Whether you have seen the movie "Batman Begins" or not, you have probably seen the Batmobile. It is shaped like a spaceship -- a spaceship that has had tires grafted onto it to make it street legal. The Batmobile used in "Batman Begins" is an icon for the movie and acts like a giant rolling advertisement for the film.
The Batmobile is real. Every single time you see the Batmobile in the movie, you are seeing a real, physical object, not a computer-generated graphic. Whether it is driving on city streets at 100 mph, landing in the Batcave or pulling up to the scene of a crime, what you're looking at is a real car. When the Batmobile flies 30 feet through the waterfall to land in the Batcave, what's landing is a real, 5,000-pound vehicle. The Batmobile is so real that it actually served as the pace car for a major NASCAR race held in June 2005.
And yet, the Batmobile is an illusion. Like so many other Hollywood props, the Batmobile that you see in the movie does not exist at all.
How can that be? How can something be so real that it can serve as a pace car but also be so illusory that it doesn't actually exist? In this article, we will talk with Nathan Crowley -- the man who designed the Batmobile and brought it to life in "Batman Begins" -- to find out what's going on.
In the Beginning
Let's start at the beginning and understand the "cinematic origins" of the Batmobile. In other words, let's understand how the car works in the movie.
The first thing you have to understand about Batman is that he must have a car. Unlike Superman, who has superhuman powers, Batman is a normal human being who gains all of his advanced capabilities through ingenuity and technology and usually a combination of the two (see How the Batsuit Works). He can't shout "Up, up and away!" and fly through the air. Batman needs wheels to get around.
The second thing to understand is that, in this movie, Gotham City is portrayed as a highly dysfunctional version of New York City on steroids -- there are surprises and obstacles at every turn. So Batman needs a rugged car.
The third thing to understand is that Batman cannot, realistically, construct the car himself. Ordering all the machine tools and parts and assembling them in the basement would give away his secret identity.
So in the script, they create a mothballed military vehicle built by Wayne Enterprises. Batman requisitions this vehicle for his own purposes and paints it black to match his color scheme. The Batmobile also gains some rather remarkable abilities. For example:
- It can go very, very fast.
- It has a jet engine that allows it to jump/fly through the air much farther than any normal car could.
- It has two driving positions -- one for driving and one for jumping/flying.
- It has stealth capabilities, and part of the stealth mode is a silent, electric-motor drive.
- Getting into and out of the car is "unusual" to say the least. There are no doors -- instead, the car "opens" somewhat like a flower.
Nathan Crowley is the man who had to take that cinematic vision of the car and bring it to life on film. Now, the thing that you have to understand about Nathan is that he is a very physical guy...
These days, the typical Hollywood way to handle a complex car like the Batmobile is to model it and simulate it with a computer. Even Yoda and Gollum are modeled and simulated on a computer -- a car is a piece of cake compared to Yoda.
This isn't how it works if you are Nathan Crowley. With "Batman Begins," Nathan tended to be a staunch realist who wanted an actual, physical manifestation of the car in every frame of the film. Therefore, Nathan started the process of creating the Batmobile by model bashing.
Model bashing is a time-honored technique. You go down to a toy store, hobby shop, R/C specialty shop and the hardware store to buy parts -- lots of parts of every size and shape imaginable. You buy lots of plastic models, toys, R/C car kits, metal tubing, etc. You then cut and shape all of those parts to get the desired look for the car. For example, Nathan found that the nose cone from a plastic P-38 model kit made a perfect shape for the jet engine on the back of the Batmobile. So he cut off the nose cone, hollowed it out, added in other parts to make it look like a jet and glued it onto his model.
Nathan built six models like this, all 1:12 scale, before he got the look and the shapes that he wanted. This process took about four months.
Once he had the scale model, he started on a full-size replica.
Sculpting the Batmobile
The next step was to build a full-size foam model of the car. So the Batmobile crew (including engineers Chris Culvert and Annie Smith, along with about 30 other people) took a gigantic block of Styrofoam and started carving it by hand.
They carved everything, including things like the rubber ties, in the foam. The goal of this process is two-fold:
- The first goal is to get all of the proportions right at full-scale. For example, this car is big -- it's 9 feet 4 inches (284 cm) wide. That's 8 inches (20 cm) wider than the typical 18-wheeler you see on the road. Getting the proportions right is important in something that big.
- The second goal is to have a full-size model that can be used to make things like the body-panel molds and the frame. The car has 65 separate body panels, and each one had to be manufactured on a custom-made wooden mold. The wooden molds were hand-made from the foam model.
To make the steel frame, the Styrofoam model was cut up to get accurate sizing and panel mounting points for the frame.
This sculpting process lasted about two months.
Now it was time to actually build and test the hardware. The crew built a "test frame" first...
The Batmobile Test Frame
- The car had to be able to go 100+ mph despite its size and heft.
- The car had to be able to accelerate from zero to 60 in 5 seconds.
- The car had to be able to turn corners at speed. Lots of Hollywood cars can't turn or can't turn very well. To navigate the streets of Chicago (where the car scenes were filmed) at speed, this car needed to be agile. So it has a complete, real-world steering system.
- The car had to be able to jump up to 30 feet and then land completely unscathed.
The braking in particular is interesting. To make the car turn, they put extra brakes on each rear wheel and then mounted big hand levers on either side of the driver. To turn sharply to the left, the driver can brake the left rear wheel separately with the left hand lever. This is very much like the braking system seen on tractors to help them maneuver sharply in the fields.
Once they had the test frame running, it was time for the jump tests. The whole front end collapsed the first time around and had to be completely rebuilt.
The Actual Components
When they had the test frame performing the way they wanted, the basic configuration of the car and its drive train were set:
- The car uses a 5.7-liter Chevy V-8 engine. This engine has been tuned so that it can provide the power necessary to take a 5,000-pound vehicle from zero to 60 mph (100 kph) in 5 seconds.
- The rear axle is a truck axle, with a truck transmission carrying power from the engine to the axle. The truck axle added a lot of weight to the vehicle. They wanted the car to be as light as possible so it would jump better, and this axle was the opposite of "lightweight." That extra weight is one of the things that contributed to the strain on the front end in the first jump tests.
- The rear tires are 37-inch-diameter, off-the-shelf, 4x4 mud tires called Super Swampers made by Interco.
- The front tires are racing tires made by Hoosier.
- The front wheels have independent suspension elements inspired by the long-travel suspensions of Baja racing trucks. When airborne, the front wheels pop out about 30 inches on their suspensions to absorb the shock of a 30-foot fall.
By this time, the design and development process had taken about nine months and consumed several million dollars.
However, the payoff was high, because now the team could begin manufacturing Batmobiles on an assembly line.
The Assembly Line
Besides the test frame, the team manufactured four complete, street-ready race cars. To do that, they built the steel frames and mounted the drive trains on each one. Then the body shop manufactured the 65 carbon-fiber panels for each car.
These "race" versions of the Batmobile are the cars that careened through the streets of Chicago during filming. From the outside, they look like Batmobiles. Inside, however, they look like NASCAR race cars.
According to Nathan, when you get in the car, what you see is the steel frame of the car along with sheetmetal covering some of the surfaces, as in a NASCAR car. The gauges are all exposed. There is a Halon fire-suppression system along with other safety features to protect the drivers.
Visibility is terrible. The driver can see out the front window fine, but there is no side or rear visibility. So the team mounted side and rear video cameras, and the driver uses monitors to see outside.
Because of these extenuating circumstances, the drivers for these Batmobiles trained for six months before they started driving on the streets of Chicago.
So why'd they build four complete Batmobile race cars? There were two reasons. First, the team expected there to be accidents and wanted to have multiple cars in case one or two wrecked. Think about it: These cars have the ability to go 100 mph but have hand levers to help turn corners. They also are called on to jump 30 feet. Accidents seemed likely. The good news is that no accidents actually occurred (if you ignore the incident in which a driver rear-ended one of the Batmobiles as the four cars were moving to a new location). The six months of training and the drivers' skill really paid off.
The other reason is that two of the four cars are special:
- One is the flap version. It has all of the hydraulics and flaps to handle the close-up shots where the car is "flying."
- The other is the jet version. Nathan didn't want to "add on" the jet flame with a computer -- he wanted a real jet flame. The car has an actual jet engine fueled by six propane tanks located inside the car. The team can mount and dismount the jet as needed for filming.
Each of these four cars cost about $250,000 to build.
These four cars worked great for the street scenes. However, when you watch the movie and Batman gets in and out of the car, you obviously do not see him getting into a vehicle that has a bare frame with a Halon safety system and riveted sheet metal. The interior of the Batmobile is cool. Two other teams made the Batmobile's interior possible...
Inside the Batmobile
One of the most interesting parts of the Batmobile when you watch the movie is the way that Batman gets in and out. It is almost like a flower opening -- the roof unhinges, the windshield slides back and the seats in the car actually rise up. To make all of that origami fold and unfold, a separate team built yet another Batmobile.
This car is the one that Batman "pulls up in." It has several unique features:
- It is loaded with hydraulics to make the opening and closing of the cockpit happen in a realistic way.
- It has a small electric motor that lets the car drive forward, but there is no massive V-8 engine and no need for the car to drive at a high speed.
- The car actually has another driver hidden inside the vehicle -- he makes the car stop and start as needed for each shot.
When you see Batman inside the car, that is yet another piece of the puzzle. The interior of the car is actually a studio set that can't move at all. It is oversized so that cameras can fit inside, and it has all of the features needed to shoot the "interior shots" -- things like the seat that can move forward, the cockpit controls and so on.
And finally, there is one other version of the Batmobile -- the miniature version. It is a 6-foot-long (2-meter), 1:5 scale model of the Batmobile, complete with an electric motor drive. When you see the Batmobile flying through the air across ravines or between buildings, it is this scale model that does the flying. (But it's the 5,000-pound, race-car version that flies through the waterfall to land in the Batcave.)
So now you can start to see the complete illusion that makes the amazing car known as "the Batmobile" possible in the film.
Understanding the Illusion
So let's put all of the pieces together to understand the illusion:
- When you see the Batmobile careening through city streets, that is one of the four "race" versions of the Batmobile. They have real engines and drive trains, but the interior is a stripped-out permutation of a NASCAR race car.
- When you see the Batmobile fire its jet engine, that is the special "jet version" of the car. There are six extra propane tanks hidden inside the car to fuel the jet.
- When you see the Batmobile flying through the air, that is usually the 1:5 scale miniature version, intercut with shots of the "flap version" of the full-sized car.
- When you see Batman get in and out of the car, that is the "opening" version of the Batmobile. It has a more realistic interior and a separate driver hidden inside the vehicle.
- When you see Batman inside the cockpit, that is a static set.
So here's an example of what happens when, in the film, Batman drives home to the Batcave after a long day of crime fighting:
- The race version drives down the road.
- The jet version fires its jet engine.
- The miniature version flies across the ravine.
- One of the full-sized race versions enters the Batcave, flying through an actual, full-size waterfall. This shot is incredibly complex. They turn on the water for the waterfall. The car drives down a road and shoots off the end of a ramp to get itself airborne. The car travels through the waterfall, where the downdraft and weight of the falling water has to be taken into account to get the angles right. The 5,000-pound car flies 30 feet and lands with an incredible thud on a reinforced-concrete landing pad. Then there is a sand berm to help slow the car down. There is also a huge arresting cable to stop the car in case something goes wrong.
- The view switches to the static cockpit set to show Batman's perspective.
- The view switches to the "opening version" of the car, which pulls up in the Batcave set, stops and unfolds so Batman can get out.
All of those different, real, physical versions of the car come together in the movie to create the illusion of the Batmobile.
As Nathan points out, understanding this process gives you an appreciation for why a modern film can cost so much to make. The Batmobile itself is eight different versions of the same car, built and managed by several teams containing dozens of people. The "Batmobile" cost many millions of dollars in research, development and fabrication.
For more information on the Batmobile, "Batman Begins" and related topics, check out the links on the next page.
More Great Links
- Interview with Nathan Crowley, Batmobile designer