The American Society of Cinematographers

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Dark Knight Rises
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Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister, ASC expand their use of 15-perf 65mm cinematography for The Dark Knight Rises.

Photos by Ron Phillips. Photos and frame grabs courtesy of Warner Bros. & D.C. Comics.
Picking up eight years after The Dark Knight ended, The Dark Knight Rises finds Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) living a sequestered existence, having retired his alter ego of Batman as Gotham City enjoys a period of peace and prosperity. However, when a new threat emerges in the form of Bane (Tom Hardy), Wayne is compelled to once again don his cape and cowl.   

For their final chapter of the Batman saga, director Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister, ASC decided to take the anamorphic 35mm/15-perf 65mm combination they had used on The Dark Knight (AC July ’08) even further by significantly increasing the amount of Imax material in the new film. “This is storytelling on an epic scale,” Pfister observes. “Chris and I wanted to present the action in a way that would have the most impact on the audience, and we strongly believe Imax is the most immersive format.”  

Nolan notes that large-format filmmaking also “makes you think differently about how you stage things, which is one of the things I enjoyed about our experience with it on The Dark Knight. There’s more of a tableau element to composition; we let things come in and out of frame and move the camera a little more slowly. In some ways, it’s more of an old-fashioned approach to finding the scale of the story.”  

Using four MSM 9802 Imax cameras designed and built by Marty Mueller, the filmmakers shot more than 1 million feet of 15-perf 65mm film on The Dark Knight Rises. “They’re hand-built cameras, so each one has a bit of a personality,” observes Bob Hall, Pfister’s longtime first AC. “But they were basically identical, and all the parts were interchangeable.”   

Each Imax camera came with its own set of primes: 40mm, 50mm, 80mm, 110mm, 150mm and 250mm. Many of the lenses were T2.8 medium-format Hasselblad still lenses adapted for 65mm camera mounts, with the still-lens focusing movement still intact. “The focusing movement is very stiff,” says Hall. “On some of the lenses, I couldn’t even pull focus by hand. I had to use the Preston FI+Z 3 [remote focus controller] with the torque motor turned all the way up.”  

During prep, the filmmakers approached Imax with a few requests based on their prior experience with the technology. Pfister recalls, “I asked Mike Hendriks [director of Imax’s camera department] if he would be open to involving Panavision technicians, specifically [optical engineer] Dan Sasaki, in improving some lenses and creating a new viewfinder.”  

The cinematographer took Sasaki an 80mm T2 Mamiya lens that Imax had adapted for The Dark Knight and a 50mm T2.5 medium-format still lens. “In the case of the 80mm, we discarded the Imax mechanics and replaced them with a cine-style Panavision transport,” explains Sasaki. “Also, we had to rebuild the entire lens head so it could accommodate an iris mechanism, because the original Imax lens conversion did not have a variable iris mechanism. The 50mm T2.5 conversion was a little different. We basically had to rehouse a majority of the lens elements into an assembly that we could adapt into a more stable lens transport. This mechanical system was very similar to the mechanical system used on the 80mm lens.  

“We also made a 50mm T2 custom lens based on an inverted telephoto-lens layout,” Sasaki continues. “The front objective was based on a Schneider design complimented by proprietary Panavision optics. The mechanical part of the lens was built around a helical lens transport similar to those used in our Primo prime lenses.”  

Panavision also supplied parts for the image processing of the PAV II NTSC tap to facilitate a flicker-free image in the MSM’s optical viewfinder, and Sasaki rebuilt the viewfinder itself from the ground up. He explains, “This consisted of new relay optics, orientating prisms, eyepieces and mechanical components.” Hall calls the result “an extreme improvement over the original MSM eyepiece.”  

During filming, the MSM’s size presented a few challenges for key grip Ray Garcia and his crew, notably set grip Mark Wojciechowski, best boy Rod Farley and best boy grip Charlie Ehrlinger. “It was difficult just getting those monsters inside cars for driving scenes,” Garcia recalls. “We were always cutting pieces out of or adding [mounting] brackets to the picture cars to get the cameras where they needed to be.”  

The team rigged 1'x1' and 2'x2' aluminum plates to speed-rail supports to create level platforms for the camera mount. “Sometimes we mounted the camera to a friction head, but our typical approach was to lock it down to the platform with a dovetail plate, with 5⁄8-inch rods and clamps for support,” says Garcia.  

For one Imax setup, the camera had to pan between two actors in the front seat of a moving armored military vehicle. To achieve this, the crew hung a remote head from cantilevered truss bolted to the vehicle’s roof rack. “The only remote system that was truly able to support the MSM was the Lev Head,” Garcia notes. “Other heads could accommodate it, but they weren’t accustomed to working with that much weight, which amounted to 95-100 pounds with the mag and accessories, so they never functioned at 100 percent.”  

One of three Imax technicians — Wayne Baker, Doug Lavender or Stuart MacFarlane — was always on set to assist Pfister’s camera crew with troubleshooting and occasional repairs. “The MSM is like any other camera in terms of the threading and operation,” says Hall, “but a lot of things can happen during a reload that will result in a jam, and if the jam is severe enough, it will slip the timing belt. When that happens, you have to strip the camera down on a bench to reset the belt. The MSM tolerances are so tight that a single snowflake can cause the film to swell and jam the camera, and at the end of the shoot, we had to film on location on Wall Street with an enormous number of extras in the middle of a snowstorm. People were holding bags over the camera while I reloaded, but every once in a while, a flake would get on the film. On that day, all three bodies were in constant rotation! Wayne would be replacing the timing belt on one, and another would be waiting for repairs while we were shooting with the third, hoping a backup would be ready before we needed it. Fortunately, our crew was so prepared we were able to shoot 65mm as fast as we shot 35mm.”  

For the first several weeks of production, the filmmakers shot Imax setups on 35mm as well, for backup, but as the shoot progressed, they began shooting Imax scenes only on Imax. “We had 16 carts of Imax and Panavision equipment,” Hall recalls. “We carried two Millennium XLs, a Gold II, an Arri 235, Arri 35-3 crash cameras and a Beaucam VistaVision camera. Some of these were just for backup — the Gold and the 35-3s were never used — but we had to make sure any one of them could be ready to go at a moment’s notice.”   

After a few weeks, the filmmakers felt confident enough to make a go of their large-scale setups solely with the Imax cameras, and they reserved 35mm for more intimate character moments. Some sequences called for both formats, including one set at a costume ball where Wayne and Selina Kyle (a.k.a. Catwoman, played by Anne Hathaway) share a dangerous dance. Exteriors (filmed in Los Angeles) and the wider interior shots (filmed in the Senate House at the University of London) were shot on Imax, and closer work was shot on 35mm. “The Senate House is a great space, but lighting the wider shots inside was a challenge because the taller Imax frame made it difficult to hide lights,” says gaffer Cory Geryak. “The ceiling featured square-shaped, recessed bays, and we decided to use those. We hid eight 750-watt Source Four ellipsoidals on the second-floor balcony that overlooked the dance floor, cut the light with the lamp blades and shaped the beam patterns to match the ceiling panels, bouncimg the light off the ceiling to create the effect of glowing practicals.”

For close-up and medium shots of the couple, an Arri LoCaster LED with a 1'x1' soft-box snoot and interchangeable diffusion frames provided eyelight, and 5K tungsten Chimeras provided a soft edge. “We always tried to approach the eyelight from a complimentary angle to the camera,” says Geryak. “If the camera was over someone’s right shoulder, I’d stand over his left shoulder and try to wrap the light from the key side so it looked more natural.” The script called for multiple 360-degree turns around the pair, so Geryak created a consistent soft edge by booming a dimmable 500-watt China ball above and behind the actors from the camera dolly.  

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