December 14, 2018

The ‘Dark Knight’ Pencil Trick Revealed as Another Example of Why You Don’t Need CGI

Dark Knight Pencil Trick
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.     

Your Comment

11 Comments

Yhea, it only took the stunt guy to have 2 concussions to get the shot. Great job team! /s

I think CGI is the way to go for that one.

December 14, 2018 at 5:54PM

1
Reply
avatar
Sam Bryce
Cinematographer/Editor at Cassiar
44

movie were did also without cgi, when necessary there were tons of tricks...
today there are two thinking school : "i hate cgi and all modern tricks, i prefer to do in a old way, if some people were injuried it's a fault, but not mine, i'm in good way" and another school of "we do all in cgi be cause it's a modern way"
i came from the school of "is important what i can see on screen, did with less effort and less pain possible", other people i think are masocism lover...
to avoid mistake, i was born like director, filmaker at start of 90', i studied and did prostetic vfx, i integrate with digital vfx, i have since over 100 hours of animation (simple and character animation) over last twenty years, and i continue to think that is important what public see at end of chain, not the way to obtain that, when i can i prefer practical way be cause i know the advantage and disadvantage, and when i need i add cgi add.
if i can avoid risk to a stuntman, to an actor/actress, i'm happy to do.
recent accident occurs during "ghostland" shooting is a proof that today too much people risk itself without a real reason...
https://www.news.com.au/entertainment/movies/gorgeous-teen-star-sues-ove...
and for people not informed, never try to break a real glass, use EVER sugar glass or similar, are quite cheap to buy or to do, but never can cause to you injury like that... i'm frightned from the idea that someone told her that is safe to go under a real glass ... she may thought is a false glass and did sure that she not risk.

December 15, 2018 at 5:02AM, Edited December 15, 5:07AM

0
Reply
avatar
Carlo Macchiavello
Director
700

You dont need CGI?! Really? Because they did the pencil trick in Dark Knight without CGI, that means they can do movies like Infinity War and Gravity and Lord of the Rings without it???? Enough with the clickbait hyperbole guys...

December 15, 2018 at 6:31AM

0
Reply

The pencil literally goes out of frame before they smash the guy's head down. Couldn't have had someone quickly snatch the pencil away while it's offscreen?

Edit: I realise this might be dangerous in case they don't get it out of the way in time, but suppose the pencil could be made out of foam or something harmless...

December 16, 2018 at 9:01AM, Edited December 16, 9:02AM

0
Reply
avatar
Graham Hughes
Writer/Director
174

I am not seeing how this is an editing trick like this article suggests. The Joker places the pencil down onto the table, the camera then moves up to capture the approaching man and the pencil is now out of frame, the pencil is then removed from the table while off camera by a crew member, the Joker then grabs the guy and slams his head down pushing it off frame onto the table, the camera follows the man’s head down with a slight delay and by the time it gets to the table the man’s head is bouncing off the table and the pencil is gone. I could be wrong, but I do not see any need for match frame editing as this article suggests. It’s just one continuous shot and a camera trick with clever framing. This does not appear to have been done in the editing room to me.

December 16, 2018 at 11:35AM

5
Reply
avatar
Derek Doublin
Director, Cinematographer, Large Scale Artist
724

It's very well done and I never noticed before, but when the Joker grabs the henchman, there appears to be a slight jump cut. I think what the article is saying is that after doing 22 takes, they were able to find two shots that matched extremely well at that moment in the action.

December 16, 2018 at 4:55PM

0
Reply
avatar
Sean Parker
writer/director/editor
172

Reading the full article from Vulture, it sounds to me like they tried some different things and based on what the stuntman says the end result was just him swiping the pencil away with his right arm out of frame before being slammed into the table.

December 16, 2018 at 6:11PM

2
Reply
avatar
Philip Heinrich
Director, Producer
991

That's what it looks like to me. There is no need for this jump cut the article is suggesting, nor do I see one when stepping through the action frame by frame. The pencil could easily be removed off camera before the guy is slammed down. That is the easiest way to do this trick and the camera movement in this shot highly suggests that was the method they used.

December 16, 2018 at 7:31PM, Edited December 16, 7:36PM

0
Reply
avatar
Derek Doublin
Director, Cinematographer, Large Scale Artist
724

I've been in the VFX industry for 23 years now. I could make that CG pen in about two hours, from modelling to compositing. I would be way cheaper than shooting the same shot 22 times, waste the actrors, director, crew and editor's time.

December 16, 2018 at 8:55PM

1
Reply

Best Joker of all! Heath Ledger is a genius, I wonder what Joaquin Sanchez will bring to us with his playing the Joker.

December 17, 2018 at 4:15AM

0
Reply
avatar
Melody Alvarado
Freelancer
10

I could make that CG pen in about two hours, from modelling to compositing.
https://fireboyand-watergirl.com/

December 18, 2018 at 4:17AM

0
Reply