CUT THE DARK KNIGHT: The Editors

Tue, July 15th, 2008 at 3:21pm PDT | Updated: July 15th, 2008 at 3:30pm

TV/Film
Jami Philbrick, Staff Writer

"The Dark Knight" opens July 18 in theaters and IMAX

When principal photography on “The Dark Knight” wrapped in Hong Kong last November, work on the film was really only halfway done. Although Film Editor Lee Smith and First Assistant John Lee had been working on the movie since pre-production began, the hard work of assembling the footage, adding music, sound and visual effects in order to have “The Dark Knight” ready to be released this weekend had only just begun.

Lee Smith, an Australian sound designer turned film editor, has cut films like “Robocop 2," “The Truman Show” and “Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World," for which he was nominated for an Oscar. After meeting and working with director Christopher Nolan on “Batman Begins," they continued their relationship through “The Prestige” and now with “The Dark Knight.”

First Assistant Editor John Lee met Smith in 1993 while working on “Fearless” and they’ve continued to work together ever since. Before “Batman Begins," Lee already had an impressive resume of working on fan-favorite films including “The Matrix," “Mission: Impossible II” and “Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring.”

CBR News spoke to Smith and Lee about editing the film, the IMAX print, working with Christopher Nolan and the remarkable performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker.

Story continues below

CBR: At the time of this interview, we are exactly one month away from the release of the film. At what stage of post-production are you in right now and how is it going?

Lee Smith: Things are looking really good. The film is being released on two formats, conventional 35mm 2.40:1 cinema version and on IMAX, with four actual IMAX sequences being shot on 65mm 1.43:1. That’s the process we’re in now, finalizing the IMAX side of things.

Much of "The Dark Knight" was shot in IMAX format

John Lee: And if you get a chance, go see it in IMAX because it’s awesome! The whole movie can be seen on IMAX but there are four massive scenes that were shot using IMAX cameras. So when you see that stuff it looks amazing. The whole thing is amazing in IMAX but those original camera negatives look just incredible.

Without giving anything away, what was it about the particular sequences that were chosen that really lent themselves to the IMAX format?

Smith: The prologue, which was the first six minutes of the film that was put out on the head of all the “I Am Legend” prints that went into IMAX theaters, was shot exclusively on IMAX cameras. It utilizes the full IMAX screen. Predominately, these sequences that are in IMAX are action scenes, so it’s basically got an enormous amount of real-estate on that IMAX screen and it’s just nothing but action, action, action. So it’s enormous sound and an enormous picture to boot.

Just to explain what the actual difference is, the majority of films now that are released in IMAX, for example, “I Am Legend” or “300," are basically a traditional 35mm film with the aspect ratio of 2:40.1. It’s digitally transferred through an IMAX system called DMR and reproduced in 70mm to allow them to be screened in an IMAX theater. But you actually get bars, top and bottom as you do when you watch 16:9 widescreen on a conventional TV set. If you can imagine that, what you're seeing is something like “I am Legend” or “300” with big black bars at the top and bottom. It’s still a very large, impressive, high quality image. The big difference, that has never been done before is, in “The Dark Knight" we actually shot on traditional 65 mm IMAX cameras. What that does is it fills that enormous screen, which is something to behold. It is such an enormous camera that you wouldn’t usually use it for an action sequence because they’re about two to three times the size and weight of traditional cameras. An enormous amount of new techniques had to be developed in order to do it.

Scenes from "The Dark Knight"

Lee: They built special cranes, steady-cams and lenses to actually shoot this movie. Traditionally, IMAX is all about bolting the cameras down and getting very steady, clean shots but our guys were all about throwing the cameras around, putting them in cars, on cranes and running them over. They put them on motorbikes and the footage looks incredible.

Smith: It’s awesome. When people see the IMAX version of this film I think they’re going to pass out. At the end of the film they’re going to need to be carried out on a stretcher.

What can fans of “Batman Begins” expect from “The Dark Knigiht?”

Smith: Just a lot more of what they were getting with the first one. It’s an incredible gritty, dark tale, obviously with the inclusion of Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker, which is truly remarkable. It’s just really an incredibly big, involved film with some amazing performances. Christian Bale has just taken his role further. Heath Ledger, again, is amazing as the Joker. Aaron Eckhart is incredible as Harvey Two-Face. What ever the fans loved about “Batman Begins” they’ll love even more in this one. It’s an incredible thrill ride basically, from the beginning to the end. They won’t be disappointed.

Were there any major differences between making the first one and this one that maybe surprised you or that you didn’t expect?

Scenes from "The Dark Knight"

Smith: No, it was just as hard as the first one. They’re very complicated films. Christopher Nolan is a very, very intelligent man, I think, as you can tell from the first film. The story is very involved. They’re very dense films. They’re just very complicated films, technically, to make. But I think once you sit down and it starts rolling, you've got to hang on.

What’s Christopher Nolan like to work with and how involved is he in the editorial process?

Smith: He’s totally involved in the process. He’s there every day and he just lives and breathes his film. He’s involved in every facet of the filmmaking process, probably more so than any director I’ve worked with before. His knowledge of the process is astounding, considering I’m older than him and have worked on a lot more films.

Lee: You can’t slip one past Chris Nolan. He knows a lot about what we do. I think on “Batman Begins,” when we first worked with him, every now and then you try to get away with slipping one past him but you pretty soon realize that you can’t do that.

Heath Ledger stars as the Joker

Smith: When we say, “slip one past him," it’s not to the detriment of the movie. It’s just that filmmaking and every facet of filmmaking is very technical and can take an extraordinarily long time to understand the craft. So you can imagine that a director can’t know the minutia of every single skill that’s being applied to each film. But Chris goes a long way to knowing it and he’s very inquisitive and interested in every facet of the filmmaking process. So now John and I just treat him like an equal editorially and that’s pretty well what he is. There’s not much that he doesn’t know. I think that all the truly good directors, obviously, have to have a very strong editorial mind to simply get through the filming process, especially on a film like “The Dark Knight” where we shot for just over six months and on different locations including Los Angeles, Chicago, London and Hong Kong. There’s just so much involved in that, I think if you didn’t have a strong editorial mind it would be really easy to get lost. I think sometimes with these huge blockbuster films, a lot of them do lose their way, but thankfully not us.

You mentioned Heath Ledger's performance in the film. With it obviously being his last, do you feel any added pressure to make sure it comes out right?

Smith: Well, obviously that was a devastating piece of news as we were a few months into the editorial process when we found out that Heath had met with an untimely end. John and I had actually worked on a film called “Two Hands” which was one of his first feature films in Australia. I actually got to know him quite well. When he landed the part on this film we met up, chatted and exchanged a few stories about directors we had worked with. I feel like I don’t ever really get to know actors that well as an editor, but Heath was the exception. He was the kind of guy who would recognize you from across the car park and walk over and have a chat, a very nice guy. As far as him passing away while we were editing, we [as editors] always have a duty to protect; to keep all of the actor’s best performances and give them the best show that we can. I certainly think that Heath’s performance is so outstanding that all we did was give it our best and try to respect his memory. He basically knocked it out of the ballpark.

Scenes from "The Dark Knight"

Lee: I think Chris deliberately didn’t change anything after Heath died. He just kept going forward with his vision. He thought it would be wrong to change it in any way. We just all kept going. Heath got to see the prologue, but it’s just real sad that right now when we’re having all these great screenings and everyone’s so excited that he’s not here to see his work because it’s really an amazing performance.

Did Ledger’s death effect post-production at all? Did you have any ADR missing that you had to work around?

Smith: No, fortunately for us. Actually, we use a very small amount of ADR on the entire movie, mainly because Chris is a great lover of production sound. So while they were shooting he paid particular attention to make sure the Location Sound Mixer got everything he needed. Thankfully, we had nothing missing for Heath in the entire movie.

Lee: We did some wild lines during production as well because those IMAX cameras are fairly noisy. Often, for everyone we would do wild lines of certain things as we were going. We managed to use those and get by.

Heath Ledger stars as the Joker

Smith: Basically, Heath was completely covered. It was just one of those things where we’re happy that we’re working with a director who has a love of sound and a very good Location Sound Mixer. So in this instance, it certainly saved us from a very laborious process that we didn’t have to get into. So we can attest that every single word that comes out of Heath Ledger’s mouth is his own.

What can you tell us about the visual effects in the film?

Lee: There are a lot of visual effects in the film. For example, because we shot on IMAX, anything we shot in those sequences became a visual effect. So that brought the count up. There are a lot of visual effects, of course, when it comes to Two-Face. There are a lot of visual effects in the film but Chris tries to do as many things in camera as he possibly can.

How much of the film is done with practical effects as opposed to visual effects?

Lee: We had to shoot on sets in various places, so we did use some green screen. When you see the film you may look and say, “wow, what a great visual effect” but you’d probably be looking at something that wasn’t. They did some amazing practical stunts with wires and cars.

Scene from "The Dark Knight"

Smith: For example, there’s a big action set piece in the middle of the film and I think most of the audience won’t believe that it was done practically. An enormous amount of this film has been shot with stunt men. The Batmobile and the Batpod are both fully operational vehicles. You’ll see stuff in this movie and not believe your eyes but trust me, it’s all shot in the camera. There is some visual effects work in it but compared to most of these types of action films it’s a miniscule amount. Chris really likes the whole physicality of shooting stuff for real, much to our pleasure as well. You’ll never get anything to look real unless you get a real guy to fly through the air or ride on the Batpod. Those shots are real and very dangerous but very well choreographed and very well thought out.

As editors, which do you prefer from an actor? Someone that does about the same performance in every take or an actor who switches it up and does each take differently?

Smith: You know, it’s one of those things that vary from actor to actor. Some actors give you a selection, a whole gambit of different ways to do a take; other actors hardly vary at all. The bottom line is if they are good actors then either one of those two options will work. There’s no point in getting a whole lot of variables out of someone who can’t act. It doesn’t do you any good. With great actors, it’s all in the minor details. Someone like Gary Oldman is just a phenomenal actor with a certain way he looks or moves an eyebrow that just speaks volumes. In this cast the actor standard is just so extremely high, it’s just terrific casting. There’s stuff in it that Heath Ledger and Christian Bale do that just takes it above and beyond. It truly is amazing. Aaron Eckhart’s portrayal of Harvey Two-Face is pretty extraordinary.

Scene from "The Dark Knight"

Finally, were you a fan of Batman or comic books at all before working on these movies and what as an editor, do you have to keep in mind when you are working on a Batman film as opposed to some of the other films that you’ve worked on in the past?

Smith: I wasn’t really a comic book fan at all when I was growing up. It could be because I grew up in Australia that my childhood was not dominated by comic books. And I really wasn’t a great fan of these kinds of films. I was a little bit dubious about getting involved when I was offered “Batman Begins,” until I looked at Christopher Nolan’s other films. I felt that if someone with that skill level is that passionate about these kinds of films, then I can be open minded and I thought, “what’s to loose?” So we did “Batman Begins” and I really enjoyed it and now I’m a fan.

Lee: I think what you have to do on these films is take it really seriously and forget everything that came before it. You have to forget the Tim Burton films, the TV show and even the comic book. Just like Chris does and all the actors do. It’s a whole different ballgame.

Smith: You take the material seriously and in the end all the choices I make are about what I like and what pace I like. I like it gritty and I like it dark. Thankfully, that’s the kind of Batman world that Chris has created. Chris is a fan of the comics and has a deep knowledge of the Batman history. For me, I didn’t want to look at all the other films or make any comparisons. I just wanted to treat it as a new exercise and end up making a film that I’d want to watch … and I do.

Now discuss this story in CBR’s TV/Film forum.

TAGS:  the dark knight, heath ledger, batman, christopher nolan, dc comics

CBR News

Send This Article to a Friend

Separate multiple email address with commas.

You must state your name.

You must enter your email address.