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‘The Dark Knight’ Turns 10: How Christopher Nolan Launched an Epic Battle to Make Imax Blockbusters

The Imax brand has become ubiquitous, in large part thanks to Nolan's efforts. But without his support, 70mm film would have a hard time sticking around.

With a fisheye lens, people watch the premier of "The Dark Knight Rises" inside the Liberty Science Center IMAX theater during the museum's first attempt at showcasing a full length Hollywood feature film on its premier day, in Jersey City, N.J. Director Christopher Nolan shot nearly half of his Batman finale using bulky IMAX cameras, whose 70mm frame is about 10 times the size of standard movie film. He also insisted that distributor Warner Bros. release it in at least 100 IMAX cinemas that can project it on film rather than in the digital format that has been gradually replacing celluloidDark Knight Rises, Jersey City, USA

Audiences watch the premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” inside the Liberty Science Center IMAX theater.

Julio Cortez/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The Dark Knight” was a certified game changer when it exploded onto screens 10 years ago: It made Hollywood take comic-book adaptations seriously, heralded Christopher Nolan as one of Hollywood’s most bankable directors, and even sparked a change in the Oscar’s best picture nominations — but the movie’s biggest talking point was its use of Imax, the first time the format had ever been used on a feature film.

With Warner Bros. re-releasing the movie on Imax screens to mark the 10-year-anniversary, the time is ripe to explore the significance of Nolan’s achievement with the format, and the battle to keep this unique big-screen cinematographic approach in use over the years.

The format, which utilizes 70mm film with a greater amount of perforations, had been limited to documentaries for its first few decades until features began to be formatted to be shown on the gargantuan Imax screens, which reach over 100 feet at their tallest. Film series like “The Lord Of The Rings” and “The Matrix” earned great success via the grain-reducing “DMR” (Digital Media Remastering) process, paving the way for more widespread adoption. The most important example of this was “Batman Begins,” and large-format lover Nolan pushed to take things to the next level with “The Dark Knight,” since the success of “Begins” granted him the freedom to shoot select scenes with Imax cameras.

“The Dark Knight”

Imax’s larger-than-life; almost hyperreal images fit Nolan’s desire to create a more believable comic-book setting, and played a big role in its spectacular visual design, with “true” Imax images filling the entirety of the screen with an aspect ratio of close to 4:3 rather than the cropped 2:35:1 “widescreen” images. It created a convincing scale for the monolithic Gotham City, evident right from the opening shot.

Rave reviews followed, with the common consensus being “see it in Imax,” but despite the rapturous response – and a box office haul that surpassed $1 billion – shooting films in Imax has not become commonplace. In fact, without Nolan’s continued perseverance, the list is depressingly small: Not counting his subsequent directing credits, only seven other features have used Imax for select sequences since “The Dark Knight,” including “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” However, the most significant one was “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” which utilized Imax’s unmatchable scale for the vertiginous Burj Khalifa scene.

Imax hasn’t been able to match the 3-D boom that emerged after the release of “Avatar.” Like Imax, 3-D offers great box-office potential, but was simpler to implement, since it didn’t require special screens. And while Imax exhibition has grown, it is limited to “DMR” films. True Imax remains a rarity and continues to draw parallels with another spectacular film format: Cinerama.

Christopher Nolan shooting "The Dark Knight Rises"

Christopher Nolan shooting “The Dark Knight Rises”

Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

The three-panel, three-projector film process than created immersive panoramic images during the 50’s and 60’s saw an even scanter cinematic use than Imax, and the formats share many of the same problems. They are loud and heavy in the shooting process, hampering the ability for audiences’ to hear the dialogue. Anne Hathaway likened the Imax camera to a cappuccino machine, and its more intimate use in “Interstellar” was only made possible by fixing the microphone inside the actors’ helmets — and that is only one of many technical difficulties.

But the biggest problem, simply put, is expense; its use on “The Dark Knight” Rises quadrupled the budget of that department, and such expense continues to limit Imax to “select” sequences. Its extended use in Nolan’s “Dunkirk” was only made possible by the director assembling an experienced Imax crew and employing cheaper practical effect such as cardboard cut-out extras. Costly and difficult to worth with, despite unparalleled visual results, it will take its toll on any production. That’s a key hindrance in an age in which studios look to cut down shooting costs to tackle the rising cost of worldwide marketing. Digital cinematography is now a much more appealing option.

In fact, advances in digital cinematography over the last decade (aided by the 3-D boom) have helped streamline production. The final product is easier to distribute and it has also brought critical success — seven of the last nine best cinematography Oscar winners have been shot digitally — putting analogue formats firmly on the backseat. The digital revolution could not be avoided even by Imax, which has created its own digital camera system and overhauled many of their cinemas with digital laser projection.

Lighter, cheaper, compatible with a wider variety of lenses, easier to incorporate with VFX and 3-D and boasting a greater image quality than standard 35mm and even 70mm, larger digital formats have an undeniable appeal. “Avengers: Infinity War” recently became the first film to be shot completely in Imax, and while the latest instalment of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise was shot on film – a rarity these days – it has utilized digital Imax for certain scenes, despite the success of Imax in “Ghost Protocol.”

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”

But are digital formats really a worthy counterpart to true Imax? While digital boasts huge resolutions (up to 8K), that pales in comparison to Imax’s native resolution of 18K. Film Imax also remains the only format that fills the entirety of the Imax screen. Many were left disappointed when, despite being an “Imax” film, “Infinity War” did not fill Imax screens. In an ideal world, film Imax may be the most spectacular and immersive option, but it presents a greater distribution challenge.

There is no such worry for standard size screens and home media, where the large majority of audiences will be viewing these movies. Of course, the scale of true Imax is lost on non-Imax screens, with the image cropped to conform to smaller screens. However, this does solve the issue of shifting aspect ratios, which some viewers consider a distraction. While Nolan describes film Imax as the gold standard of cinema, it can only be viewed in its true form by a small percentage of audiences. That’s never a great business model. Cinerama succumbed to the sheer challenge it took just to screen; now, there are only three screens left in the world, serving essentially as museum pieces. True Imax may be spared such a fate: While many Imax cinemas turn digital, the medium can sit alongside film, rather than replace it.

As a company, Imax sees its digital camera system as a means to complement its film format, which it continues to boast as its gold standard. However, digital Imax has already been more readily adapted in a trend that looks set to continue, and with Imax being a household name — with little distinction made in current marketing efforts between film and digital — it is likely that most audiences have not noticed. More and more go to see films in Imax, but far fewer see actual Imax films.

Joe Colombo Joe Colombo works on splicing together reels of film for the upcoming showing of the latest Batman film, "The Dark Knight Rises," at the IMAX theater at Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J. The museum will have its first ever showing of a feature film shown on the same day it premiers at commercial theaters at midnight on Friday morning. Director Christopher Nolan shot nearly half of his Batman finale using bulky IMAX cameras, whose 70mm frame is about 10 times the size of standard movie film. He also insisted that distributor Warner Bros. release "The Dark Knight Rises" in at least 100 IMAX cinemas that can project it on film rather than in the digital format that has been gradually replacing celluloidFilm-2-D Dark Knight, Jersey City, USA

A 70mm film strip of “The Dark Knight Rises”

Julio Cortez/AP/REX/Shutterstock

In the digital era, analogue variants remain a tool for only those that have the standing to lobby for their artistic merits. For example, recent best director Oscar winner Damien Chazelle will give 70mm Imax another rare cinematic foray with his Neil Armstrong biopic “First Man,” a movie that, given its NASA connections, that seems a worthy cause for such grandiose imagery.

Ten years on, Imax continues to see ever increasing success, but its original iteration of imagery that first jolted audiences retinas remains a rarity, too cumbersome compared to streamlined digital. Nevertheless, with directors like Nolan fighting away, the medium may be spared the fate of becoming a forgotten curiosity.

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