It’s no coincidence that as the story of “The Dark Knight” unfolds, the imagery gets darker, right alongside the plot. Christopher Nolan and d.p. Wally Pfister planned it that way.
“Our general philosophy is that the cinematography has to go hand in hand with the narrative,” Pfister says. “Thematically, as the film grows darker, so does the lighting. By the end, you’re seeing the darkest material, figuratively and literally.”
Pfister, who has teamed with Nolan dating back to “Memento” (2000), says he worked for a naturalistic look. To do this, he avoided using CGI wherever possible. He says CGI is only used in “The Dark Knight” “to do stuff you literally can’t achieve in camera.”
“There’s a huge benefit to keeping it real,” Pfister says. “You have to realize Bruce Wayne doesn’t have superpowers. It’s all about gaining credibility with the audience. When you dip into artificial territory, it makes it harder for the audience to believe.”
Pfister and Nolan also decided to challenge themselves in another way: They shot 36 minutes of the movie with an Imax camera. Though neither of them had any significant experience with Imax, they were interested in working with film of a much higher resolution than 35mm. Weighing in at 75 pounds and boasting a 55mm lens, the Imax camera proved to be cumbersome.
“It’s an enormous challenge,” Pfister says. “The camera is physically enormous. But the thing to regard is, it’s the highest quality image-capture system there is.”
The idea began when, after some initial Imax testing on “Batman Begins” and “The Prestige,” Nolan approached Pfister and asked him if he thought it would be possible to shoot an action sequence on Imax film. “Chris got the bug,” Pfister says.
Pfister and Nolan started their research by trekking to Imax theaters to catch movies together. “I talked to all of the Imax folks, the manufacturers of the camera and the Imax-exhibition people,” he says. “I watched what the particular characteristics of an Imax film were. It’s like any new medium: There’s a bit of a learning curve, but once you’re ready to go, you’re ready.”
Pfister says the frame is so huge with an Imax lens that finding a place to hide lighting was problematic. “It was very difficult to keep the mood of lighting as well as accommodating the frame size,” he says. “I think we got there.”
The self-imposed challenges are what makes Pfister especially proud of “The Dark Knight.” “I was happy we achieved the same kind of mood we would’ve in 35mm without making any compromises in lighting,” he says.
“What we were doing had a bit of historical context,” Pfister adds. “Nobody had tried yet. A lot of people are trying now. We’re helping resurrect that format (in dramatic features), and I’m very pleased about that. I’m happy to have been able to capture these kinds of images and put them on the screen in a way no one has ever seen before.”
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Cameras: Panavision, Millennium XL cameras and Imax MSM cameras
Secret weapon: “Anticipate the outcome of every situation and every eventuality. You will then be prepared for any worst-case scenario, and it will free your mind to think and act creatively on the set.”
Aesthetic: “Moody naturalism”