Working Without Storyboards on 'the Best Film Noir Ever Shot'

The Black Dahlia is a dramatization of a novel based on a sadistic homicide that rocked Los Angeles in 1947. James Ellroy’s novel depicts a botched police investigation of the brutal murder of Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress who was dubbed The Black Dahlia by a headline writer. The movie marks the fourth collaboration for Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, and Brian De Palma. Their other co-ventures were Obsession (1976), Blow Out (1981) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990). Zsigmond has earned three Oscar nominations, taking top honors for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Black Dahlia was his 74th narrative film and his first experience with both the Super 35 format and extending his role as a cinematographer into the digital intermediate (DI) suite.
F&V: When did Brian De Palma first discuss The Black Dahlia with you?

ZSIGMOND: This project was on and off for at least a year before we began production. At one point, Brian was going to shoot it in France. Then, he thought it was going to be financed in Germany. After that, it was Italy where Dante Ferretti actually began designing sets. We ended up shooting most of the film in Bulgaria with about two weeks of street scenes in Los Angeles, including the front of the Pantages Theater.

How did you recreate Hollywood in the 1940s in Bulgaria?

I wasn’t worried, because when Dante Ferretti is the production designer, you know that the settings are going to look authentic. The sets and environments he created are an important part of the story.

Was it produced at Boyana Film Studios in Sofia?

We actually built the sets in empty buildings in Sofia, including an abandoned paper mill and an old school. We also shot scenes in the hallways of a government building and in a home that belonged to a former prime minister. The street scenes in Los Angeles were in neighborhoods which could be the 1940s.

What did you and De Palma talk about during preproduction?

Basically, all Brian said to me in the beginning was that he wanted beautiful photography and the best film noir ever shot. After that, he left me pretty much on my own. I bought a couple books with some incredible black-and-white stills, looked at paintings and an number of film noir movies, including The Third Man.

Is there a basic description of the visual grammar?

It’s a film noir look that could have been made in black and white during the 1940s. Most of the story takes place at night, so its dark.

How do you define film noir?

Film noir is an abstract form of art that uses light and shadows to set the moods for stories. Before there was film, you saw that look in paintings, especially from the Caravaggio era. I also saw that look in black-and-white photography books.

What was your relationship with Dante Ferretti?

We spoke about everything. I needed him to design sets with room to move the cameras, and with windows, chandeliers and lamps where they were needed to motivate light. I loved working with him, because he doesn’t compromise.

We understand you suggested shooting in widescreen 2.4:1 aspect ratio in Super 35 format and also doing a DI. Why did you make those recommendations?

It was a natural decision for us to frame in widescreen, because the backgrounds are an important part of the story. All the artists whose works we studied painted on horizontal canvases, because that’s how we see the world with our eyes. I have always preferred anamorphic lenses, and I still love them, but I knew I wanted to do a DI on this movie, so I suggested Super 35 on three-perf film.

Why did you want to do a DI?

I had seen beautiful movies made with DIs, and after speaking with some of the cinematographers, I decided it would give me the freedom I needed to desaturate colors and enhance shadows. It was also Brian’s first DI, but he was willing to experiment. We shot it like any other movie and enhanced the look in DI.

Why did you suggest Super 35 format on three-perf film?

One reason why I preferred anamorphic is that Super 35 requires an optical blow-up that degrades the images. You don’t need that step with a DI. I also had heard stories about producers deciding at the ends of projects that they didn’t want to spend the money for a DI, so I suggested shooting on three-perf film. That cut our negative and lab costs by 25 percent, and it also locked us into a DI.

How did the decision to compose in 2.4:1 affect production design?

One thing that comes to mind is that Dante was able to leave parts of the tops of ceilings on sets open, because the frame is horizontal. That helped me bring precise hard light down closer to the areas where we were shooting.

What did you do about camera and other gear needed in Bulgaria?

NuImage, the production company, owned most of the equipment we needed, including HMI, Chimera and tungsten lights, dollies and cranes, an Arri 435 camera, Cooke and Zeiss spherical lenses, and they agreed to purchase Arricam Studio and Lite cameras for this project. ARRI modified the cameras for three-perf film.

How did you put together a crew in Sofia?

I had done a few movies in Europe, so I knew people. I had a gaffer from the Czech Republic, a grip from Israel, who has been working in Bulgaria, and an assistant cameraman from Germany. Most of the rest of my crew were Bulgarians, who were used to working on lower-budget films, mostly with soft and bounce light. We used precision hard light, but they learned quickly. One of the things that helped is that we got selected film dailies. I watched them with the crew, and we spoke about shots.

You had a fabulous cast.

Hilary Swank, Scarlett Johansson and all of them were fantastic. Elizabeth Short wasn’t in the original script, which opened with her body being discovered, but Brian felt it was important for the audience to get to know and empathize with her. He found a wonderful actress, Mia Kirshner, who played Elizabeth Short. Her scenes include some screen tests and flashbacks, where you see her life degenerating. It was my idea for the flashbacks to be black and white, because that made a connection to the film noir movies in that period. I shot tests with various black and white films and a color negative (Kodak Vision2 500T 5218) that we desaturated in DI. I decided to shoot the whole movie with 5218. It has tremendous latitude, which gave me a lot of flexibility. I could shoot scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows without losing details. Sometimes at dusk and in other dark scenes, I underexposed the film by a stop.

Does Brian De Palma use storyboards?

He did in our earlier movies, but we didn’t need them on this film. It was all in his head. He knew what he wanted and how one shot worked with the next one, but he also listened to everyone, including the actors. Brian directed from the camera most of the time, because that’s how you get the best performances out of the actors. He had a little portable monitor, but trusted the operators to frame the right way.

We heard you say operators. Were you using multiple cameras?

We usually covered scenes with two cameras. One was on a master shot, and the other one was a close-up either next to the other camera or at a little different angle. The main exceptions were big master shots that Brian did in one take with a single camera. He tried to do that in almost every scene. Some of those shots go for three minutes without cutting away. It helps the story’s rhythm and feels natural. That was another advantage of using three-perf film. We could shoot longer takes.

How did shooting with two cameras affect lighting?

The only time there was a problem was when one camera was on a close-up and the other one was covering a master shot from a different angle. If I had a concern, we took a little time to add a fill light to the close-up, which was faster than doing a separate take and asking the actors to repeat their performances.

Could you have fixed the lighting in DI?

The DI could probably have helped a little, but I’d rather get it right on the negative. All you have to do is find the right spot for the camera and add some fill.

You indicated that there was a lot of spontaneity.

Many times, the day before we shot a scene, I’d ask Brian where he wanted the camera and he’d say, I think it’s going to be here, but don’t blame me if it’s going to be on the other side of the set. We never had time to rehearse on the sets, because they were still finishing them while we were shooting. Sometimes they finished a set the day before we were scheduled to shoot. That happened because there were many changes in the schedule, which made it difficult for Dante to keep up with the sets. A scene would be scheduled for next week, and he would learn at the last moment that we were shooting tomorrow, because the actor was available, so he worked almost all night.

Were there any … what Conrad Hall used to call "happy accidents?"

There are always happy accidents. You just have to know how to recognize and take advantage of them. When we were shooting interior sets in Bulgaria, we planned to have TransLites outside the windows to help establish locations. They didn’t budget to make them in Los Angeles and ship them to Bulgaria, so we got them made locally. The truth is that they weren’t that good, so we decided to make the views outside of windows on those sets more impressionistic. Sometimes what you don’t see outside the window can help a story. I keep learning all the time.

This was your first DI. How did you prepare for that?

It was my first DI, but I have timed many of my movies for DVDs and also a few television movies at lower resolutions. After speaking with other cinematographers, I felt it was important to scan at 4K. We also made our own tests with 2K and 4K scanning, and the 4K looked incredibly better.

Where did you choose to do the DI?

At LaserPacific, in Hollywood. They scanned at 4K [with a Spirit, then down-resed to a 2K proxy for real-time color timing]. The film was projected on a big screen [33 feet wide by 13 feet high] in a theater at LaserPacific. I went through the film with [senior digital colorist] Mike Sowa and told him what I wanted to change, and he would show me what it looked like. We made shadows darker and desaturated colors. In one scene, I asked him to make a tablecloth in a family dinner scene a little less white, because the eye is drawn to the brightest part of the frame, and we want the audience looking at the faces. In a minute or two, he showed me a correction, and asked, ‘How’s this?’ Pretty soon, we were talking in shorthand. In one scene, I asked him to make candlelight in a family dinner scene a little less saturated, because it felt a bit too warm. There were other shots where we flagged light off walls and played with skin tones. DI is a great tool for cinematographers.

More About the 4K Workflow

Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC chose LaserPacific for the 4K digital intermediate of The Black Dahlia. Zsigmond put final touches on the film noir look of the movie in the DI suite, alongside Senior Colorist Mike Sowa. LaserPacific scanned the negative on Thomson’s Grass Valley Spirit 4K, conformed the digital files, created digital opticals, and integrated visual effects shots. The digital master was down-rezzed to a 1K proxy file in order to expedite timing in the DI suite. The changes were applied to the conformed 4K files, and an ARRILASER recorded the timed digital master out to 35mm film, which was used to generate release prints for cinemas. The same master file will be used to distribute The Black Dahlia to digital cinemas and DVD formats.

“Vilmos asked for a desaturated sepia look overall,” says Sowa. “He focused on the things you wouldn’t be able to do in a traditional film timing, like bringing down the skies without affecting the rest of the frame, or bringing a whole scene down to a nice density level and then using a window to open up and track a doorway.

The split-dopter shot (a De Palma trademark) before DI work …
… and after. Click each image to load a larger version in a new window.
“There was one scene [pictured here before and after DI work] where we fine-tuned the effect of a split diopter, which Vilmos had used to maintain focus in the foreground and in the background, which was probably 40 feet back,” he adds.
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