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Dark Knight, New Day in VFX: Batman’s Cooler Aesthetic

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Neither The Dark Knight’s overall VFX supe, Nick Davis, nor Paul Franklin, the specific wrangler for Brit-based post shop Double Negative, was new to the Batman franchise.

In Franklin’s case, he’d been there when director Christopher Nolan rebooted the caped crusader franchise with 2005’s Batman Begins, overseeing DNeg’s work in a film Franklin describes as “clearly The Dark Knight’s antecedent, but now rather than relying on elaborate stage sets Nolan used an even broader palette of real-world locations and environments to depict Gotham and its surrounding universe.

Stronger fantasy elements such as the Narrows and the Gotham Monorail were either pushed very much into the background or completely absent. “We did have early conversations with [production designer] Nathan Crowley [who] explained to us how he was aiming to move away from the deco/Gothic look which was evident in the earlier films. and towards a cooler minimal modernist aesthetic.

This in turn prompted a large amount of architectural and technical research on our part to ensure that we could accurately reproduce the materials and overall feel that Nathan described.” It was a different feel than what Davis was used to in his previous Batman outings: Those came in what might be charitably called the “troubled” years of the franchise, when Joel Schumacher directed the mid-90’s installments Batman Forever and Batman and Robin.”

Schumacher, Davis recounts, had “a light take on Batman” (which might account for the bright neon-suffused look of the films), whereas Nolan “comes from a darker, more photoreal” perspective. That meant “not pushing any element beyond what could be accomplished in reality.”

After all, Batman, unlike his DC confreres Superman or Green Lantern, doesn’t get power from alien sources – he’s motivated by trauma, a lot of physical training (and, well, unlimited access to capital). He’s – in a superhero context – a regular guy.

So “rather than relying on elaborate stage sets, Nolan used an even broader palette of real-world locations and environments to depict Gotham and its surrounding universe,” according to Franklin. “Stronger fantasy elements such as the Narrows and the Gotham Monorail were either pushed very much into the background or completely absent.”

Or as Davis puts it, “we started with a real palette,” which in this case meant helicopter plates of Chicago (where part of the film was shot) and New York, in order to not only expand beyond the Narrows – and Batman-specific set pieces like Arkham Asylum – but to enlarge “the city – to make it much, much bigger.”

Not only was there now a specific geography to Gotham City, but as Davis notes, the “whole style and look of [this] movie is cleaner, postmodernist.”

And much of that cleanness would be seen on a very, very big screen, since the film is also slated for an IMAX release.

Franklin recounts there was “pressure to raise the bar – particularly with the IMAX work – [which] meant that everything needed to be comprehensively overhauled, enhanced and upgraded. The biggest advantage of having done Begins was knowing what worked last time and what needed improvement.

He adds: “Perhaps the biggest difference in terms of look for us was the move from working digitally at 2K anamorphic to a combination of 4K anamorphic and 5.6K IMAX. This meant that all of our tools across the 2D and 3D pipelines – which have been in continual development since completion of Batman Begins – had to be comprehensively overhauled for Dark Knight. We also had to carry out a major infrastructure upgrade to handle the vast amount of data that these resolutions entailed.

Franklin says that “the only constants with Begins were the trio of core commercial packages: Shake, Maya and Renderman, though even those had gone through several releases since 2005. Key additions to our pipeline were an all-new dynamics pipeline, a new 64-bit compositing toolset, realtime 3D lighting tools and a powerful shot management system that forms the backbone of our production pipeline.”

Davis adds that the aforementioned “strain” evinced itself in the “amount of detail” suddenly necessary for the CG to stand up to IMAX scrutiny. Forty minutes of the movie were shot in original IMAX, which, word has it, explodes from the frame.

But the buildings had to stand up to larger-scale, increased scrutiny. In addition to coordinating Double Negative’s work, Davis oversaw the contribution of other digital shops like Framestore CFC, which did digital duty on a key sequence where both Bruce Wayne – and his alter ego — pay a visit to certain crime figures in Hong Kong.

And while neither B. Wayne nor B. Man visits Paris in this film, the City of Light was represented via FX shop BUF, which oversaw a climatic sequence involving the late Heath Ledger’s already storied performance as ultimate comics villain The Joker, and how Batman brings him to ground, at last.

We can’t divulge the particulars of that digital sequence here, but it’s quite spiffy, and involves an entirely different level of landscape and mapping than the other FX work.

That said, Davis notes that “Chris is a great believer in trying to do things practically.” Much like Batman himself. Though the Dark Knight has tools, implements, computers, even a souped up Batpod motorcycle.

And Nolan, well, he had Davis and Franklin.

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