How to edit like Christopher Nolan?


Nolan’s films are rooted in the psychological influences and effects of his protagonists and this has an effect on his visual style.  But by looking at Nolan’s more commercial films The Dark Knight trilogy, I will examine how key themes are worked into his film on visual terms.

Broadly, the first film focuses upon the theme of fear. The second film was about the theme of chaos and fighting against overwhelming odds. The third film dealt the courage and strength to overcome one’s loss.

But how to construct this visually instead of plot-wise?

Batman as Fear / Close Shot, Fast Cutting, Suspense Score to signify an off-screen force

The first appearance of the Batman in each films provides a good illustration to see this being done on a visual level. The first appearance of Batman in Batman Begins occurs in the dock scene where a gang is unloading a shipment of drugs. As henchmen searches for Batman, we hear audio effects (clanging sounds) to imply an off-screen presence. These sound pops causes the men to become increasingly jittery.

But as we will come to know it is simply Batman using diversionary tactics to throw them off-balance. This combines with the use of quick cuts as Batman takes down a gang; the notion of a supernatural figure is constructed visually is done by the staging, framing and quick cuts. The dock scene thus visually encapsulate how Nolan uses editing to work in the theme of fear through the first appearance of Batman to the criminal underworld.

The editing in this scene is fast, abrupt and disjointed with the use of off-screen space and sounds signals the omniscience of the character. The visual treatment reiterates the presentation of the killer or monster in horror films; the scene is structured with a slow build-up of the monster or killer. This visual approach has also been referenced earlier within the narrative itself. During the training sequence in the film, Ra’s-Al Ghul who is Bruce Wayne’s mentor points out the importance of stealth, theatricality and deception to project fear in criminals. This triadic set thus motivates the visual strategy of the scene.

Batman as an Immovable Object /  Medium Shots,  Slower Cuts,  Thematic Score to signify an unstoppable figure

As for The Dark Knight, this visual strategy of presenting Batman in quick cuts and off-screen sounds is undermined in the beginning of the multi-storey car park scene. This is the opening moments of the film where drug dealers are in the middle of their transactions before a group of imitators showed up to stop them. The initial set up shows the same visual pattern before the real Batman shows up and stops the imitators from doing more harm. Once it is established that the real Batman has arrived, the visual strategy then shifts towards another visual representation. Nolan showed this evolution by using wide and mediums shots to see the full figure of the crime fighter.

The staging in this scene is presented not with an elusive and slow build-up of Batman hiding in the shadows but with a directness of someone who has move past the theatrical persona of intimating fear. It puts Batman in locations where the figure is no longer an off-screen sound or as a quick edit; take the interrogation scene with the Joker for example. The staging puts Batman in a situation where the detectives and lawyers can observe his interactions with the criminal.

The scene shows the progression of Batman as an off-screen presence to become more of a central figure in the investigation; in the visual construction of how Batman appears to other characters. Therefore, the need for disjointed and close editing to present Batman is eschewed over a presentation that calls for wider and more sustained shots of the character.

Batman as a Declining Force / Med to Long Shots, Longer Durations / No music to signify the stripping off of Batman’s mask to reveal the human behind it.

The first appearance of Batman in The Dark Knight Rises is once again presented differently from the preceding films. As Batman leads a police convoy in a pursuit, the furtive and elusive presentation of close-shots are eschewed in favour of presenting the protagonist in medium to wide shots. The visual progression and thematic trajectory of the character; a progression from a symbol of supernatural fear to a stoppable and fallible subject is best encapsulated in the tunnel scene of the film. It is a moment in the film where Batman enters the underground tunnel to apprehend Bane. It is precisely in this moment of the film that we are shown the visual design of Batman as supernatural and Batman as fallible.

As Batman encounters Bane’s henchmen, the scene is shot in accordance to the jump-cuts and off-screen sound technique of the first film.  This scene show how Batman uses the low visibility and darkness of the tunnels to enable stealth and combat tactics. This is an example of the mesh of visual style and thematic focus to represent the supernatural qualities of Batman.

But when Batman finally tracked down Bane, the visual construction changes from a fragmented strategy to a sustained fight sequence. The composition shows up Batman’s vulnerability and exposure via the use of wide shots and longer edits. As Batman tentatively approach Bane, the staging puts the fight in an open locale on top of a bridge and watched by a circle of henchmen whereas the previous scene is constructed in the tunnels.

As mentioned, the framing and editing of the previous scene is quick, abrupt and disjointed. The former shows up the supernatural abilities of Batman with fast editing and close shots. But in the latter scene, Batman’s supernatural powers are exposed up by Bane as the results of diversionary tactics. The contrast between these two scenes shows up a sophisticated use of editing and cinematography by Nolan in collaboration with cinematographer Wally Pfister and Editor Lee Smith.

The visual strategy of Batman in fight scenes extends and reveal psychological impulses rather than functioning as perfunctory sequences.


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