Pfister Shows How 'Dark Knight' Rises Cinematography For Action Scenes

Academy Award-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister provides Sarasota audiences with insights on movies he helped film.

Even filming blockbuster movie action sequences can have their limits, as Ringling College of Art and Design students learned Wednesday.

Take a three-minute action sequence in The Dark Knight where Batman captures international criminal Lau in Hong Kong in one the world's tallest buildings—One International Finance Centre—and proceeds to fly him out over the city in a cargo jet. 

Stuntman Buster Reeves at one time was set to dangle over Hong Kong off of a cable from a plane for the scene, explained Wally Pfister, the film's cinematographer as he led Ringling College digital film students through the scene. 

"It was deemed to be safe enough to do," he said, prompting laughter. "In the end, the Hong Kong government said, 'No, this is not a good idea. We're not going to swing this guy over the city.'"

Still, the scene contains more reality than computer-generated imagery than what you would think, Pfister said, and viewers are taken from Chicago to Hong Kong and London without a hint of a location change.

The Academy Award-winning cinematographer is in town this week holding private workshops and screenings with students and film and acting professionals as well as hosting a free screening Thursday night of Inception where he provides live commentary of the movie. It starts at 7:15 p.m. at Riverview High School and is open to the public.

Pfister's role as cinematographer is a combination of making Nolan's artistic desires happen both on location and in the editing bay to produce a realistic, but visually pleasing scene.

Pfister has been the Robin to Nolan's Batman for several projects over the years, and Pfister will make his directorial debut in an unnamed project set to be released in 2014.

The knowledge and advice he doled out Wednesday would impress movie trivia buffs, but it was sage advice for the digital film students in attendance during his Anatomy of a Scene workshop.

Ringling digital film student Emily Knight, 21 of Venice, is a huge fan of Pfister's work in Moneyball and aspires to be a screenwriter.

"I liked writing and I like how he showed us who the script translated from the page to the screen," she said. 

Pfister told the students which cameras were used, how the scene was shot using IMAX cameras, Nolan's preference of shooting up-close detail shots called inserts on location and other tidbits. 

The building? Real. The plane flying over Hong Kong? Real, but the interior was shot on a soundstage and merged with the footage. Christian Bale atop a building? That happened until the stuntman arrived. 

Pfister is a stickler for perfection and he shared with the students an error that bugs him to this day during the action sequence. After all the natural blue lighting in Hong Kong and the building and the matching blue filters on the interior shots, it's the lighting of Batman's cape during his flight that he said shouldn't have happened. 

To the editing crew's credit, Pfister said, the same team redeemed themselves in Inception and have improved the consistency of the visuals in each film since.

Going back to that action sequence, which can be viewed in the video above, stuntman Reeves did actually jump off the building with a tether tied to him for about 30 feet, then the rest was added in the editing room, he said. 

Filming stunts is a tricky part of the business, and Pfister reminded the students how dangerous the profession can be. 

"The rule of thumb in stunt scenes is it's the little ones that are going to get you," Pfister said. 

During a test run of a car chase scene shot for The Dark Knight, Conway Wicklife died while operating a camera hanging out of the window of a SUV when it crashed into a tree, he reminded the students. 

In another case, Reeves slammed into a glass wall during the action sequence because the explosive chargers didn't break the glass for him. 

Originally, Batman was suppose to arrive by sea instead of air, Pfister said, by swimming in the Hong Kong Harbor to shore. The shot was very possible, but this one could have landed somebody in the hospital, too.

"We wrote that out because the Hong Kong Harbor was too polluted," he said.

And sometimes there's not enough Hollywood magic to clean a river.


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