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Pushing The Paradigm
"One of the great things about working with directors like David who are so creative is that you get to learn a lot. You get to see what they're up to, what they're trying. They're always doing something innovative, something you can learn from,” says Messer. "No one was going to tell David no. We all wanted to understand how it worked. ”

"It” is the Thomson Viper Filmstream Camera, a high-definition (HD) video camera that marks its debut as the director's camera of choice for a studio feature film in "Zodiac.” Previously it had been used in commercials and on smaller films, mainly foreign. Basically it is non-compressed video that uses ambient light more effectively. 

"I chose the Viper because I wanted to see if it was properly nurtured what it could do,” says Fincher. "I had shot commercials with it but never a feature. I felt it was time to try it. I liked the process of working digitally and I didn't like waiting until the next day to see what I had shot. "

Supervising Engineer Wayne R. Tidwell, who previously worked as Fincher's video assist on "The Game,” "Fight Club” and "The Panic Room,” is the only member of Fincher's "Zodiac” team who had worked with the Viper system before. Tidwell was Fincher's data capture engineer on five commercials Fincher shot for Nike, Hewlett Packard, Heineken and Lexus – all smaller projects, all allowing him to get comfortable with the equipment, to weed out the glitches and keep the good.

"The thing about David Fincher is there's very little vaguery with him,” says Tidwell. "He knows what he wants. Instead of watching dailies all day long we're viewing full resolution in the camera, instantly. And it is the negative, not a video regeneration. It is the master footage – the light digital, the shadow digital, you see it on the set. There are no color corrections. You take the raw data to post production.” Tidwell's job as data capture engineer was capturing that data onto the hard drive with a digital field recorder made by S.Two Corp.

Fincher is familiar with the longstanding argument that film has a higher-quality look.

"But, I don't think there is an issue of lesser quality with digital that a lot of people say there is. I don't think an audience is going to be able to tell the difference in it being shot digitally or on film,” Fincher says. "That is not to say I would never shoot film. There are times when you do. I don't think I would go to the Himalayas with the Viper, or the desert, or the jungle – any place with extreme temperatures. This equipment is fairly new and its not that it requires a clean room, its just that you know for certain that film is going to withstand the stresses of working in less than ideal circumstances.” And, he adds, "I think cost savings in the future will grow as we perfect the process. "

Tidwell says it already has. "We had concerns about the robustness of the equipment. What we found is that we had far less equipment failure than on a film set. All total we may have had maybe 1 to 1½ hours of lost or down time,” he recalls. "With film you have camera jams and sometimes when you're shooting the film negative you'll find hairs in the gate or a scratch on the negative. With this there is no gate or film negative to damage because the image data goes directly to the hard drive.”

During the three years Fincher and Tidwell were working with the Viper on commercials, Fincher came up with another cost-saving aspect for filmmakers. It is a time saving feature called the auto slate. "The first 5 frames of each take has a visual slate, just like the physical slate – the stick you hit at the (beginning) of every scene. That process takes time, quite a number of seconds and it adds up. With the auto slate, the camera marks it and hits it. Consider it takes about 10 seconds - multiply that by 250 to 500 takes a day that we've eliminated. Time i

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