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Entering the Panic Room
More Great Opening Credits From David Fincher
September 1, 2002 | Given the cinematic indignities foisted on New York City by Hollywood in the last year (Adam Sandler, Men in Black II, the blatant use of Toronto in New York-set films), it's refreshing when a mainstream film comes along that considers its location as more than just a place full of tourist attractions where people spit on the sidewalk. Filmmaker David Fincher is never one to depict a location in a boring way, whether it's a prison complex on the outer edges of space in Alien3, the upper echelons of San Francisco wealth in The Game or the unnamed but unmistakably real cities of Fight Club and Seven. When the theater went dark at the start of Panic Room, however, an audible gasp could be heard throughout the crowd. Fincher's credit sequences are always unique and worth noting and Panic Room's turned out to be a perfect little short film about the way New York looks.

"Jodie Foster"
"Jared Leto"
"Directed by David 

Various finished images from
the Panic Room credits

Each credit appears as a set of austere stone letters floating above a New York street. Sometimes the camera swivels, sometimes it tracks side-to-side, sometimes it sits still. The sequence begins at the lower tip of Manhattan and slowly works its way, shot-by-shot, up to the film's Upper West Side location. The buildings reflect the history of New York architecture: turn-of-the-Century stone factory structures, modern glass-and-steel towers, cathedrals, water towers. Houston Street, Times Square, the Chrysler Building, Central Park. There is an awesome sense of scale and drama.

The addition of the letters, stone-carved giants, heightens the sense of foreboding. "Something's coming," it seems to say. "And it ain't gonna be fun."

The film itself, a claustrophobic thriller with some incredibly tense set-pieces, takes some inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock's New York-set Rear Window, but the credits seem more like an homage to Saul Bass' titles for Hitchcock's North by Northwest. That 1959 classic starts with horizontal and vertical lines slashing the bright green screen accompanied with the film's credits. After the lines form a slanted grid, a dissolve reveals a matching Manhattan skyscraper. The Panic Room sequence expands the concept to introduce some of the themes of the film. Afterall, this is a movie as much about an architectural structure, an impenetrable room that can serve both as a safe haven and a tomb for the heroine and her daughter (Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart), as it is about those barricaded inside.

Haunted by the sequence for the past six months, and spurred on by the film's impending DVD release, Cinema Gotham decided to find out who was responsible for this excellent bit of celluloid trickery.

Stills from the North by Northwest opening
Stills from the
North by Northwest

Since the sequence features a combination of title design and special effects, the talents of two companies were combined. Hollywood-based The Picture Mill, creators of opening sequences for films like Hollow Man and Shanghai Noon, helped with the titles and ComputerCafe (also based in California), whose effects work includes shots in Armageddon, the Hulk trailer and (gulp) Battlefield Earth, worked out the complex effects. According to William Lebeda, Creative Director of the Picture Mill, "they had shot location stills [of various buildings in New York] but had not gone forward from there. Mr. Fincher sort of had the idea [to use] outside type, maybe in the air. We talked at length with Mr. Fincher and Kevin [Haug, visual effects supervisor for most of Fincher's films] and ComputerCafe. At that point I left with the location stills and made a presentation using those raw materials to generate storyboards to solidify the concept completely."

Lebeda scanned the stills and put them into 3D design software, adding type in a variety of perspectives and fonts. He tried to keep Fincher's inspiration in mind throughout. "[Fincher's] main concern was to add some scope to the film. It starts outside in the middle of the day but the bulk of movie takes place in the middle of the night over a short time inside the house. A lot of it takes place inside the panic room. He really wanted to have a sense that it's in New York. It ends outside as well so he really wanted to bookend the film outside."


Max's title features an impossible camera move
Arthur Max's title features
an impossible camera move

Next the font was decided on. After looking at three options they decided on a modified version of the Copperplate font because, according to David Ebner, President and Digital Effects Supervisor of ComputerCafe, "It looked more like New York. That font fit the buildings better and didn't take away from them. It looked important." The team also had to determine what the maximum angle they could shoot the buildings would be and still have the text be legible. They took a number of factors into account, including color, time of day, and the height from the street. "When it came time to plan out the shoot," says Ebner, "we looked at a street map and figured it out from beginning to end. [The sequence] goes down the street, so someone who lives in New York would notice [the film] traveling to the location."

Forest Whitaker title 

wire frame
Forest Whitaker title 

Titles like this one were completely
rebuilt in CG

The feature production unit then headed to New York and shot for a week. According to Lebeda, "they shot a lot of things we had not seen before. Some things from a lower altitude, some from a higher altitude. It was still the same basic idea but it was based on actual footage." Fincher then edited the sequence into the order he wanted. "He's very hands on, almost more than any other director I've worked with," says Lebeda. "But he's very willing to let us show him something as well. If we had an interesting enough idea he'd be willing to support it."

Once the footage was assembled in a rough edit it was time to start compositing in the text. Of course, nothing can ever be quite that simple, and many of the shots had to be completely reconstructed in a computer generated environment. In order to do that, Ebner and company used additional photos shot by the film crew with an IMAX resolution camera, a technique known as photogrammetry. This technique should sound familiar to anyone who's obsessed over the extra features on the two-disc set of Fincher's Fight Club. "Those images were shot to kind of cover all the buildings that would show up in the background of part of a shot, if the background needed to be recreated or if we needed to do a different camera move in 3D [software]."

Jodie Foster tries not to panic
Jodie Foster tries not to panic

The 3D software wasn't used to just fix background problems in the shots. Sometimes the entire shot would be reconstructed in CG with the building textures coming from the location photos. For instance, production designer Arthur Max's title features an impossible camera move: The viewer looks down at the face of a building and the credit text while the camera's viewpoint smoothly descends about fifty feet. "We used the film they shot and modeled 3D buildings with the edges matched to the shot." The buildings in the shot recreated in their software, Ebner and company were able to create any camera move they wanted. The team also did comprehensive color correction to the sequence, changing the color of leaves and the Hudson River to match the film's tone and season. With the addition of Howard Shore's moody score, the sequence was done.

While the shots appear simple, the steps necessary to get them to look exactly the way Fincher imagined made them quite complex. According to Ebner, most of the effects shots in Panic Room took anywhere from a day to a week to complete. By contrast, the opening credits from conception to completion took a year. The time was well-spent, however. The sequence perfectly achieves its goals, which Ebner says were to create "a mood and rhythm that this film was kind of different."

Panic Room - Official Site
Preorder Panic Room on DVD
The Picture Mill

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