher. There are copious shots of the Frisco skyline in the film, and while some might consider these an unnecessary expenditure, they’d be missing the point. San Francisco is as vital to the Zodiac story as New York City is to The Godfather, or L.A. Lethal Weapon. These are places with a personality, they are characters unto themselves that hold the key to everyone else’s emotional motivations. If Vito Corleone came to America via Wilmington, Delaware, or Wilmington, North Carolina, you got a different story; if Murtaugh and Briggs were fighting crime in Queens, you got a different story; and if the Zodiac had been killing in Denver, you got a different story.

San Francisco made the Zodiac, just as it made Robert Graysmith, the newspaperman in pursuit of Zodiac. All stories are a product first and foremost of time and place, and as such, Fincher felt it not just necessary but vital that the San Francisco we experience through his film was as close as possible to the actual San Francisco of the time, and that starts with visual verisimilitude.

In the following fascinating video for RealTime, essayist Conor Bateman explores how a combination of analog and digital, real and fabricated effects come together to form what Bateman calls a “video-game version” of 70s-era San Francisco. Technologically, narratively, and academically this is some fascinating stuff that you really should take 10 minutes to sit with, it will only enhance your appreciation for a film many consider Fincher’s best.

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