FILMING BATMAN BEGINS
Batman Begins commenced principal photography in March 2004. Over the course of 129 shooting days, the production filmed on location in Iceland, Chicago and London, on soundstages at Britain's famous Shepperton Studios, and at Cardington, a former airship hangar converted into a mammoth soundstage for the film, before wrapping in September.
The film's lengthy shooting schedule was due in part to director Christopher Nolan's decision not to use a second unit director, a standard filmmaking arrangement in which a portion of a production's action and establishing shots are overseen by another crewmember while the director focuses on principal photography. Nolan's thorough, meticulous approach ensured a consistency of his vision for the film, in which realism underscores every aspect of the ambitious production, from design to stunts to special effects.
"Chris' drive for realism made the production more challenging in some respects, and easier in others," says producer Larry Franco. "The difficult part was the actual shooting process, which is always grueling, but even more so when you're trying to film things practically and not rely heavily on CGI. But at the end of the day, it was easier because we weren't forced to manufacture something out of nothing in post-production."
To this end, the filmmakers used a combination of practical locations, sets built on soundstages, miniatures and minimal CGI effects to create the world of Bruce Wayne/Batman.
"We used a lot of miniatures on this film, as opposed to CGI," says production designer Nathan Crowley, referring to the miniature-scale versions of sets created to flesh out the story's numerous environments and facilitate the creation of dynamic visuals. "We started with existing architecture, whether it was a location, a set or a miniature, and then enhanced it with visual effects, because you can't beat real life - nothing looks as good."
"The peak of visual effects is to produce shots that look real, and the best way you can do that is to shoot as much of it for real as possible," adds visual effects supervisor Dan Glass.
Production commenced atop the Vatnajokull Glacier in the South East of Iceland. (The biggest glacier in Europe, the Vatnajokull glacier comprises one tenth of the country's entire land mass.) "We were very fortunate to find this location, where we could look one way and see ocean, and then when we turned 180 degrees, it looked like we were standing at 20,000 feet," Franco says.
Iceland's rugged, rocky terrain was perfectly suited to scenes set against the story's harsh Himalayan environs, including Bruce Wayne's grueling swordfight with his mentor Ducard on a frozen lake and their violent slide down an icy mountainside; a small village that Crowley's art department constructed on the mountain; and the mammoth entrance to a monastery that serves as a training facility for the mysterious League of Shadows.
"I really enjoyed filming in Iceland," Liam Neeson says. "It was strange to be in a section of the world where there wasn't a tree in sight or a sign of a bird anywhere. It was like a gorgeous Becket wasteland."
Because there is only one two-lane highway that runs through the country, the construction crew had to build a road in order to access the frozen lake and the areas used for staging the village and monastery façade. (A miniature set was utilized for portraying the full breadth of the monastery; only the entrance was constructed at full-scale to film Bruce Wayne's arrival at the compound.)
"In the portion of the film that we shot in Iceland, you'll see a raging storm," producer Charles Roven says. "It's not a pretend storm. It's not a CGI storm. We filmed in 75-mile-an-hour winds. There were crew people who were literally blown off their feet. But with Chris, you never stop shooting."
"Iceland was an incredible place to begin production," says Nolan. "Our first day of shooting was out on a frozen lake, shooting the Bruce Wayne-Ducard sword fight scene, and the ice was cracking the way it's supposed to in the film, which was very unnerving. It was it was a pretty extreme way to start a film like this."
In depicting Bruce Wayne's global journey to achieve the means to rid Gotham City of evil, Batman Begins is the first film about the Dark Knight to portray Gotham from outside the city. "We get to see how people around the world view Gotham, and frame it in the context of one of the great cities like London, New York or Paris," Nolan says.
Nolan describes his vision of Gotham as "an exaggerated, contemporary New York, an overwhelming metropolis that completely immerses you to the point that you don't feel its boundaries."
"We wanted the audience to feel that Gotham is a familiar yet dangerous place," Crowley adds.
To capture this essence of a "New York cubed," as Nolan calls their concept for Gotham City, the filmmakers utilized real locations whenever possible, then blended them with the sets that Crowley designed. Visual effects were added in post to complete the entirety of the city.
Chicago was used not only as the basis for the design of Gotham, but also for filming scenes that depict many of the fictional city's exteriors, including the spectacular chase sequence that features the Batmobile rocketing through an intricately choreographed ballet of traffic and crashing police cars.
The chase was shot primarily on Lower Wacker Drive in "The Loop" area of the city, just south of the Chicago River. Chicago's Amstutz highway, a two-mile stretch of highway that was never completed and does not flow into public traffic, was utilized for the portions of the chase that take place on the Gotham freeway.
"The cooperation we got in the city of Chicago was better than any film company has probably ever had in any city," Franco says. "We closed down city blocks and did some extraordinary work with helicopters filming the Batmobile and police cars rolling over vehicles in the middle of the street."
Miniature sets were used to complement especially tricky sections of the car chase, the biggest being a sequence in which the Batmobile jumps and drives across several rooftops, laying waste to everything in its path. "We built the miniature rooftop set at one-third scale, so the span was approximately 100 by 150 feet," Glass recalls. "Working at that kind of scale, things behave very close to reality. So when the car drives across a roof made of tiles, they break and fall like they would in real life. This enabled us to shoot the sequence as if it were a full size action sequence."
The bulk of the film's Gotham City exterior sets were built at Cardington, a former airship hangar located approximately an hour north of London. (Batman Begins was the first feature film to utilize Cardington as a production soundstage.) Dwarfing the typical soundstage, Cardington's sprawling Hangar No. 2 is 812 feet long and 180 feet high at its apex. (The average soundstage measures only 45 feet high.) The floor area is equivalent to the area of 16 Olympic-size swimming pools, and the sheer volume of the hangar is equal to 8,338 double-decker London buses.
"Filming at Cardington gave the film a level of realism and scope that would not have been possible if we had been limited to using a normal soundstage," producer Emma Thomas says. "We also had more control over the environment, so we could do stunts involving fire and high falls without having to worry about winds and weather conditions. We were able to shoot a lot of what would have been night work in the day, because of this extraordinary facility."
Cardington was home to Crowley's set design for the Narrows, a decrepit and treacherous slum located on an island in the center of Gotham and connected to the city by a series of bridges. Inspired by New York's Roosevelt Island, the freeways of Tokyo and the old Kowloon city in Hong Kong, Crowley worked to create a design that felt claustrophobic, as if the Narrows is penned inside the city and "freeways are running down Fifth Avenue."
"I'm really pleased with what I was able to achieve from a lighting standpoint in the Narrows," says director of photography Wally Pfister, who strived to create a dark, moody look for the film. "It really looks like the nighttime exterior of a real city, and yet we lit every inch of the set from scratch."
The Narrows is home to Arkham Asylum, the ominous facility run by Dr. Jonathan Crane that houses Gotham's criminally insane. "I was blown away," Cillian Murphy says of his first impression of the Crowley's evocative set. "When I walked in and saw the vastness of it, it was terrifying and exhilarating."
The filmmakers supplemented Crowley's Arkham set by filming at several practical locations around London that evoke "a marvelous neo-gothic feel, a wonderfully dark and complex form of architecture that fits Batman and his world," says Nolan. Additionally, Chicago's Franklin Street Bridge was used to depict the final bridge raised in a climactic sequence in which the Arkham inmates escape the facility and wreak havoc on the Narrows.
The interiors and exteriors of Wayne Manor were filmed primarily at Britain's Mentmore Towers, an estate built by the Rothschilds in the 1850s that is located about an hour and a half north of London. The bedrooms and an interior corridor of Wayne Manor were constructed on stages at Shepperton Studios.
"In terms of Wayne Manor, we decided to try and really reinvent the way the audience sees the wealth of the Wayne family," says Nolan. "We chose an approach to design that gets away from wood paneling and suits of armor, the kind of images that have become very familiar to audiences as a portrayal of money. There is a slightly different emphasis on the look and the feel of Wayne Manor than we have seen before."
As young Bruce Wayne discovers in chilling fashion, beneath the foundations of Wayne Manor exist vast caverns inhabited by legions of bats and a spectacular waterfall. Nolan set out to portray Bruce Wayne's gradual build-up of technology and functionality in what becomes the Batcave.
"The Batcave has previously appeared to be a very elaborately and improbably constructed place," says Nolan. "In Batman Begins, we show the Batcave as a cavern that's damp and filthy and full of bats, and we see Bruce Wayne installing trestle tables, stringing lights and moving equipment in himself, building up the world of the Batcave that will eventually come to be."
Crowley's atmospheric Batcave set was constructed at Shepperton. Approximately 250 feet long, 120 feet wide and 40 feet high, the Batcave housed 24 water pumps used to power 12,000 gallons of water through the set every minute, bringing to life the waterfall, a river and dank, dripping cave walls.
"It was quite surreal to walk through what had once been a very small model that I used to crouch down and peer into in my garage," Nolan says.
"My eyes popped out of my head when I saw the Batcave model and I realized I was going to have to pull a few tricks to light it," Pfister admits. "I think we really achieved the look of a real cave, with this wonderful glistening rock all throughout."
Visual effects supervisors Dan Glass and Janek Sirrs and their team created most of the Batcave's nocturnal denizens with CGI. "There are limitations to what you can train a bat to do, and the numbers of bats that you can get hold of that will behave in the way you want, so we created a lot of digital bats," he says. "We used a freeze-dried bat on a stick for reference during filming, and then used the look of the bat in that space and lighting to build the digital flock."
Audiences may be surprised to discover that a sequence in which Batman "flies" through the Gotham skies with the aid of his rigid, high-tech cloak was achieved on a stage without the aid of visual effects. "We didn't do any green screen work at all," Pfister attests. "The flying was done using real wires and real cameras. We put a camera on a wire and flew Batman 800 feet across the stage. That encapsulates Chris' philosophy of filmmaking: Let's do it for real."
"The most challenging aspect of making this film was the sheer scope of it," Nolan says. "We tried to tell an enormous story, and we tried to tell it on the grandest possible scale because that's what Batman demands and what Batman deserves."
According to Franco, "The most impressive thing about Chris is his maturity as a filmmaker at such a young age. He knows what he wants instinctively, and he knows how to get it, which is even more important."
"As specific as Chris is," Roven says, "he's incredibly open to hearing other ideas and thoughts and points of view, and he embraces those that resonate with him."
"I'm drawn to directors like Chris who can talk and listen," says Morgan Freeman. "He strikes me as being a Spielberg type - directing comes very easy for him."
"He's like all great directors," Michael Caine says of Nolan. "Whatever he wants, he can tell you in one sentence, and he's always right. He's very casual, but he's watching. He's like a very laid-back razor blade."
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