Re-inventing the motorcycle for the Caped Crusader took more than green screens and gadgets. Chris Nolan and Co. built a custom bike from plumbing parts and modded exhaust tubing, then loaded it with weapons and prayed the world’s best stuntman on two wheels didn’t fall off. The DIYers behind this summer’s hottest film take PM for an exclusive look at the making of Batman’s new ride.
As if there weren’t enough hype and heartbreak hovering over <i>The Dark Knight</i>, director Chris Nolan had one more headache facing him, right there in his garage, for his latest Batman film: how to top the Tumbler – a two-and-a-half ton, bulletproof Batmobile that leapt about 18 m and did a sub-five zero to 60 in <i>Batman Begins</i>. His solution? Ditch the spoiler-and-fin sports car mod of Batmobile lore. Hell, ditch the sports car altogether. After all, Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne already has a Lambo in <i>The Dark Knight</i>, which opened at movie theatres yesterday.
Enter the Bat-Pod, a motorcycle-ATV hybrid that lands eye-popping stunts sans CGI, a hand-built bike that fires grappling hooks – while shape-shifting.
After picking through junkyards, a local Home Depot and that surprisingly hands-on garage, Nolan and production designer Nathan Crowley took a month to assemble a foam-and-plastic model for Batman’s new ride – enough like the Tumbler, but with a heavy-hauling look of its own. “But to actually have a look at what we were thinking, we went down to Warner [Brothers] and got the front wheels off the Batmobile,” Crowley says.
When he first laid eyes on the Bat-Pod mock-up, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould wasn’t sure if his director actually knew anything about motorcycles. But that’s what makes at once a throwback superhero movie and a green-screen-light breakthrough in digital Hollywood: it turns fantasy into reality. And building a concept vehicle without a team of automotive engineers was one of its biggest challenges. “The gauntlet had been thrown down,” Corbould says.
While the filmmakers and Warner Brothers have been tight-lipped about any vehicle specs in the movie, Corbould clearly had to reinvent how a motorcycle’s systems make it run. Nolan and Crowley’s original sketches had no tailpipe, but anything with a motor needs an outlet for exhaust. Weaving around the bike’s carbon-fibre and Kevlar body and steel chassis, the design team built the exhaust system into the frame, ducting it through the hollow steel/aluminium/magnesium tubing. Two months later, the high-performance, water-cooled, single-cylinder engine – geared toward the lower end for faster acceleration – was ready to power the Pod. Only there was another headache: who in the world could drive this thing?
Bruce Wayne’s monster-truck tyres worked just fine on the Tumbler, but integrating them with the Bat-Pod’s steering system was “totally bizarre”, Corbould says. At about 20 in. wide – enough to balance the bike without a kickstand – the wheels didn’t look like they would go anywhere but straight ahead. “We skimmed layers of rubber off and then started changing the angles of the steering joints and things like that,” says Corbould. But that didn’t stop the rear tyres from blowing in test after test.
At the suggestion of stunt driver Jean-Pierre Goy, the design team restored the rear tyre to its original radius and modified only the front, allowing Goy to control the bike. Still the only one can actually drive the Bat-Pod, Goy refused to drive any regular motorcycles during filming – the Pod was just too one-of-a-kind, too confusing for other on-the-road styles.
Then there’s that little matter of gadgetry. Besides his extreme wealth and dedication to wiping out mob crime in Gotham, there’s nothing super about Bruce Wayne – and that might make him the most gear-loaded superhero of all time. Although it’s not Caped Crusader style to resort to guns (modded goggles and body armour get more screen time in <i>The Dark Knight</i>), you have to fight fire with fire when The Joker’s packing heat. So the Bat-Pod joins the legion of gun-toting movie motorcycles with .50-cal. machine guns and 40 mm cannons built directly into its framework. Then the bike one-ups them with its pneumatically launched grappling hooks, which flip an 18-wheeler over in one key shootout.
In order to give Batman the ability to manoeuvre under low clearances, the Bat-Pod can physically lower and elongate itself. On set, the front forks extended and the chassis hugged the ground, positioning Goy parallel to the ground – and that’s before pulling a 360. “The saddle is free to rotate,” Crowley says. “It allows you to do all kinds of odd movement within the frame of the bike.”
Another cool design element: those footrests are actually the bike’s radiator. But like the exhaust, the normal components had to be hidden to keep the bike’s profile true to the original concept. Then there was what Corbould saw as a potentially disastrous – and dangerous – design flaw: without mudflaps, would Batman’s cape get caught up in the wheels? The design team spent weeks on a work-around. Maybe the cape would have a kind of ejection device, or even a way to suck back in to the all-new Batsuit. But it was all for naught: during test rides, the cape trailed Goy flawlessly through the streets of lower Gotham. The image, Corbould says, “was just iconic”.
– By Erin Scottberg