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Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. TM & © DC Comics.

Behind the Cape & Cowl:
Shedding Light on the Post for ‘The Dark Knight,’ Part 2

By Michael Kunkes

Last week, in part one of our discussion of Warner Bros.’ The Dark Knight, assistant Editor John Lee described the overall post pipeline for the picture, the first narrative film to be even partially shot in IMAX.

Since that exclusive interview appeared last Thursday, The Dark Knight posted the biggest opening weekend in movie history, with a $155.3 million gross. In this second part of the story, the film’s editor Lee Smith, A.C.E., discusses the more creative business of cutting a blockbuster success.

How did you begin your working relationship with director Christopher Nolan?

Lee Smith: Before Batman Begins went into production, my agent called and asked if I would be interested in editing a Batman movie. I just said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!” I had just finished Master and Commander and a cartoony superhero movie would be the furthest thing from my mind. But I had seen Chris’ films Insomnia and Memento and I knew this was one very talented director. The interview went very well and I was hired a little over a week later.

Describe your working relationship with Nolan and how it differs from Peter Weir, your most frequent collaborator.

Lee Smith: Chris is in the cutting room the entire time. I will cut the film in traditional fashion and be ready to show a first cut a few days after the cameras stop rolling, but Chris doesn’t watch the entire movie. Rather, he likes to watch it in bite-size chunks, especially on these epic-style films. I think that some directors are overwhelmed when they see their movie for the first time, and this is just his process. Peter, on the other hand, will sit through the entire first cut and then go mull it over. He talks in global terms, where Chris will want to get into the details quite heavily right from the beginning. He has an almost photographic memory––his knowledge of what he shoots is amazing––and he’s very rarely wrong. So it’s my job to present a working product right from the get-go. The closer I can get with that first assembly just makes it easier to respond to his questions and makes the directors cut that much easier to arrive at later.

Was the prologue always going to be part of the film?

Lee Smith: Chris always had the idea of releasing this six-minute prologue that would introduce Heath Ledger’s Joker to the world well prior to the release of the film [Ledger was still alive when the prologue screened at the head of the December release of I Am Legend]. He felt that showing audiences the first six minutes of the film would just whet their appetites for more, and it was a great way to introduce IMAX as a narrative format, rather than just something for documentaries. It’s great for action sequences; you don’t need to blow people out of the water on a dialogue scene. For us, the advantage of the prologue is that it enabled us to test our ability to produce a completely finished IMAX sequence in a short amount of time in order to make it to all the IMAX screens that were showing Legend. It took a little heat off of us, knowing that later, when we did the final release version and time was pressing on us, we had proved we could do everything we said we could do, including visual effects and a full mix.

According to your assistant John Lee told, your cutting room was set up to facilitate the IMAX tests.

Lee Smith: The cutting room was a developmental process that we had to work out. We needed to be able to watch the film in straight 2:40:1 as it would be in general release, and we had to have the ability to flip over to IMAX so you could see if the aspect ratio changes were working out. And we did that with some very cunning tasking of the vision tracks in the Avid timeline. Also, the projector above my head created a very large 12 x 9 image on the screen along the wall. We could sit quite close and get a good approximation of the IMAX experience.


Editor Lee Smith in his cutting room at Cardington in the UK. Note the big screen against the far wal,l which was helpful while cutting The Dark Knight IMAX scenes.

How did you use cutting to build the characters?

Lee Smith: A lot of what I do is built around what I don’t put in. I always try and balance things and keep them moving so that every new scene becomes fresher and fresher as you go along. We really didn’t need to do much with Christian Bale’s Batman or with Heath, who completely became The Joker from his first moment on the screen. One of the more interesting characters I had to deal with was Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent. About 60 percent of his performance was as Two-Face, but we could only visualize that part of his performance because he had a dozen tracking markers on his face where the prosthetics would later appear. His performance alternated between over the top and being very subtle, and it was quite tricky because we had to pick his performance without having the prosthetics in place. I always like to err on the site of subtlety, though.

Did IMAX dictate that you change your cutting rhythms or style?

Lee Smith: At the beginning of production, the one question I really looked at was: Would I need to change my rhythm and working speed to accommodate the IMAX format? In the end, the answer was no. I thought that I might have to slow it down simply because the larger frame might become overbearing over the course of an action sequence, but it never did. We just continually watched the IMAX against the 2.40:1 extractions in the action sequences just to prove to ourselves that the rhythms were right.

What would you have done if the IMAX pipeline did not pan out?

Lee Smith: We were fully prepared to make two versions of the movie if we had to, but that was not something we wanted to have happen. So the movie became a constant process of proving that the IMAX and 2:40 scope could rhythmically follow each other.

What was the music process like on the film?

Lee Smith: We had the good fortune of having Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, the same composers from Batman Begins. While we were cutting, we had the entire score from Batman Begins loaded into the Avid, so we could grab anything we wanted from it for screening. They also started sending us demos for the new Harvey Dent character early on, and came up with the “Joker Slide,” a high-pitched disconcerting sound that would announce the Joker’s appearance and was used throughout the movie. Most of the music was done without pictures and was just based on back and forth discussions. We also brought in Music Editor Alex Gibson, who we’d worked with on The Prestige. We just kept throwing ideas back and forth from my Avid to Alex, working with the notes from Hans and James. It was a great collaboration, and when we screened the first cut for the producers, we had a really cohesive temp score with all the themes that you need in a Batman movie. We just kept refining the demos after that, because the composing was an ongoing process.

What was the most challenging sequence for you?

Lee Smith: For me, it was the doctor/patient hostage sequence near the end of the movie. It was a big set piece with a lot of footage, shot inside a sound stage. The sequences were quite complicated and it took Chris and me quite a long time to get to a point where we thought everyone could follow what was going on. Having that scene on IMAX also added another level of complexity. We spent a lot of time breaking that scene down into its components. There was going to be more intercutting with the character of Gordon [Gary Oldman] going to save his family, but in the end, we decided to keep it mainly between Batman and The Joker. We did many incarnations of that scene; there were a lot of balls up in the air. When it didn’t work, it really didn’t work, and when it finally did, everyone said, ‘Well, that sure looked easy! Those moments were great fun to play with.

How do you feel about the visual effects in The Dark Knight?

Lee Smith: Batman is all about human emotion and endeavor. The heavy use of CG character animation in Superman and Spider-Man movies just leaves me cold. There was a time when you went to see an action film and your jaw would hang open because you knew that what you were watching was at least partially real, and that’s what The Dark Knight is all about. Most of the effects revolved around backgrounds and foregrounds, which were mostly augmentation for the stunts and practical effects. We liked to screen very early in the process, and it was very gratifying that when we showed the studio our first director’s cut, nearly every effect was in the movie in such a way that you didn’t have a clue that they weren’t final. Chris is really adamant about that.


Editor Lee Smith on location in Chicago, after a building was blown up for a scene in The Dark Knight.

That said, we tested the visual effects companies to the limit, because Chris also made them work at a higher resolution, which they would have preferred not to do. Chris’ philosophy is that whatever you think you know how to do, you should aim for something higher. Most of us love that idea, but in practice it can be terrifying, because the effects companies all had to sort out their own pipelines to work at the higher resolutions. Because they were able to do that, the full-blown IMAX effects are virtually imperceptible. And there’s nowhere to hide on an IMAX frame. It’s very gratifying to be able to watch original negative prints intercut with 100 percent visual effects and you don’t notice that they’ve rolled through.

How does the post experience on the new film compare with Batman Begins?

Lee Smith: We spent 14 months on this film, and eight months in post. The experience was more intense, it was a more daring film, and a big step forward in the Batman series. We were in a sense making two movies at once, one for conventional release and one for IMAX. As you watch this movie, you drift into a sense of not even being aware you are watching IMAX, except for a moment or two in the action sequences when you might look top and bottom and see a certain additional quality. Chris Nolan has to be congratulated; he’s a very smart guy.

Are you more comfortable with a traditional photochemical post process as was used on The Dark Knight?

Lee Smith: Some may call people like us dinosaurs but I still have issues with DIs. I have yet to see one that blows me away. I feel there’s a loss of information and its all about compression and trickery. Film negative is still about seeing what you actually film, and you are not dealing with a taking away of information. Many people in the digital world talk about how clever they are and what the audience doesn’t need to see, but that’s all kind of ethereal. Not only that, IMAX projection is rock solid stable because of the way the film runs through the special vacuum-sealed gate. It envelops you and completely engages you. IMAX is simply one of the last great high-definition film formats.

What do you take away from this experience?

Lee Smith: Every film teaches me so much. My knowledge of visual effects keeps jumping exponentially with every film, which for me demystifies the process so I don’t become confused by a mass of technology and can become free to pay attention to the important thing, which is to make a good movie, pace it well and get the best out of the footage. There’s no way around it; you’ve got to have a lot of experience on a film like this, or it’ll kill you dead like a dog. A good editor should never underestimate just how complicated this process can be.

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

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