Heath Ledger’s Joker murdered a lot of people in The Dark Knight, but one of his more shocking kills was “the pencil trick,” i.e. grabbing a guy’s face and shoving it into an upward facing pencil so powerfully that it pierced through the man’s eye. For those who’ve wondered over the last decade how this “trick” was actually pulled off, it wasn’t through the use of a CG pencil, but simple film editing. Production designer Nathan Crowley stated:
At the end of the day, you just shoot it twice: one with the pencil and one without the pencil. 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.
As visual effects supervisor Nick Davis further, using a CG pencil for this sequence for The Dark Knight would have been problematic. Although it was easy enough even back then to create a CG pencil and “track it in and kinda make it disappear out,” because the movie was shot in IMAX, they avoided including unnecessary digital shots because “you can never really re-create an IMAX image.”
So instead, The Dark Knight took the practical route with the pencil trick, resulting in approximately 22 takes across two days and using two kinds of tables: a regular one and one made of galvanized rubber. Charles Jarman, the actor who played the unnamed henchman The Joker killed, mentioned that director Christopher Nolan told him they were going to do a couple shots where Jarman had to quickly sneak the pencil away as he was going down, which proved difficult to do since the pencil was stuck to the table.
This practical approach also resulted in Charles Jarman losing consciousness on several occasions. As he recalled to Vulture:
[I had] three [knockouts] that I can recount. My second day, my forehead came out to, I’d say, at least an inch from my head. The first [knockout] was for a couple of seconds, and I remember that daze and coming to. Because it was the first time, I didn’t want to mess the shot up. Heath actually asked me when I was coming to, saying, ‘Are you okay? Are you okay?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m good.’ Then he slipped back into The Joker again.
In the end, the pencil trick became one of The Dark Knight’s most memorable scenes, and Charles Jarman believes the it ended up looking as real as it possibly could have, although if he had a similar job now, he’d want to pull it off in a different way. Of course, Joker quickly disposing of Gambol’s goon happened early into The Dark Knight, and the Clown Prince of Crime would have another two hours to cement himself as Gotham City’s greatest terrorist… well, at least until Bane showed up eight years later.
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