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Sunday, August 05, 2012

Musing Pictures: The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan's conclusion to the "Dark Knight" trilogy has been discussed quite a bit in the press.  Rather than re-hashing most of the critical reviews, I want to briefly draw attention to one interesting element of The Dark Knight Rises.

I don't know what other filmmakers do this, but Christopher Nolan makes the unusual and interesting choice to mix aspect ratios in the film.

Briefly:  Aspect Ratio is the ratio of the width of the image to its height.  Most flat screen TVs nowadays have a 16:9 aspect ratio.  Different movies have different aspect ratios, the most popular these days being 1.85:1 and 2.35:1.  Typically, a movie is shot and presented in one aspect ratio, from beginning to end.

In TDKR, Nolan (with Cinematographer Wally Pfister) plays the game differently.  Some scenes are presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio (a very wide image, often called "scope" for "Cinemascope", which commercialized it), while other scenes are presented in a "taller" 1.44:1 aspect ratio (which is an IMAX aspect ratio).

There's an excellent graphical depiction of the difference between aspect ratios in the film here:

You'll only see the full IMAX images if you see the film in an IMAX theater.  Regular theaters will screen cropped prints that don't preserve the entire IMAX image, since regular screens are shorter than IMAX screens.

I am intrigued by this mixing of aspect ratios, particularly in that it doesn't seem to bother the viewer.

Generally, variation of any technical element in a film, if not done carefully, can be very distracting to the viewer.  When the type of film stock changes, it's apparent, and must mean something for the viewer to accept it (see "Traffic"). Before I had heard about Nolan's use of mixed aspect ratios, I would have thought they'd be a terrible idea, distracting the viewer and drawing attention to the physical screen (something good narrative filmmakers fear!)

Now that I've seen the film on an IMAX screen, I've noted that the aspect ratio changes are not only subtle, but almost invisible unless you know to look for them, in the way that a good cut between two shots seems to go entirely unnoticed by most viewers.

In editing, a good cut is one that we don't notice.  The editor needs to have a thorough understanding of how it is that we see each shot.  Where are we looking?  What draws our eyes?  A cut takes our eyes from one part of the screen and redirects them to another without our noticing.  A bad cut disorients us, and places a new image where we don't expect it to be.

I suspect that Nolan's transitions between 2.35:1 and 1.44:1 happen in moments when those transitions are visually "natural" -- when we go from a close-up to a wide shot, perhaps, or when we cut from an interior to an exterior.  I'd have to see the film again (in IMAX) to test this theory.

But the real secret is more basic than that.  All the aspect ratio changes are apparent at the bottom of the screen.  The top of the image remains entirely consistent throughout the movie.  So, when we go from 1.44:1 to 2.35:1, the bottom of the frame appears higher on the screen.  When we go the other way, the expanding image pushes the bottom of the frame down towards the bottom of the screen.  The "Black Bar" at the bottom of the screen grows and shrinks with the aspect ratio changes, but the top of the screen remains entirely consistent.

There's a concept in cinematography, photography and art called the "rule of thirds".  It suggests that we tend to look at the top third of an image first.  The framing of a shot, therefore, relies on the important stuff being in or near the top third of the frame.  With so much of our attention focused on the top of the frame, it would probably be extremely distracting if aspect ratio changes were visible at the top of the image.  So, instead of trimming or expanding the image equally on top and on the bottom of the frame, Nolan trims and extends the bottom, leaving the top of the frame consistent.  We don't pay nearly as much attention to the bottom of the frame, so the changes go almost entirely unnoticed.




Josh Kirby said...

I don't disagree that it was fairly seamless and did not interrupt the movie going experience. That being said, this is the sort of thing that has a much more noticeable impact, and is more likely to pull me out of the experience on a television. Though it was done well in the theater, once I get that dvd home, it might not be so good.

AzS said...

Good point, Mr. Kirby,

I wonder, in fact, what the DVD/BR transfers will do in this regard. On one hand, it would probably be distracting on a smaller screen, but would it be distracting in the way "letterboxing" was distracting to some viewers in the VHS era? ("Letterboxing", for those who have forgotten, was the presentation of widescreen films on almost-square TV screens -- the image was shrunk down to the middle of the screen, with black bars above and below it, so you could see the entire picture. Most VHS movies simply showed the middle part of the image, cutting off the left and right sides, so they could fill the TV frame entirely). I remember lots of folks hated letterboxing, but many "purists" felt it was necessary to see the whole picture.