BOF's Set Visit Report, Part 4 Author: Paul Wares
Originally Posted on: January 5, 2005
As mentioned in my previous report, one of the things that I loved in the previous movies, particularly the first two was the design flair of the films. The BATMAN movies have always had a unique look that has long been talked about, cherished, and in some cases reviled.
The late Anton Furst even won an Academy Award in 1990 for the 1989 BATMAN's incredible production design. I will admit to having certain concerns about the design direction of BATMAN BEGINS given Chris Nolan’s realism brief and knowing how many real-world locations were being used. Well those concerns left me after seen a portion of Gotham first-hand.
The itinerary I had been sent promised us a tour of "Gotham City" and although I was looking forward to it, I was a little apprehensive. I was so pleased with how the production had progressed and how well the rest of the interviews had gone, that I was worried that one of the most important aspects of the production would now disappoint me. As it turns out we would actually have two tours of the Gotham set (yes, it was so big, they had to split it in two). The second tour would be with a couple of the WB representatives that were there, but the first tour was with the Production Designer himself, Nathan Crowley.
Crowley entered the room carrying a hot drink in a styrofoam cup and a big smile beaming through his dark beard. They say that enthusiasm is infectious, if that is the case then Nathan Crowley is a super-virus. This would be my favourite interview of the day, so caught up was I in Nathan’s obvious love of his job and the project as a whole. The first words he uttered had me immediately hooked. “Tim Burton’s film’s such an influence I don’t think you need to look at it again. I didn’t look at it again at all, I didn’t look at any of them. You know, I remember it vividly. I’m sure it had an impact on you lot as well. I’m quite glad I didn’t look at it again because it has dated itself, it has that retro Gotham, fifties thing, which we’re not trying to do.”
So Crowley, to a degree anyway, regarded Furst’s Gotham as somewhat a influence. So far so good. Nathan continued to take us through the project from his point of view. “There are certain things that you have to have. You have to have the suit, you have to have the batmobile and there’s only so far you can push it. And I don’t think you can push the suit that far because you can’t push the fans too far. I think the Batmobile we could, because it had dated itself so sufficiently that we could start from scratch. We had to start from scratch because everyone’s fed up with it, I don’t think anyone’s fed up with the Batsuit.”
If only Nathan knew how many internet debates that will spark.
Crowley continues, “I’ve never been an avid reader of comics, but I believe Chris has and his first task was to go to DC Comics and ask every single employee to give us their favourite board (comic-book panel) from the whole history of Batman, so we could see what their opinion of Batman was. It was very interesting because the thing that was obvious was the cape, we had to make the cape work and that was really important. Nearly every other image was Batman on a building with his massive cape or the Moebius image (from "Batman Black & White") those images are fantastic. For us that was a great point. Lindy Hemming (Costume Designer) took that onboard and I think she’s been really successfully in getting that cape to move and also getting the neck moving. I think in the other films he was a little bit rigid, but in the comic book he always appears to be flowing.”
After respectfully including DC Comics in the genesis of the project, Crowley and Director Chris Nolan set about envisioning their version of Gotham City. “From our point of view we realised that we didn’t want to try and present a futuristic city. We didn’t want to go down the road that MINORITY REPORT had been down, we didn’t want to do the retro-city. So it was going to New York because Gotham is New York, you walk around New York and you go to Grand Central Station and it’s reflecting the old and the new. We wanted to build a city that’s out of control, the city of today that everyone’s familiar with so it was really important just to look at cities. Particularly New York was a massive influence, the mess of New York and the accepted mess of New York. It was all about reality and making the audience feel that this city could really exist.”
Crowley continues to explain his mindset, “How do you make a city, an insane version of New York? So we then looked at Tokyo. The Tokyo freeway, this thing had gotten out of hand and Tokyo had put its freeway through its main street, so that’s really interesting. We have the Narrow’s, the slums so we looked at Kowloon, that project had gone out of control, had kind of grown in on itself. We felt that our slums should be as confusing as somewhere like Kowloon, but an American Kowloon. Then you go downtown in LA and you see what’s happened to LA and you maybe mix in a bit of that. It’s a giant jigsaw puzzle.” He continues, “Then we had to figure out ‘How do you hold the slums in?’ so we looked at the Roosevelt Island scenario, the water holds it in and Gotham is surrounded by water so that fits in. It’s very much an organic process, but it’s about a real city that you guys will believe could exist.”
Nathan’s stream of consciousness turns back to Tim Burton’s films and Anton Furst’s designs, “He was about industrialism in cities, so we looked at that, but I think that’s almost what dates the film, the industrial industry in the center. So we were thinking ‘What is the modern city?’ if you look at New York it’s about commerce, it’s about corporations, you go downtown in LA and it’s all about selling and buying. So we thought let’s flipside it. Let’s say that this city is all about commerce and it’s not about industry. It’s about selling and trading and there’s chaos in that, but we still need the industry and I think New Jersey, the industry there. And I think there’s still a place for the industry in Gotham and we’re definitely going to try and show that geographically. It’s about commerce and I think Tim Burton’s film was about industry. That’s our theory on that.”
So what did Nathan think was his most important function as Production Designer on a film of this scale and expectation? “My main task was to make you not question Gotham and that’s very difficult when you’re building sets because naturally with all the finishes and the way things are aged, there’s not generations of change on sets, so they’re always going to feel a bit fake. How do we get around that? Really we needed to then introduce tonnes of locations and I think most Batman films haven’t used the amount of locations that we’ve used and that gives me the reality and forces me into a city that has to belong in today’s world because I’m using real architecture from Chicago, I’m using real streets from London. When you look around you’ll see a stylised version, but what we had to build out here is bits that we can’t find on location or we have stunt work to do. So you’ll see the slums, which I think in their very nature because we set them away from the city allows them to be stylized.”
Okay that’s Gotham taken care of, but what about Batman’s HQ? What about the Batcave? “First of all it’s BATMAN BEGINS so you’re faced with the problem of how the hell did he get the cave? How do you pour 200 tons of concrete, secretly underneath Wayne Manor? If we’re going for the realist approach, you’ve got some problems on your hands, you have to try and explain this stuff. If you go over Washington Bridge for instance and you come across the Palisades there’s obviously geology and there once were old manor houses up there, so you could believe that Wayne Manor could have a natural cave. If you drive around there (the Palisades Park underneath Washington Bridge) you can start seeing those rock formations, you could believe that there were caverns in there.”
“That was a starting point," says Crowley, "It’s a natural cavern. At some point the foundations, the catacombs of Wayne Manor were built there – historically four hundred years ago – so there are some vaulted areas that he (Bruce Wayne) discovers and that actually lead into an underground cavern and this gives us an explanation of how to build in the realism because you can’t just suddenly have a hi-tech Batcave in a realistic world. Those are the issues, hopefully we’ve solved that (by having) a natural cavern and we certainly added some extra natural elements to make it hard for him to enter and exit the cave and that also influences the use of the Batmobile and it’s original design.”
With that, the talk perfectly segues into discussion of the Batmobile, “When we designed the Batmobile we had to explain – ‘How did he get the Batmobile? He’s only just starting out, how’d he build it in secret?’ We had to explain it as a Wayne Industries mothballed military project. So you’ll see it in camo to begin with, the first time you’ll see it is as a military vehicle and then you’ll see it as black.”
I asked Nathan if he realised that his Batmobile was at the time the biggest bone of contention amongst fans, citing the lack of Bat-motif on the car as the reason. He seemed a little hurt. “You need to get at the back of it, well I’ll show you we’ll go and have a look. When the flaps are down on the back bar…It’s there, you just need to look closer. We spent a long time in Chris’s garage with exhaust pipes trying to find bat claws and the shape in the back. I’ve had a lot of complaints about ‘what’s happened to the sexy curves?’ If you look down it, from the top view it has a waistline and I think it has a lot of feminity about it and if you put enough facets in you get curves. We knew we had to push the boat out, or the car out and we had to redesign it. Anton Furst’s design I thought was excellent, I could see lots of reference to the land speed cars and all that stuff. He made sense of the jet, he put the intake at the front and I thought that was all great, but it was our job to move it into the car of the future and maybe that’s the only futuristic image. It’s somewhere in between the Hummer and the Lamborgini and we wanted to get away from curves, because I don’t know about you guys, but I’m fed up with curvy cars.”
At that point, Nathan led the way to our first set tour. As we got to the exit of the room, he took me to one side and asked me if the fans really disliked the car. There was an artistic insecurity in his manner, which I found very endearing and humble. I assured him that people were coming around to the design, but we both agreed that the first images released did the car no favours, “The first ones that came on the internet, I thought were dreadful it looked like a tractor or something.” Says Crowley.
“The other task about building the batmobile was deciding that if we were building a car we really wanted to be able to shoot it for real, race it for real. So it had to go fast, manouver. We had it up to ninety on the Chicago streets, there’s no over-cranking on film, it’s full speed and the Batmobile should feel like that. It’s a dangerous thing to drive and it’s potentially got to save the city. It’s got to take some damage, (having) this thing invulnerable isn’t realistic as Batman, because he doesn’t have any superpowers so if the things hits stuff and takes damage then to me that’s a good thing.”
Says Crowley, “You now how it is with films, we can cheat as much as we like, but it’s kind of about not cheating with that car. Obviously we have an interior set (of the car, because) you’ll see how packed the engine systems are in there. There are things we had to cheat on, but the basic car that we race is (shot at) regular camera speed and it’s moving and it hits police cars and takes some damage. If you’re driving a ‘sports tank’ you have to be ready for a bit of action. It’s got to be tough.”
I’ve started Nathan off again, so for now the set tour is going nowhere. “We have five racers and then we have bits and pieces to get the shots we need. The interior one is just a set and then we have one that opens, because the opening mechanism is extremely complicated. Myself and Chris designed it in the garage modelled and finally found the shape. What you see is the Mark 5 we went through 4 other incarnations, but it didn’t occur to us that we’d have to open the damn thing, so it took us an awful long time to figure out, what is an interesting way that isn’t a traditional door or a gull-wing or Anton’s version of the canopy?”
As the other journalists and WB reps start tapping their feet we start off again on the tour.
The first thing we come to is the interior of the Batmobile, but we’re rushed by it so quickly I’m not sure if any of the other journalists even notice it. Surrounded by green screens the cockpit is sat on a gimble and is connected to various gears and computers. The lighting is so dim and the green screens so bright that I can only see the cockpit in silhouette. Nathan continues to wax lyrical as we walk, “This is an amalgamation of sets because we are using real locations, real streets here and in America, real interiors as well in some of those locations. We’re trying to fill in the blanks, so you’ll see parts of the slums, you’ll see parts of a street in Gotham, you’ll see bits and pieces, you’ll see a corner of Arkham. We built sets as necessary. If we have stunt-work or we have very difficult things to do that we can’t do outside (or we have to shoot) at night. We put them in here if we need to control stuff. So traditionally you might expect to see the main Gotham street where the whole film takes place, our theory is to never to shoot anything twice. If you build a backlot set the audience is going to recognise it more than once. The trick is to use enough locations and enough set bits to confuse you, that you never see the same architecture again. Then we use miniatures to try and express it’s size, which I always find ironic, you do the big stuff with miniatures.”
The first portion of the set we come to is a whole section of a train car, again on a gimble and surrounded by green screen. The car is cut away on the top end to allow the camera in and is covered in graffiti. Crowley explains the concept of the monorail train employed in the movie. “We have a train in the sky, this is the interior set-piece. Here again you’re faced (with) ‘how do you design a train in the sky, that hasn’t been done a thousand times?’ Actually it was Chris that came up with the idea of taking a three-track/four-track system, turning it vertically and interchanging exactly as you would, but vertically. The thick steel work (on the) Williamsburg Brig, try to use some of that as the train towers to hold this stuff and try and make the engineering real so you believe It, so although it sits a hundred feet up it’s engineered in a way that you might believe it. We tried to mix a New York express train with an Amtrak train so once you’re inside the train it’s still like it’s something familiar. This is sort of a Graffiti-ed express train from New York. I spent a long time sitting on those express trains trying to figure out what makes them different and you realise you’re sitting on orange bucket seats and they use weird (wood-patterned) vinyl/sticky back plastic to tidy up stuff."
We move on to a main drag of a Gotham street, a portion of which can be seen in the recent trailer. Crowley explains to us how shooting on this massive interior set allowed them to run cars at high speed in this portion. There are a couple of cars, including a Gotham Taxi Cab parked on the side of the street and rusty steel girders surround us on both sides. Hanging from more rusty steel girders above us are "Exit" signs. This portion of the set in particular reminded me of Furst’s "Main Street" in BATMAN 1989.
We turn briefly off this main drag and Nathan takes to pointing out some of the other highlights “The bit of façade that you see here was to tie in for an exterior that we shot down at the London docks. What you see now will become a whole once they’re all intercut.”
Crowley explains the joys of working on a Batman film as a Production Designer, “The difference between making a BATMAN film and any other film is that you have to work vertically because he’s always on roofs, he’s always up in the air. So we’re up to 60-70 feet, we’ve built four or five buildings that we can push him up and down these buildings and it’s not CGI. Obviously the problem with realism is that CGI isn’t good enough yet to be used by itself so you need to mix it with real photography, real miniatures and once you layer it I’m a strong believer it works very well, but as a tool by itself I don’t think it’s strong enough yet. I haven’t seen a film yet apart from MASTER AND COMMANDER that I didn’t know it was CGI.”
Which begs the question how will they blend all of this together? “We are extending, but we’re building with miniatures and then compositing them. I think you can never get away from it (CGI) what we’re trying to do is not rely on it. If we relied on it from day one we’d end up with 2000 Visual FX shots and you lose quality. So we really had to hold it down to a number of shots that could be done really well. The joy of adding miniatures is that we can design them.”
He points out a portion of a Brownstone building, which again reminds me of something in BATMAN 1989 and then we’re back onto the main street. “This is stuff that ties in with Chicago, we’ve got this main bit of street that we’re going to do the end sequence on, which has a huge stunt on it and then we have the miniature of this exact street, but at least a mile longer and then we have a train that runs up above, which is again a miniature. When we composite the three together you’ll feel that you’re running through Gotham, by using Chicago, bits of this set here (and) bits of the miniature.”
We turn down a narrow alley and thought enters my head that if this were an alley in a real city, there is no way in hell you’d get me walking down there. Nathan describes exactly what this portion of the set was used for; “This is (used) for the Flass pull up, he gets yanked up this ceramic, white brick court yard up here. We do a big scene with Flass in here, it’s a ceramic courtyard, these exist all over Chicago. I wanted to get away from red-brick, I really wanted to use ceramic brick and we can get reflections off them.”
We turn and look out from where we came, the set seems to have no end. Nathan explains that this was the idea. “It’s about not seeing the boundaries, once it’s lit you can’t see the back wall, so that could go on for another half a block and that;s the trick is making it feel much bigger than it really is.”
Nathan then talks about the advantage of shooting here at the Cardington Hangers. Because Hanger No. 2 had been used as a fire research station several full-scale buildings, including an eight-storey steel frame test building had been erected there. This made it possible to actually scale these sets from the inside (which we did later) and for the construction teams to attach set facades to the sides. “This concrete building again, was existing so we’ve just been using it to hang the sets against. We change the use continually so if it looks chaotic, it is. Today we put up that walkway and we had it off yesterday so we could make the place look slightly different. We don’t rely on this set as the only place we’re shooting, we’ve got 163 sets.”
Nathan explains the impact shooting indoors had on shooting, “This makes us a lot more efficient. If you’re working a crew from 6 at night to 6 in the morning it’s so important. Chris likes to work fast, he comes from a quick filmmaking background and this allows him to go at the pace he wants to go at. Probably about 60% (is shot at night). When we open the film, we open it in the Hymalayas so it’s all white. Wayne Manor (has) a more Napoleonic, white plaster feel, which helps me explain when he leaves home we can present it as feeling like a morgue. You know, the wood-panelled thing’s been done to death we just needed to twist it a little bit.”
As we exit the alley Nathan beams with glee. “I can’t wait to see this film I don’t know about you lot.”
We start up the main drag again and Nathan muses on his approach to the film and how the production design of the last few films steered him in a different direction. “It’s about not showing off in a lot of ways, it’s just about believing that this is Gotham. You want to believe it and you don’t want to have to question it. To me if you have a sodding great big gargoyle or you go wide with all these streets that are unsupported then it’s going to take your attention away. I don’t want anyone to question the architecture because to me architecture is easy, it’s everywhere.”
We turned the corner to see five Batmobiles lined up in a row, as the rest of the journalists descended on Chris Corbould (SFX Supervisor) and Andy Smith (Workshop Supervisor) with questions about the Batmobile, Nathan takes me around the back of the Batmobile to show me the subtle shapes of the bat-motif on the car. While we’re there we start talking about Bat-logos; “We had to reinvent the logo as well, which was really hard to do. (Chris and I) Tried to do a logo, but we didn’t actually figure it out. A guy called Jonathan Spencer from the Royal College of Art (did). We went to the Royal College of art and asked if they had any oddball Graphic guys that could come in and help us. We sat with him and eventually he drew this thing with square shoulders.”
Nathan explains his awareness of the iconic nature of the symbol and talks about the approach they took to try and reinvent it. “(How do you) modernise the Batsymbol, where do you start? You end up with all these sort of weird "Star-Trek" Klingon things. He nailed the simplicity of that shape (Spencer).
I asked him if he and Chris, consciously avoided the yellow oval. The talk turns to the image used to promote the ’89 film. “I always had problems with the reverse image, it always looked to me like two front teeth.” He says with a chuckle. “I could never turn my brain to see it any other way. Again it’s naturally dated itself because it was so powerful in the 80's that image, the task was to try and come up with something equally as powerful. If you’re going to reinvent the film then you’ve got to go for the logo as well. We went through all the DC logos. DC have been brilliant, they sent us every single logo ever used and we were hoping we would find something that hadn’t been discovered amongst their logo designers. Everything did feel like it did belong to a certain time.”
I asked Nathan if there was a reason why the logo on Batman’s chest armour was different from the logo being used to promote the film? “Yes there is, well spotted - I like that. In actual fact although I love that logo it doesn’t work with his chest-plate. We’d been running with a different logo that we’d been using from DC, it was actually one of their latest logos and we’d always placed that as a cut-out on his Batsuit in the early days, then when we tried the new straight wing version it didn’t sit properly.”
With that I decide that it’s time to move on to interviewing the creators of the Batmobile, I turn away for a brief second. When I turn back to thank Nathan Crowley for his time, I find that he has disappeared into the shadows. Did his research lead him to read one too many comic books?
I make my way over to the gaggle of journalistic flesh that surrounds Chris Corbould and hear someone ask the question of Chris, what his favourite feature of the car is? “Personally I love the noise of it, if they weren’t shooting Andy would run it up for you.” Later there was a break in shooting and Andy did exactly that. I cannot even begin to describe how cool it sounded. I can’t wait to revisit the sound in Dolby Surround in the theatre.
Chris goes on to describe the level of detail the Director wanted, “You can’t get one single thing past Chris, you try and maybe put something in to get you out of trouble quickly and he spots it every time, so we’ve given up trying to do that now. It has to be perfect every shot we do.”
Corbould continues with a broad smile. “He drove us mad up until the day we shot – “Close that gap six mil, shave a bit off of that” – up to about two hours before we (first) filmed the thing we were still tweaking it a little bit.”
Corbould and team are rightly proud of the Batmobile and what it accomplished. “What we were trying to do and what Chris wanted to do was he wanted a real gutsy car chase and that’s what it is, it’s a real FRENCH CONNECTION (kind of chase) rather than rely on gadgets.”
At this point a step was put at the side of the Batmobile and we were invited to climb on it and peer inside. As I waited my turn I could resist kicking the front tires. Yep, pretty solid. I then decided to knock my fist on the bodywork. Yep, very solid.
I had grown up around military bases for most of my childhood and had spent plenty of time climbing on tanks and other armoured military vehicles at base open days. When they said they built the Batmobile as a military vehicle, they weren’t kidding.
While hanging upside down in the cockpit, I asked Andy Smith if it was as robust as it felt. “We put it all in the computer and stressed it all to five ‘G’s’ so we know it can stand an awfully big hit, before anything gets through to him.”
By now almost everyone knows that the Batmobile’s or Tumbler’s main gimmick is to jump big distances, but what was the highest they actually got it to go? “We did it in Chicago, we took off at just under fifty, we cleared sixty feet it would have cleared the traffic it was way above head height.”
I asked Andy if that had been a thrill, he answered with an excited grin. “Just to turn up and do it and they (the filmmakers) go ‘What’s wrong with the car?’ and we go ‘nothing’ and we did it again and they went ‘we got that’ and we packed up.” Try doing that with a fibreglass car “It would just wreck it” Andy tells me. “We jumped a prototype 35 times to get there. We just jumped it to bits and straightened it out. This one and the car you see there are slightly beefier in places because we know we’re going to jump it. It took a lot of getting there. The landings, you think you want to land it rear wheels first, but you don’t. You actually want to touch it down front wheels first or dead flat. We tried landing it like a plane and it didn’t like that at all.”
He goes on to explain the lack of front axel on the car. “The wheels are held on the outside, it handles very well. The wheels don’t actually know they’re being held on the outside, the angles they move through are just as if they were being held on a double wish-bone system.”
I moved away from this awesome machine and made a bee-line for Gregory Novack who is Senior VP-Creative Affairs for DC Comics. As a comic book fan I was keen to hear what DC Comics had thought of the production so far and how DC was consulted at the early stages of the project. “Chris, Emma and Nathan etc. were very eager to honour the character and honour the back story so they came and asked for stuff and we gave them as much input as we could. Chris had read the comics and had been a fan. When you’re starting with someone from that stand-point, then it’s a lot easier than if you’re trying to indoctrinate (them) to what’s important when they’re not as familiar.”
I asked Greg if he knew of Nolan’s favourite comic-book story? “I don’t know, he’d often times spoken of the 'Long Halloween' and 'Year One.' I think he’s drawn from a number of particular stories. I think clearly 'Year One' had an influence.”
Based on what he’d seen and heard, what Greg think of the filmmakers and how they were approaching the iconic DC character? “Not to compare this to LORD OF THE RINGS, but just in the sense when you have a filmmaker who understands the source material and is trying to honour it, the fans understand that, so when the filmmaker has to follow their vision the fans understand that the filmmaker’s doing it from a good place (that) they’ll go with the changes.”
With all their Batmobile questions spent, the other journalists and I were led back to the main waiting room. Upon doing so we passed several directors chairs, with the names ‘Chris Nolan’, ‘Gary Oldman’ and ‘Christian Bale’ on them.
I thought to myself, I’m in my own very cool version of "Alice in Wonderland." This really was a fan's dream and didn’t want to wake up. We had one final tour of Gotham City to go and I couldn’t wait. - Paul Wares