The Dark Knight, film’s most recent telling of the Batman saga, is bound to be a summer blockbuster. Unlike the campy 1960s TV series or even Tim Burton’s highly stylized vision of Batman, director Christopher Nolan has crafted a much grittier film that stays true to the Frank Miller graphic novel characterization of the caped crusader. This is the second Batman film directed and co-written by Nolan, but it is also another reunion of sorts, bringing together an experienced team that includes Nolan and his brother Jonathan (screenplay), Wally Pfister (director of photography), Lee Smith (film editor) and, of course, actors Christian Bale and Michael Caine – all of whom have worked together on the last three films, including Batman Begins and The Prestige.
IMAX is not an afterthought with the release of The Dark Knight. Simultaneous wide release of the film in both 35mm and IMAX theaters was always in the plan, adding a layer of complexity for both the production and post folks from the beginning. I started off my conversation with the film’s editor Lee Smith on this point. According to Smith, “Chris [Nolan] had always wanted to work in the IMAX format, because it offers such stunning image quality. It’s still too cost-prohibitive to shoot full movies like this in IMAX. The cameras tend to be noisy. I don’t believe anyone has found a way to properly ‘blimp’ an IMAX camera. So Chris settled on shooting four major action scenes natively on IMAX negative. IMAX shots are typically slow sequences with largely stationary cameras, but in order to shoot these scenes as we would with 35mm, we had to do some things that have never been done before with an IMAX camera. This included some Steadicam work and even a couple of handheld shots! We may have been the first film to ever do this!”
Shooting on IMAX posed some serious post-production issues, too. Smith continued, “Chris really likes the look of film and the photochemical finishing process instead of a DI, so our post followed the traditional route, except for the IMAX negative, of course. Our goal was to keep the IMAX in its native format for the IMAX screenings. For the 35mm prints, the IMAX shots were digitally scanned and recorded to 35mm negative that was cut together with the 35mm camera negative. IMAX does this by scanning their 65mm negative at 8K resolution. Effects within the IMAX scenes were handled at 8K, as well. These shots were then reduced to 4K resolution and recorded out to 35mm film. You also have to go in the other direction for the IMAX release. For these, the cut 35mm negative was color-timed at the lab [instead of a DI], producing an interpositive of the 35mm portions of the film. This went to IMAX, who used DMR – an IMAX-proprietary digital process – to ‘blow up’ the 35mm to the IMAX format. These scenes were then intercut with the IMAX camera negative. So, digital processes were used for the two format conversions, but each set of release prints was created by cutting the negative and timing the shots in a traditional manner.”
A variety of aspects
On the face of it, this seems pretty straightforward, but the 35mm shots were filmed in anamorphic 2.35:1, while an IMAX camera exposes images horizontally on 65mm negative using a 1.44:1 aspect ratio. Director Nolan opted to let the IMAX release change image aspect ratio between the widescreen look of the 35mm shots and full screen when the scenes cut to the four action sequences filmed in IMAX, thus adding more impact to these scenes. The different versions all had to be tracked in Smith’s Avid. “We had to be careful with the IMAX shots and how they would appear in the 35mm release. So I used a matte to represent the portion of the frame that would be cropped. I had both aspect ratios set up on different video tracks, so I could quickly flip between seeing what would be shown in the IMAX versus the 35mm release. With visual effects, this might be as many as fourteen video tracks for all the variations. The IMAX frames were ‘center-cut’ for the 35mm release, so all of these shots had to be repositioned to make sure the essential part of the image wouldn’t be cropped out. Out of 500 IMAX shots, all but one worked out. In that case, we were fortunate that the scene was one of the few IMAX set-ups that also had 35mm coverage, so we were able to replace that one shot with the 35mm negative. This all gets a little mind-numbing trying to make sure everything is properly tracked. I was able to rely on my first assistant John Lee to keep this all straight. We also had the luxury of a month of preproduction to work out the logistics between these two formats.”
An unfortunate element of this film is the untimely death of Heath Ledger, who appears as arch-villain The Joker, in what is his last complete performance on film. Ledger takes the character in a completely different direction than the Jack Nicholson version. Nicholson played the role more as the quiet, but calculating, evil clown, whereas Ledger’s adaptation is one of a very scary psychopath. We touched on this on our conversation and Smith pointed out that, “Heath was one of the nicest actors I’ve known. We worked on a small Australian indie film called Two Hands years ago. As an editor, you don’t really get to know the actors, but when I received the Oscar nomination for Master and Commander, Heath come up to me and gave me a big hug. It was delightful to have him on this film and whenever he was in a scene it made watching dailies a real treat. Fortunately for the production, all of his scenes were completed. We didn’t need any ADR from him and Chris almost never shoots any pick-ups, because he’s so well organized.”
Sound and music
Lee Smith is like a small handful of other film editors, such as Walter Murch, who have spent much of their early years in sound editorial. Smith elaborated, “I started out as an assistant editor and went back and forth between sound and picture. In Australia, work is more stop and start and I learned that if I worked with both, I was consistently employed. Other editors who seemed to concentrate on one or the other weren’t working as much. I never really saw a big difference between the two and as a picture editor I work heavily with sound. I produce a very dense soundtrack in the Avid to make the screenings as full as possible. I will ask for elements from the sound department and get any effects or music elements that I need. I also make use of wild tracks. If there’s camera noise in a shot, I’ll ask for wild lines to be recorded on set and will cut those in to make the scene work.”
“The Dark Knight and Batman Begins both used James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer for the score, so I was able to pull from music created for the earlier Batman film as a temp score, while cutting The Dark Knight. They were also working in parallel, so we would get current scores for scenes as the cutting progressed. This was an exception, because it’s really unusual to have temp music that perfectly fits the right mood for the particular film that you are working on. In the past, I’ve cut in a lot of temp music from other sources. That’s a bit of a danger when the director falls in love with it and ends up having to buy the music used for the temp. Lately, I’ve started to make my first cuts without any temp music at all. Music can sometimes be a crutch to prop up a weak scene and you have a tendency to cut a sequence at a more languid pace when music is there. Of course, this doesn’t work because you’d end up with a five hour long first cut that no one could watch. Cutting without music is a more brutal way to build a scene, but it forces you to cut tighter and find ways to make the scene work on its own. If it works then, music and effects will only bring it up to the next level.”
Editing styles and technology
The editorial team for The Dark Knight used eight Avid Media Composers connected to Avid Unity shared storage to service the needs of Smith, his assistants and three visual effects editors. These were older Meridien-based systems working in Avid’s 14:1 standard definition resolution. Smith explained that, “We had discussed working in HD, but these older systems are very rock-solid. With a movie of this complexity, I didn’t want to throw in additional variables, like a new system or new software. I’m interested in working in HD, because we use projectors in the cutting room, but then you also have to telecine the negative to HD. We were using workprint, because there’s still concern for risking the negative in the telecine process. Doing an HD transfer of the workprint isn’t as good as coming from the negative, so it negates the advantages of HD a little … but maybe on the next film.”
“I really like working on nonlinear systems and would never want to go back to the Moviolas and Kems that I started on. On the other hand, I cut pretty much the same way as I did on film, so I haven’t used some of the advanced Avid features, like ScriptSync. I still think in conventional film terms and typically don’t rely on digital tricks, like a ‘blow-up’ or an ‘invisible’ split-screen, to fix an editing challenge. You should always cut for a reason and in my case, I fixate on the story. There’s always a way to cut a scene so that it works and moves the story along. You just have to look for the right options and modern NLE’s make it possible to do just that. After all, you have instant access to a million feet of film, right at your fingertips!”
Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)
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