A Changed City
The extent of Fincher’s attention to historical recreation goes beyond computer and television screens, and perhaps his most subtle use of digital effects to rebuild the past is with the streets of San Francisco in Zodiac. The movie’s first shot of the cityscape in daylight is a completely computer-generated image designed to look like a helicopter plate of the city in the late 1960s. In a Blu-ray special feature, Craig Barron, visual effects supervisor from Matte World Digital, said his team paid attention to the smallest details including a ferry in the bay, traffic moving through the city and seagulls in the air. In addition to recreating the buildings as they were in the 1960s, the team used such details to increase the credibility of the illusion and weave the images seamlessly into the live-action cinematography. The effects in this shot do not call attention to themselves but instead reverse the changes of the city over the years and set the tone of a specific time and place. Digital cinema gives Fincher the power to capture parts of San Francisco he cannot shoot otherwise because they no longer exist.
With this scene, director Fincher specifically points to two details which are indicative of his nostalgic impulses. In his audio commentary for Zodiac’s Blu-ray, Fincher says that two details of personal importance were the Embarcadero Freeway and the Hyatt Regency. He suggests that the first was important because it was demolished in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. As James Cameron did with the passenger liner in Titanic, Fincher used digital technology to reconstruct something that had been destroyed. Both Cameron and Fincher used effects to reverse disasters of the past to accurately depict a moment in time. While this detail relates to a public nostalgia for a vision of the city, the second important detail for Fincher was the Hyatt Regency, founded in his own personal memories. According to his commentary, the construction of this building was important to include because it was part of how he saw the city when he was a child. The digital effects not only allow for an accurate visual representation but also allow Fincher to indulge in his own personal nostalgia.
While the establishing “helicopter shot” illustrates Fincher’s obsession with accurately recreating a general impression San Francisco’s past, the combination of live-action and a digital environment to create the Washington and Cherry intersection, the site of a Zodiac killing, reveals the importance of location to a specific event. In a Cinefex article by Judy Duncan, Eric Barba, visual effects supervisor at Digital Domain, explains that the houses in the neighborhood have changed from modest residences at the time of the Paul Stine murder to $10 million homes. Consequently, Fincher shot on a studio back lot with constructed set elements and large blue screens for digital imaging. Inspector David Toschi, played by Mark Ruffalo, revisits the Washington and Cherry intersection several times in the movie, haunted by his inability to find the Zodiac killer. Because the introduction of this location is crucial in establishing the elusive nature of the killings, Barba and his team based the CG neighborhood on blueprints and drawings of houses from the time period and even included cars and telephone poles. Without the digital images, the setting could not have been both true to the time period and realistic enough to be juxtaposed with live-action performances. Fincher uses the possibilities of digital cinema to painstakingly recreate the scene of the crime similar to the manner in which Toschi returns to the scene to find something he missed.
Consistent with Fincher’s attention to setting, the idea of place is equally important as time in Boym’s conception of nostalgia. But in spite of digital cinema’s advancements in recreating cities in the past, the ultimate reality is the irreversibility of time. In “Through the Looking Glass: Philosophical Toys and Digital Visual Effects,” Stephen Prince argues that the digital design of Zodiac has a “realist aesthetic, measured from and authenticated by the photographic record of place in the period.” Obsessed with historical detail, Fincher has used digital technology to suggest an indexical relationship between image and subject. But commenting on the Washington and Cherry digital set, Fincher says in his commentary that the team achieved this sense of realism by “faking it.” This notion of fakery points to the disconnect between the desire for realism and the artifice of the means to recreate time and place. Boym defines nostalgia as a “longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed.” As much as the movie seeks to recreate San Francisco of the 1960s and 1970s with digital effects, the city has irreversibly changed.
Although Fincher’s recreation of San Francisco embodies digital cinema’s complex relationship with time, the ultimate anxiety of the digital age is human mortality, a reality Fincher works through in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. If nostalgia comes from the “irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition,” the idea of passing time confronts humanity with the inevitability of death. In her essay “Passing Time,” Laura Mulvey addresses obsession with mortality in the digital age. Mulvey suggests our fascination with using home video technology to pause the moving image is caused by “the unconscious difficulty that the human mind has in grasping death.” In essence, digital technology has allowed spectators to stop the moving image from continuing to its natural end. Similarly, the digital effects of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button work through the mystery of mortality. They nostalgically recreate historical events of the twentieth century and, most importantly, allow the protagonist to age in reverse. Again Fincher employs digital technology to look back rather than move forward.
Digital effects are used for many aspects of The Curious Case, but the process of making actor Brad Pitt look 20 years younger best illustrates technology’s effort to halt the approach of death. Towards the end of the movie, the character Benjamin Button appears to be in his 20s, making him significantly younger than Pitt at the time. According to supervisor Edson Williams, the visual effects studio Lola used a “2 ½D process” combining 3D tracking and 2D patches, which removed facial fat and the shadows of harsher features. The digital effects allow for a reversal of the aging process, a phenomenon fundamentally linked to the inevitably of death. Here, Fincher seeks to do more than return to the past with digital cinema: he uses the power of technology to seemingly challenge humanity’s mortality.
But as a different visual effect throughout The Curious Case suggests, this attempt to turn back time is limited. Although the artists at Lola were responsible for the effects that reverse the aging process, they also tracked a scar onto the right cheeks of the different actors who play Benjamin, including the baby who represents the character in his last stage of life, as noted in a Cinefex article by Jody Duncan. This wound is an imprint left on Benjamin’s face during a sea battle during World War II. Despite the character’s fantastical condition, he is still subject to an indexical mark of time. This effect subtly comments on the complex nature of the digital effects in The Curious Case. Although digital technology creates the illusion of a character aging in reverse, the character’s condition does not ultimately does not keep him from exhaling a finale breath as an infant. The movie reminds viewers that, in spite of digital technology’s attempts to return us to the time of our youth, passing time and death are inevitable.
Although a trend of nostalgia is evident in the work of David Fincher, it is difficult to discern whether the filmmaker is commenting on the tension between time and technology or surrendering to a common impulse in the digital age. While The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network work through the complexities of mortality and technology, Zodiac acknowledges the uncertainty of truth as the years go by. And indeed, the digital effects in Fincher’s movies often capture the past to a degree unattainable with traditional, unaltered film. But ultimately, the cinema can only do so much to return to a certain time or place.
The march of time continues on as the movie plays. In his commentary for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fincher expresses his pity for “people who go through movies and look for inconsistencies and continuity errors.” Discussing a bridge that is untrue to the period depicted, he condescendingly explains, “It’s a movie.” Although improvements in technology will only make future digital sets and facial touchups even more realistic, they will still be mere illusions.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button