Chris Corbould, Oscar Nominee!

Author: Jett
January 30, 2009

Chris Corbould served as special effects supervisor for both BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT. He recently received an Oscar nomination -- along with Nick Davis, Timothy Webber, and Paul J. Franklin -- for "Best Achievement in Visual Effects" for his work on TDK.

Chris' prior work includes: QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008), CASINO ROYALE (2006), LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER (2003), THE MUMMY (1999), and many others (CLICK HERE for Chris' IMDB profile).

Chris is an old friend of BOF's and graciously agreed to an interview which you can read below.

BOF: Chris, what’s it like working with director Christopher Nolan?

CHRIS CORBOULD: “Working with Chris Nolan is a truly unique experience. He has the ability to extract every single drop of creative juice from all his crew to give truly remarkable results.

He initially will throw an idea at you and wait for the response and then he will fire back the upgraded version. Its a bit like playing tennis where every hit of the ball progressively gets more difficult but finally there is a winner, normally Chris.

I have seldom worked with a director who is so pivotal to the whole crew.

BOF: How did you come to work with Chris Nolan?

CC: I initially received a call from Nathan Crowley who invited me to his art department for discussions on BATMAN BEGINS. After a brief chat he introduced me to Chris Nolan.

I believe that their interest stemmed from my work on the James Bond films where I had strived to do as much action in camera as real as was possible. I later learnt that this was a methodology dear to Chris’ own heart.

My first initiation into his world was when he introduced me to the small prototype Batmobile model that he and Nathan had conceived in his garage workshop. After discussions with one of my workshop supervisors -- Andy Smith -- we both realised that the challenge was on!

BOF: The Batpod was simply a fantastic “Bat-Vehicle.” What was the genesis of it? Was it always going to come from The Tumbler? Was is going to be more of a regular motorbike early on?

CC: The origin of the Batpod again came from Chris [Nolan] and Nathan. I believe that the unorthodox design of the vehicle was due to the fact that neither Chris or Nathan had ever ridden a motorbike. They therefore could let their imaginations run wild without the hindrance of any mechanical knowledge…

That was our problem!

In fact, Chris refused to ever acknowledge that it was a bike and frowned whenever it was referred to as one.

Chris always conceived that The Batpod would evolve from the Batmobile which is why we inherited the huge wheels which later gave us so many problems.

Initially, I had strong reservations that the vehicle would actually be able to turn due to the extremely wide tires. After seeing Chris and Nathan's prototype in the US, I immediately returned to the UK and assembled a crew of technicians to quickly fabricate a crude working model. My theory was to quickly gauge whether we stood any chance at all of achieving Chris's machine. Early tests were eventful but promising and we then went into production mode. Chris was determined that this did not resemble a motorbike so we reconfigured many features. The exhaust system was channeled straight from the engine into the top of the box chassis and out the bottom thus losing the traditional looking exhaust pipe. We repositioned the cooling radiators from the front and converted them into footrests upon which the brakes and clutch were mounted. During the whole construction process we were frequently visited by Chris who was instrumental in every design aspect. We only knew that the design was finalized once we had completed our first shot of it on film.

BOF: Chris, was riding the damn thing taken into account before it was designed and built, or was it built and figuring out how to ride it an afterthought?

CC: I think the riding of The Batpod was very much a secondary concern for Chris after the design, but he had a firm belief that it was possible.

Although we had several trial runs with the evolving Batpod, it was really when French stunt rider Jean Pierre Goy appeared on the scene that we realized the potential of The Batpod. He immediately grasped this difficult machine and developed his own style of riding it, much to our amusement on several occasions. In one instance, I was astonished to see him riding by me standing up on the narrow seat, he proclaimed that he was just judging the balance!

Jean Pierre went from strength to strength on The Batpod and when riding it he totally refrained from riding any traditional motorbikes as it affected his handling of The Batpod.

One major concern I did have -- that Chris also appreciated -- was the danger of the Bat cloak [Batman’s cape -- Jett] getting caught in the back wheel. Chris even conceived a Batcloak that could retract into a backpack whenever he rode the bike. However upon testing the Batcloak for the first time, the moment the Batpod pulled away, wind got under the cloak and caused it to rise in the air and it never even looked like getting caught! I had to go and confess to Chris that he was right…but it certainly played a major part in creating that iconic image of The Batman on The Batpod.

BOF: What was the toughest explosion to pull off while making TDK? On top of that, which one were you most pleased with bro?

CC: On BATMAN BEGINS, Chris was reluctant to get involved with large showy explosions and it came as a total surprise on THE DARK KNIGHT when he started describing the pyrotechnic extravaganza he was planning!

One problem was that two of the locations -- Battersea Power Station and Farmiloes in London -- were historically listed buildings. Obviously, this created huge problems as permission had to be gained even to put screws into the buildings let alone carry out simulated explosions. However, after hours and hours of testing we initiated both explosions without any problems.

The hospital explosion was the main event.

Early on, I had commented to Chris that I had a desire to demolish a building which he took on board. It wasn't until later that I realized that he thought I had demolished one before -- which I hadn't! Chris was keen that the building didn't collapse like a traditional demolition, so I worked closely with Doug Loiseaux of “Controlled Demolition” to design a progressive collapse like a wave.

Both Chris and I were keen that Heath Ledger and “The Joker” should be featured in the explosion, so I devised a system where Heath could walk from the building in complete safety with initial explosions being initiated, but once he was safely on the armor plated school bus, that’s was when the major collapse stated.

Although there were multiple cameras on the shot, Chris used only two angles. One added problem was the railway line immediately behind the hospital. It would not have been good for a train to go past as we exploded the hospital. No problem we thought, we can hold the trains up for as long as we need to get the shot…wrong! Those trains were not going to be stopped for anything. We ended up with a two hour window to get the shot which we achieved after much anguish. The next train trundled through behind the hospital as the Chicago Fire Department were extinguishing the remains.

BOF: I’ve heard from a lot of my “TDK” friends that Heath -- God bless him -- improvised a bit with the detonator coming out of the hospital. True?

CC: He improvised on everything he did in the film. I was truly in awe of the guy.

I was sorta sad to see The Tumbler blow to bits. Were you?

CC: Initially on BATMAN BEGINS, The Batmobile was going to be destroyed. But after much discussion, Chris decided that it was too big a character to lose.

Therefore, upon starting TDK, I felt that The Batmobile's days were probably numbered. However, I do feel that The Batmobile didn't die -- it was just reborn in the shape of The Batpod. However, I did have a sad feeling when we fired the car and then somersaulted it into the air through a wall!

We had spent a lot of time with The Batmobile. It was an incredible piece of engineering that survived everything that we could throw at it. I will never forget the throaty roar of the engine as it bursts into life!

We had an incredible time with it on the publicity tour across Europe. We completed two laps of the Nurburgring race track in front of 150,000 spectators at the European Grand Prix. We did a midnight tour of Lisbon under police escort where the diners reactions were a picture. We wowed the crowds outside the Odeon Leicester Square for the London Premiere.

Fond memories and a credit to the crew who worked so hard on it!

BOF: I don’t think many people -- the “mainstream” -- realize how much of BEGINS and TDK were not “CGI.” As I watched both -- and I know how little was used in relation to other films -- I was HUGELY impressed. What’s your thoughts on that?

CC: I don't think people realize what is CGI in TDK and what isn’t, and THAT is a big part of the success of the film.

I truly believe that the VFX guys did an extraordinary job. There were scenes of CGI Batpods right next to scenes of real Batpods…the shores of Lake Michigan were transformed into the Caribbean.

SFX and VFX have now learned to work in harmony together to achieve a fantastic end result rather than just a technical showcase. Above all, I think that our SFX or VFX contributed to an entertaining story rather than distracted the audience.

BOF: As a movie fan, what was your favorite part of TDK that you and your team had nothing -- very little -- to do with?

CC: Behind the scenes, I marveled at Chris juggling so many balls, whilst still remaining calm and attentive…

I watched as a whirlwind in the shape of Wally Pfister rushed around creating unbelievable images with light…

I observed Nathan Crowley designing sets with huge scale and depth…

I was memorized watching Heath Ledger perform his craft …

I was inspired by the miniature effects work which was seamless with the full size…

I was in total admiration of the construction crews, lighting crews, stunt team, costume dept, accountants and production who all worked so hard…

I could go on for hours!

BOF: Please do! Anyway...

Now -- don’t be modest -- what’s your favorite part of TDK that you and your team had very much to do with?

CC: The obvious choice has to be the 18 wheeler somersault.

I had firm reservations whether we could achieve it and tried to get Chris to choose a shorter truck or maybe just flip the trailer and not the whole unit…but he, as always, just smiled.

Finally I agreed with him that we would give it one test and if we were unsuccessful, it would have to be done miniature or CGI.

I briefed my two specialists in this field (Dick and Lou) what we had to achieve and they set to work.

I soon noticed a huge steel tube entering the workshop behind Dick and Lou, both grinning from ear to ear. This was the nitrogen cannon to be fitted inside the trailer unit. Another crew commenced to strengthen the driver's cab taking no risks with the amount of steel going into it.

Finally the day of reckoning came and we made the last adjustments before filling the nitrogen receivers prior to our test. The stuntman was strapped in and ready to go. Once filled, the area was cleared and the truck set off on its way.

At a predetermined mark there was a cloud of vapor, and the truck soared into the air in a perfect arc.

It came to rest and the stuntman emerged smiling.

Next thing was to show Chris the test. He was delighted and then threw his curved ball…

The location he wanted to do this flip was LaSalle Street in Chicago, the main banking district.

Over a three hundred yard stretch, there were only two places with enough strength to stand the 120 tons of down pressure of the nitrogen piston. Worse than that was the fact that the street was barely wider than the truck so there was little margin for error.

The big night arrived and a quiet concentration filled the air…

Cameras were placed…

The stuntman strapped in…

Nitrogen reservoirs filled…

“Turn over…Action!

I was extremely confident after our successful test and had every intention of watching the truck every step of its trip, but at the last moment I looked away.

I knew that there would be one of two sounds…

The first would a loud “whoosh” followed by shattering glass and then total silence. The second would be a loud “whoosh” and then clapping and applause.

Thankfully it was the latter and we all slept well that night!

Chris, were you surprised how HUGE TDK was? I mean, it was just a cultural phenomenon, you know?!

CC: I thought THE DARK KNIGHT would be a success, but not on the scale that it eventually achieved.

I watched the film several times and it seemed to get better with each viewing. I was just incredibly proud of the whole film both technically and artistically

BOF: Chris, did you get the chance to see TDK with a regular audience? You know, I had nothing to do with the film, but I was very proud of the reaction to it each time I went and saw it.

CC: I saw it once with a regular audience, and it was great to see them reacting to all the funny bits…the emotional bits…and the spectacle. It has been a while since I have seen such a warm and responsive audience in a cinema.

Chris -- I’ve got to ask you this and I asked Emma Thomas the same thing -- were you a Batman fan before you started working on these films? If not, are you now? (Laughs)

CC: Honestly, I had never seen a “Batman Movie” in its entirety before BATMAN BEGINS and didn't choose to once I had signed on [for BEGINS]. I felt that it might influence me -- even sub-consciously -- to replicate previous events or effects.

I will remain a Batman fan as long as the films are entertaining and interesting to watch!

BOF: Chris…as long as the same creative team -- you and your team included -- is involved, I’m pretty sure that we’ll have “entertaining and interesting" BATMAN films.

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