When visual FX supervisor Nick Davis hears that his name is being bruited about—by his peers—as the front runner for VFX gold (or gold plate, depending on the statuette) this award season, he calls it all “very flattering.”
Could he tell, working on the now-definitive Batman big-screen adaptation The Dark Knight, that the film would come to occupy a nearly-instantaneous niche in pop culture, and in the estimation of his colleagues, for what the French—just over the channel from Davis, in his London digs— would call its “mise en scène”?
“It was different,” he allows, comparing the film to previous high profile supe gigs on films such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Troy, and a couple of Harry Potter installments? He observes that the film’s director, Christoper Nolan, has “a singular aesthetic.”
That aesthetic was famously on display in the film’s pre-release publicity, as Nolan said he didn’t really want to make an FX extravaganza after all, but rather a movie that did things—even dark superhero-y, psychotic villain-y things—as realistically, as “practically” possible.
Davis laughs, remembering questions Nolan would have in preproduction (“Why can’t we do a real jump off a building in Hong Kong?” “Well, Chris, because someone would probably be killed, and the Hong Kong authorities might not like it”), where he definitely did try to push the envelope. But Davis answers his own question about whether, in the end, Nolan would come to rely on digits to get the film made: “But of course he does!”
However, he’s quick to allow how Nolan’s push for authenticity led to “getting a lot better material,” citing as an example the Bat Pod (which in earlier, simpler times would be called the Bat Cycle). A real version of the Pod was used in numerous shots, and while it couldn’t do everything they needed it to, film-wise, it gave Davis and crew “fantastic references” to use.
Nolan was a “great believer in ‘real’ dynamics,” Davis opines, and wanted to avoid having everything look “a little too perfect.”
And while Davis calls Nolan a “great master of the ‘understated’ effect,” sometimes getting to “understated” requires a little work. Like, for example, Davis taking a chopper—in this case, an actual helicopter, and not a Bat chopper—“ every night for a week,” in Hong Kong, during magic hour, along with Nolan, “shooting plates in IMAX.”
Which is something else that makes his work noteworthy, since Nolan wanted not just a blown-up print, but “native IMAX” in the film—which wound up having about 40 minutes of such “nativity” when it was done. For Davis, that meant a “huge amount of data wrangled over the Atlantic,” and the reinvention of several software packages, to handle the 6K and 8K shots that IMAX demanded. And to see that work finished on a 100-foot screen was, in Davis’ words, “quite daunting.” “All the (postproduction) houses rose to it,” he says.
He also recalls the moment he realized the film itself would rise to be something not just good, but special. Davis was on-set for the sequence where the Harvey Dent character is in the hospital, having become Two-Face—Davis needed to oversee the particular cameras used referencing half of actor Aaron Eckhart’s face, for eventual digital translation into his “other side”— sitting in “a tiny set in Pinewood Studios.”
It was there that the late Heath Ledger reached perhaps the apex of his Joker performance, clad in a nurse’s dress, sitting by Two Face’s bed, launching into his “do I look like someone who has a plan?” dialogue.
“Just to be in that room, on that day. Watching (Ledger) perform was quite mesmerizing,” with the actor’s sudden, tragic passing making “it all the more poignant.”
The mesmerization, as it turns out, wasn’t just Ledger’s, however. It belonged to the whole film—actors, director, crew folk. Including, of course, Davis, and all that wonderful, “quite daunting” effects work.
Previous Noms and Wins
2008: Nominated, Satellite Award, Best Visual Effects, The Dark Knight; 2006: Nominated, BAFTA Film Award, Best Achievement in Special Visual Effects, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Nominated, VES Award, Best Single Visual Effect of the Year, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; 2005: Nominated, VES Award, Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Motion Picture, Troy; 2003: Nominated, BAFTA Film Award, Best Achievement in Special Visual Effects, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; Nominated, Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films Saturn Award, Best Special Effects, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; 2002: Nominated, BAFTA Film Award, Best Achievement in Special Visual Effects, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; Nominated, AFI Award, AFI Digital Effects Artist of the Year, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; Nominated, Saturn Award, Best Special Effects, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; Nominated, Golden Satellite Award, Best Visual Effects, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.