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Holy Imax, Batman!

Warner Bros. Entertainment

 Critics have written many words about "The Dark Knight" since its release, and it might seem unnecessary to contribute more at this stage. But there is one aspect of the film that has been noticeably under-hyped. Christopher Nolan hasn’t gotten enough credit for the way he’s successfully managed to integrate Imax technology into the mainstream cinematic format.

Having seen "The Dark Knight" in both an Imax and a regular 35mm projection, I can attest that it is an excellent film in whichever presentation it’s viewed in. Its undeniable quality signals a coming-of-age for the comic-book genre, and the film demonstrates Hollywood moviemaking at the top of its game.

But watching the film in Imax raises the experience to a new level. Mr. Nolan has shot the four main action scenes in the massive resolution of the 70mm Imax format ; not only that but he’s also added dozens of other sequences, most of which are wide establishing shots plus the odd explosion and montage. Despite the action scenes looking spectacular and deeply immersing you in the experience, it’s actually the establishing shots that really impress.

In "Batman Begins," Mr. Nolan crafted the city of Gotham digitally, creating a generic metropolis from various real-life influences. But for the sequel, he’s simply able to utilize the actual city of Chicago (where he and his brother and co-writer Jonathan spent time growing up) by capturing its imposing, overawing skyscrapers in Imax. Even though it’s all real, the city seems immense and fantastic when seen in such enveloping, pristine detail.

The cityscape shots work so well because they last such a short time; just long enough to take your breath away before the image narrows vertically to standard Scope format (actually, 2.35:1 ratio). This process actually works very well – almost instinctively well – because the narrowing effect mirrors our relationship with the story and our focusing of attention on the incoming scene.

The effect also makes Gotham feel more tangible and more like an actual character, a dark and domineering backdrop to the equally unnerving action. You get a much stronger sense of Gotham as a palpable reality than you do in "Batman Begins," despite the fact the earlier film tries to show you the city more often.

So why did Mr. Nolan decide to only partially film "The Dark Knight" in Imax? Apparently it was all part of an indulged experiment to convince Warner Bros. that the technology could be used for one of its flagship products. Mr. Nolan was testing the flexibility of the cameras to see if they’re viable for an entire film with complicated action sequences, with presumably the next Batman installment in mind. But here’s the thing: Mr. Nolan may have accidentally stumbled upon a superior and more interesting method of using the Imax process.

One of the reasons Hollywood studios have shied away from filming mainstream product in Imax (as opposed to adapting 35mm films to the format, a process called DMR) – aside from the limitations in the distribution chain – is that the experience of watching Imax features is very different from the traditional narrative model. It’s more visceral and more based around wowing the audience on a purely visual level rather than one engaging through storytelling via tried-and-tested narrative formulae. And perhaps the studios have a point. If "The Dark Knight"
 were filmed totally in Imax, it would be a very different experience. It would in all likelihood be quite draining, after all many viewers find Imax disorientating and headache-inducing over a prolonged period of time, especially when viewers are seated close to the screen. So perhaps the studios have a point. But having only the action scenes and establishing shots in Imax makes sense because those scenes don’t necessarily require too much of our cognitive capabilities. We can just absorb them brainlessly for these temporary periods. Such selective use could signpost a way of integrating the technology without throwing Hollywood’s visual language baby out with the bathwater.

The point is that we need more experimentation in this vein before we move inexorably towards new formats like dual-strip 3-D without assessing which aspects of traditional cinema can be successfully translated over. As such we can be thankful for Mr. Nolan’s pioneering trial.


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