Casting Imax 65mm in 'Dark Knight' gives Batman one helluva sidekick

From chilling close-ups of Heath Ledger's Joker to heart-pounding aerial photography, few summer tentpoles have attracted filmmakers' attention like Christopher Nolan's landmark addition to the Batman franchise.

At a time when digital processes are receiving overwhelming attention, Warner Bros.' "The Dark Knight," which opens Friday, takes the film route, in part using Imax 65mm film cameras — a first for a Hollywood production — while shooting the rest of the movie in anamorphic 35mm.

But what viewers likely will remember is the exciting cinematography, which has depth, clarity and dynamic range.

A 100-pound Imax camera might look as much like a contraption developed for Batman at Wayne Industries as it does a filmmaking device. But for the film's director of photography, Wally Pfister, the decision to bring it on set was a simple one.

"For more than any other reason, (it's) because it is the absolute highest-quality image-capture system available," says Pfister, a two-time Oscar nominee for Nolan's films "Batman Begins" and "The Prestige." "What that means for Chris is he can put on quite a show. It makes a much more epic event of the movie.

"For me, at a time when a lot of filmmakers are choosing to go with lower-resolution digital systems, it gives me an opportunity to use the highest-quality film negative available. You expose 65mm, and it is printed to 70mm."

Until "Dark Knight," the camera had been used only on Imax documentaries, but Pfister utilized the system in just about every way imaginable for a narrative feature. "We did hood mounts on the cars, we hung it off a crane arm, helicopter and tracking vehicle," he says.

To shoot chase sequences, the crew used a tracking vehicle with a purpose-built gyro-stabilized Lev head to handle the cameras.

"Bob Gorelick, my Steadicam operator, was able to balance an Imax camera on his Steadicam. So we were able to do quite a bit on Steadicam," Pfister says, adding, "We also hung one of the cameras off the side of an 18-wheel truck with Heath Ledger hanging out and firing a machine gun. We got really dynamic action material."

Imax cameras were used to shoot big action sequences — about 35 minutes of the film's total run time. When played in Imax theaters, the anamorphic scenes will appear in letterbox form. For the Imax sequences, the aspect ratio will change to fill the entire screen.

"In this time when it is going to get trickier to get people out of their homes and into theaters, I think Imax is one of the exciting exhibition formats," Pfister says. He admits, though, that there are challenges to the Imax film route, which is "roughly four times the expense of shooting 35mm," he says.

In postproduction, most Hollywood features go through a digital intermediate process, which includes digital color timing — "DI, I believe, is a great tool if used for creative reasons," Pfister says — but for "Dark Knight," the decision was made to forgo the process.

"Chris Nolan and I believe in manipulating the film as little as necessary (in post)," he says. "Right now, the highest rate anyone is scanning 35mm film is 4K resolution.

"The effective quality of anamorphic negative is (higher)," he claims. "Call ours an old-school process, but we are putting the best-quality image on the screen."

During the conversation, Pfister also expressed caution about current digital technology. "I'm not being a film snob. I'm simply saying I don't want to settle for any less resolution than we've been using for the last 100 years.

"I'd like to see camera companies clawing at each other to make huge improvements in their cameras," he adds.

Pfister's concerns extend into preservation and archiving, where organizations including the Science and Technology Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the American Society of Cinematographers Technology Committee are looking for answers. Both groups agree that film is the only proven archiving medium.

When digital preservation is used, 2K is fairly common, though there is an increasing amount being done at 4K.

"We shot 'Memento' at 35 anamorphic," Pfister says. "If we scan at 4K … and the negative is gone, that means the absolutely highest quality is gone."

His conclusion: "If an Imax negative of 'The Dark Knight' goes into a vault, I think Chris and I would be happy knowing it is protected. For the rest, I don't know what's going to happen. And what about the classics? Are people truly going to protect the film negative?"

Carolyn Giardina can be reached at