'The Dark Knight': The Secret Behind the Joker's Pencil Trick Revealed

The origin behind one of The Dark Knight's most surprising scenes has officially come to light.

Vulture recently published an "oral history" of one of the film's moments, in which The Joker (Heath Ledger) agrees to perform a "magic trick" for a group of Gotham's mob bosses. A henchman (played by Charles Jarman) is instructed to attack Joker for wasting their time, only for the villain to jam the man's head into a pencil, which he had stuck into the table.

The scene certainly struck a cord with The Dark Knight viewers when the film was first released in theaters, and it sounds like it posed an interesting challenge behind the scenes.

"I think even [director] Chris [Nolan] assumed we were going to have to do some CG." Nick Davis, the film's visual effects supervisor, explained in the oral history. "It’s not particularly difficult to build a CG pencil and track it in and kinda make it disappear out. But we shot it in IMAX, so you see it on a giant, great, big canvas. Wherever possible, we tried not to do unnecessary visual effects shots because, digitally, you can never really re-create an IMAX image."

With that in mind, those involved with the film came up with a unique approach -- to film two versions of the scene with and without the pencil, and edit them together.

"There was no trick pencil." Wally Pfister, the film's cinematographer, revealed. "There was no pencil when his head hit the table so there is no place it’s disappearing into. There was nothing there when his head hits the table."

"At the end of the day, you just shoot it twice: one with the pencil and one without the pencil." production designer Nathan Crowley echoed. "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."

Even then, filming the scene ended up being an entirely different experience entirely, thanks both to the technically mastery required and the fact that Ledger was in character behind-the-scenes

"I remember Christopher Nolan saying to me, 'Look, we’re going to do a couple of shots where you need to be able to take that pencil away.'" Jarman revealed. "We did a couple of half-speed rehearsals just to get the hand action of my right hand sweeping across, taking the pencil as my body was going down, and my head striking the blank surface. It was a little hairy, because the pencil’s stuck in the table. If, for some reason, I didn’t get my hand in time, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Well, possibly through a Ouija board."

"As we set the scene up, Heath Ledger was never in the room." Jarman continued. "I think it was part of his method acting. He would enter the room when he was being the Joker. He would leave the room being the Joker. It was a few days, and you just really didn’t see him in between, apart from the end when he did this kind of ceremonial handshake, and went around to everyone in the room. He was the consummate professional, stayed in character all the time. He only broke character once, which was when he first hit my head, and knocked me out."

As Jarman put it, there was a unique balance between trying to be as safe with the technique as possible, and trying to create an authentic-looking effect.

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"There’s a thrill-seeking side to it, but there’s also the science of, how can we make this look as real as possible, and be as safe as possible?" Jarman added. "Given all the parameters, I believe we got there. There’s no avoiding the impact — how it’s set up, it’s going to happen. But if I had a similar job like that come up again, I would be looking at more breakaways, or doing it in such a way that you could avoid the impact and concussion. There are certain ways of cheating the shot, so that it can look just as violent, and just as dramatic. You just do it differently."

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