Cinematographer Wally Pfister, ACS has been director Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer of choice ever since Memento, and he reprised this role in this year’s global box-office champion The Dark Knight, the follow-up to 2005’s Batman Begins. “Chris’s philosophy and the one I adopted was to keep it real,” says Pfister. “So we shot a lot in camera instead of falling back on CGI, where you lose image quality—and that added a lot of real grittiness to the film.”
“We generally tried to keep it pretty low-tech so it would feel more real,” he continues. Even star Christian Bale took some chances for verisimilitude. One scene required him to be standing at the top edge of the Sears Tower, and he opted to take it on. “He said ‘I’d rather have everybody know it’s me, and not a stunt double.’”
In order to avoid making the two Batman movies look too similar, the DP decided to go for a different color palette. “We introduced a lot more blue and green to The Dark Knight, whereas Batman Begins had an orange streetlight kind of feel.”
The biggest change was shooting The Dark Knight for exhibition in IMAX, as well as in the 35 mm format that most exhibitors use. “Nobody had ever shot part of a dramatic feature film on IMAX, so we were breaking new ground. It was a format I had to learn,” says Pfister. “But when it came right down to it, it was pretty much the usual moviemaking craft but with a larger camera.”
There was, however, a different set of rules that applied. “In the IMAX format, there is a very wide frame of view, creating the technical challenge of keeping lights out of the frame,” says Pfister, “as well as dealing with frame sizes nearly 10 times the size of a normal negative.” Very wide lenses were also utilized, since 15 mm IMAX is equivalent to 17 mm 35.
More attention had to be paid to the vertical with the IMAX format. And the equipment had to be mastered. “The first scene we shot, the bank robbery, ran about six minutes of the film,” says Pfister. “That’s when we got through our learning curve, figuring out all the challenges and understanding the equipment.”
The number of cameras used for shooting were kept to a minimum. “Usually there were two or three on even the biggest action scenes,” he says. “The scene where we blew up the hospital was an exception, since we couldn’t repeat it.” Seven cameras in all were utilized— four IMAX cameras and three 35 mms.
One strategy was to frequently shoot Heath Ledger, who played the Joker, against a dark backdrop to make his Kabuki-style white face stand out. “Without dark there is no light—so you have to have that negative space,” observes Pfister. As to working with Ledger, who passed away before the film’s release, “he was a wonderful guy and an extraordinary performer,” says the DP.
Previous Noms and Wins
2007: Nomination, Oscar, Best Cinematography, The Prestige; 2006: Nomination, Oscar, Best Cinematography, Batman Begins; Nomination, ASC, Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in a Theatrical Release, Batman Begins; 2002: Nomination, Independent Spirit Awards, Best Cinematography, Memento