Zodiac the first all-digital feature film?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 02, 2007

In doing some research in anticipation of seeing Zodiac sometime this weekend, I came across the following tidbit:

[Zodiac is] believed to be the first full-length studio feature film shot and produced entirely as data from start to finish, with no physical media involved beyond backing up all raw imagery to 500 vaulted LTO data tapes during postproduction.

This sounds wrong to me, but I can’t think of what movie might have been both filmed and cut digitally before this one. Do Pixar’s animated features count? Surely there’s no film involved there. Does Soderbergh shoot & edit his big studio stuff digitally? The Coens edited Intolerable Cruelty digitally with Final Cut Pro but shot it on film. Maybe some of the newer action films…Superman Returns, King Kong, Batman Begins? I know there are some obsessive film-savvy kottke.org readers out there, can you shed any light on this?

Update: According to this feature on Apple’s web site, Kerry Conran shot and edited Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow digitally.

Reader comments

Jason WindsorMar 02, 2007 at 12:22PM

Wasn’t at least the Ep 3 of Star Wars recorded purely digital? Wasn’t that Lucas’ big thing?

Oliver TaylorMar 02, 2007 at 12:31PM

In the world of digital cinematography, video tape is the master storage media, this is true of the Panavision systems used for Superman, Apocalypto, and other digital efforts like Collateral, Star Wars, and almost all high-def television shows.

What they are most likely referring to is the emerging trend among professional digital cameras to get rid of video tape as a storage system and move to a pure hard-drive system. The idea being that the camera captures the images directly to a hard-drive, then you edit from those hard drives, and later create a distribution master directly from a hard drive, all without ever moving your media to anything but a hard drive.

This may well be the first major studio film to do this.

peteMar 02, 2007 at 12:36PM

i also thought Sin City was all digital.

Deron BaumanMar 02, 2007 at 12:37PM

Robert Rodriguez shoots all of his movies digitally. I don’t know if they are considered ‘studio features’. Perhaps this is the hitch.

Oliver TaylorMar 02, 2007 at 12:38PM

There is a big difference between “all digital” and “video-tape-less” which is what I think the deal with this film is.

MartinMar 02, 2007 at 12:41PM

A Scanner Darkly was shot all digital perhaps? There was another movie shot I think in Russia that was 90 minutes or more that was also all one continuous sequence - and they filmed it I believe directly to hard drive.

JackMar 02, 2007 at 12:47PM

Star Wars Episode II was the first film shot entirely digitally - with Sony’s CineAlta 24P - as far as I recall.

JackMar 02, 2007 at 12:49PM

That is, the first major “studio” film if you count Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch/Fortress of Solitude as a studio.

BoMar 02, 2007 at 12:50PM

David Lynch shot INLAND EMPIRE entirely on digital equipment. He’s a total convert now and says he will never go back to film.

Phillip WinnMar 02, 2007 at 12:54PM

Sin City was definitely shot all-digital, but Robert Rodriguez dropped out of the DGA to do it, so I guess they might be saying that’s not a “full-length studio feature film.”

However, I think they’re full of nonsense.

jkottkeMar 02, 2007 at 1:13PM

What they are most likely referring to is the emerging trend among professional digital cameras to get rid of video tape as a storage system and move to a pure hard-drive system.

Ah, ok…that makes sense. But bits being bits, I’m wondering if that’s splitting hairs a bit too fine.

Josh KirschenbaumMar 02, 2007 at 1:27PM

Bits being bits is true- but there is a TREMENDOUS advantage to shooting on a hard disk instead of HDCAM, DVCAM or Digital Betacam. Not only do you have the various compression issues with ANY tape format (except for Sony’s older D1 format), you can also start working with that uncompressed Filmstream footage much faster than with tape- tape is still a “real-time” format for transferring to your editing system - with the Viper camera used on “Zodiac” Fincher could be editing footage as fast as they could copy it out of the camera’s hard disks.

But to get back on topic - “Zodiac” is definitely breaking ground - but the ground was kind of cracked and brittle already, thanks to Lucas, Rodriguez and Conran…

Ben SaundersMar 02, 2007 at 1:35PM

28 Days Later was shot on Mini-DV using handheld (Canon XL1) cameras .

Carl JonardMar 02, 2007 at 1:36PM

with no physical media involved

That’s just poorly phrased. Clearly, a hard drive is physical media just as much a videotape is.

MTMar 02, 2007 at 2:12PM

I am fairly certain that the entirety of Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice” was shot digitally. Don’t know about the editing process, though.

bloopyMar 02, 2007 at 2:14PM

if i remember the various dvd commentaries i’ve listened to correctly (and i’m sure i’m getting things a bit mixed up) robert rodriguez was editing the sound for spy kids up at skywalker ranch when george lucas showed him some HD footage from episode 1 or 2 (i forget which one)… rodriguez was intrigued and tried shooting some of the footage from spy kids 2 in HD and was blown away with how much easier it was to work with than film - one of the things being HD was apparently more wysiwyg than film…

it was around then that he had to shoot once upon a time in mexico and decided to go all digital (i.e. HD) and then never looked back. . . from rodriguez’s commentaries, i think the order of purely HD movies was either episode 1 or 2, and then once upon a time in mexico…

but again, i could be wrong about that…

JarrodMar 02, 2007 at 2:21PM

There are a number of Division I football programs, and I’m guessing NFL teams that employ similar technology for official game and practice film. For each play of an official game tape, there is a sideline view of all 22 players followed by an endzone view of the “box.”

Technology now allows you to run a sideline camera directly into a computer and send a wireless feed from a camera in the endzone to it and capture them both at the same time, live. Both of these angles are stored on the computer hard drive and intercut as you go. The guy controlling the stop/record buttons on the computer can input vital info like yard line, down and distance, hash, and mark the plays as offense, defense, or special teams. As soon as the game is over, the offense, defense, and special teams sections can be exported to external hard drives and then uploaded onto individual coaching laptops just minutes after the game. Coaches are now able to watch and grade edited/intercut game tape on their laptops during the bus/plane ride home. The actual minidv tapes in the cameras are still manually recorded onto, but are only used as backup in case plays are missed or something crashes. 3 years ago, all plays were captured onto a tape and then had to be edited after the game was over. A six hour process is now something than can be done in about 30 minutes.

Of course, the capturing they did for Zodiac was uncompressed footage, which is something football programs don’t worry about, otherwise it would take hours to export and download footage. Knowing Fincher, he probably had a pre-editor right there on the set, had multiple cameras running, and was getting an early blueprint for the final editing process.

ScottMar 02, 2007 at 2:32PM

From the Zodiac trivia (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0443706/trivia) page at IMDB:

“David Fincher decided to use the Thomson Viper FilmStream camera to shoot the entire film, making this the first feature film shot exclusively with the camera, and in the uncompressed digital video format. Zodiac is the first “Hollywood Studio Production” shot with the VIPER and in an uncompressed digital “data” Format. The first ever shot feature Film shot entirely with the VIPER is the British independent production _Silence Becomes You (2005) (V)_ by director Stephanie Sinclaire. After Silence Becomes You, other independent European Movie-Productions like _Highlander: The Source (2006)_ (director Brett Leonard) and Scorpion (2007) (director: Julien Seri) have used the same work flow.”

Looks like it’s the first to use that camera.

jkottkeMar 02, 2007 at 2:36PM

This NY Times article on Fincher and Zodiac has a little tidbit about how the shooting was done:

Mr. Gyllenhaal said he came from a collaborative filmmaking family: “We share ideas, and we incorporate those ideas.” He added: “David knows what he wants, and he’s very clear about what he wants, and he’s very, very, very smart. But sometimes we’d do a lot of takes, and he’d turn, and he would say, because he had a computer there” - the movie was shot digitally - ” ‘Delete the last 10 takes.’ And as an actor that’s very hard to hear.”

Sounds like he was deleting takes on the set so he wouldn’t even have to deal with them during the editing process. I don’t know about film, but in the photography biz, deleting shots before the editing process begins is almost unheard of, although the preview screen is likely smaller with photography; Fincher’s probably reviewing those shots on a 42” LCD or something like that.

TalalMar 02, 2007 at 3:58PM

It’s just the first video-tape-less feature. Even the other major digital productions (Superman, Star Wards II and III, etc…) were capturing everything to three or four hard drives at the same time as recording onto the tape.

Sean ConnerMar 02, 2007 at 4:26PM

What about Russian Ark? It had to be shot digitally since it’s all done in one take. And that was four years ago.

DavidMar 02, 2007 at 4:30PM

What about these films that have been shot digitally:
- Collateral
- Once Upon A Time In Mexico
- Spy Kids 3-D
- Sin City
- Sky Captain
- Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones
- Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith
- The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl
- Grindhouse
- Miami Vice
- 300

Some high-profile directors who have been shooting digitally:
- George Lucas
- Robert Rodriguez
- David Fincher
- David Lynch
- Lars von Trier
- James Cameron

bloopyMar 02, 2007 at 5:14PM

i’m not in the feature film business but from what i understand from the various books i’ve read on the subject and the commentaries i’ve listened to, deleting takes isn’t common becuase you never know what might come in useful later on…

a good example is “the godfather” when coppola needed some shots of the empty hospital hallway when don corleone was in the hospital and michael had to keep him alive ‘til the bodyguards arrived… unfortunately for coppola, he didn’t have time to shoot empty hallway shots so george lucas went thru his footage to find bits and pieces of empty hallway from beginnings and endings of takes before and after people entered and exited the shots…

i remember reading that same article and also wondering why he’d delete takes like that… i couldn’t think of any good reason someone would delete takes, especially since the cost of hard drive storage is so miniscule… especially when compared to the costs of just shooting the footage…

nexMar 02, 2007 at 5:26PM

Half-informed opinions about tapes etc. aside, the statement quoted above is nothing but utter bullshit. If you spout such nonsense as “produced as data” and “no physical media”, you either want to deceive some poor suckers, or you’re a complete idiot, or maybe you’re using industry jargon that only makes sense to a small group of people. Absolutely not worth thinking or talking about.

AjitMar 02, 2007 at 6:18PM

Yea, as Oliver said, I think they mean no tape. Everything seems to be moving to either hard-drives or flash cards.

Have you heard about the Red camera? Filmmakers, like me, are losing our heads over this. The official release is a couple of weeks away. The site for the camera:


AjitMar 02, 2007 at 6:31PM

Nex. what are you talking about? No one doubts that this is hype. But it is curious even to me what context the reporter is yaking about.

Some films that were shot in digital a couple of years ago were printed to film and then rescanned to digital (digital to digital does not mean lossless conversion). So in online part of post-production, they would be using the scanned version.

I think recently, and Zodiac, isn’t the first, I am assuming they never had to upress any because they were working with uncompressed footage. They probably compressed for offline editing and went back to the original footage for offline.

dotsaraMar 02, 2007 at 6:34PM

Scott beat me to it; I understood that Zodiac was just the first feature film to filmed in its entirety with the Thomson Viper Filmstream Camera.

@ MT: Miami Vice was shot partly with the Thomson Viper and partly on Super 35mm.

nexMar 02, 2007 at 7:02PM

Yes, it’s curious, and the technologies they used (uncompressed 10bit video data being the most impressive one) are interesting, but there still is the question, “what exactly does this mean?” And it’s worth pointing out that the answer is, “it doesn’t mean anything, it’s bullshit.” However, if you read the entire linked article, pretty much everything you’d like to know should still become clear. So the article _is_ worth talking about, just not this quote. No?

I’m intrigued by the idea of printing and re-scanning a digital recording. Why was this done, can you name a movie for which this was done, do you have a web link?

The Red camera looks like a nifty toy, but there’s no way they can deliver “early 2007” with not a single prototype in sight. Also, their promise of 4:4:4 RGB is fishy … they use only a single sensor, and I’m sure it’s single layer (i.e. Bayer sensor), as they mention demosaicing on their “workflow” page. Another weird thing is that they don’t mention, even with a single syllable, which device you’ll use to capture 24 frames of 4MP RAW data per second. Did I do my math wrong, or are we talking about > 1GB of data per second (!) here?

AjitMar 02, 2007 at 8:45PM


Red just announced the shipping dates for their camera. You can find information to all your questions at reduser.com. Even Jim Jannard (founder of Oakley glasses and Red camera) can be found there.

They are many ways of capturing the data. They have a tape format and even a hard disk/flash format (like the panasonic p2). How good it works, we will have to wait and see.

In regards to whether the article is worth talking about. Sure. If I were presented with a plate of fruits. All of these would look delectable. But also quite normal for any plate of fruits. But if there were an apple that looked like a load of crap, it would be intersting to note: “that apple looks like a fake.”

In general we can’t talk about everything at once. Why aren’t we talking about the article can move towards why are we not talking about the movie could be why are we not talking about all movies could be blah blah….

bloopyMar 02, 2007 at 11:07PM

ajit: reduser.com seems to be a domain-name parking site… did you mean something else like reduser.net?…

AjitMar 02, 2007 at 11:16PM



JocelynMar 04, 2007 at 1:12AM

OK, so I’m circling back to the top of this string…But no one’s mentioned Spike Lee’s amazing “Bamboozled,” which was shot entirely on digital video cameras. The DVD version has an extremely enlightening bonus feature about the filming process. For instance, the shots of the performers at their dressing tables utilzed something like a dozen cameras all stationed around the set piece. In fact, I think there were a lot of scenes that were shot that way. If I’m recalling correctly, lack of funds were a big issue and partially responsible for the use of the digital video cams.

pauldwaiteMar 04, 2007 at 8:14AM

Tricky, cos how could you be sure no little bits had been, say, transferred to film at some point, or whatever.

I think the more interesting question is: why care? It’s interesting to know the pros and cons of filmmaking techniques (just like an other techniques), but not, I’d argue, particularly interesting to know who first made a film where everything was on hard drives only.

Mike B.Mar 04, 2007 at 8:36PM

Russian Ark was filmed in 2002 and had 2000 Actors, 300 years of Russian History, 33 Rooms at the Hermitage Museum, 3 Live Orchestras, and 1 single continuous 90-minute Steadicam shot. Great film! Check out the “making of” videos on the DVD, too!

From the Wikipedia page on Russian Ark:
“Russian Ark was recorded in uncompressed high definition video using a Sony HDW-F900. There was a specifically designed camera for this film. The information was not recorded compressed to tape as usual, but uncompressed onto a hard disk which could hold 100 minutes. Four attempts were made to complete the shot; the first three had to be interrupted due to technical faults, but the fourth attempt was completed successfully.”

Mike B.Mar 04, 2007 at 8:46PM

Forgot to mention also:

There is also the issue of what is used to distribute and project the film. There are some technologies, namely from projection companies like Barco, that can distribute the film on an Internet2-like network to theaters. They are stored on hard drives at the theaters, and then projected with digital light projectors (DLP).

emilyMar 05, 2007 at 11:05AM

“i couldn’t think of any good reason someone would delete takes, especially since the cost of hard drive storage is so miniscule”

bloopy, I am no tech expert but i asked the same question after reading the NYT article (cited above) and seeing the film this weekend. Apparently Fincher will do scores of takes, like 70+, so deleting 10 of those becomes less of a big deal — except for the actors, who might understandably be miffed at doing 70 takes in the first place. I loved the film, but Jake Gyllenhaal came off a little wooden, and he rarely had dialogue lengthy or unusual enough to, in my mind, warrant a zillion takes. Unless, my husband and I speculated, Fincher is a Kubrickian nihilist who used the multiple takes (and perhaps their casual deletion?) as a way to club the actors into submission and make their performances affectless on purpose? It seemed Gyllenhaal bore the brunt of this, because Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. were excellent, presumably in spite of this treatment. Interesting…

BennettMar 05, 2007 at 4:43PM

I think that EP3 wasn’t fully digital…

BundleMar 06, 2007 at 7:50PM

Aleksandr Sokurov’s “Russian Ark” was shot entirely digitally in 2002. It was the first full-length movie to be “filmed” in one continuous shot…something that was previously impossible with film.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.