SHOOTING THE DARK KNIGHT
Production on "The Dark Knight" actually began several weeks ahead of the official start of principal photography. The cast and crew went on location in Chicago to shoot the opening prologue for the film: a dramatic bank heist that sets in motion the criminal rampage of The Joker. The advance scenes also marked a milestone in filmmaking as Christopher Nolan became the first director to use IMAX cameras to film sequences in a traditional feature film release. "I've always had an interest in shooting in IMAX," Nolan relates. "I've seen IMAX presentations at museums and such and found the format to be completely overwhelming. The clarity and crispness of the images are unparalleled, so I thought if you could shoot a dramatic feature with IMAX cameras--not just blow up a 35mm film to show on an IMAX screen--it would really bring the audience into the action."
Emma Thomas notes, "When you think about some of the IMAX films we remember: they've taken these cameras up Mount Everest, they've taken them under the ocean, astronauts have had them in space… So if they can do that, then surely we can shoot on the streets of Chicago with an IMAX camera."
As with any "first," Nolan and his longtime cinematographer, Wally Pfister, knew that filming on the streets of Chicago with IMAX cameras would come with its own set of challenges, beginning with the size of the cameras. "The cameras are enormous and much heavier than a 35mm camera," Pfister confirms. "It required an entirely different approach, but like any challenge in moviemaking, you can't be so intimidated that you shy away from it. You just bite off one piece at a time until you've tackled it."
For Nolan and his crew, that first "bite" was shooting the film's opening scenes. Pfister recalls, "The week that we spent shooting the bank heist sequence was like IMAX school for all of us." They passed with flying colors. Filming the prologue with IMAX cameras not only met but exceeded all expectations, so the filmmakers made the decision to shoot several more scenes with IMAX cameras, including most of the major action sequences.
Pfister's team had to find a way to rig the huge cameras to not only capture but also follow the action. They turned to the people at Ultimate Arm, the award-winning creators of the gyrostabilized remote control camera crane. The Ultimate Arm technicians were able to reinforce the head of the crane so it could handle the weight of the IMAX cameras. Pfister reveals, "We shot most of the Bat-Pod sequences with the Ultimate Arm, which allowed us to swing the camera up, down and all around the Bat-Pod and get some really stunning footage."
Key grip Mike Lewis also crafted sturdier rigs that enabled the camera crew to mount the weighty IMAX cameras on the hood of a car, the side of a truck or anywhere else, as needed. All of the regular camera mounts had to be strengthened in order to handle the extra weight of the IMAX cameras. Nolan and Pfister also had high praise for Steadicam operator Bob Gorelick, who, Pfister says, "did a remarkable job of keeping that enormous camera in place."
With advancements in technology on his side, the cinematographer assumed the sheer weight of the IMAX camera would preclude him from doing any handheld shots, but Nolan had other ideas. Pfister recounts, "Early in pre-production, Chris said to me, 'You've got to try to handhold one of the IMAX cameras at some point just to say you did it.' And I said, 'No way! I am not putting that thing on my shoulder.' But he kept nudging me and bugging me to try it, and finally I broke down and decided I had to give it a go. I actually did one handheld shot with the IMAX camera, running in front of a S.W.A.T. team into a building. More than getting the shot, I think Chris was really proud of himself that he was able to get me to do that," he admits.
"We were able to utilize the IMAX format without having to compromise the way in which we would have filmed with smaller cameras. It didn't slow us down in the slightest and it was pretty exciting to see it come together," says Nolan.
In addition to the size and heft of the cameras, however, there were other factors that had to be addressed in incorporating the larger format film. "The composition of shots is entirely different because the frame is so much bigger, so you need to center things more to pull your attention to the action. And focus is much more critical because it is a shallower depth of field," Pfister clarifies, adding that the larger size frame also had a direct effect on the lighting. "One of the most challenging things about filming in IMAX is trying to hide the lights. With the expanded frame, you're seeing so much more from side to side and top to bottom so you can't place lights where you normally would. You have to put them behind objects and anywhere else you can hide them."
The size and clarity of the IMAX footage affected other departments, as well. Nathan Crowley notes, "Filming in IMAX is a great bonus to a production designer because you notice things you ordinarily wouldn't even see. The perspective is huge. I mean, we purposely had a lot of low ceilings and beautiful shiny floors because they stay in frame. Then again, we also had to make sure the finishes were superb because you'll also see every speck of dust on the floor," he laughs.
Everyone agreed the end result was more than worth the effort of mastering the learning curve. "You can absolutely see the difference," Pfister attests. "It's sharper; it has more resolution, more contrast and a richer color saturation. It is an overall improved image, whether you're seeing it on an IMAX screen or on a regular screen. I think the action will jump off the screen in any theater."
With "The Dark Knight," Christopher Nolan sought to expand the world of Batman in a literal sense by moving the action from the confines of a soundstage to the expanse of practical locations. "We were looking for ways to expand the scope of this film, so I was determined to take the location filming much further than what we did on 'Batman Begins,'" the director says. "The real world is built on a scale you could never reproduce in the studio."
As it had in "Batman Begins," the city of Chicago once again became Gotham City. "I spent some time growing up in Chicago," Nolan offers, "so it's a city I know and love. It is famous for its architecture and it is also a very film-friendly city. We shot there for weeks on 'Batman Begins,' but this time we were going to be there for months and the help and encouragement we got from the city was extraordinary."
Chuck Roven confirms, "I can't say enough about Mayor Daley, the Chicago Film Office and, most importantly, the citizens of Chicago, who could not have been more excited or more welcoming to us. They gave us total cooperation and allowed us to do some unbelievable things on their streets, and we appreciated and always tried to respect that privilege."
Inarguably, the most incredible thing the city allowed the production to do was unprecedented: flipping a 40-foot tractor-trailer, end over end, right in the heart of the city's banking district on LaSalle Street. When Chris Corbould saw the truck flip described in the script, he admits, "I tried to make compromises with Chris--like maybe the whole truck doesn't go over or maybe we could use a smaller truck--but he wasn't having any of it."
Nolan responds, "Finally I turned to him one day and said, 'Chris, it really ought to be an 18-wheeler. And I know you can find a way to do this because that's just who you are and that's what you do.'"
The first order of business was to make sure the stunt was even possible. "After about six weeks of calculations, we were ready to do an actual test," Corbould recalls. "We went out to an open space, got the truck up to speed and pressed the button, and it just sailed over. I had to go to Chris Nolan and tell him it worked perfectly."
Nevertheless, the filmmakers were aware that there was a vast difference between flipping a truck in the middle of nowhere and doing it in the middle of a city street. Before they could carry out the stunt, city engineers were called in to make sure that the tons of force necessary to send the truck end over end would not damage the infrastructure of LaSalle Street, including the various utility lines that run beneath it. Once safe parameters were determined, the production was given the green light.
When the night of the stunt came, the truck flip went like clockwork, earning applause from the assembled cast and crew. "It was an impressive thing to watch this truck fly over and land precisely where Chris said it was going to land," Nolan remarks. "At the top of its arc, it looked almost like a skyscraper standing there, and then it just continued going over very gracefully. I've never seen anything like it."
The film's most explosive sequence involved the implosion of an entire building, which was staged at the now-vacant Brach's Candy factory building. Corbould and his crew teamed with the company Controlled Demolition, Inc., headed by Doug Loizeaux, to create the explosion. Corbould offers, "Chris didn't want the building to go down like a deck of cards, like a conventional demolition. I worked with Doug, who came up with a system to make the building go down more like a wave, in sequence. Then we added our special effects elements to make it more spectacular."
For the filmmakers, safety was paramount. The main concerns involved surrounding street traffic, as well as active rail lines running nearby the building. The production contacted the railroad companies and coordinated the train schedules to ensure that no trains would be coming through at the time of the explosion. Adjacent street traffic was also blocked to keep onlookers and passersby from getting anywhere near the blast. In addition, the scene called for a bus to be in proximity to the explosion, so polycarbonate sheeting was placed on the windows of the bus to ensure that even if the windows broke, no glass would fly into the bus with cast members inside.
On location in Chicago, the filmmakers also took advantage of some of the city's defining features, including its world-renowned architecture and multi-leveled streets. Nolan made good use of the parallel upper and lower roadways for the climactic car chase between The Joker, the police and Batman. The breakneck chase sent a variety of cars, armored trucks and one ill-fated 18-wheeler hurtling down such streets as Upper and Lower Wacker Drive, Lower Lower Randolph, Lower Lower Columbus and LaSalle Street. During the chase, the Bat-Pod even takes a side route through the newly remodeled train station under Millennium Park.
"The Dark Knight" marks Nathan Crowley's fourth film in the Windy City, and the production designer observes, "The Chicago architecture is phenomenal; all of the great architects of the last century have worked there. And it's wonderfully cinematic."
Crowley chose two buildings designed by famed architect Mies van der Rohe for a variety of sets. The IBM Building was the site of the Wayne Enterprises Boardroom, Harvey Dent's office, the Mayor's office and the Police Commissioner's office, while the lobby of One Illinois Plaza became the main living area of Bruce Wayne's new penthouse. Of course, utilizing the lobby level for the penthouse set meant that visual effects would be needed to create top-floor views of the city through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Bruce's bedroom was built separately on the 39th floor of Hotel 71 on East Wacker Drive.
Bruce and Alfred have taken up residence in the penthouse because Wayne Manor is still under construction after it was destroyed in a fire. Nolan comments, "At the end of 'Batman Begins,' Bruce says he's going to rebuild Wayne Manor brick by brick. That would take a long time, so it would be pretty unrealistic for him to be already moved back in. And there was also a period in the comic books where Bruce Wayne did live downtown in a penthouse, so we took that as a jumping-off point. We wanted to have him in the city because this is very much a story of a city and we felt it was important to put Bruce in the middle of that."
The penthouse was of a decidedly more modern design than Wayne Manor. Crowley explains, "We were given access to these great modernist floors, and we felt that era of architecture was better suited for what we were trying to convey emotionally. It's cold and it's vacant; there's no warmth to the environment."
Nolan adds, "Bruce is living a very lonely existence in a way, so the stark design of the penthouse was meant to reflect his state of mind."
Filming in Chicago also took place at such locations as the Convention Hall at McCormick Place West, which became the vast warehouse of Wayne Enterprises' Applied Science Division; Navy Pier, which was the site of a dramatic scene involving the panicked citizens of Gotham City; and the Old Chicago Post Office, which was employed for several scenes, including the opening bank robbery. In addition, the exterior of Chicago's Trump Tower, which was in the early construction stage at the time of production, was used for a pivotal confrontation between Batman and The Joker. The interior of the building framework was carefully re-created in England at Cardington--the converted airship hangar that is now used as a soundstage--where the fight was actually filmed.
Rising out of the Chicago skyline, the Sears Tower was the site of a soaring exterior shot, and Christian Bale was not going to be denied an opportunity to stand atop the tallest building in the United States. The actor recounts, "I overheard my stunt double, Buster Reeves, saying he was heading up to the Sears Tower to do that, and I said, 'Sorry buddy, no way. I just have to do this one myself.' I mean, how often do you get to be 110 stories up, looking out over all of Chicago? But it's a funny and probably quite dangerous thing," he laughs, "how quickly I felt very at home out there and how soon I was able move around right on the edge, looking straight down."
Far from being worried, Nolan supported his leading man's decision to grab that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "Christian likes to challenge himself and I knew we weren't putting him in any actual physical danger. It was perfectly safe; it just required guts to stand there. I certainly wouldn't want to do it, but he seemed to enjoy it and it made a beautiful shot for us. And after that, standing out on a ledge on a building in Hong Kong must have been easy."
"The Dark Knight" sends Batman to the Far East on a mission to bring down an international financial magnate, who is manipulating Gotham City's most powerful crime cartels. The scenes were filmed on location in Hong Kong, primarily at the magnificent IFC2 Building, the tallest building in the city. "I liked the idea of sending Batman someplace more exotic," says Nolan. "We had done that with Bruce Wayne in the first film, before he became Batman, but I really wanted to show the character of Batman outside the realm of Gotham City. I had been to Hong Kong many years ago at a film festival, and remembered it as a great location. It's an incredibly visual place, which makes it ideal in cinematic terms."
For some interiors, the production returned to Cardington, where one major set was constructed: the Bat-Bunker, which has temporarily replaced the Batcave while Bruce and Alfred are living in the penthouse. With its ceiling of solid fluorescent lights, the Bat-Bunker "looks like a giant light box," describes Wally Pfister, "which obviously made it simple for me from a lighting standpoint."
Crowley notes that as long as his home was in the city, Batman needed a new headquarters. "He can't go to his Batcave, so we came up with the idea of a bunker that ties back to the architectural theme of the penthouse in that it's vast but very plain. It is essentially a large concrete box where everything comes out of the walls and then goes back. But it still had to be visually interesting. It was all about proportion and perspective, which was actually great fun to do."
Christopher Nolan reflects, "Every stage of making an enormous film like this presents its own challenges, but has its own rewards. It's very exciting to travel the world and zoom around in helicopters and race the Batmobile around the streets of Chicago. Every now and then, I have to consciously remind myself to take a step back and realize that this is an extraordinary thing I am privileged to be a part of."
Another critical design element of "The Dark Knight" is not seen but heard. "The sound design of the film was extremely complicated," says Nolan. "There were an enormous number of elements encompassed in the sound mix and there are moments where it's hard to detect what is sound design and what is music," he asserts. "There are large segments of the film where we use little or no score. It was a major challenge for our sound designer, Richard King, and his team to create a range of sounds that would provoke the kind of emotional response that you would usually rely on music for. Then the end of the film is very heavily scored with music, but it develops as the action progresses."
Composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, who partnered on the music for "Batman Begins," reunited to compose the score for "The Dark Knight." Nolan relates, "I like the score of the film to be an evolution that runs parallel to the editing of the film, and Hans and James have been amazing in accommodating that. Usually without even seeing final footage, they give me pieces of music that my editor, Lee Smith, and I take into the edit suite. It's a very organic process that puts a lot of unusual demands on the composers, but they did a fantastic job with it."
As they had on "Batman Begins," Zimmer and Howard split duties on "The Dark Knight," with Zimmer composing the theme for The Joker and Howard taking on the dual personality of Harvey Dent/Two-Face. They also made changes to the overall score, eschewing any heroic fanfares. Zimmer says, "I don't see Batman as a typical superhero, so I wanted to avoid anything 'super' in the music. I kept thinking about the Bat Symbol. It is the iconic representation of Batman, but at the same time, it is dark and unadorned."
"Batman is a very complex character," Howard adds. "We're still getting to know him, so to try and attach a musical theme to him that defines him in any way would be misleading."
Nolan concludes, "For me, Batman has an enduring appeal and endless fascination because he is a relatable character. He is referred to as a superhero, but actually he is a self-invented superhero. And I think the fantasy of a man who, through sheer will and self-discipline, has turned himself into more than just a man, into a heroic figure…that's just a very compelling myth."
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