Three different cinematographers actually have some stake to authorship of the photography for this film. Robert Richardson was the first shooter on board. After the film got caught up in a whirlwind of delays, he had to move on to "Django Unchained" before finishing the job. He left Newton Thomas Sigel to pick up the pieces, but after deciding to do extensive reshoots, Ben Seresin came in and gobbled up all the credit. If you mesh that with the debacle of a production that quickly pushed "World War Z" into the underdogs list, you find that you step into the film ready to put on your best cringe face. What you get though is completely surprising, maybe borderline miraculous because it's actually really good.
The notable thing here is that this is the first step for good cinematography. FIRST have a good film. SECOND shoot it well. Without a strong story to inspire the photography, it's just a series of pretty pictures - if you're lucky. In this case, what's on screen proves that the cinematographer was moved by the words on the page (three times apparently!) to produce these images. The film starts off with the soft, sweet, beneficence of home. The light is simply beautiful with sharp sunlight streaming in from the windows while the camera gets in close enough to introduce us to the lead family. Brilliantly, this sets up our status quo. This is Gerry Lane's everyday life, the idyllic house with the idyllic sunlight that makes everyone look great. But it's not long before that entire paradigm is turned upside down.
When we first see the zombies the camera gives us a perfect balance between suspense and utter chaos. It starts off giving us little clues, with subjective shots peering in every direction, trying to understand what the situation is. The movements start getting frantic fast once the zombies show themselves. In one very smart decision, we see a huge shot sweeping over the city, but still with shaky movements as if from a besieged helicopter above rather than an objective bird's eye view. After nightfall, we see some of the best work in the film.
I have a friend who once griped to me about how the presence of sodium vapor streetlights in cities has pretty much doomed all night exteriors to a hard, ugly, orange/brown/yellow glaze. But the choice here to give the actors a soft sodium vapor keylight made all the difference. It was still contrasty and directional, plus the color inherently gives us the feel of night. It's a great example of the photography going outside of reality, but still remaining within the bounds of believability because at the end of the day we want our films to look good. When they later run into trouble with more zombies at the Newark apartment, the DP is pulling out all the tricks. Everything from the flickering lights in the building to the deep, saturated red flares, plus the absolutely terrifying shot selection, make it such a well-rounded sequence. Perhaps they're harkening on tropes here with the lighting gags and camera scare tactics, but it works so flawlessly. I might not be the most well-versed in the zombie canon of movies, but I've never seen it done so viscerally. I honestly can't think of a moment at the movies in the last year that made me more scared than when a zombie suddenly jumped out at the camera, lit by the eerie red light.
The film continues to pull out more sequences with plenty to offer photographically. From the bold, Richardson-esque backlights in North Korea, to the guerilla style chase in Israel, and the close-quarters suspense on the airplane. It's all full of eye candy that's ready to turn sour at the sight of zombies. The only place I call their photographic decisions into question is the climax. After all this strife to get to the WHO building to hopefully make some headway on the zombie front, everything tones down. The camera moves are calm again, the lighting is a basic industrial fluorescent look, and the film that spanned continents ends in a tiny room in a laboratory. But maybe that's exactly why this more restricted shooting style is appropriate. Maybe they needed to wrap up this monumental story with a simple success. Or maybe I'm just trying to bail them out. It's hard to say.