why ‘The Batman’ has one of the most extraordinary cinematography of recent years

Since it was released in theaters at the beginning of last March and turned upside down the panorama of the franchised blockbuster and superhero cinema -in which it could be corseted in a not too precise way-, ‘The Batman’ has generated tons of conversation, which includes this holy house. But among all the tangle of topics that were discussed, there was one that we didn’t get to touch and that, if you know me minimally, you can guess that I really want to explore: your photo address.

Although it is not the ideal way to see it —we will delve into it later—, the landing on HBO Max of the film by Matt Reeves and its new peak of popularity due to the work and grace of streaming give me an unbeatable opportunity to talk about the latest work by Greig Fraser brand new Oscar winner for his enormous work in ‘Dune’, and the reasons that they do elevate the film to a new level.

During the next few lines, I invite you to accompany me on a journey through the image of ‘The Batman’; from its peculiar shots that boast aberrations to a treatment of the dark that has already put the projectors in commercial theaters to the test and that will surely push some monitors and televisions in our homes to the limit.

vintage anamorphosis

Although, in my opinion, ‘The Batman’ is a visually wonderful film, its great virtue lies in the many imperfections that flood a good number of its shots. There were many voices they rose up criticizing the excessively “blurry” of some passages —especially those with shallower depth of field—, calling it a “mistake” when, in reality, it is —obviously— a fully conscious and premeditated aesthetic decision.

One of the premises that Matt Reeves and Greig Fraser put on the table when conceiving the look of ‘The Batman’ went through evoke the neo-noir filmed in the 70s; especially the one captured through lenses anamorphic. At that time, this type of lens was far from the current sharpness and perfection, and gave the image a unique character that has been lost over time.

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To better understand how anamorphic affects a shot, it should be noted that these types of lenses are made up of a series of lenses that compress the images horizontally and then decompress them in post-production, obtaining as a result widescreen aspect ratios while taking advantage of the camera’s entire sensor. But this includes a number of unique features that go beyond the typical flare linear to JJ Abrams.

As a general rule, these lenses tend to give a sensation of shallow depth of field than the spherical ones —ergo, the backgrounds are more broken or “out of focus”— and what could be called “barrel distortion”which accentuates this effect on the sides of the image when using short focal lengths and distorts the image in those areas, generating a perception of “out of focus curvature” and a certain vignetting.

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To shoot ‘The Batman’, Reeves and Frasier opted to take this to the extreme, using lenses Arri Alfa modified to accentuate it and with unusual focal points —for example, instead of an 80mm or an 85mm, they created an 88mm to make things a little weirder. These, combined with the great sensor of the Alexa LF —with which ‘Dune’ was also shot—, gave rise to the beautiful distortions that reached our screens that, in addition, conditioned that a good part of the shots be composed with the visual weight in the center, where everything is cleaner and clearer.

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Also, almost like a declaration of intent, in some scenes Helios 44 lenses were usedcreated in the Soviet Union during the 50s imitating Carl Zeiss Biotar, and known for its peculiar bokeh in spiral and its many imperfections —I have a couple at home and I must admit that they have me in love—.

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And, as the icing on the cake and the last resort to take the audience on a kind of trip to the past, the director and DOP repeated the technique used by Fraser in ‘Dune’ by print the material shot digitally on 35mm film to get its texture, but taking it one step further. In this case, an interpositive was added to the process —which adds an extra to the color representation— and the material was subjected to a bleach bypassfamous for its use in feature films such as ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and which gives the image a very contrasty look that enhances the blacks, but with a lower overall saturation level.

The (Very) Dark Knight

And now, the time has come to stop ignoring the elephant in the room and talk about the great hallmark of ‘The Batman’: its darkness. An element closely related to the nature of the character and of vital importance both for his mythology and for a feature film that openly embraces the visual and narrative canons of film noir.

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During the process of documentation and search for references, Greig Fraser created a document entitled ‘Dark but Light’ in which he presented Matt Reeves with the bases on which the cinematography of the film would be based; being between these an absolute predominance of darkness punctuated by small flashes of peripheral light —puddles with reflections, light bulbs or different practical light sources on the plane—. However, these bright spots do not exempt ‘The Batman’ from being a tremendously dark film; and we only have to look at the waveform of one of its planes to corroborate it.

A waveform allows us to read the illumination values ​​of a plane. Its information on the horizontal axis coincides with the image of the snapshot, while the vertical axis measures the exposure, with the value 0 being pure black and 100 being pure white. Well, thanks to this tool we can verify that in many shots of ‘The Batman’, values ​​for skin tones are around figures between 25 and 40; tremendously low if we take into account that in television, documentary or fiction with flat lighting, these range between 50 and 70.

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Taking these numbers into account, it is understandable that Warner sent a note to theaters to ensure that the projectors in the theaters where ‘The Batman’ was going to be screened were Calibrated to achieve a minimum of 14fL — lambert feet — of screen brightness and that what happened with titles like ‘Han Solo’, in which the darkest passages did not show enough information in the worst calibrated theaters, would not happen again.

revenge at home

This takes us straight to our homes and streaming viewing of the film. In my case, I have found a big difference watching some scenes of the film on my TV in the living room —without any specific settings and with ambient light— and on my work monitor calibrated for, among other things, video editing and color correction. In the first, some passages looked too dark and “muddy” due to the bitrate and compression of the platform – which has improved considerably – while in the second I have hardly experienced any kind of problem.

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The difference between both screens makes it evident the complexity of shaping a feature film destined for the big screen and adapting its projection needs —and composition and editing, but we’ll talk about this another time— to the infinity of devices on which it will be enjoyed once it reaches streaming platforms. But let this not distract us from what is truly important, and that is the fact that Greig Fraser, in a matter of a couple of years, has linked two virguerías at the forefront of contemporary photography direction.