Large Format

Behind the Scenes with Wally Pfister Filming The Dark Knight

Article originally published in July 2008 InCamera

Published on website: July 01, 2008
Categories: 65mm , Focus On Film , Large Format
Actor Christian Bale zips through the streets on the set of The Dark Knight. (Photo by Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros/™ & © DC Comics).
Actor Heath Ledger as The Joker in a scene from The Dark Knight. (Photo by Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros/™ & © DC Comics).
Cinematographer Wally Pfister, ASC (left) and director Christopher Nolan (right) on location in Hong Kong discuss a scene for The Dark Knight. (Photo by Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros).
Cinematographer Wally Pfister, ASC (left) sets up a shot for The Dark Knight with actor Heath Ledger while director Christopher Nolan looks on. (Photo by Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros/™ & © DC Comics).
Cinematographer Wally Pfister, ASC (left) lines up a shot with director Christopher Nolan (right) for The Dark Knight. (Photo by Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros).

“When I look at a shot through a lens, I hear music in my mind. Films, like music, need a sense of rhythm that affects everything from composition to editing … I use the same part of my brain to play a melody that I use to make a decision about how I might pan or tilt the camera … it’s about creating a beat or a rhythm.”
— Wally Pfister, ASC, BSC

Ask your neighbor, your uncle and aunt, the clerk at your local grocery store and a stranger on the street about Batman. Chances are they will all tell you that Batman is the masked avenger who fights the dark forces of evil in the fictional city of Gotham. Ask Wally Pfister, ASC, BSC and he will tell you that Batman is a dream come true.

Pfister was an avid fan of the original Batman television series which aired during his youth in New York. A Batman utility belt and a projector that threw a shadowy, bat-like image on his bedroom wall were among his most treasured possessions. Pfister still has Batman cartoons that his grandfather drew for a newspaper in Wisconsin.

Warner Bros. released the first Batman movie in 1989. Pfister shot Batman Begins, the fourth sequel, in collaboration with director Chris Nolan in 2005. He earned his first cinematography Oscar nomination for that memorable film.

Pfister and Nolan are breaking new ground this summer with The Dark Knight. The fifth Batman sequel was produced in a seamless blend of 35mm anamorphic and IMAX film formats. It will be released in 35mm anamorphic format at traditional cinemas and on 130 IMAX screens around the world.

It is the fifth co-venture for Nolan and Pfister. Their collaboration began in 2000 with the independent feature Memento, followed by Insomnia and The Prestige.

“Chris told me that people at Warner Bros. were talking with him about The Dark Knight while we were still shooting The Prestige,” Pfister recalls. “He gave me the script (which Nolan co-authored) to read in September of 2006. Chris had some intriguing ideas for doing some things differently than the previous Batman films.”

Like the earlier Batman movies, the story is set in Gotham with most main characters portrayed by the same actors who were featured in Batman Begins. Christian Bale plays Bruce Wayne and his alter ego Batman. Wayne lives in a penthouse apartment overlooking the city with his faithful butler Alfred, played by Michael Caine. Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman reprise their roles as Lt. James Gordon and Lucius Fox. The late Heath Ledger débuts as The Joker, a sinister villain and a hub the story revolves around.

Nolan told Pfister that he planned to shoot the opening six-minute prologue in IMAX format. An IMAX 4:3 frame is 65mm wide and 15 perforations long. The image area is 10 times larger than a 35mm frame composed in anamorphic format. “He was determined to create a compelling cinematic experience,” Pfister says.

Nolan asked the cinematographer to prepare to shoot a test. Pfister credits David Keighley, president of DPK 70 MM, an IMAX subsidiary in Santa Monica, California, with providing guidance, immediate feedback on 15/70 dailies, and invaluable support in postproduction.

“Every movie that I have done with Chris has begun with tests filmed at his house in Los Angeles,” Pfister says. “We spent an afternoon and an evening shooting tests with an IMAX MSM camera in his backyard and garage. I wanted to see how the camera handled, and also experimented with composition, lenses and exposing negative in different ways. We also put the camera on a tripod in the back of a pickup truck and drove down Sunset Boulevard shooting a test in natural light at night. There was no grain visible on a print made from the processed negative, and we could see every detail in the darkest shadows, with truly rich black tones and an extraordinary contrast.”

After that test, Nolan decided to cover dialogue scenes in 35mm anamorphic format and action sequences, aerial photography, car chases and physical effects in IMAX format. An estimated 38 minutes of the final cut was produced in IMAX format.

Nolan also envisioned a different grammar for The Dark Knight. “The Batman movies have always been dark,” Pfister says. “Chris’ script had its dark elements but there were a lot of daylight and other scenes in brighter environments, including office settings with fluorescent lights, and big open rooms in daytime with sunlight streaming through windows. His idea was that the drama would have a greater visual impact if we saved the darkest imagery for the end.”

Pfister notes that the color palette designed for Gotham in Batman Begins has a rusty copper tone that visually punctuates the sense of place, time and mood. He, Nolan, and production and costume designers Nathan Crowley and Lindy Hemming took a more organic approach to the use of colors in The Dark Knight. “We played with blue, green and pure white tones that contrasted with very black and rusty hues that were used for continuity at some locations,” Pfister says.

Pfister carried five IMAX cameras, four MSMs and one Mark III. The MSM camera weighs about 65 pounds, and it can be used on a Steadicam and on an Ultimate Arm. The 35mm camera package from Panavision included two Millennium XLs and a Platinum body with E and C series prime and zoom lenses. He used KODAK VISION2 500T 5218 and 250D 5205 color negative films for both IMAX and 35mm scenes.

There was a 128-day production schedule, including seven weeks at practical locations in Chicago and a week in Hong Kong. They spent the rest of the time at locations and on sets built in an old airship hangar in the United Kingdom.

The opening prologue is a bank robbery scene where the audience meets The Joker. It was produced in IMAX format at an old post office building in Chicago. Nolan asked for 70mm dailies in IMAX format. The negative was processed and dailies were printed by CFI Technicolor in Los Angeles.

“After that we were so confident about what we were going to see that Chris just asked for selected dailies in 70mm format on some Saturday mornings,” Pfister says. “We always had 30 to 40 crewmembers there who were totally inspired by what they were seeing.”

There is an unforgettable scene staged outside of an empty four-story factory building in Chicago that was dressed as a hospital. Pfister and Nolan covered that scene with five IMAX and three 35mm cameras from different perspectives. An IMAX camera on an Ultimate Arm tracked with Ledger as he walked out of the building.

“There was a smug look on his face as he pressed a button,” Pfister says. “There was no second take. The camera craned up to a wider shot as the entire building exploded and collapsed. We had a permit to bring in a demolition company to blow up the building. The scene ends with The Joker jumping on a bus and closing the back door mere seconds before the charges are triggered.”

While the scope of the film and settings help to create a sense of time and place, the camera also makes intimate connections between the audience and characters. Every cinematographer who has shot a Batman movie has had to cope with the reality of filming a hero who wears a dark cape, black cowl and mask.

“Bruce Wayne and Batman share the same soul, which is revealed by the light in their eyes,” Pfister says. “We did an enormous amount of testing with Christian Bale wearing the cape, cowl and mask in Batman Begins. This time I lit more by instinct, but it was a very similar approach. We used handheld, battery-powered light panels with diffusion rigged by (gaffer) Cory Geryak to put the same glow in both characters’ eyes.”

Keighley observes, “I have worked on 227 IMAX projects during the past 36 years and have seen some amazing cinematography, but I have never seen anything like this done on a narrative film before. It’s a totally engaging experience.”