A Miniature Gotham

When Christopher Nolan presented visual-effects co-supervisors Dan Glass and Janek Sirrs with his ideas for Batman Begins, they realized they would be tackling what Glass describes as “the ultimate visual effects challenge: fitting effects shots into a very real and recognizable reality, rather than a more fantastic world.” Nolan wanted to capture as much of Batman’s adventures and urban milieu as possible in camera. “This film is about character development, which means not using visual effects until necessary,” says Glass.

Batman Begins is essentially a non-effects movie, although it does have almost 600 effects shots,” he continues. “Our idea was to use real plates, real camera moves, real locations and massive sets, and keep the blue- and greenscreen work to a minimum to give Wally Pfister [ASC] lots of freedom to light and set the shots up the way Chris wanted. I prefer to do rotoscope work, anyway, because you automatically get the lighting right. It may be a bit more effort, but the resultant look is usually worth it.”

Five effects houses — three in the United Kingdom, one in France and one in Australia — contributed to the project. In England, Double Negative handled miniature and CG aspects of Gotham City and created the CG Batman, while the Moving Picture Company created flurries of CG bats seen throughout the film. Australia’s Rising Sun Pictures and England’s The Senate handled smaller CG shots and compositing work, and France’s Buf Compagnie tackled a hallucination sequence.

According to Glass, the biggest challenge was the miniature shoot, which comprised about 80 shots and filmed for almost three months. “That’s almost half the time of the principal photography,” he observes.

Chicago was the main template for Gotham City. “Gotham City had the very good fortune of looking like Chicago,” says Glass. “It’s a fabulous blend of art-deco skyscrapers and bits of modern, older and more decrepit areas. We had four weeks of night shoots there, which became pretty grueling.”

Sirrs handled the prep for Gotham City, including a two-week shoot of original effects plates that was coordinated by Double Negative effects supervisor Paul Franklin and producer Hal Couzens. “We used lots of elements of Chicago to create Gotham,” says Glass, “and we shot a lot of night and day aerial plates to help stitch stuff together. Six teams went around the rooftops and much of downtown and mapped Chicago in thousands and thousands of digital stills using Canon EOS 10Ds and the newer EOS-1D Mark IIs, which produce excellent images. We always shot multiple bracketed exposures to get the full dynamic range. We also had a Tessellator, which is a still camera mounted on an automatic motion-control head that we could send 80 feet up to shoot large pan-and-tile plates. Those images were stitched together at Double Negative. Lastly, although we had a very basic scan of Chicago for planning purposes, we sent in Paul Maurice’s LIDAR Film Services to do specific scans of featured buildings and areas in the city.”

Glass notes that Pfister’s live-action footage of Chicago “really sets the look of Gotham City, and the effects just take it one step further. Wally talked regularly with Peter Talbot, our miniatures cinematographer, who is excellent at matching main-unit set or location photography. On occasions when the miniature work wasn’t reliant on something Wally had shot, Peter was always in consultation with Wally. Chicago’s quite peculiar in that it’s relatively flat, and the colossal buildings downtown  leap out of nowhere; we extended that [cityscape] in quite a few shots to give a sense that the city is much larger and more built up.”

One tricky miniatures sequence involves the Batmobile, which resembles a cross between a Humvee off-road vehicle and a sleek Lamborghini. The sequence depicts a chase through the streets and across the rooftops of Gotham and seamlessly cuts between live-action and miniature photography. “A majority of the shots, even some of the more outrageous stunts, involved the full-sized vehicle shot on location in Chicago, so there’s no clear point of demarcation,” notes Glass. “Even within the miniatures rooftop section, we cut to inserts that were shot full size to trick the viewer’s eye. We did extensive measuring, note-taking and photographing of Wally’s lighting on location and covered the entire area with digital still cameras, which became the miniatures’ background.”

“Miniature” implies “tiny,” but at 1⁄3 scale, Batman’s models were anything but. “The key with miniatures is scale, and Janek pushed hard to use large miniatures — some were 35 feet tall!” says Glass. “Robbie Scott’s Cutting Edge Miniatures built our 1⁄3-scale Batmobile, which was 5 feet long, and made the Gotham set sizes manageable and very real, so we could light them as though they were real sets rather than cooking up special lighting fixtures and other approaches. And because we weren’t overcranking as much, gravity and scale worked much more convincingly.”

Even so, the miniature Batmobile shots had to be overcranked by about 50 percent, which meant the scale vehicle had to move extra fast to match the full-sized action. “The miniature was able to travel 30 to 35 mph, which is pretty extraordinary,” says Glass. “It was quite an effort to get that much power under the hood, but we didn’t have to leave space for a driver! You can’t see into the cockpit because of the tinted windows, so we were able to use all that space. We replicated every detail of the full-scale car that we could, including suspension, gearing and torque. With a lot of practice, our remote-control driver was able to drive it just like the real thing.”

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.