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Bat Au Natural

Chat with director Chris Nolan, winner of the ongoing, eight-year sweepstakes to helm a new version of the Batman story with this month’s Batman Begins, and he will repeatedly stress a simple theme behind his philosophy for making the movie: “a realistic, naturalistic, rich, high-quality look.” That meant that Nolan did not want to make the proverbial “big effects film.” Early on, in fact, he vetoed an opportunity to perform a digital intermediate on the movie, and he also insisted digital effects be used primarily to extend wide shots and enhance certain other shots, and that all CG mimic real-world camera movement and subtle imperfections from principal photography.

Christian Bale as Batman in Batman Begins.
Photos courtesy David James.

©2004 Warner Bros. Entertainment. All Rights Reserved

“I felt that what had not been done before was to tell a superhero story in a totally naturalistic fashion,” Nolan explains. “To me, that meant the photography and all other elements had to be rooted in naturalism and realism. In terms of photography, this is the third film I’ve worked on with [DP Wally Pfister, ASC], and he pretty much knew that I was looking for a stripped-down style, with little use for filters or other correctionals. For that reason, we shot anamorphic without any filters to soften things, and we worked to get simple, crisp, clear imagery. Therefore, I did not want any fancy CG and I definitely did not want to have anything to do with the DI process. I just wanted a sort of unadorned cinematography that has texture to it, so that when you watch it, you feel like you can understand what everything you are seeing is made of.”

The movie ended up with 570 visual effects shots, according to co-visual effects supervisor Dan Glass, who shared duties with Janek Sirrs. But virtually all of them, including the project’s primary CG creation — a monorail system — were intended to be extensions, tweaks, enhancements, or some other kind of CG/real-world collaboration with a virtual cornucopia of practical effects and in-camera treatments.

“In fact, I asked the CG people to put human camera movement into their virtual camera positions,” Nolan adds. “I wanted the imperfections of operated shots, whether handheld or hard-mounted, or space cams, or whatever. Depending on the CG shot, they applied those natural imperfections and subtle corrections that the human operator normally provides, and they applied those imperfections to the visual effects. It’s very subtle, but I think it gives you the feeling of a real shot that fits in seamlessly with the real photography.”

Director Chris Nolan (left) and DP Wally Pfister shoot exterior coverage in Batman Begins.

Design and Photography

Pfister, of course, provided the real photography, and for him, this approach was the best way “to take a fresh approach with the Batman material,” he says. “It was fun for me to put on the screen traditional photography and a more serious view of the material, more like [Frank Miller’s graphic novel] The Dark Knight Returns.”

The first step in this process was a design phase for the movie overall and for specific elements, such as Gotham City and the famous Batmobile. Nolan got personally involved in the design process early on, inviting production designer Nathan Crowley into his garage while the script was still being developed. Nolan and Crowley, with input from engineers, then personally designed and built their own model of the Batmobile.

“Nathan actually moved into my garage,” says Nolan. “I would have script meetings in one room and pop in next door to have a look at things with him. The Batmobile itself was something we started with — doing something Nathan calls ‘kit bashing,’ meaning just buying a bunch of model kits, tearing them to pieces, and sticking them together in new and interesting designs. We worked that way in three dimensions for a lot of these design issues. We also did a lot of 2D Photoshop work, combining different geographical features of great cities of the world — elevated freeways from Tokyo, buildings from New York to Chicago. We were looking to find the most extreme elements of the largest cities of the world today and combine them into a sort of New York on steroids, which is how I saw Gotham City — a city that is recognized in a real contemporary reality but clearly exaggerated.”

Simultaneously, Pfister was plotting a general color palette and a lighting approach to meet Nolan’s requirements. “I started developing the color palette based on what a real city looks like,” Pfister explains. “In this case, to a large degree, Chicago was the model for Gotham City, mixed with some Asian cities. So Chicago is where we shot and gathered still photos for reference material and background plates — the color palette was developed based on the streetlights of a real American city. I took my cue from sodium and mercury vapor lights that you see on the streets of Chicago and New York, but all the while staying careful to not make it an overly gritty look because we wanted the realism but still some grandeur and sense of style to the notion of a superhero movie.”

Chicago also inspired Pfister’s approach to lighting not only shots captured on the streets of that city but also for filming that later took place on the interior urban sets built on stages at abandoned aircraft hangers near London in Cardington, England. According to the filmmakers, those sets are the largest indoor sets ever built for a major motion picture, and they were used for all nighttime filming on the streets of Gotham City. Therefore, they had to “find a common thread between what we filmed at Cardington and what we filmed in Chicago,” says Pfister.

A camera car captures footage of one of four practical Batmobiles, designed by Director Chris Nolan and Production Designer Nathan Crowley.

That common thread was largely achieved through lighting techniques at Cardington. “My philosophy was to take natural light that existed on the streets of Chicago and basically augment it on the stages at Cardington,” Pfister says. “In Chicago, I would create edge light and light buildings to a degree from the outside. At Cardington, I largely took the same approach, except that the lighting began with the interiors of the buildings on those enormous stages. That is where I created this night-light look: tungsten lights used with a half-CTS raw colored gel, which is kind of a yellow-red gel. I used that to create a streetlight look, and that became the foundation for everything else. From there, we used combinations of street light, bulkhead lights, neon, fluorescent blue-green, and other elements that typically round out the lighting scheme in a big city.”

Pfister shot the movie using Panavision Platinum and Millennium XL cameras outfitted with Panavison anamorphic C and E series lenses, primarily using Kodak 5218 Vision 2 stock, as well as some Kodak 5246 stock for daylight footage shot for the film’s early scenes in Iceland.

“The reason for using 5218 was that I had previously used it on [the upcoming film] Slow Burn, and I really pushed the stock, finding that the grain structure holds up better when you push it, compared to the previous Kodak high-speed film [5279] I had tried,” says Pfister. “So I knew I could push it without increasing grain very much, if at all. I pushed the stock one-half or a full stop for about 30 percent of the film, and I think that material cut flawlessly with the rest of the movie that is not pushed, giving me extra stop to work with.”

Much of the photography — and the application of Pfister’s lighting plan — revolved around miniatures used for chases and stunts, all built by Miniature Unit Supervisor Steve Begg’s team and shot by Peter Talbot, visual effects lighting cameraman, under Pfister’s supervision.

“I had not done a lot of miniatures, so I largely left it up to Peter, except in terms of having him answer to me for the lighting,” adds Pfister. “They did some motion control work — just about the only motion control used on the film — and that gave them multiple passes to get different lighting passes. But really, I just conveyed my color palette to Peter and my style, and had him come to dailies a few times to see how we were lighting various things. I gave him a few ideas about the gel colors we were using, how I was exposing the film, and so forth, and he applied that to the miniature photography.”

An example of the interior sets for Gotham City, built inside an abandoned aircraft hanger in Cardington, England. According to the filmmakers, this is the largest interior set ever built for a major motion picture.

Effective Effects

The other crucial photographic technique employed on the project involved extensive use of digital still photographs of Chicago to build nighttime background plates for effects shots. According to Dan Glass, co-visual effects supervisor, the effects team captured an entire reference database of 3D geometry of Chicago with still cameras — imagery used to previsualize certain shots, and stitched together — to serve as background plates for many of those shots.

Glass says his team needed to get material for plates seen outside windows for interior shots, and for some exterior scenes filmed by helicopter during production. Therefore, the still photo effort was extensive, capturing more than 2TB of data.

“This effort helped us in a couple ways,” says Glass. “First, we were able to use it to build that database and give Chris [Nolan] very good ideas about what areas in Chicago would be acceptable to fly helicopters and do aerial photography. It worked out so that the city’s river routes proved to work well, and we were able to map all that for the production. Second, we got material for night plates. We mostly used Canon EOS 10D cameras, and later, the newer Canon EOS 1D Mark II camera, and we mounted them on a [computer-operated] motion control head called the Tesselator [supplied by General Lift, El Segundo, Calif.]. We put a still camera motion control head up there, 80ft. in the air on a crane. That let us take a series of pan and tilt plates with the digital cameras. All of those images were later stitched together to create, in essence, a CG environment. We could move the camera down the street on the crane at fixed points, so we could build up a sequence of positions along the street to use for textures outside the windows, and other things.”

Glass brought six visual effects facilities onto the project, with Double Negative, London, handling the creation of the Gotham City illusion — “the Gothamization of Chicago,” as Glass describes the work. In particular, Double Negative was responsible for creating the CG monorail, which runs all the way around the fictional city.

The Moving Picture Company (MPC), London, created the digital bats seen periodically in the movie — one of the few parts of the job for which a CG option was chosen over a real-world option.

“Basically, we wanted everything to be reality-based, and the procedure that MPC came up with was in keeping with that approach,” says Glass. “We did experiment with shooting some real bats, but we found them hard to control. Even when flying freely, their help for our purposes was rather limited. So, instead, we scanned a dead bat in super high detail and shot a lot of separate film and video footage of real bats. Then, MPC manually tracked and rotoscoped in 3D the wing span, flaps, turns, landings, and takeoffs of those bats, giving us a library of real motions. We built the animation specifically for that motion, using the [proprietary flocking software] at MPC — the software they developed originally for the movie Troy. With that approach, we flew the bats along basic guidepaths that were configured to imply the real motions that were in our library. Throughout shooting, in scenes with bats, we just had a stuffed bat on a stick, got him on film and digital stills, and then rotoscoped in our CG bats moving as we had designed. In fact, it was usually Chris Nolan himself who puppeteered the bat around during production.”

A fight scene on board a Gotham City monorail car was filmed against a greenscreen, which was an exception to the filmmakers” general emphasis on practical effects.

The monorail was a much different effect, especially since Nolan insisted that the system mix naturally into plates of Chicago rather than standing out as some sort of imposing CG structure. The production built a 1/6-scale model of the monorail for certain shots, but that model was used primarily as reference to build the CG version.

Glass says Double Negative artists based the monorail on observations and photographs of Chicago’s “L” trains, combined with textures from photographs and studies of metal surfaces. The company also built a CG global illumination lighting setup that was able to mimic lighting references of real metal and other materials. The monorail — and most CG elements in the movie — was built in Maya, with most compositing done in Shake.

Although virtually all of this digital work was meant to be “complimentary” in nature, as Nolan describes it, Glass nonetheless insists the complexity of the digital effects work “rates very highly with other projects I’ve done,” particularly in terms of how subtly the CG was required to melt into a live-action world, per Nolan’s edict.

“Making your CG fit into something that is predominantly a live-action plate for an entire project of this size is pretty complicated,” Glass says. “We were dealing with one of the largest indoor sets ever built, with some of the biggest miniatures recently built, and, of course, with the complexities of the practical Batmobile.”

Indeed, the sequences with the Batmobile were an unusually sophisticated practical effect. There were four practical Batmobiles, according to Special Effects Coordinator Chris Corbould, who is something of a stunt vehicle expert given his years of experience on several James Bond films. He says the Batmobile dominated plans for the movie’s urban action scenes, from the earliest meetings onward.

“My initial introduction to Chris Nolan came in talking about the Batmobile,” Corbould says. “I met with him, and he showed me this bizarre design that he and the production designer had put together in his garage. He was quite adamant that he did not want it to be a car that looked pretty. He wanted it to be a car that performed: to jump, to crash through things, to be real — a brute of a vehicle. He threw down a gauntlet at that point.”

Corbould’s team built four “real-deal Batmobiles,” meaning they were all fully dressed, operational, and interchangeable. They featured specially configured Chevrolet 350 horsepower engines and original chassis built entirely from scratch, along with giant (44in. wide) monster-truck wheels in an unusual rear-axle configuration, without a traditional front axle. In addition, the production used a rehearsal car that was also fully functional but lacked the same finished body as the official vehicles, a separate dummy vehicle for interior work, and several miniatures of the car.

Throughout production, filmmakers ran the vehicles through a series of stunts, including chases on the streets of Chicago and on the giant Cardington stages.

“It was easily the most ambitious vehicle we have ever attempted for a movie,” says Corbould.

Finishing Touches

Lee Smith edited the movie at the production’s Soho-based editorial offices. Smith’s team cut the film on four Avid Film Composers (Meridian version 11.2.5) running on Macintosh G4s and relying on Avid Unity LANshare EX (version 3.5) to provide 2.4TB of storage.

Each day during production, dailies were processed and printed at Technicolor London, and screened the next day on film by Nolan, Pfister, and their colleagues. First assistant editor John Lee headed up the effort to transfer dailies from a FireWire drive provided by Technicolor into Avid bins, using Filemaker Pro as the logging tool to organize shots for Smith — an important job since there was approximately 720,000ft. of film shot during the course of the production. The traditional negative cut and color correction were also performed at Technicolor London.

Pfister adds that he was in complete agreement with Nolan’s decision to forego a digital intermediate, even though the money and opportunity were offered by Warner Brothers. Pfister chuckles when asked the proverbial “Why no DI?” question. For Pfister and Nolan, even as the process is steadfastly marching toward ubiquity in the industry, the question remains “Why do a DI?”

“Three years ago, that was the question — why do it?” Pfister recalls. “Now, the question is turned around, but for me, I have a hard time with that. The reality is, for this film, we felt we had captured in-camera and through the chemical process exactly what we wanted to put on the screen. Chris was happy with it. So we simply didn’t feel the need to do a DI. I think that did surprise the studio, but the point is, you don’t always need to adopt the next technological advancement simply because it is available. You should only do it if it is necessary for your project. For this film, it was not necessary. If we were trying some kind of look where we wanted to de-saturate the colors, which you can’t really do with traditional lab processes, then I would embrace the DI, but not for this particular film.”