Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Production Values- The Dark Knight

I watched The Dark Knight for the first time in its first week of release, and have seen it about a hundred times since then, and so feel like I could navigate Gotham City like the back of my hand. Still, when you actually have to think about it in terms of production design, it's not as easy as I thought. 40-odd pages of the official production notes later (yes, I read them all) and I feel like I understand it a little better.

Above is the bank robbery which takes place for the first five minutes of the film. This scene was actually shot in Chicago, along with numerous other sets including Harvery Dent's office and the Gotham City Police Department. According to Christopher Nolan, he chose Chicago for being 'wonderfully cinematic'. He also added:

"The real world is built on a scale you could never reproduce in a studio"

I agree with this to an extent; as much as I love the twisted, fantastical world of Tim Burton or the brilliantly gothic sets of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, there are some incidences in which you really need the real deal. For instance, the police funeral on the streets of Gotham really couldn't have been contained to a set- the sense of danger is knowing that the threat of super-villainy could come from any of the hundreds of windows.
As Wayne Manor was burnt to the ground in the first film, The Dark Knight immerses our hero and the action right in the heart of the city, so the architecture is of huge importance. Even the indoor setting are elongated and at some points threaten to dwarf the action, as shown in the bank still below:

In terms of sheer scale, the towering skyscrapers of downtown Chicago make a convincing Gotham and tie in with the theme of 'escalation' (as described by writer David S Goyer). Compared to the clutter and chaos of Batman Begins, all of the action in Dark Knight seems especially heightened, from the opening shot to the skyline of Hong Kong. It adds to the feeling that there is no build up to a climax in the film; the film in itself is continuously climactic.

In the official Production Notes, Nolan and production designer Nathan Crowley cite architect Mies van der Rohe as an inspiration, as he designed a number of key buildings in the city- including the IBM Building, which was used for the locations I mentioned earlier.

^Some examples of van der Rohe's work in Chicago

^ a van der Rohe design.

^ Bruce Wayne's city centre penthouse

The sense of elongation in depth and height of these buildings is clearly what Nolan and his team were aiming for, and in my opinion they deifinitely succeeded. While there is a sense of upward growth, at ground level the city seems claustrophobic, dirty and dangerous- it's understandable why the characters would want to elevate themselves above it. While Batman may be an avenger for the people, his Bruce Wayne mask must still be seen to be above everyone else.

Gotham City has obvious comparisons to Fritz Lang's Metropolis with its long, geometric shapes and claustrophobic skylines dwarfed by huge buildings and criss-crossed with roads, traffic and general bustle.

The architectural element of the film is ably helped by the set decoration and costumes. Even the general look of the film suits the purpose; where Batman Begins had a browny/yellow tint, this is very blue and nothing about the film suggests warmth. In fact the only time 'warm' colours are really used are for the huge action set-ups. I think this juxtaposes two of the leading characters of the film. Batman is finding himself pressured into revealing his true identity, as the people of Gotham are increasingly afraid of a masked vigilante. Also, Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego and growing further and further apart, and he also distances himself from close relationships. He is the colder, aloof 'blue' of the film, while the anarchic Joker is represented by the numerous explosions. Even his dress sense is warmer. While Bruce Wayne wears sharp, expensive suits, the Joker is a crumpled offspring of punk and nihilism, wearing rich purples and greens, with his face smeared with deep red. According to costume designer Lindy Hemming, "my research ranged from Vivienne Westwood to Johnny Rotten to Iggy Pop to Pete Doherty to Alexander McQueen. I was collecting all sorts of images.” This comes across abundantly in his image and allows us to get a deeper understanding of his personality.

The advancements in technology with camera contribute to the look and feel of the film. It was the first film to integrate traditional 35mm film-making with IMAX cameras. According to Nathan Crowley (production designer), " The perspective is huge. I mean, we purposely had a lot of low ceilings and beautiful shiny floors because they stay in frame". I think this goes a long way to creating the elongated buildings and sense of things being heightened. Wally Pfister, the cinematographer, also stated that IMAX allowed greater contrast and 'richer colour saturation'. This absolutely comes across in the film, and every colour pallette looks like it has been fully explored.

Overall, I'd say this film is a perfect example of using technology, traditional methods and art direction to help tell the story. Everything about the film really pops off the screen and all of the elements come together really brilliantly, to create something that- amazingly- is even better than the sum of all of its fantastical parts.


  1. Wow, I feel like my blog has been blown away, this is great!

    I love the Rohe connection, it makes perfect sense when you mention it. I saw some of his work in Barcelona and it's very cool, very Bruce Wayne., Pfister.

  2. You should check out the alumni of the AFI Conservatory- Wally Pfister, Kirby Dick and a guy whose surname is Dong. DONG. Bahahahahaha!!!