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Behind the Cape & Cowl:
Shedding Light on the Post for ‘The Dark Knight,’ Part 1

By Michael Kunkes

On July 18, Warner Bros. releases The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to 2005’s Batman Begins, nationwide in both 35mm anamorphic scope and 70mm IMAX. The film is the third collaboration between Nolan and editor Lee Smith, A.C.E., after Batman Begins and The Prestige (2006) and features the late Heath Ledger’s last screen role, playing the nihilistic, unpredictable criminal The Joker, who creates a state of anarchy in Gotham City as he pushes Batman (Christian Bale) ever closer to crossing the line between hero and vigilante.

Most importantly, about 28 minutes of screen time of The Dark Knight was originated in IMAX––the first time that a major narrative feature has even been partially shot with the large format 65mm cameras. IMAX was used to shoot just a handful of action and aerial scenes, predominantly the opening six-minute opening bank heist “prologue” that fronted last December’s Warner Bros. release of I Am Legend. The Dark Knight will be remembered as the movie that proved that anamorphic 35mm and original IMAX footage could play together with almost seamless integration of the two formats, even going back and forth with hard cuts between the two.

Assistant editor John Lee has been Smith’s first assistant on ten films, including 2003’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (for which Smith received an Oscar nomination) and Buffalo Soldiers (2001). In an exclusive interview, the Editors Guild website spoke with Lee about the post workflow on The Dark Knight and working with Smith.

When did you start working on The Dark Knight?

John Lee: Batman Begins was a traditional scope movie released in an IMAX version. We didn’t do anything with IMAX until it was completed. I just gave them an IP, some tapes and some assemble lists from the Avid, and they did the rest with their DMR [Digital Remastering] process, which they use to de-grain and sharpen the image, before producing a 65mm negative and striking 70mm prints from that. This time, because of the original IMAX shooting, Lee and I were involved very early. We shot IMAX camera tests in October of 2006; we also shot on Vistavision cameras as well as scope, and tested different scanning resolutions for all the formats to see if we could get away with blowing up the odd scope shot to IMAX––we could––and to see if we could add Vistavision to the IMAX camera package. Because Vistavision cameras are smaller than IMAX cameras [yet produce a bigger negative than scope], we used them for various stunts and put them in places that an IMAX camera wouldn't fit. On the movie, Lee and I started a month early in March 2007, cutting aspect ratio tests just before the shooting crew started a five-day shoot in Chicago, which became the prologue.

Also during this time, David Keighley, president of David Keighley Productions 70mm Inc., an IMAX company in Santa Monica, gave us a crash course in IMAX; he oversaw a lot of the process and was invaluable to the success of the film.


A sample of the timeline for The Dark Knight.

How extensive was the testing?

John Lee: Because true IMAX footage fills the entire frame, while scope leaves a little black on the top and bottom, there was always a concern that when a scene would jump between 2.40:1 scope to a 1.43:1 IMAX ratios, the audience’s attention would be roaming all over the screen. To test that out, we telecined a 35mm reduction print of the 65mm IMAX neg and looked at them together. Our first thought was that it was a little jarring, but in the actual IMAX theatre, the audience for the most part is looking at the center of the frame. You get the added effect when you cut to IMAX scenes, but the effect is almost psychological.

Can you give us some background on the pipeline for the film?

John Lee: While still in production, the IMAX negative was being processed and 35mm reductions were made, which we used for screening dailies. We also screened select 70mm IMAX dailies, especially in Chicago, even if that meant getting into an IMAX theatre at 5:00 a.m. or on weekends. Once we had a cut and were getting a 35mm screening ready, the IMAX footage was then scanned at 8K. And 2.40:1 scope extractions were made from the 1.33:1 IMAX negative and conformed to the framing that Lee and Chris created using the picture in picture tool on the Avid. That neg was combined with effects shots and used to create 35mm prints.

Then, to get to the 1.43:1 IMAX release, the 35mm IP was scanned at 4K resolution, and IMAX applied its DMR process and then did 5.6K and 8K filmouts onto 65mm. Both the 5.1 scope and six-speaker IMAX mixes were done at Warner Bros. on a specially-outfitted stage by the mix team of Lora Hirschberg and Gary Rizzo. The two versions are almost identical, except that there is one shot that is different in both versions; I won’t tell you which one; you’ll to figure that out for yourselves! The bottom line is that as important as the IMAX release was, our main goal was not to jeopardize the scope release, so we made sure we finished that as far ahead of schedule as possible.

Why wasn’t the entire film shot in IMAX?

John Lee: Chris has always wanted to shoot in large format and worked hard to sell the idea to the studio. However, shooting an entire movie in IMAX would be cost-prohibitive, and the format just doesn’t lend itself to intimate scenes around a dining room table; it’s made for big action and effects sequences. But the grain is so fine; it’s the most amazing image you will ever see. And though the entire movie looks great on an IMAX screen, the IMAX footage really stands out from the 35mm scope remastered into IMAX.

How did you set up your Avid timeline?

John Lee: The timeline was very complicated because we were cutting the IMAX and scope versions simultaneously. So I decided to go to a color coding system that would allow us to tell what clips were IMAX and which were not—IMAX was orange, Vistavision [used to shoot miniatures] was yellow, QuickTimes were green, VFX were blue, etc. This helped enormously when I was using Filmscribe to make assemble lists for the film assistants and negative cutters. We had to conform a scope version and an IMAX reduction print version. The 35mm negative cut was done from the scope conform and a 65mm IMAX negative cut was done from the reduction print. I had the timeline set up so that if you selected V4 then you would be looking at the IMAX version and on V8 you would see the scope version. We’d do all our temp mixes and screenings in scope, but we always had the IMAX image in the back of our minds.

What did Lee’s cutting room look like?

Because of all the IMAX footage, we always made sure Lee had a massive cutting room wherever we were. His back would be to the wall, the Avid would be in front of him and there would be a couch in front of the Avid, a Toshiba projector over his head and a 12 x 9 screen. It was ideal for watching sequences where we would go in and out of a mix of 2.40:1 scope and 1.43:1 IMAX sequences. We wanted Lee to be able to get the IMAX experience in his cutting room on a 12-foot screen.


Assistant editor John Lee at work on The Dark Knight in the cutting rooms at Cardington, UK.

How many Avids did you use?

That depended on the location. We cut in Covent Garden in London for six weeks with three Avids––for Lee, the visual effects editor and myself. We then moved to Chicago for two months of shooting through the summer of 2007 and rented four Meridiens and added an Avid assistant. We went back to the UK and set up [production and editorial] in Cardington, Bedfordshire, inside a giant airship hangar that was once home to the R.101, Britain’s largest airship. There, we upgraded to five Avids, as well as a ProTools and Music Editor to work with us on the prologue sequence. We also set up an Xpress Pro in Chris’ London home and would cut with him on weekends. Back in Los Angeles, we had a total of eight––four for editorial and four for our visual effects editors. Our Avids were supplied by Salon in the UK and by Digital Vortechs in the USA.

You were cutting in Los Angeles, Chicago and London. How did you handle all the logistics?

John Lee: It was quite a challenge. We never had any down time from one location to another, and Lee always had material that needed to cut immediately, so we always had to hire crew, rent our Avids, and have them all set up and in place when we arrived. The entire project was on a Unity with mirrored storage and consisted of over three terabytes of media [including the entire Batman Begins project, which was used to borrow visual effects plates, music and sound effects for temp mixes and screenings, as well as to create placeholders for shots that were not completed]. The Unity would always be shipped to the next location, but because I am somewhat paranoid, I always backed everything up on FireWire drives.


John Lee on The Dark Knight location at Battersea Power Station in London.

From a post standpoint, would you say that The Dark Knight has one foot in digital and one foot in traditional post?

Yes, and most importantly because there was no DI process. All our screenings were on 35mm workprint. During production, all synching was done on the Avid. We would import the sound files from sound DVDs and synch them to dummy reels in the AVID, following lists supplied by my film assistants. We also found it helpful to set up a KEM (or Steenbeck in the UK) right next to the AVID for synch. While in the UK, we created OMF files so we could play back synch sound on an Akai MMR-8 locked with picture on an ARRI Loc Pro. In the US, we could create .Wav files and play them back on a Fostex DV40 in sync with 35mm film projectors.

What is it like working with Lee Smith?

Lee and I have a sort of shorthand when we work and a lot of laughs. He has no interest in studio politics or anything that doesn't have to do with cutting the movie. For this reason, he turns a lot of responsibility over to me, including hiring crew, renting equipment and the day-to-day running of the cutting room. I really enjoy that. I keep him in the loop with everything that's going on and he has suggestions for me from time to time, but my job is to give him time and space to edit. He's pretty self-sufficient when he works and he adapts to the way each particular director likes to do things.

How involved does he get with sound?

Lee used to be a sound designer; I'm always gathering sound effects for him. Generally, I'll read the script a few times and get a collection of specific sounds so he doesn't have to ask for them. Of course, we relied heavily on our sound designer, Richard King, on The Dark Knight for the many specialized sound effects in the movie––I can't just find Batmobile effects on a CD somewhere! It's pretty funny because Lee is really fast when he edits and he makes it look easy. I'll get the days worth of dailies into the Avid by 9 or 10 in the morning and at lunchtime he comes poking around asking if I have anything else for him. I tell him “No––they're still shooting it!”

Michael Kunkes is a freelance editor and writer specializing in animation, production and post-production. He can be reached at writermk@sbcglobal.net.

Editor’s Note: Part 2 of this story, an interview with The Dark Knight editor Lee Smith, A.C.E., will be posted to this site on Thursday, July 24.

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