Manhunt: Unabomber Depicts Cat-and-Mouse with a Killer

Manhunt: Unabomber is an eight-episode Discovery Channel miniseries that dramatizes the federal government’s pursuit of Ted Kaczynski, the domestic terrorist behind a string of letter bombs, some fatal, in the mid-1990s. At the center of the search is a linguistic profiler who uses the verbose killer’s own language cues to help catch him after years of more traditional methods failed. Sam Worthington plays profiler Jim Fitzgerald, and Paul Bettany portrays the Unabomber.

Photo Credit: Zachary Galler

Cinematographer Zachary Galler and director Greg Yaitanes established common ground with a “look book” that evolved as the duo honed in on a visual strategy. Their A-camera was a Panasonic Varicam 35, and the lens package included a wide variety of glass. But the bulk of the show was shot on Panavision Primos.

One of the central dichotomies in the film is between lush natural settings and the dropped-ceiling fluorescent-lit environment in government offices – in this case, the Unabomber Task Force headquarters in San Francisco. Among others, the filmmakers took inspiration from The Insider for coverage that feels alive without being distracting, from All the President’s Men for the depiction of procedural, office-based scenes, and from Zodiac for many of the lighting references.

 

Photo Credit: Zachary Galler

“In the modern era, the audience is so savvy that you can deliver a lot of information without a million cuts and crazy camera moves,” notes Galler. “We wanted to be really selective with coverage. We shot prime lenses as much as we could, and we shot wide and close as much as possible to feel the sets and the scale of things.”

Galler initially considered detuned Primos for a less natural look. “The detuned Primos were very pretty, and I used them on my previous project, but this show is a true-crime story,” he says. “You want to make it cinematic, but at the same time you have a responsibility to keep it feeling real and grounded. You have to be very careful not to romanticize the story or this horrible murderer.” 

Panavision Atlanta provided all the gear, expertise, service and more. 

Photo Credit: Tina Rowden/Discovery Channel

“I rear filtered the whole show with 1/8 ProMist just to soften the camera up a bit,” he explains, “and Panavision has a great proprietary rear filtering system that puts the filter over the sensor instead of on the back of the lens. It helps the ACs, and I essentially put in on and forgot about it. For night interiors, I added a Glimmerglass to subtly bring out the highlights and the edges of the actors.”

A flashback to earlier days was shot with Panavision Ultra Speed primes, and Galler brought out some portrait lenses to intensify the profiler’s “Eureka” moment. Important insert shots of bomb materials and type-written words were accomplished with an Innovision Probe lens system, and in some cases a Probe 600, which uses fiberoptics. Combined with the dual native ISO of the Varicam, it allowed Galler to get full-frame shots from inside a typewriter. Galler also used Panavision zooms including the SLZ11 and the PCZ – in one case, he used a doubler for an effective focal length of 900mm. Zooms were often employed for Technocrane shots, and for efficient coverage of office scenes with as many as 200 extras. 

Photo Credit: Zachary Galler

The shoot went for 78 days, and the production took over a disused Army facility in Atlanta formerly called Fort McPherson for major portions. “It was huge, and it had an overbuilt feeling,” says Galler. “We built sets inside, including a prison in the basement, and we brought Kaczynski’s cabin interior set into an atrium. That facility gave us control, and allowed us to spend our time shooting instead of moving around. We were lucky to find it.

Panavision subsidiary Light Iron played a key role in postproduction for Galler. “Light Iron was hugely supportive throughout the process of making this show,’ he notes. “Ian Vertovec has great taste and was very, very fast. He also had great ideas, and helped me find a more refined and elegant version of what we had captured in camera.”  

Photo Credit: Zachary Galler

Galler took advantage of Light Iron’s Outpost mobile postproduction system. “I usually watched Rec 709 on set, since we were without a DIT,” says Galler. “I really liked having stills to look at, so the dailies colorist, Mark Goldbaum, would occasionally send me a couple hundred pulls, just for reference, because things get compressed.”

Manhunt: Unabomber is currently airing on Discovery Channel.