Lawrence Sher on Rendering a Recognizable Gotham in ‘Joker’

We chat with the cinematographer about replicating cinematic memory to achieve emotional reality.
Joker Call Me
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on October 15th, 2019

We know Gotham. Whether we’re comic book maniacs or not. We’ve already experienced its construction and dystopian nightmare through the vision of dozens of creators. Like Batman and the Joker, you probably have your favorite interpretation and judge all others by it. That’s a punishing position for any artist to follow suit, but the pull of such iconic environments demands attention and revisitation. We will never escape the crime capital of pop culture.

In 1966, director Robert Butler and cinematographer Sam Leavitt imagined the Caped Crusader’s home turf as a four-color backlot of false fronts and bright faces. Tim Burton and Roger Pratt kept the grand stages for Batman ’89 but draped the cartoonishly gothic architecture in steam and shadow. For Joker, the birthplace of monsters and madmen is the most recognizably American rendering yet. This Gotham City is our New York City, not the one of today, but one rooted in the memory of 1970s and 1980s entertainment. It’s Taxi Driver and Death Wish cranked to 11 and then boiled into crack cocaine. Here is hell on earth, and it is the perfect distillation for how many people are feeling in 2019.

Lawrence Sher has shot all of Todd Phillips‘ films since The Hangover. The two have spent a decade crafting a point of view and an aesthetic they never could have possibly predicted being applied to the DC Comics universe. But here we are. Joker is an ugly parade of sorrow through the mind of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), leading its audience to empathize with a character most would actively avoid in daily life and few want to be explored in their fiction. The film is spewed from one idea of Gotham and the lowly creatures that troll its streets. Sher and Phillips welcome the dread of a city on the verge of chaos and in desperate need of a dark knight avenger.

I had a long conversation with Sher over the phone. We began our chat regarding Joker‘s theatrical presentation and how they decided to shoot the film digitally. From there, we venture into the wretched hive of scum and villainy, discussing the cinematic and real-world influences that went into Gotham’s latest onscreen portrayal. We end on the end, getting down to the business of the final scene, and spoiling the narrative for anyone who has not already seen the flick. And yeah, we talk Batman.

Here is our conversation in full:

So, I caught the film in 70mm the other night.

Where’d you see it?

I’m out in Washington DC, so I have the privilege of being near the AFI Silver. 

That’s great.

Now, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on that 70mm transfer because you shot it digitally, and my understanding is that when you convert it to 70mm the picture quality maxes out at 4K.

Well, we shot the movie, let’s say, in 5.5K. But that whole K thing is nonsense. Because a 2K ALEXA beats the pants off of an 8K RED. That’s just genuinely what I believe in, so much as image-wise. I believe it’s not so much about the K — and I’m not bashing RED, I’m just saying that sometimes we get obsessed over the amount of Ks and resolution.

Sure. I obviously do.

The big thing about the digital film conversion — because you are essentially taking the DCP (Digital Cinema Print) and rephotographing it onto film to make those 70mm and 35mm prints. The K doesn’t inherently get increased but what you gain which is what makes it wonderful is that it brings back a lot of the inherent qualities of film that are forgotten about in shooting digital and gong through the DI space and coloring.

Joker Is Trash

Yeah, please do.

The fact that we ended up in 70mm prints is ironic and absurd somewhat to Todd and me because we wanted to shoot 65mm from the start, and we were strongly dissuaded from doing that because of budget. We thought this would be a great movie to shoot large format because of the shallow depth of field and the resulting intimacy. But the truth is the cameras are really hard to find and it was more expensive.

I think Kenneth Branagh had already put aside two. There are only four or five bodies that really are around and so we really would have probably struggled to find it. And Wonder Woman wanted to shoot 65mm, and they said no to that. Our movie was a much smaller budget, blah blah blah. So the short answer — or the long version — was “No 65.” Then we went back to 35mm, and we were going to shoot 35mm film all the way up until really the last minute. What happened was while we were testing it, although we knew we had very controlled things in this movie, we also knew were going to shoot the movie under very low light conditions and where we would not have a lot of rehearsal or marks on the ground.

But the speed and the way in which we wanted to make this movie, and some of the improvisational elements of the key performances required flexibility. Then, at the very last minute, Todd, who was really adamantly against shooting digital, was like, “Let’s just consider it by putting them side by side and testing them.” So we did, and the difference was mostly in color, but they were damn close.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)