For cinematographer Greig Fraser, lighting the image and keeping darkness within the character was the key challenge in this latest incarnation of Gotham’s avenging angel.
When your main character is covered head to toe in a dark suit in a city that’s dark even in daylight, it presents a unique problem for the cinematographer.
“It was the biggest lighting challenge of my career,” says Greig Fraser ACS, ASC, who has shot Zero Dark Thirty, Rogue One, Lion, Vice and Dune.
“Very early on I recognised that if we were going to make a movie we all believed in we could not make the guy in the batsuit too bright because if you look at all the comics Batman is an enigma, a silhouette, a shape, a shadow against the wall.”
“The problem with that is that you can only create an enigma for so long,” Fraser tells IBC365. “You have to start to see emotion but not give away the mood. Robert Pattinson is an inspired casting choice so therefore I can’t say to [director] Matt Reeves or Rob that I’m always keeping him in silhouette.
“Every frame in The Batman is teetering on the edge of unreadability and on the edge of being too light. It was a really tricky line to walk,” Greig Fraser
“I love lighting dark scenes but asking an audience to watch a film for 2.5 hours that’s so oppressively dark? I felt we couldn’t do that. I needed to find the right balance between light and dark. How do we light his eyes without lighting the cowl?”
The DP researched thousands of images to put together a document for Reeves called ‘Light for Dark’. “They are pictures that you’d call dark but were easy to look at,” he explains. “They had big areas of light but shadow in the foreground or pockets of darkness so you knew it was a dark place. It took a lot of referencing and a lot of study. Every frame in The Batman is teetering on the edge of unreadability and on the edge of being too light. It was a really tricky line to walk.”
The Batman’s storyline and aesthetic was particularly inspired by 1987 comic book ‘Batman: Year One’, written by Frank Miller and illustrated by David Mazzucchelli. Fraser was fascinated by the way the artist had decided to draw frames a certain way.
“There are many ways to light Batman,” he says. “If you have Batman standing in a doorway you can choose to backlight him by putting a rim light to see his shape, cowl and ears and flowing cape, which many great cinematographers have done. Or you can silhouette Batman by lighting an area behind him and keep him dark. For the most part we elected not to backlight him because we felt the film we were making was of an urban noir. I didn’t want it to feel like we’d put in lights that didn’t belong in our Gotham. All the lights that illuminated the backlot were effectively built into the set, so at any given time I could change the look of the set through turning on lights that existed already. That was a very big bonus for us, because it meant wherever we looked, it felt real.”
Fraser says he and Reeves never discussed making their film look different to any other Batman. “We never said Zack Snyder’s is this, therefore let’s do this. The discussion was around ‘remember in Chinatown how this felt, or in Klute how the New York City streets felt? That’s how we built our Gotham.
“That’s not to say that the other Batman films don’t deserve referencing. I’ve talked to directors about Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in so many ways for many other movies - just not for this.”
Production designer James Chinlund wanted to counter the broader palette, which skewed towards dour and gloom, by creating a different tone in the red-light district, where Catwoman lives. “We were inspired by some of the films of Wong Kar-Wai, in terms of textures and patterns,” Chinlund says. “There’s a romantic palette in some of those movies that we loved, like neon and a lot of colour from the light in the street. Our world is grim in a lot of places, and that was an environment where we could let some colour pop.”
Using VR in pre-viz
Reeves was keen to create a Gotham that was at once plausible and unrecognisable to most audiences. Location teams looked at several American cities, including Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and New York, but decided to base the main shoot in the UK.
Chinlund admits to some early doubts, but once he started scouting in Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, he recognised the potential. “We noticed a decayed Gothic layer that we just don’t have in the States,” he says. “It gave us a real opportunity to combine practical set builds and some Chicago location work with this amazing rich tapestry of architecture from the UK, and to try and weave all that into an American city you’ve never seen before.”
Leavesden and Cardington Studios, near Bedford, provided stages and backlot space for the huge set builds, including the Batcave and Wayne Tower. Second unit shooting also took place in Chicago.
“We didn’t want to have Times Square standing in for Gotham Square,” Reeves says in the film’s production notes, “so we added skyscrapers and an elevated train to the gothic architecture of central Liverpool, with the idea that you look at it and think, ‘Where is that?’”
All the sets were modelled in 3D and viewable in virtual reality for Reeves and Fraser to make decisions on blocking, camera position and lighting.
“If I knew Matt wanted the camera to look in a certain direction I could ask James to put a key light in a certain position in the physical set,” explains Fraser of the VR process. “If there’s a shot of someone coming up a hallway, now we know we need a light in that hallway. So, knowing how we were going to light it on a large scale and knowing what the frames were helped us be more efficient on the day. We knew exactly what the lens would be and where we needed to stand.”
That said, Fraser is no slave to a computer and is willing to use his own instinct to change focal length, lens or camera position on set.
“The computer may have pinpointed this spot but now you’re about to shoot I think we need to be on a different lens. VR doesn’t give you the emotionality of lenses - it just gives you the mathematics of the field of view,” he says. “Any cinematographer knows that lenses create an emotional connection to the audience and on the day if the lens that we had pre-vized didn’t give that emotionality we changed it.”
Shooting in the volume
Fraser had spent 10 months prepping The Mandalorian with director/showrunner Jon Favreau, helping establish the new methodology of virtual production photography against computer generated visuals. Elements of The Batman were also shot on an LED stage.
“One of the things a volume gives you is consistency of light,” Fraser explains. “If there’s a scene that has changeable light then putting that in a volume is a smart idea.
“On The Batman, it gave Matt the ability to do whatever take he wants predictably, without having to rush to catch a certain light on location or be at the mercy of the weather.”
He adds: “Where VP is really useful is basically tweaking mother nature. It’s taking the best that mother nature has and taking away all the negatives of shooting in the elements.”
“The camaraderie of cinematographers is the reason I became one. We are one group and for the most part we applaud everyone’s work and we learn and grow from one another,” Greig Fraser
The state of the art of virtual production at present means that filmmakers need to specify in advance where the camera will be looking in a volume. It’s more time and cost efficient to build the specific digital assets that will be shot in the games engine rather than create a full-scale photoreal digital construct of the entire virtual world. But that is where VP is heading, Fraser predicts.
“In theory you could build an entire world for your film in the games engine, much like Fortnite,” he says. “For example, if we did that for Gotham City, it would allow a director to choose anywhere in that city they wanted to shoot on any given day. You might decide to shoot on the corner of first and second street. Or high up on the Empire State. You can change the light, change the props and shoot. That’s what the future could be once the processing speeds up.”
The film is recorded on Alexa 65 LF with anamorphic lenses largely because of Reeves’ preference for digital. He had shot two of the Planet of the Apes movies digitally and felt that his last experience shooting on film, Let Me In, didn’t give him enough control.
“He had video tapes on Let Me In that were a bit grainy and he couldn’t really see the performances on set,” says Fraser, who shot the vampire picture. “On the Apes movies I think he loved the fact that he could see the performance in high res straight out of the camera. We discussed shooting film briefly and he was adamant that this was a digital film.”
The camera in The Batman rarely pans or tilts or moves frenetically. Fraser calls the movement “delicate”.
He says: “I’d ask why would you need to move the camera when what you want to focus on are Rob Pattinson’s eyes? Why move the camera if you just want to take in the design and glory of that Batmobile? If we try to move the camera too much it detracts from these incredible vistas, fantastic action piece and amazing characters. You don’t put sugar on ice cream.”
Too sunny in Liverpool
Several sequences of the film are shot in Liverpool. One of them, beginning on the rooftop of the Gotham City Police Department, combined elements of the city’s Liver Building and the Chicago Board of Trade Building.
Wide aerials of Batman standing on the parapet were also shot in Liverpool, then altered in post to increase the height of the building and replace Liverpool’s waterfront with Gotham City. The shot of Batman leaping from the building was filmed on a partial set at Leavesden, with a camera strapped to the back of a stunt performer on wires. The stuntman only had eight feet of travel before he reached the bottom of the set, so the shot handed over to a digital Gotham City Police Department building and Batman as the wingsuit inflated and began to take flight. Batman’s descent through the urban canyon was based largely on LaSalle Street in Chicago, where the production shot extensive plates from a drone.
Other major sets included Gotham City Hall, whose interior was constructed at Cardington, while the neo-classical, grade 1 listed St George’s Hall in Liverpool doubled for the exterior.
“Liverpool was fantastic and we spent a lot of time in prep before we visited,” Fraser says. “We made a number of light studies and 3D maps of St George’s Hall to try and tell when the sun was out. Gotham doesn’t really get sunny until there’s a bit of hope at the end of the film. For the mayor’s memorial in the film we needed it to be super dreary and to shoot in the shade. A local might say Liverpool is the right place to go but sod’s law, when we were there in Spring 2020 the weather was pretty good. We had to make sure we protected ourselves from the sun and shot in the shadows on the steps of the hall.”
Earlier in his career, the Australian was mentor to up-and-coming cinematographer Ari Wegner. She assisted him on the set of outback drama Last Ride in 2009 and later this month goes head-to-head with Fraser for first-time Oscar glory. (He was previously nominated for Lion).
“To watch Ari her entire career is extraordinary and I am really excited by the fact we get to share a nomination together. Win or lose is not relevant. What is relevant is getting to celebrate together.
“You know, the camaraderie of cinematographers is the reason I became one. God’s honest truth. I used to be a stills photographer and I didn’t find that same feeling among photographers. But among cinematographers we are one. We are one group and for the most part we applaud everyone’s work and we learn and grow from one another.”