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The Dark Knight’s IMAX bank heist was a reverse revolution

Christopher Nolan’s large-format obsession wowed audiences and his contemporaries — no glasses required

Warner Bros. Pictures

On the occasion of The Dark Knight’s 10th anniversary, Polygon spent a week investigating the comic-book blockbuster’s legacy. Why so serious? Because Christopher Nolan’s Bat-sequel gave us lots to talk about. This is the retrospective you deserve and the one you need right now.

A man stood before me in a dark room, silhouetted by what little light shone behind him. He had a vision, a just vision, where people were treated with dignity and offered what could quantifiably be called “the best” thanks to a profound trust and understanding of technology. Moreover, he was a man standing alone, a champion against a powerful system, undaunted by trends. His face was somewhat obscured by a curious sartorial choice.

This was not Batman, but Christopher Nolan, who on that day in December 2007 wore a scarf indoors even though the heat was on. His latest, The Dark Knight, would be the first feature-length, live-action motion picture to incorporate footage shot with IMAX film cameras. The occasion was so momentous — an act of spectacle as a rallying cry for the preservation of celluloid — that Nolan gathered a small group of people six months ahead of release to show what he had accomplished, like his own mini World’s Fair.

I was there in New York’s cavernous Lincoln Square IMAX theater for that first screening of the “Dark Knight prologue,” the opening six minutes of Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins. I would later pick Nolan’s brain about what I’d witnessed: He talked about his influences for the sequence — 1970s thrillers, and I name-dropped titles like The Parallax View and The Taking of Pelham 123 as he nodded politely from inside his scarf. That wasn’t really what resonated. The prologue was an experience in sensual cinema, with heavy emphasis on the “sin.”

the joker bank heist prologue in the dark knight 2008 Warner Bros. Pictures

The Dark Knight is drenched in craft; wall-to-wall music, propulsive editing and a rush of a camera movement. Bringing comic book panels to life offered Nolan the opportunity to come into his own, and much of that included blasting out onto a massive 1.43:1 frame.

The film opens with a set of silent studio logos and a shadowy bat form emerging from a plume of blue smoke (is this movie called “Bat”?). A low boom ushers in Nolan’s experiment: a bright, full frame. Those few seconds of throat clearing before the jump do a lot of the psychological work to make this prologue so gripping. Gotham City’s glass buildings are as big as life with the wallop of the large-format projection. One of the windows smashing outward is a startling image that has all the breathlessness of 3D — without the irritating glasses.

As we meet the crew, Nolan’s camera drops down to street level and spies a joker standing there with a hunch. He’s looming in the center of the frame, as big and as imposing as any of the towers from the skyline. But the mask he’s holding in his left hand is looking back straight at us. Would it be as eerie if weren’t so enormous?

Nolan shoots the guys on the roof from above and the thugs on the street from below. The music has a nervous, hyperventilating quality punctuated by abrupt and loud gunshots. It’s startling; not just to us, but to the bank manager played by William Fichtner (the first human face in the movie) who actually jumps out of his seat, mirroring us if we’re viewing it in an IMAX theater with its bone-shattering speakers. (Nolan will replay this trick again later with the opening of Dunkirk; quiet voices on the soundtrack, little sounds like falling papers, fastening a belt, rummaging through cigarette butts and then — BLAM! — the first ear-splitting gunshots.)

The scene wisecracks along as the gang bumps each other off, the camera swooping down a staircase when there’s no one left on the top level. The action on the floor of the bank comes at us from back to front. It isn’t a framing for widescreen, it’s set for deepscreen.

The sequence concludes with one of the greatest trick introductions of all time. The last remaining joker pulls off his mask to reveal that he is THE Joker! Finally we see Heath Ledger’s spin on this foundational character from comic book lore. Not to in any way diminish the Academy Award-winning performance, but he gets a very heavy assist from this intense close-up and nightmarish shallow focus.

the joker IMAX prologue the dark knight 2008 Warner Bros. Pictures

Shooting in IMAX, a state-of-the-art format that’s still old-school analog, is, was and always shall be an enormous pain. A massive camera body cranks tactile film past the lens to expose light onto emulsion, and the stock itself is enormous, meaning everything to make the photo-capturing mechanism possible is bigger. A normal 35mm film reel can shoot for around 22 minutes. For The Dark Knight’s IMAX sequences the loads ranged from 30 seconds to two minutes. The cameras themselves weighed over 100 pounds, and felt even heavier on nimble steadicams thanks to weight distribution.

The painstaking process, and the high-quality reward (resolution-wise, IMAX film strips allow for six-times the detail of 35mm), was the allure for Nolan. “The immersive quality of the image is second to none,” he’d say years later, continuing to stump for his format of choice. But there wasn’t precedence for what he wanted to accomplish. Batman Begins, the first Christian Bale-led Batman picture, had been blown-up from 35mm to IMAX in 2005 through the Digital Media Remastering (DMR) process. (The three others to get the treatment that year: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and, yep, you guessed it, that ol’ classic Robots!)

The Batman Begins up-conversion was Nolan’s first taste of his work being blown to gigantic proportions. He wanted more. He had no interest in 3D, which he rightly called in “a fad,” and instead argued for the majesty of the IMAX image. The enormous cameras, which had hitherto only shot footage for quasi-educational shorts like Sea Fantasy, At Sea, Deep Sea, Under The Sea and The Living Sea (set to the music of Sting!) were now going to tell a mainstream fictional narrative with Hollywood actors.

In retrospect, the mid-2000s was a riskier time for movie studios. They let “auteurs” take risks with huge budgets and dialed-down interference. There was also a common goal between filmmakers and businesspeople: find new, exciting ways to keep people going to the movies. Netflix’s streaming service, iPhones, and “Peak TV” were all erupting at once.

At the same time Warner Bros. touted the IMAX revolution, James Cameron was shooting Avatar with a proprietary rig he created with Vince Pace for “immersive 3D” i.e. “it’s not junky cardboard glasses for a cheapo monster movie, it’s going to actually look good, and we can charge more for this.” The industry would favor Cameron’s revolution: it was easier to rig a theater with 3D projectors than build new, true IMAX rooms, and so they did.

The Dark Knight building swing IMAX bank heist opening Warner Bros. Pictures

Still, the magic Nolan conjured in those first six minutes resonated with the hearts of even the coldest executives in Hollywood. The prologue played as a teaser with (up-rezzed) IMAX screenings of Warner Bros.’ I Am Legend, stirring up a pre-show frenzy the business hadn’t seen since the first trailer for The Phantom Menace played in front of Meet Joe Black. Nolan would go on to film The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, and last year’s Oscar-nominated Dunkirk using the format, with other franchises, including Transformers and Mission: Impossible, investing in the large-format trend.

Let’s not pretend this is all altruism on Nolan’s part: IMAX tickets also come at a premium, and his films hit bigger at the box-office because of it. But the director does seem to have a philosophy behind his choice. “Opening the film with an IMAX sequence seemed just a terrific way to make an impression for the audience,” Nolan says on The Dark Knight’s special features. “Just throw them into the action.”

The impression lingered. Some superhero movies continue to get post-converted to 3D (and most tentpole animation is still rendered in 3D), but today, wide-release Hollywood movies shot in native 3D are all but over. Transformers: The Last Knight was the last one. Before that it was The Jungle Book and then you have to go back to The Hobbit trilogy. The forthcoming Bumblebee was shot in 2D — even the Autobots have had enough. Damien Chazelle’s upcoming Neil Armstrong biopic First Man and Wonder Woman 1984, however, both incorporate IMAX-shot footage.

Nolan’s classicist vigilantism clearly won. I think back to William Fichtner, wounded on the floor of Gotham National Bank, lost in the haze of gray joker venom and the bad guy got away in a yellow school bus. The images are clear in my mind, branded, in no small part, thanks to Nolan’s decision to shoot in IMAX. Moreover, I can still see him in silhouette, always a showman, at the theater on 68th street, calmly and elegantly saying “I hope you enjoy the film.”

Jordan Hoffman is a writer and member of the New York Film Critics Circle. His work can be read in The Guardian, New York Daily News, Vanity Fair, Thrillist and elsewhere.