The Dark Knight Rises in Immersive IMAX

CHRISTIAN BALE as Batman in Warner Bros. Pictures' and Legendary Pictures' action thriller "THE DARK KNIGHT RISES," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. TM and © DC Comics. Photo by Ron Phillips.
Cinematographer WALLY PFISTER, ASC, BSC on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures' and Legendary Pictures' action thriller "THE DARK KNIGHT RISES," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. TM & © DC Comics. Photo by Ron Phillips.
ANNE HATHAWAY as Selina Kyle/Catwoman in Warner Bros. Pictures' and Legendary Pictures' action thriller "THE DARK KNIGHT RISES," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. TM and © DC Comics. Photo by Ron Phillips.
CHRISTIAN BALE as Bruce Wayne in Warner Bros. Pictures' and Legendary Pictures' action thriller "THE DARK KNIGHT RISES," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. TM and © DC Comics. Photo by Ron Phillips.

Wally Pfister, ASC, BSC has created an impressive body of work with director Christopher Nolan. Their collaboration began with Memento, continued with Insomnia and The Prestige, and now includes Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and Inception, which brought home four Academy Awards® including a statue for Pfister’s cinematography, as well as four other nominations including Best Picture. Pfister also earned BAFTA and ASC Awards for Inception.

This summer, Nolan’s Batman series will reach its apogee with The Dark Knight Rises, billed as the final installment. As with the previous Batman films, as well as Inception, Nolan and Pfister used a grand canvas. A full hour of The Dark Knight Rises originated in the IMAX® film format, which uses 65mm film in a horizontal orientation to create stunning images with 10 times the negative area of standard 35mm film.

“IMAX is our version of immersive cinema – it’s a more powerful visual medium than 3D and some of the other gimmicky formats out there,” says Pfister. “Chris and I believe strongly in film as a superior format. It’s not just a feeling – we know that there is a color depth, contrast and saturation that exists naturally with film. It doesn’t have to be manipulated in. We think that filmmakers should have a choice. The Dark Knight brought in a billion dollars, so there is pressure to raise the ante.”

Pfister, whose other credits include The Italian Job, Moneyball, and Laurel Canyon, believes that technology exists to serve the storytelling needs of the filmmakers, and that both benefit when the envelope is pushed. Indeed, that’s how most major breakthroughs in filmmaking technology have come about. Previously, IMAX had been used almost exclusively for nature films and other documentaries. Pfister and Nolan set a goal of bring IMAX up to snuff as a narrative feature film production system. This process began with their previous films, but was pushed further with The Dark Knight Rises. Lens designer and optics wiz Dan Sasaki of Panavision helped out by designing a T2 50mm lens for the format, and IMAX cameras were modified to run quieter, with improved viewfinders and video tap capabilities, which are especially important when operating remotely, as is often the case on action shots.

“Dan Sasaki deserves an award for his amazing achievement in lens design,” says Pfister. “Our lens of choice in IMAX format is often the 50mm, and without his new T2 lens, we couldn’t have captured the nighttime cityscapes. It’s a phenomenal lens, an engineering marvel, and it revolutionized what you can shoot in IMAX. In fact, without it, we couldn’t have made the film the way we wanted to at all.”

Eventually, every major action sequence and all aerials in the film were shot using the IMAX format. The rest of the film was done in 35mm anamorphic and posted using photochemical processes as is Pfister’s standard procedure. He used KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 on night and tungsten-balanced scenes, and KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207 in daylight situations.

For the 35mm anamorphic portions of the shoot, the cameras were Panavision Millennium XLs with C and E series lenses.

“The physical layers in film stock helps give you the natural, organic depth you see in filmed images,” says Pfister. “The way it responds to light and the chemical reaction also plays a fundamental role, and it creates something unique. You are capturing the image exactly the way the lens see it, rather than manipulating the image in post to achieve the right contrast.”

Pfister also made use of new lighting technology from ARRI, the LoCaster. The LED lamp’s color temperature can be adjusted between 2,800 degrees Kelvin and 10,000 degrees Kelvin with the turn of a dial. Another feature allows control of the green/magenta aspect of its output. Gaffer Cory Geryak fashioned a 1X1 snoot for the lamp, and Pfister used it throughout the shoot as an eyelight for the three masked main characters, Batman, Catwoman and the villain, Bane.

“Getting light into the eyes of those characters, all of whom are covered except for the eyes, was the single most important illumination task in the entire picture,” says Pfister.

The Dark Knight Rises releases worldwide this summer. Pfister is however already onto a new challenge: he is directing a major motion picture that will be co-executive produced by Nolan and partner Emma Thomas. The untitled Alcon Entertainment feature will consider a world where machines can transcend the abilities of the human brain, and depict the epic conflicts that result. The project is currently in the early stages of preproduction and casting, and Pfister has confirmed that the project will be shot on film.