Large Format

Batman Begins – How Wally Pfister, ASC Created a Breathtaking Chase Scene

Article originally published in June 2005 InCamera

Published on website: June 01, 2005
Categories: Focus On Film , Large Format
CHRISTIAN BALE stars as Batman in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action adventure “Batman Begins.” Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Director CHRISTOPHER NOLAN and Cinematographer WALLY PFISTER, asc on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ action adventure “Batman Begins,” starring Christian Bale. Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
CHRISTIAN BALE as Bruce Wayne (left) and MICHAEL CAINE as Alfred Pennyworth in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action adventure “Batman Begins.” Photo: David James

Put Batman Begins on your must see list and don’t forget to buckle up. The film features a breathtaking chase with a bevy of police cars pursuing the Batmobile on a two-mile stretch of Chicago’s North Wacker Drive. The chase lasts for about 10 minutes on screen at speeds up to 90 miles per hour. There are no visual effects. It’s a live-action shot mainly in available light. That was the basic visual mantra for the action-adventure film.

(“Director) Chris (Nolan) wanted to shoot Batman Beginswithout relying on visual effects or digital intermediate technologies,” says cinematographer Wally Pfister, ASC. “He wanted it to look and feel natural. Chris looked at this stretch of road as kind of a playground, where we could film an exciting night scene as naturally as possible.”

Nolan and Pfister shot scenes on North Wacker Drive and at other locations in Chicago for about a month. It was kind of a homecoming for Pfister, who was born and spent the first three months of his life in the city. His grandfather was a cartoonist and editor of a newspaper in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and his father was a correspondent, news producer and writer for CBS-TV in Chicago. Later, he worked on the Huntley-Brinkley Report with Peter Jennings, including the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

Pfister had previously collaborated on the highly regarded independent features Memento and Insomnia. “I wasn’t sure I was ready to take on another big action film after The Italian Job, but when Chris called and asked me to shoot Batman Begins, I said yes before I read the script or even a treatment,” he says. “I knew I could trust his judgment. He explained that it’s a story about the origins of Batman, a normal person who masks his identity and becomes a crime fighter to avenge his murdered parents. It’s a darker film than previous Batman movies. The natural look sets the tone for the story.”

Pfister was a boyhood fan of the TV series. His Batman utility belt and projector, which cast a bat-like image on his bedroom wall, were prized possessions. He still has Batman cartoons that were drawn by his grandfather. Pfister was 11 years old when he began shooting little films with his father’s Super 8 camera.

He went to work as a PA at a Maryland TV station straight out of high school. Within a few months, Pfister was operating a live video camera on evening news programs, and occasionally shooting 16 mm PSAs. When a cutback at the station eliminated his job, Pfister signed on as a soundman at a TV news service in Washington, D.C. Within six months, he was shooting TV news stories.

Pfister covered the story when Robert Altman came to town with the HBO miniseries Tanner ’88. Altman hired him to operate a B camera. That experience sparked his interest in narrative storytelling. Pfister enrolled at AFI on the cinematography track. After graduation, he worked on camera crews on Roger Corman films. He qualified to join the International Cinematographers Guild as a camera operator in 1994, and earned his first cinematography credit four years later for The Hi- Line, a low budget feature.

Nolan saw Hi-Line at the Sundance Festival, which led to his collaboration with Pfister on Memento. This is the fifth Warner Bros. film about Batman since 1989.

Batman Beginsis set in fictional Gotham City in contemporary times. Pfister describes it as a dark, troubled place on the verge of collapse. The city is plagued by crime and political corruption. In an early flashback scene, a young Bruce Wayne witnesses the brutal murder of his parents. He travels to Asia, where a ninja cult leader mentors him in both martial arts and mental discipline. Wayne returns to Gotham and invents Batman, a dark knight who goes to war with the city’s criminals. Unlike most other super-heroes Batman is vulnerable. He isn’t bulletproof and he can’t fly.

“We made an easy decision to produce Batman Beginsin anamorphic (2.4:1 aspect ratio) format because the story calls for the scope of widescreen images,” Pfister says. “Chris wanted both the Batmobile and Batman’s costume to be non-reflective matte black, so they could be concealed in shadows. He described them as stealthy.”

Pfister shot tests with Christian Bale, who portrays both Wayne and his alter ego Batman, in costume with different cape and cowl (mask) materials. He explains that when Wayne is in his Batman costume the audience just sees his eyes and mouth. Pfister recalls that there was some sheen on Batman’s mask and the rest of his costume, but the cape was “absolutely matte black.” Pfister shot tests with different emulsions, exposure levels, lenses, printer lights and approaches to lighting.

“We used eye light to make the person behind the mask come alive,” he says. “After experimenting, I decided to use a KinoFlo Kamio, a ring light designed to go around the lens. I didn’t use it that way because the matte box would have made it too complicated. I put the light on an armature that was attached to the camera. When I felt it was too bright, I put an ND6 gel on the light and used a quarter CTS to warm it up. It was soft enough not to create shadows, and hard enough to put a zing in his eyes. The eyes are the only clue that tells the audience that Batman and Bruce Wayne are the same person. You can see the same soul in both of their eyes.”

Other main players in the cast include Michael Caine as Wayne’s butler Alfred; Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, the technology wizard who helped design and build the Batmobile; Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon, a police officer who befriends the masked hero; Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, Wayne’s boyhood friend who works in the district attorney’s office; Tom Wilkinson as mobster boss Carmine Falcone; Liam Neeson as Henri Ducard; and Ken Watanabe as the Ninja cult leader.

The Batmobile was designed and built for the movie. It could accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour in six seconds. Pfister shot tests with a scale mockup, since none of the five Batmobiles built for the picture were ready before production began.

Batman Beginswas mainly produced on sound stages in England. Early in preproduction Pfister was dispatched to Chicago on a tech scout to check out the two-mile stretch of North Wacker Drive as a location for the chase scene. Nolan and production designer Nathan Crowley liked the location, partially because it is an enclosed street with walls on either side of the road and an elevated train overhead. The lack of familiar landmarks was important, because the chase takes place in Gotham City. Nolan asked Pfister to decide whether it was feasible to shoot the chase at night in natural light.

“Chris wanted to capture the dynamics of the excitement of the chase in as natural way as possible,” Pfister says. “In our discussions, he referred to the modern day gold standard for chase scenes, The French Connection (Owen Roizman, ASC) and Bullitt (William A. Fraker, ASC). We didn’t need to look at those films. The images were imprinted in our minds. Chris wanted the slickness of a super-hero, action movie using modern film technology and gritty camera action.”

Rather than just looking, Pfister decided to rent a camera and shoot a couple of plates. He “pushed” Kodak VISION2 500T 5218 film by both a full stop and a half a stop. The test footage was processed and printed by Astro Labs in Chicago.

“The film looked fabulous,” Pfister says. “I told Chris that I was confident that we could shoot the chase scene at night with a foundation of natural light.”

Pfister arranged to ship Panavision E Series prime lenses used in England to Chicago for the location shots. Mike Weldon, first assistant cameraman on the Chicago crew, made certain no glitches had occurred during shipping.

Pfister shot some additional tests, and, as a result he recommended using Astro as the front-end lab for all of the Chicago footage.

“They did beautiful work and provided a screening room for dailies,” he says. Pfister used a combination of “fast” anamorphic lenses and force processed the 500-speed 5218 film by one stop to penetrate the darkness during the chase scene.

“I was shocked at how well the grain held up,” he says. “It’s a spectacular look in mainly natural light. I had (gaffer) Cory Geryak, walk the two-mile route and select places to set up around 60 Par 64s. They are relatively small, parabolic lights from Mole-Richardson. We put different gels on the lights and painted the walls surrounding the road with hot spots of colored light as the cars speed by.”

It’s a nuanced that looks natural and augments the visual grammar on a subliminal level. Pfister also noticed that the regularly spaced columns supporting the overhead train tracks amplified the perceived speed of the chase as the cars zipped by.

The visual strategy for the chase scene called for the cameras to be moving with the action rather than being anchored at fixed positions. Pfister primarily used two cameras. An ARRI 435 camera on a Libra 4 gyro-stabilized head was mounted on the sidecar of a motorcycle. It was operated by remote control from a console on the side of the street. The other main camera was a Panavision Millennium XL on a gyro-stabilized Lev head rigged to an Ultimate Arm. The crane was mounted on a highly maneuverable Mercedes SL55 car. Maurice FitzMaurice operated the camera from the back seat.

“The Lev head and Ultimate Arm were as steady as a rock,” Pfister says. “We could track in front of the Batmobile, behind it, whip back and forth between it and the police cars at speeds of up to 90 miles an hour, while keeping the camera perfectly steady. It could circle the car in six seconds. We were using wide-angle lenses, so the audience sees a broader scope of the action in the environment. Weldon was pulling focus. His work was flawless.”

A simple rig was used to grab cut-away shots of stunt drivers in police cars. A Panaflex Platinum camera aimed through a side window was hard-mounted on a “hostess tray.” A Mole-Richardson 1K Zip aimed at the opposite window provided hard edge light on the stuntman who was portraying a cop. This tactic enabled Pfister to film characters in the police cars without a tow rig.

A Pan ARRI 2C camera was mounted on the front grill of a police car when it crashed into a traffic median. The camera recorded breathtaking images by remote control. Pfister also had several handheld PanARRI 2-C cameras in the back seats of police cars looking over the drivers’ shoulders from a subjective perspective.

“Paul Jennings is a fantastic stunt coordinator, and Rick Avery, Rick Miller and Steve Holladay are some of the best stunt drivers in the world,” Pfister says. “George Cottle drove the Batmobile in every shot in the movie. Their work jibed perfectly with Chris Nolan’s vision for making the action look and feel natural.”

Pfister added dabs of edge light to several high-speed, intense action shots. The artificial light was corrected with filtration to match the color temperature of the practical sodium vapor light. In one of those shots, the Batmobile smashed through a barricade. In another shot, two police cars collided, and one of them slid off the wall and flipped over.

Several other sequences were filmed at practical locations in Chicago, including the final scene where Batman and police lieutenant Gordon are on top of a building with a non-descript skyline in the background. They are discussing the future of Gotham City. You can feel that they foresee a better day. It is living proof of the timeless adage that a picture is worth 1,000 words.

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