BOF's Set Visit Report, Part 3 Author: Paul Wares
Originally Posted on: January 5, 2005
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about the BATMAN films was the design flair that was present in the productions. Particularly in the Batsuit itself. I love the '89 suit so much I began learning how to sculpt and make moulds several years ago and I am finally nearing completion of my own Batsuit that will live proudly on a Michael Keaton mannequin (which I also made) in my office.
Over my years of research for that particular suit, I have been lucky enough to speak to several people that have had a hand in the creation of all the Batsuits for all the movies. That is now also true for BATMAN BEGINS.
The BEGINS Batsuit has probably been greeted with more controversy by some of the fans than any of the suits before it and I can partially understand why. Hot on the heels of the fan film BATMAN: DEAD END, a small number of fans wanted a Batman that looked like he did in that, white contacts and all (I can confirm that Batman does wear contact lenses in the film at one point, but not how you might think). With the film being such a departure from the previous movies, why would the filmmaker’s choose to make another rubber suit? I was hoping this part of the set visit would answer that, as we were about to talk to the man who would know.
As we entered the Costume FX Department, several dozen Batsuits greeted us on racks, I wondered if they would miss one. On the table that we surrounded were Batman’s boots, gauntlets and the centrepiece – The mean looking, foam latex cowl. Safeguarding Batman’s toys was the absurdly jolly Day Murch. “If I’m ever asked to describe my job,” Day begins, “I always explain that I represent all the talents that have worked on the suits and there are a lot of disciplines represented here. I rather like to think that I represent the family that worked on the suit going right back to the first movie. We don’t make this suit substantially in any different way than the way the other one’s were made we just make it better because we’ve had longer to get it right. I’m just part of a chain that links back to Vin Burnham who made the first suit and Bob Ringwood who designed it and I don’t think any of us would deny we owe an enormous amount to those people, we do think we’ve got a better technique now.”
Christian Bale as Batman in BATMAN BEGINS
Day has been present on all of the films since the 1989 BATMAN and had a hand in the creation of all the Batsuits since. So it was an honour to talk with him. One barely needed to ask any questions. Murch has such a wealth of knowledge that it is far more enjoyable to sit back and let him talk about the artistic skill of the Costume FX Department.
“The Challenge this time,” Day explains, “was to meet Christopher Nolan’s vision of how he could re-animate the series, principally to clear everyone’s mind of the last one we made. I know there were some excesses there, particularly in the costume, but I think what is interesting about what Chris did, was to get completely back to basics and he’s gone and asked the question ‘How did the suit start? How did Batman start?’ Why do you make up your mind to dress up as a marsupial and fight crime in a large conurbation? He’s come up with some fairly convincing reasons, a lot of which are reflected on the costume.”
While I freely admit, the 89 suit is my favourite, the BATMAN BEGINS suit is a close second. To see the suit in person is an absolute joy. So far the released photos have not done the suit justice. The costume is very intimidating. Only when it is seen in motion or up close and personal can it truly be appreciated. “The costume is less a slick, glossy attenuated, deco masterpiece as it is a much more ‘Bat to Basis’ thing, that’s evolved from various storylines and key points in Bruce Wayne’s life. So it’s made much more of found elements. Chris wasn’t going to be fobbed off with anything faked or thrown together for effect. So we have certain elements of the costume this time round that are story bound.”
Day takes us through the various costume pieces on the table in front of us. He picks up the gauntlets first. “These gauntlets are something that is found in Butan in the story and refined from that into something much more streamlined and simple, but it basically marries itself to the fighting technique (used in the film). He’s got these things he picks up from his travels”
He continues holding up Batman’s leather boots: “These things he picks up on a visit to Dolce’s” (UK Bat-fans will certainly get this joke). “And the suit he finds knocking around the workshop of his Dad’s company. Chris had certain other requirements of the costume. We’ve gone right back to the beginning and had a rethink. We’re on to the much more the visceral muscular look of the first couple of movies rather than the more developed deco technique of the later movies.”
Not being a fan of the later movies costumes this was certainly good to know.
“So we get a chance to see – very much like we did in the damaged suit in ‘one’ (BATMAN '89) – what might be underneath the top layer of the black suit and we’re suggesting it’s some sort of protective garment. It’s not a mechanical device, but it’s got some sort of protective, impact resistance. It’s owing a lot to ergonomic plastic design that’s been developed quite recently.”
Day makes his way over to a suit that looks exactly like the one Bruce is seen spraying black in the trailer. Although that suit looked to have a kind of chain mail under a clear outer skin, the same pattern here looks airbrushed on. “This suit has been developed by a guy called Brian Best. There isn’t a single element in it that hasn’t been tooled out personally with a small toothpick. Everything in this suit has been tooled out specially. We’re hoping it gives the impression that this is a military type garment that has an application.” Day holds up the suit for us all to see. “This is made out of several layers of urethane because it is in fact flexible enough to be worn. We see this first on display in a case and later on we see Bruce wearing it. Then very briefly we see Bruce spraying it down, so we get the familiar black suit that we’re used to and finally to a tumultuous round of applause we see it with a Bat on it’s chest.”
Day explains the construction of the suit: “We make it in two pieces. I always like to pretend it’s one piece, I don’t know why, but we make it in two because it’s easier for me to administer. If in the course of an action sequence we need to rig it or we need to access part of it because of damage, it’s much easier not to trash a whole suit. There’s 12 weeks work in one of these suits. It’s very important that we can change this quickly or we can rig something specific for a shot. We have tasers in this movie; we have other applications (like fire – although that requires a completely different type of suit.) So we can actually get at it, change it; we can line it up for the next shot. We can’t hold up the work that goes on on the set.”
Day directs our attention to several neoprene under-suits without armour attached to them. “We’re using an industrial aertex because I believe that, although the suit is hot and bothersome, I hope that I can make it less so. Guys have to wear this for a working day that divides into two 4 and 1/2-hour sessions. It’s hard work. It’s made out of a plant-based neoprene rather than a petroleum based neoprene, which didn’t even exist when we started this project. It’s a super-stretch neoprene, so it doesn’t behave entirely like wetsuit material, but take my word for it, it’s like wearing a wetsuit all day and if you’re not swimming that isn’t terribly pleasant. So I’ve tried to introduce the elements of air and lightness into this, so that the guys don’t get phobic about putting it on day after day for an intense shooting period. On to the basic neoprene suit, it looks almost like a diving suit. We then take foam pieces, this is very much standard practice – we run them from the sculpt into hard casts, then we fine-polish them, put them through fine finishing – like body work (on a car). Then we remould them. We’ve had absolutely top of the range mould work done. Technically it’s challenging and so exciting. Some of the moulds are like three-dimensional jigsaws. The chest has over two-dozen pieces. The bat has a mirror finish in the mould. Where everything else is textured slightly. It’s a triumph of the Mould Maker’s art. With that the Seamers come in (and) get rid of all the bits that we don’t want to see.”
“Chris got the look there that he wanted, he was very particular we had a matt suit this time, I couldn’t get this. He used to say it and I used to hear it and I didn’t know what he was talking about. It makes sense to me now. If you’re going out at night to fight crime, you don’t want to wear something shiny with a big yellow blob on it. This guy’s a stealth machine, which brings us seamlessly on to the issue of the cape.”
Day holds up one of several dozen black capes. “We developed this ourselves. It’s a combination of a fabric and a stealth material. Over 900 square metres of fabric (aeronautic quality nylon) was electro statically flocked, taking advantage of a Ministry of Defence approved process, used when minimum night vision is required. They put this on things to stop vision machines seeing them when it’s dark. It makes sense to me now, why we weren’t covering him in 6 metres of sheets rubber and making it nice and shiny.” Day flaps the cape. “It’s very good in the wind tunnel, in the wind effects, without complicated puppeteering. It takes on that look from the comic novels. It really tells the story, which is why we’re so proud of this as a piece of work.”
Day moves on to praise the actor in the suit: “We’re not giving Christian any chance at all, because there were a couple of bits of Batman previously, that didn’t get covered up with neoprene, so we’ve fixed him now. He’s got neoprene gloves, obviously the head has always been made out of foam, but by the time you’ve put that on you’re almost 100% covered in neoprene or rubber. So I’ve enormous respect for Christian. He’s a nice guy, he’s a fine actor and he takes on the challenges that we’ve given him in an exciting way and he doesn’t make it a problem and I’d like to think that during the course of making the movie, we’ve improved the suit we offered him to start with.”
Day is excited to tell us that they have given Bale a slightly easier time with the suit than his predecessors. “Each complete outfit weighs 10 Kilograms. We’ve done a little bit to make it easier for him, the magic of technology. Our foam lab, which I have to say, is the best quality foam I’ve seen in this country. Originally I was trying to persuade people to have the foam made in America, because the technicians in America are very impressive. We have a wonderful foam lab. One of the things they came up with very early on was that a constant wall of foam is easier to deal with than constantly changing depths. If you think about the chest here, we’re going from a build-up of 3-4 inches right down to membrane thickness around the eyes (of the cowl). So we have a little foam stuffer and then we had the brilliant idea that we could plumb the foam. So in fact we can pump chilled water around certain parts of the suit without interfering with the profile. I can slip that in the suit and I can keep Christian cool with a minimum of fuss.”
Whereas the previous suits were painted, Murch explains the complexities of such a technique: “The thing about paint is that it sits on the surface, until you knock it off and in this case that’s sooner rather than later. The paint finishes, sitting as they have to do on two entirely different mediums – although the medium looks the same, foam rubber and neoprene, they require two entirely different paints, they require two entirely different toxins and they require enormous drying periods. The painted suits to my mind were a maintenance nightmare. That’s not unusual in the movies because you’re trying to give people things they don’t ordinarily see so you wouldn’t win any prizes by saying ‘I’m sorry, it’s a little difficult for me. Can we make it out of a shell suit?’ So my preferred finish was always the polished foam, my problem was, the Director couldn’t be persuaded that a high gloss finish made any sense. After an enormous amount of time we found and developed a polish that seals the foam sufficiently for our purposes and gives it an extremely low gloss.”
The cowl especially has a meaner scowl than anything that has come before. The ears aren’t quite as long as the 89 cowl, but by angling the ears forward the sculptor has achieved an equally intimidating effect that looks quite different from various angles. The cowl also employs some costume technology in order to eliminate one of the problems of the previous cowls – the actor not being able to turn their neck. Although the cowl isn’t as flexible as a prosthetic, it is still much more flexible than Batman’s previous cowls (Although the man who was responsible for the Joker’s smile in Batman 1989 – Nick Dudman is lending his skills to the SFX Makeup depart,emt and an extra special makeup job).
“I can’t make any secret of the fact that Mr. Nolan only had two major requirements: one was the cape situation the other one was the dear-old ‘Bat-turn’. Now some of you love that, but you have to admit it’s someone coming to terms with a malfunction of costume practise. If you give someone a pair of trousers, you do expect them to be able to bend their knees occasionally. We had to get the head to turn and that’s where this guy comes in.” Day raises a short six-inch length of foam rubber, which is broken into approximately eight sections, making it look like some kind of spine.
“It’s really a soft of spine arrangement, which fills in the back of the neck, so we still have the sculptural form that the sculptor wanted. The difference between Christian neck and the neck of the sculpt if you allow for what is a 1cm wall of foam is this amount of foam (about 4 inches), but if you pack that in behind someone’s neck, it’s fabulous when travelling coach class and it’s very good in whiplash situations, it doesn’t actually make you very mobile. So we broke that up into this spinal arrangement. It’s absolutely fantastic, it really works beautifully and it gives it muscular form beneath the skin. It’s a very strong part of the sculpt. The back of the skull and the neck, when they’re on someone are really smashing and it does allow him to twist and turn. He’s asked (Nolan) that we do it even more next time. So we’ll have to see. A lot of the things that people had problems with previously have been ironed out. It still slips on, it still isn’t glued into place because I think that’s too much to ask of a performer, because you’re cutting him off completely. Yes he can hear, but he can’t hear particularly well.”
With this Murch digresses a little, musing over the advances in superhero costumes. “An awfully long time has passed since the last BATMAN alone. Technology, working practice, the materials available to us have changed. The things that guys like to see when they go to the cinema have changed. Whatever your particular allegiance is to which ever BATMAN you particularly like, you have to admit that any BATMAN that comes along now is going to be judged alongside a SPIDER-MAN who’s leaps ahead of things we could do a short while ago. The glue that we used when flocking the capes didn’t exist when we started doing the research into how we were going to make the cape. I’m sure there are better materials other than neoprene it’s just that I didn’t get to find them in time. We did a lot of looking. It was important I think to this project that there was some degree of continuity to the established items that people liked and work.”
Next, Day turns his attention to something he’s particularly proud of – The Cape. “We’ve reduced the weight of the suit by a quarter than the first suits we ever made, but to be fair a lot of that difference is reflected in the fact that the cape is very lightweight as opposed to sheet latex and wool. That was that Director’s brief, he wanted the bullet-proof shielding, he wanted the heavy look. Like a lot of Tim’s (Burton) visions, they were his personal visions and they were long way from everyone else’s, but that’s what make’s him so exciting. He has a logic, it works perfectly.” He continues, “In addition to the lightweight capes we have mechanical capes, air-released capes that have air pumped into them very quickly to give them form, you’ve all seen (the picture) of (Batman) coming down the stairs at St. Pancras Chambers, that’s an air-filled cape, we have a hard-lined gliding cape. You wait and you’ve got to, but you wait until you see it stuck up on a skyscraper with the wind whistling behind it and please remember it won’t always be drawn in by someone clever the visual effect dept. That cape really does kick ass, it really does move, it really does do all the things that I’ve seen in the comic novels.”
The fact that the foam latex is highly flammable led to Murch and his team making a silicone version of the suit for a particular scene in BATMAN BEGINS. It was this version of the cowl that Day handed to me to feel the weight. “Try wearing that for a day.” Murch told me. It was certainly heavier than the foam latex version, which had a soft velvety feel. “It’s made out of premium grade medical silicone and this one has actually been in flames, believe it or not.”
Finally, Murch produces a urethane rubber version of the utility belt from a box. The metal "hero" prop is currently being used on set. “This is taken directly from the metal belt. On the real belt this tracking (the silver bits of the belt) is really magnetic and all these pieces (the compartments) really 'chunder’ round on a magnetic track. It’s a really fabulous piece of kit. This is a very low-tech thing, which is tied on with garter elastic. He has all these custom built pouches and one of these pouches is really a pouch for his own real microphone. So he is in fact truly wired for sound.”
I have to admit, as we were about to leave Day’s care I could contain myself no more and I became a dribbling fanboy. I couldn’t resist shaking Day’s hand. He must have thought I was nuts. Then it came time to leave the miniature version of ‘Cape-town’ (the full size version was at Shepperton Studios and was named appropriately by Day himself). I felt a pang of sadness, not least because I couldn’t take any of these "wonderful toys" with me.
So why was a rubber suit chosen again? In my excitement I forgot to ask, but when the suit looks this good, I for one couldn’t care less. - Paul Wares