Sometimes, the thing with digits isn’t only that they look “better,” they’re also less messy. Take the case of bats, for instance. Real bats “shit everywhere when they fly.” Digital bats, of course, require less clean-up.Then again, maybe looks—just like in high school—matter after all. Real bats, or at least the ones initially wrangled for Batman Begins, are “quite cuddly, really.” And Batman bats need to be more… sinister.All that according to Janek Sirrs, who shares the FX supervisor credit on this latest iteration of the Dark Knight’s adventures with Dan Glass. The response to the crapping, cuddly bats was emblematic of director Christopher Nolan’s entire approach to this Batman entry, loosely based on the Batman: Year One comics written by Frank Miller (who himself reinvented that particular superhero for all time by writing and drawing the nihilistic, noirish Dark Knight miniseries in the 1980s).Nolan—the Brit director of Memento fame—is, according to Sirrs, “strong-minded about what he wants.” What he wanted, in the case of this rebooting of the Batman franchise, was something “more like a Bond movie,” and “unlike Superman.” Everything “has to be plausible in that sense.” Batman’s actions had to be something that a human being—in theory—could actually do.This makes more sense when you find out that Nolan is not just a Bond fan in general, but that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is his favorite film in the franchise. That 1969 entry featured 007 in a gritty, emotionally wrought installment—for a Bond episode—where he contemplates quitting his secret agent gig, actually gets married, and loses his wife to assassins.Nolan, then, wanted the emotional stakes to be as high for Batman. And to make those stakes high, told everyone he wanted to do “everything as real as possible.”Rather than an FX film, he preferred something more noirish that would happen in real time, to “see how far we could get being on the set,” as Sirrs puts it during a recent talk with Below the Line (Glass was back in Europe shepherding FX work on the film version of Alan Moore’s graphic novel masterwork, V for Vendetta, and unavailable for comment). According to Sirrs, “He [Nolan] didn’t want to make ‘an effects film.’”So what’s an FX supervisor to do when, for example, the vaguely Hummer-esque Batmobile being used is “a high-performance custom car,” which is actually doing most of the things—thanks to stunt drivers—that you’re seeing onscreen?“A lot of pipeline work,” Sirrs responds. In other words, Nolan not only wanted to shoot it like a noir film—with Batman being more like Philip Marlowe than Spider-Man (no “extreme poses” according to the director’s edict)—but he wanted to edit it with no digital intermediate!Nolan’s philosophy, according to Sirrs, was, “I’m going to shoot, I’m going to edit.” Himself, he meant. In tandem. Pretty retro. Says Sirrs, “I kept calling him ‘Luddite’,” for those English saboteurs at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution who tried to destroy the machines that relentlessly replaced hands-on work.In this case “Luddite” meant using anamorphic lenses to shoot the film, giving it a “1970s big-picture,” look, as Sirrs terms it, and that, like in those ’70s films, as much would be done on camera as possible.But, of course, not all of it is done in front of the camera anymore—not for any ostensibly “live” film, no matter how noirish, gritty, and “real.” So Sirrs—whose pedigree includes work on films like Pleasantville, Mighty Joe Young, various Matrix installments and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, among others—found himself on such redoubtable software tools as Maya 3D animation software from Alias and Pixar’s “incredible” RenderMan.So when there were too many bat excretions to deal with, or, more fittingly, when the Batmobile—no matter how practical—had to jump from one parking garage to the next… and the next, there was Sirrs with his special FX team, ready to augment wherever “gritty” and “realistic” fell short in this rendition of the Batman mythos.In fact, for said car chase, Sirrs found himself recreating an “entire four to five blocks of Chicago, digitally,” because that windy Second City was the one Nolan chose—not least of all because the Stateside portions of his childhood were spent there—as the exterior stand-in for “Gotham City.” (Interiors were done during a months-long stay in London.)Sirrs describes his pipeline work during production as creating a lot of “plug-and-play” shots for Nolan to use when he finally came ’round to the editing phase. In other words, shots with the Batmobile, or the virtual streets of Gotham/Chicago, could be “built,” and Nolan could decide where—and how—to use them.There were also miniatures to watch over: Speaking of the Batmobile, it existed not only as an actual car, and an agglomeration of digits, but as “a one-third scale miniature,” which could move around by radio control.And despite the modest contribution that Sirrs asserts the effects made to Nolan’s overall vision, at least five different shops—from London-based Double Negative to France’s Buf—were involved in trying to get Batman back to his roots, film-wise.“We planned for the worst,” Sirrs says, of the respective effects units overseen by himself and Glass, but “Nolan delivered” to the studio, the kind of “realistic” Batman film he wanted to make.The role of the special effects then, weren’t to overwhelm the movie, but to augment. “Just because anybody could do it,” Sirrs says of Nolan’s philosophy on digital work, “doesn’t mean they should.”It’s the kind of deliberate consideration about the consequences of one’s actions that Batman himself might appreciate.
Written by Mark London Williams