Disappearing Pencil Trick From ‘The Dark Knight’ Wasn’t Done With CGI

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is considered by many to be the best superhero film ever made, even though it was released just as the Marvel Cinematic Universe was getting started in 2008. It has been 10 years since Heath Ledger’s soulful portrayal of Batman’s arch nemesis, The Joker, but fans of the film still remember the scene that established the villain’s utter brutality: the infamous disappearing pencil scene. Now, fans have learned that the pencil trick wasn’t computer-generated imaging as most assumed — it was actually done with some precarious sleight-of-hand.

“I think even Chris [Nolan] assumed we were going to have to do some CG,” said visual effects supervisor Nick Davis. “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.”

During the scene early on in the film, the Joker enters a meeting of Gotham City’s top mobsters, which is pretty gutsy because he has just stolen a bunch of money from them in an armed robbery. As the Joker comes to the table, he offers to show the gangsters a magic trick in which he will make a pencil disappear, while one of the mobsters signals his henchman to take care of the unwanted guest. The Joker slams the pencil into the table to where it stands straight up, and as the henchman moves to grab him he slams the henchman’s head down onto the pencil, making it “disappear.”

In an interview with Vulture, the cast and crew finally divulged how they pulled off the trick. Charles Jarman, the stuntman who played the unfortunate henchman, actually snatched the pencil away as Ledger was slamming his head down onto the table.

“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 said. “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.”

Complicating matters was Ledger, who left the room between takes and only appeared in character at all times, according to MovieWeb. So Jarman had to work out the trick with a stand-in. To make matters worse, the scene was played at full speed, with Ledger actually slamming Jarman’s head down onto the table. Over the course of 22 takes to get the shot, Jarman was knocked out three times.

“You think less of yourself and more about the shot,” said Jarman. “You suck it up, and you go again. As I’ve got older, I’ve realized I wouldn’t be doing it in the same way now.”

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