The ‘Dark Knight’ Pencil Trick Revealed as Another Example of Why You Don’t Need CGI
New details about how the Joker’s infamous “pencil trick” from ‘The Dark Knight’ show how simple editing tricks beat unnecessary CGI.
Out of curiosity, it’d be interesting to get a poll on how people feel about Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008) now 10 years after its release. When it first came out, Nolan’s dark (stylized and thematic) superhero movie for DC was the poster child for what superhero movies could, and should, be. Now, with Marvel making a box office run like never before seen, it seems like a distant memory.
So curious as to how it stacks up for fans. One example of The Dark Knight’s legacy is tied directly to Heath Ledger’s mic-drop performance as the Joker. The famous (or infamous depending at how you remember it) ‘pencil trick’ scene was an early tone setting introduction to just how violent and brutal Ledger’s Joker performance was going to be. As well as quite an impressive filmmaking feat - which has been dissected as an exemplar of cinematic motivation.
The Dark Knight 'Pencil Trick'
Now, in a recent article on Vulture, a roundtable discussion from the stunt coordinator, production designer, visual effects supervisor and DP Wally Pfister, has revealed how the ‘pencil trick’ was actually done. (Also, here's a great in-depth article about Pfister's cinematography in The Dark Knight in general.)
“At the end of the day, you just shoot it twice: one with the pencil and one without the pencil. Then the edit does its magic. The previous film Chris [Nolan] and I did was The Prestige. We spent like a year on this Prestige thing learning magic tricks and how you do tricks of camera.” - Nathan Crowley (production designer)
While a CGI pencil was discussed, as well as some “prosthetic” options, it was ultimately decided to use a simple editing trick by matching cuts in post. In the end it may have taken 22 takes, but for a film being shot for IMAX, it proved once again that the same simple filmmaking tricks you learn early on can be useful on the biggest productions.
As for The Dark Knight, would love to hear how the movie stacks up in your estimation. And if the secrets to the Joker’s infamous ‘pencil trick’ changes its filmmaking legacy.