Wally Pfister, ASC helps director Christopher Nolan envision the Dark Knight’s “origin story” in Batman Begins.

Director of photography Wally Pfister, ASC is the first to admit he’s not a Batman aficionado, but he does have a fond connection to Gotham City’s brooding, crime-fighting vigilante. “I was a huge fan of the Sixties television show when I was a kid,” he enthuses. “My dad worked for ABC, and he used to come home with armfuls of Batman souvenirs — publicity photos, utility belts, a Batman projector that could beam a bat onto the wall, all kinds of stuff.”

Memories of this Bat-swag began swirling in Pfister’s mind when he learned that director Christopher Nolan, his collaborator on Memento (see AC April ’01) and Insomnia (AC May ’02), would take the helm on Batman Begins. “Chris said he wanted to tell the story in a way it hadn’t been done before; he wanted to dive not only into the origins of Batman, but also into the fact that he’s a superhero who doesn’t have superhuman powers. He’s a normal man — if you consider a billionaire to be normal — whose only special attributes are his intelligence, resourcefulness, fantastic physical condition and fighting abilities.”

After Nolan signed on to direct the film and co-write the screenplay (with David S. Goyer), Pfister paid a visit to the director’s Hollywood home, located not far from Bronson Caves, which famously served as the Batcave entrance on the TV series. There, he found Nolan and production designer Nathan Crowley, another veteran of Insomnia, already hard at work — or, perhaps more accurately, at play. Pfister recalls, “The two of them had assembled all of these materials in Chris’ two-car garage. It was like a kid’s workshop in there — the walls were covered with research, and Nathan had been building models for a brand-new Batmobile from toy car, airplane and rocket kits. What’s extraordinary is that if you look at the early model of the Batmobile that Nathan and Chris assembled, it’s very close to the final versions our mechanical-effects expert, Chris Corbould, and auto designer Andy Smith eventually built for the movie. Chris [Nolan] has a passion for every little detail, so from the beginning he was instrumental in every single design concept for the movie, from the bolts that hold the wheels on the Batmobile to the curves and lines of Batman’s cowl.”

Pfister brought an equally obsessive focus to his own work on the picture, which is designed to reinvent a Warner Bros. franchise that includes four previous Batman films: Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. True to its title, Batman Begins explores the character’s origins, as Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) transforms himself into the Caped Crusader to stem the tide of crime and corruption in Gotham City.

Pfister read the script in October 2003 after flying to London, where most of the production was based, for some initial discussions with Nolan. Interestingly, their talks began to touch on another superhero: the Man of Steel. “One of the things Chris and I discussed was how much we liked Richard Donner’s Superman,” says the cinematographer. “In general, I’m not a big fan of superhero movies based on comic books. I enjoyed the first Batman movie, and I also liked the way the X-Men movies looked. But to me, Superman [shot by Geoffrey Unsworth, BSC] was even more inspiring as a narrative. I thought it was cohesive and well crafted, and Chris and I both felt it really succeeded in putting a superhero onscreen in an effective way. One reason Superman works is that it has a strong story structure, and I felt the same way about the script for Batman Begins.”

Nolan adds that his take on Batman is a considerable departure from the stylized, baroque approach director Tim Burton adopted in his 1989 movie Batman. “Tim Burton’s Batman came from a very visionary and idiosyncratic view of the character,” he muses. “It’s a pretty fascinating movie, and it has its place in movie history. But they created an environment for Batman that was as exotic and extraordinary as Batman himself. That worked very well, but Batman has never had a film that portrayed him as an extraordinary figure [amid] a relatively ordinary and recognizable world. That was the thrill I’ve been seeking — the thrill of being amazed and of seeing the ordinary citizens of Gotham be as amazed about Batman as we are.”

“Chris wanted the film’s visuals to come from a very real place,” Pfister elaborates. “He felt the settings should reflect the psychological underpinnings of a dark character who’s driven by tragedy in his life. With that goal in mind, we tried to create a unique urban environment, something much different than what appears in the other Batman films.”

None of these goals would be simple to achieve, however. “I knew I would be confronting some big logistical challenges,” says Pfister. “All of a sudden, the film began to feel really huge.”

Heading into Prep

Because of the production’s size, Pfister knew he would need a lengthy prep period. Fortunately, the production obliged him, and he began working in November 2003, after moving his family to England. “I thought a reasonable amount of prep time would be 12 to 14 weeks, and because the start date was pushed two weeks, I actually ended up with 16 weeks, which was a bit more than I really needed,” says Pfister. “Within that time frame, I thought it was important to see the early stages of the design work. That’s a period that directors of photography often miss out on, because we sometimes get called in a little late. Fortunately, Chris realized the importance of having me involved.”

The production occupied several soundstages at Shepperton Studios, where Crowley’s sets included key Wayne Manor interiors, the Batcave, and a Himalayan monastery where Wayne receives martial-arts training. Even larger, however, was the set for Gotham City, which was built at a facility called Cardington. Located 90 minutes northwest of London, Cardington offered two enormous, adjacent blimp hangars that had been built in 1917. Both were still being used for aircraft, but one was deemed too decrepit for the production’s purposes. The hangar the filmmakers chose was 800' long, 500' wide and 200' high — plenty of space in which to create an impressive cityscape. “The doors at one end of the hangar are so large it takes 20 minutes to open them,” marvels Pfister. “It even has its own atmosphere — you can get clouds in there!”

The hangar and the show’s other filming sites required considerable pre-rigging as the sets were being built. Gaffer Perry Evans supervised this work, as well as the construction of two 130'-high catwalks in Cardington, on which the crew could position large sources rented from Lee Lighting (which handled all of the production’s lighting needs). “I wanted to test my crew to see how fast they could rig things, because it was not my regular crew,” Pfister notes. “In England they have what’s called sales leaseback, which is basically a tax credit, and every American you bring in is an amount that’s subtracted from the tax credit, so the studio usually wants to minimize the number of Americans brought in. Therefore, I was only able to use my regular gaffer, Cory Geryak, when we were shooting a big chase scene in Chicago. I knew that seeing how fast the English crew worked would allow me to make informed recommendations to Chris once shooting began. Fortunately, Perry and his crew were fantastic.”

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.