By Scott Brown
The Bat-plan was simple: Base-jump off one Hong Kong skyscraper, smash through the window of another, grab the Chinese crime boss, then hitch a drag chute to a passing C-130 cargo plane for a daring aerial escape. And on to Gotham! An instant, no-fuss extradition in the best tradition of American vigilantism. Just another working day for Batman and, presumably, just another feat of digital wizardry for the visual effects team. Except for one thing: Christopher Nolan, director of The Dark Knight, wanted to do it for real.
Which is a funny thing to want when you're making a lavish superhero sequel here in the heyday of the greenscreen. And certainly not an easy thing to get, 88 stories above a juddering megacity on the other side of the world. "They spent weeks in preproduction working out a way to hang the stuntman from one helicopter and have a second helicopter following him with the camera," says Wally Pfister, the movie's director of photography. Two choppers and a stuntman on a string — all to make a comic- book hero seem as credible on film as Frank Serpico or The French Connection's Popeye Doyle. All to make a comic-book movie speak the cinematic language of crime thrillers.
And not a moment too soon. While today's action heroes routinely come dressed in shades of the giddy synthetic (à la Spider-Man and Iron Man), movie fans have gorged on digital eye candy — and, perhaps fearing retinal diabetes, now they're cutting back (Speed Racer, anyone?). Still, gritty naturalism is no small leap for the spandex genre. It's a mood more identified with art noir and the prestige pic, the kind of cinema built to attract Oscars, not mass audiences.
Nolan wants to clothe that grim aesthetic in a cape and cowl — and then project it onto an enormous wraparound screen. He's the first Hollywood director to shoot key sequences of a major feature in Imax, the giant-screen film format still known mainly for whopping nature documentaries. For Nolan, reality beats the hell out of gee-whiz special effects. But keeping it real doesn't come cheap: The $180 million flick is Warner Bros.' biggest summer tent pole, and after Speed Racer's flameout, its only box-office hope.
The studio should take heart. Nolan has a cogent Theory of Applied Batmatics: Insist on reality — no effects, no tricks — up to the point where insisting on reality becomes unrealistic. Then, in postproduction, make what is necessarily unreal as real as possible. "Anything you notice as technology reminds you that you're in a movie theater," Nolan explains. "Even if you're trying to portray something fantastical and otherworldly, it's always about trying to achieve invisible manipulation." Especially, he adds, with Batman, "the most real of all the superheroes, who has no superpowers."
How "real" are we talking here? When Nolan unveiled a six-minute Knight prologue on Imax screens last December (a twisty bank heist with a jarring Joker reveal), it was clear that his cinematic vision owes more to director Sidney Lumet than golden-age DC comics. You can feel the tension of Lumet's 1975 Dog Day Afternoon and Michael Mann's 1995 drama, Heat.
Nolan had an ally in Pfister, his collaborator on every film since the 2000 sleeper hit Memento. "When I was a kid, that bank heist scene in Dog Day Afternoon was real," Pfister recalls. "It was that whole time around The French Connection and Bullitt and The Seven-Ups. That's what Chris was going for. Only we were shooting in Imax, this format where you're used to seeing beautiful sunsets and helicopter shots of gazelles running across mountainsides. Instead, we've got machine-gun fire and Heath Ledger."
Nolan's use of Imax is the natural fulfillment of an experiment he launched with Batman Begins in 2005. That film depicted Batman's dogged, bruising rise from angry rich kid to driven crime fighter, and it hinted at the consequences of embracing one's inner demon, even in the service of good. Begins ended with a warning: Batman has escalated the war. His presence ensures the rise of equally quixotic, equally obsessed adversaries. One of these leaves a calling card at murder scenes: a joker. Batman promises the police he'll look into it. In The Dark Knight, he does, and it looks right back at him, with the leering, paint-smeared face of the late Heath Ledger. Eight stories tall. Cruel reality mashed up with the comic-book carnivalesque — unvarnished, without the comforting buffer of f/x. In an Imax theater, your eyes can't wander off Nolan's enveloping canvas and can't easily dismiss what they're seeing as trickery. Maybe that's the most special effect of all.
The man who revived the Bat-franchise and saved it from nipple-suited frippery receives visitors in the Garage, his filmmaking sanctum. It's where he shot the first Imax test footage for Knight and began what his wife and producer, Emma Thomas, calls "the biggest home movie ever made." Technically, she's right: The Garage sits across from the couple's large but unpretentious Hollywood manse, where Nolan and Thomas are raising four young children.
When I arrive, Nolan has just finished editing a Joker scene. Ledger is frozen in a blur on three monitors. The actor, who accidentally overdosed on prescription medications in January at age 28, haunts The Dark Knight. The full effect on the film of his shocking death has yet to be gauged, but ever since news of the tragedy hit the wires, there's been reverent yet inescapably ghoulish chatter about a posthumous Oscar.
But all that is far from Nolan's mind today. Right now, it's about the work in front of him. "Ask Emma to look at the scene and make sure I didn't fuck it up," he tells his editor, Lee Smith, in a gentle English accent that suggests, to Yank ears, that Everything Is Under Control. As we step out into the toy-strewn, sun-striped courtyard separating Nolan's house from his workshop, I nearly trip over a battered effigy of the Tumbler, the tanklike Batmobile unveiled in Batman Begins. "At one point, that was remote control," Nolan sniffs. "Then it got left out in the rain." I detect a trace of disdain: A real Tumbler wouldn't fritz out after a little LA sprinkle.
Because these aren't toys, after all — not in Nolan's world: For the new movie, his designers built a full-size, working motorbike called the Batpod, which zips around on two fat spheroid wheels. According to star Christian Bale, it's a cruel mistress; only one stuntman managed to stay in the saddle. "If you ride it like a bike, you won't be riding it very long," the actor says, speaking from painful experience. But spills aside, Bale definitely caught Nolan's naturalism bug: When he heard that his stunt double, Buster Reeves, was prepping for an aerial shot atop the Sears Tower, he pulled rank. "I said to Buster, 'No you're not. You get to do a lot of fantastic stunts. You're not taking that one away from me.'"
"So we got an Imax shot of Christian Bale as Batman standing on top of the Sears Tower," Pfister says. "Here we are with our principal actor standing on the edge of one of the tallest buildings in the world. I think a lot of people will assume that's CGI." Perhaps, but when you see the shot (featured in the first trailer), your eye instinctively detects something different, something thrilling and rare: photographic reality.
Settling for anything less, Nolan feared, would send the Batman franchise back into camp and mummery. That's why he transported his hero to the very real city of Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the real world has its drawbacks. "The Chinese government was a nightmare in terms of filming stuff," Pfister sighs. "They wanted to limit the amount of helicopter activity over the city."
And Nolan needed helicopters. He especially wanted to minimize digital meddling in those high-altitude Imax sequences. His reasons were both aesthetic and practical: Imax film stock is enormous, roughly 10 times the size of 35-mm celluloid, and it soaks up a vast amount of visual information. Those dimensions are what make the image so rich and sharp, even spread over a screen the size of a blimp hangar. While conventional films are digitized at 2K resolution (2,000 pixels across), or 4K at most, adding visual effects to Imax footage requires digitizing each frame at up to 8K. In other words, the difficulty and expense of doing f/x rise exponentially with the size of the negative.
But even superheroes and movie directors sometimes have to compromise: In the end, Chinese authorities refused to budge, and the skyscraper jump was digitized. (But the C-130 preparing to snatch Batman into the sky? That's real.) "Sometimes you do end up replacing a filmed shot with visual effects," Nolan says. "And there's kind of a see-I-told-you-so among the effects guys. But if we had started out with that, it wouldn't have looked the same. Because we photographed something, we have a benchmark standard to hold to, even if we change things. Even the film's CG shots are rooted in some kind of photographic reality." For instance, Nolan adds a layer of actual human-generated camera-operating motions to digital effects shots — kind of like deliberately scratching the negative. He says it restores "the human element of choice: the little corrections, little imperfections. Certain uncertainties."
Certain uncertainties have always pocked Nolan's relationship with the Bat-franchise. Even in 2005, after his revisionist reboot proved successful, the director wasn't sure he was up for a sequel. He was making The Prestige, an art-house thriller about rival magicians in 19th-century London (which, significantly, pits technology against old-fashioned sleight of hand). He was moving on. But there was one small problem with leaving Batman behind: He knew how he wanted it all to end. He had something Godfather-ish in mind, a saga of dark doubles and transfiguration — big, dense, and novelistic.
It would involve not only Batman's archnemesis, the Joker, but also Harvey Dent (Thank You For Smoking's Aaron Eckhart) as a crusading Gotham City DA destined to become scarred, schizoid villain Two-Face. Nominal allies, Wayne and Dent would vie for the affections of Wayne's longtime love, assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who replaces Batman Begins' Katie Holmes). And Dent's tragic transmogrification into criminal half-man would mirror Wayne's disappearance into his Batman persona. The director wasn't interested in plumbing the murky origins of the Joker himself — the Clown Prince is more a Loki-like force of chaos. "He's like the shark in Jaws," Nolan explains. "The Joker cuts through the film, he's incredibly important, but he's not a guy with a backstory. He's a wild card."
It was an ambitious tale, and Nolan needed a canvas to match, a format that could sweep fans off their feet. Imax was his best bet. Since the late 1960s, the Canadian company has specialized in large-format filmmaking and projection. Its screens are the biggest on offer, and their vertiginous 1.43:1 aspect ratio is uniquely suited to tales set on dizzying rooftops. "It's like replicating that childhood experience of moviegoing," Thomas says. "It's harder to be taken out of your own world as a grown-up. You need an even bigger screen."
Of course, most people will ultimately see Knight on ordinary multiplex screens. The scenes shot in Imax — the bank heist and Hong Kong escape, all the aerial shots, a bang-up armored car chase, and the final confrontation with the Joker — will have to be adjusted to the usual 2.40:1 aspect ratio. But because they're compressed from the sumptuous Imax negative, those sequences will still retain a special visual richness.
Pfister admits that even in an Imax theater, many viewers, wowed by the sheer size, might miss the finer photographic distinctions. But they'll feel them. "It's more of a visceral thing," he explains, adding that Nolan's longer, calmer cuts are designed to let viewers scan the huge Imax screen for detail — a refreshing change after years of synapse-snapping action-movie flash-cuts. "You can see something way off on the horizon," Pfister says. "You can see a little glint of light, a reflection in Batman's eye. You can't see it in a conventional theater. And you definitely can't see it on a plasma screen at home."
Which is good news for studios trying to lure viewers back to the box office. Without a crane or David Copperfield, it's impossible to pirate "the Imax experience" for private viewing. It also bodes well for the Imax Corporation, which two years ago saw its stock plummet after an SEC inquiry into its accounting practices. The company has since bounced back, signing deals with theater chains AMC and Regal to expand beyond its current network of 300 theaters in 40 countries. On July 18, Warner Bros. will roll out Knight on almost 100 of those screens and on some 4,000 traditional ones. (The studio has shown plenty of blockbusters on Imax screens before, but those films were shot conventionally and later digitally adapted for the format.)
Of course, shooting on the biggest negative in town isn't easy. The cameras, which Pfister's crew had to lug up to rooftops and onto helicopters, weighed over 60 pounds each, and their bulk made them awkward to maneuver. One crushed its mount. "On a fast tilt-down, the camera just takes you with it," Pfister says. Add to that the fact that Imax film is more than three times as expensive as 35-mm, that there's only one lab in the world able to process it, and that the cameras have to be reloaded after three minutes of shooting. "Chris said, 'It's just like when we were kids and shooting on Super 8!'" Pfister recalls. "You get a three-minute load, and then it takes five days to get your film back.'"
Imax cameras are also considerably louder than traditional 35-mm cameras, making it difficult to harvest the environmental, on-set sound Nolan prefers. Movies and television shows often dub dialog after principal photography is over, since the sound recorded by the boom and body mics can prove unusable. Nolan would rather fix it while everyone's still on the set. He hates to loop. "I just think separating the voice from the face and the body is very tricky," he explains. It is, after all, blatantly unreal.
Digital and 3-D may be the future of cinema, but the Imax viewing experience still packs a punch.
Photos: Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
The ker-pow! of Imax rests on the simple rule that bigger and brighter is better. And the negative used by Imax cameras is huge: 65 mm across, or about the width of an iPod. The additional surface area allows more data to be recorded, resulting in lush, detailed, hi-def images that loom large onscreen. (That hi-def effect is expensive, though: Imax film costs more than three times as much as regular film, and the cameras are gluttons with it, slurping up 6 feet of stock per second.) Better still, in 2-D Imax theaters, two xenon bulbs outshine the standard single projection light. The result is a brighter image, with angelic whites that make the other colors pop. And don't forget the giant 76- by 98-foot screen — two billboards long and eight stories high. Because it runs wall to wall and floor to ceiling, the image fills viewers' peripheral vision, immersing them in the onscreen action.
— Allison Roeser
So did the director get everything he needed from Ledger before his death? He says yes: Ledger nailed it in principal photography. Thomas adds, "Everything you see onscreen is his performance." (In other words, there'll be no clunky digital resurrection, aural or visual, no morbid echoes of Oliver Reed's posthumous performance in Gladiator.) Besides, Nolan doesn't believe in bringing an actor back six months later and expecting him to re-create the nuances of a character, any more than he believes a computer can re-create the quality of human camera work on its own.
"Anything that's even vaguely funny you just can't reproduce. When there's a hint of irony or comedy ... Well, I don't make comedies, per se, but" — he chuckles — "at least I think my films are funny. Nobody else seems to think so, though."
It's a problem Nolan shares with Batman's greasepainted nemesis — and perhaps a harbinger of marketing challenges to come. Naturally, no one's expected to laugh at the Joker's pranks, but will audiences even be able to look at him? How will they react to these frightening final images of Ledger-the-actor? His death is, in a way, the ultimate case of reality intruding on fantasy. Even before tragedy struck, Nolan was spooked by the character Ledger created. "I remember Heath calling up while I was working on the script and talking about ventriloquist's dummies, about having a voice that was high and low, and I'm on the other end going, 'Uh ... yeah.' It sounded insane, and not necessarily in the right way. But when he performed it, I was like, 'OK, I see.'"
Nolan could be describing The Dark Knight itself, this rough comic-book beast he's conjured into our workaday world. "I don't know what this thing is, exactly," he says, "but I know it's what I wanted." He pauses. "Be careful what you wish for!" He laughs again — perhaps a little nervously. It's the first, tiny hint I've seen of a certain uncertainty.