Meet the Bat, the newest addition to Batman’s fleet of incredible vehicles, which made its debut in The Dark Knight Rises. Production designer Nathan Crowley and special effects co-ordinator Chris Corbould talk about using real-life military vehicles as inspiration and how they made the Bat fly.
Work on Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies always starts with the superhero’s vehicle. “We always get into a film by designing the vehicle,” production designer Nathan Crowley says. For The Dark Knight Rises, released in South Africa on July, Nolan wanted Batman to add an aircraft to his fleet. “I like jump jets and Chris likes the Osprey,” Crowley says. “So we said, okay, let’s try and mix the two and make the craft look like the Batmobile.”
Nolan prefers to build practical machines rather than relying on visual effects for his films. The Tumbler, for instance – the prototype military vehicle that appears as the Batmobile in Nolan’s films – was a real vehicle built from the ground up. But building an aircraft for Batman that looked like it belonged in Nolan’s Gotham City and could do all the things the Dark Knight would ask of it, presented some enormous design hurdles.
Crowley started by sketching out the rough idea, then building a 36-cm model of the aircraft from pieces of foam, plastic, and parts of disassembled toys. “I came up with mark one and it just looked horrible,” he says laughing. “But I know the process – the Batmobile mark one looked horrible too. I really thought I’d take the shapes of the Batmobile, the angular stealth, urban assault vehicle, try and apply it [to the Bat].”
Five models later, Crowley had the final version of the Bat. “We came up with the idea that maybe the rotors are on the underside, which physically probably makes no sense,” he says. “The jump jets are on the front so you can try and guide yourself. And then the whole main body is flaps to exhaust the propellers and the jump jet so you could try and hover. If you combine the F-35B swivelling nozzles, Harrier jump jets, and Osprey rotors, that’s kind of what we’ve done.”
The next step was to bring in special effects co-ordinator Chris Corbould. At first, Corbould thought the Bat would be all CG – a notion Nolan quickly corrected. “He said, absolutely not. We’re going to do so much of this for real, and what you build is going to be the benchmark for what the CGI people have to come up with.”
Corbould built two versions of the 8,5-metre-long, 5-metre-wide version of the Bat over the course of five months. The first was heavier (1 500 kg), with a more detailed cockpit, fully articulating hydraulic flaps, and working guns. This version mostly stayed on the ground. The second, lighter version would go onto the rigs to create the illusion of flight. Both had chassis of aluminium and carbon-fibre parts.
To make the Bat appear to fly, Corbould’s team built their own rigs. One of them, a truck with a 3-metre-high hydraulic arm, had internal mechanics that allowed three operators to manoeuvre the craft forward and backward, left and right, and spin the plane on its axis. (The guns were fired by remote control.) “We were driving through the streets of LA, Pittsburgh, New York at 80 km/h,” he says. “We took it to Pittsburgh and drove it round the loop through the streets, and it was very, very tight. We took out a road sign. We figured that we were gonna push this to the limits.”
Another of Corbould’s rigs strung the Bat off cables (which they used to hang it from a Sikorsky helicopter for one shot). “There were four or five methods that we used to create that same illusion,” Corbould says. “So just as you’d think, oh, I know how that’s done now, we’d change the system.”
Each rig served a different purpose. “You couldn’t do what we did on the highways, flying out of a narrow alleyway and flying up and among the buildings with the one mounted on the truck,” Corbould says. “You couldn’t go fast around corners on wires like you could with the truck.” The post-production team erased all the rigs to make the Bat appear to fly, and in Corbould’s opinion, it couldn’t have worked better. “When you saw the Bat hurtling down the road and bouncing around, it looked real,” he says. “It’s a really exhilarating experience, building these things.”