The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents July 2008 Return to Table of Contents
The Dark Knight
Page 2
Page 3
Page 4
A Hybrid Finish
Get Smart
Short Takes
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
The Dark Knight shot by Wally Pfister, ASC, combines 35mm and Imax 65mm to depict the Cape Crusader’s latest adventure.

Unit photography by Stephen Vaughan, SMPSP
In the summer of 2006, during early preparations for The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan told Wally Pfister, ASC he was going to try to convince Warner Bros. to allow them to use the Imax format for a handful of scenes in their sequel to Batman Begins (AC June ’05). Nolan had been interested in exploring the large format’s potential in a fictional project for some time. “I’ve always been fascinated by large-format photography’s immersive quality, the impact it has on the huge screen,” says the director, “and I’d never seen a fiction film or a Hollywood movie that employed that degree of immersion on the visual side.”  

Many Hollywood features, including Batman Begins, have been presented on Imax screens via Imax’s digital DMR (Digital Remastering) process, which scans a 35mm interpositive, applies grain reduction and other image-processing algorithms, and generates a 70mm Imax negative. But a feature-length narrative film combining 35mm images with the native Imax format, in which a 65mm negative travels horizontally through cameras and projectors, had never been attempted.  

Nolan and Pfister were impressed by an Imax presentation of Batman Begins — “Not only was grain not an issue, but you could see details that you never saw on the 35mm prints,” recalls Pfister — and they subsequently “stuck a toe in the water” by shooting an Imax visual-effects plate for The Prestige (AC Nov. ’06); at the time, Nolan told Pfister the shot was also serving as a test of the format’s viability in a feature film.  

After Nolan suggested combining Imax with the 35mm anamorphic format on The Dark Knight, he and Pfister shot a series of Imax tests in Nolan’s backyard, then put the camera in the back of a pickup truck and shot a night test on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood using only existing light. “We wanted to find out what we could put on the negative with this bigger camera and its slower lenses in a variety of conditions,” recalls the cinematographer. “We also wanted to push the film to see how that looked. Chris subsequently did a range of scanning tests at 4K and 6K with varying degrees of DMR processing. We also did exposure and density tests.  

“The results were very successful and encouraging,” he continues. “Chris spent some time figuring out what the post path would be [see sidebar on page 36], and I came up with a realistic breakdown of the costs, which were roughly four times the cost of shooting only 35mm. Chris then set about convincing Warner Bros. to try something that had never been done before. I don’t think that was easy, but among his many other skills, Chris is a very smart marketing person!” Nolan notes, “I think the fact that it was unprecedented was a big selling point for the studio. They probably didn’t truly get what we wanted to do until they saw the first test reel, which blew them away.”  

The filmmakers received permission to shoot a number of action sequences in Imax; these would include the opening sequence, which depicts a huge bank heist, and the climactic closing scenes. By the time production started, four major action sequences were planned for Imax, but “Chris and I knew that if we had the money and the cameras, and if it made sense, we would add other scenes,” says Pfister. “For instance, we quickly decided to shoot all the aerial work in Imax because of what we’d gain in resolution.” In the end, 15-20 percent of the movie — roughly 30 minutes of screen time — was originated in Imax.  

In Imax presentations of The Dark Knight, shots filmed in Imax will fill the screen, and material shot in 35mm anamorphic will appear in the center of the frame. (Hard cuts are planned between the two types of images.) For standard 35mm presentations, a 2.40:1 image will be extracted from the Imax footage; Nolan and editor Lee Smith could choose which portion of the frame to extract, depending on the shot. “Even in the 2.40:1 presentations, the Imax sequences will be sharper and clearer, with improved contrast and no trace of grain,” says Pfister.  

“It’s ironic,” muses the cinematographer, “because many filmmakers are trying out digital cameras that actually capture less resolution and information, and we’re going in the opposite direction, upping the ante by capturing images with unparalleled resolution and clarity.”  

One of the first puzzles to solve was how to best compose for the Imax frame. The production was advised to enlist a large-format director of photography for that work, but with Nolan’s support, Pfister decided he and his crew could adapt quickly enough to use the format effectively on their own. “We just needed to shoot and learn,” he says. “There’s a whole booklet about how to film in Imax, but our inclination was to break all those rules. In the end, we incorporated some of the ideas to a degree, but for the most part, we did what felt right to us and addressed composition shot-by-shot.”  

Imax protocol stipulates maintaining an enormous amount of headroom because in most theaters, seeing the top third of the screen requires craning one’s neck. “The rule of putting the crosshairs on top of the head seemed a little extreme,” says Pfister. “Plus, we felt like we were wasting all this great negative. So we put the crosshairs on the eyes for close-ups. A ‘normal’ close-up is often way too big in Imax — if you hold it for a while, the audience is going to be looking at one eye or the mouth. You have to back up a bit.  

“Chris didn’t want any of us freaking out about makeup flaws and the like, but the reality is that you see every little detail — that piece of camera tape down the street in the frame, the one you don’t normally worry about, had to be removed. We had to condition everyone on the crew to a higher level of discipline, especially [production designer] Nathan Crowley and his team. Everyone had to be meticulous.”  

During the week he spent testing Imax MSM 9802 and MKIII cameras and Hasselblad lenses in Toronto, 1st AC Bob Hall found a number of limitations that had to be overcome or avoided. The cameras were incompatible with Cine Tape or Panatape, electronic focus assist devices that camera assistants have come to depend on, and the viewfinders were not up to standard quality. The stiffness of the Hasselblads’ mechanisms meant focus could only be adjusted with specially modified Preston remote motors. “When we saw the depth-of-field test projected, it was pretty scary,” recalls Hall. “It was a close-up, and very little of the face was in focus. I didn’t dwell on how hard and complex [the job] was going to be, and I don’t think that hit any of us until we saw the dailies from the first day’s bank-heist sequence. It was an epiphany for everyone. We were seeing extremely wide shots with the depth of field of a telephoto shot.”  

The production went forward with three MSM 9802s and one MKIII. The MSM is the lightest Imax camera; the MKIII is capable of frame rates up to 60 fps. The MKIII proved to be more durable and was used on car mounts, whereas the MSM was used on a Steadicam rig, a Libra IV head and on motorcycle rigs. Each camera was set up with a 2.40 ground glass, but this was more of a reference for the operators than actual framing parameters. The 500' magazines lasted about 100 seconds at 24 fps. “Normally, that’s considered waste, and you wouldn’t even bother loading that on a camera,” Hall points out. “Bob Gorelick, our Steadicam operator, said the MSM in its smaller configuration was only slightly heavier than a [Panavision] Genesis.”  

The production carried four medium-format Hasselblad lenses: 50mm, 80mm, 110mm and 150mm. Pfister and Nolan favored the 50mm and, less often, the 80mm. As the shoot went on, says Hall, the filmmakers became bolder about using the 110mm. Also, they quickly learned what kinds of shots to avoid. “Because the Imax screen is so huge, you tend to follow the action that’s in focus, and that helped us,” Hall says. “Also, we saw that certain actions had to be minimized to an extent. Strobing was an issue, and we learned which fast shots and what kinds of moves we could get away with. Chris is very astute about what is usable and what isn’t; he realized that in extremely difficult shallow-depth-of-field shots, some moments would be out of focus. His intent was to get certain important beats, and once we had those in focus, we could move on.”

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