<i>The Batman</i>: Inside Weta’s blockbuster visual effects work
Marc Loftus
April 14, 2022

The Batman: Inside Weta’s blockbuster visual effects work

In Gotham City, crime and corruption are at all-time highs. The renewal program that was designed to improve quality of life — now in its 20th year — hasn’t delivered, and frustrated city residents are heading to the polls to elect a new mayor. A new hallucinogen called ‘drops’ is also wreaking havoc throughout the city. Delivered via eye drops, the drug has turned many of the city’s residents into zombies while also corrupting Gotham’s government and police department, who are doing more to enable the problem than combat it.
Batman is doing what he can to keep the city from spiraling further out of control, and in the new film, The Batman, finds an unlikely partner in Catwoman, who has her own motivation for toppling those behind the corruption. 

At the same time, a new enemy is emerging. Riddler has amassed a dedicated following of those who feel disenfranchised, and they’ve set up a series of explosives along Gotham’s sea wall, with plans to flood the city on election night, creating further chaos.

Matt Reeves directed The Batman for Warner Bros., which runs nearly three hours. Robert Pattinson stars as Bruce Wayne and his alter ego Batman, with Zoë Kravitz portraying Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Jeffrey Wright is Commissioner Gordon, a key Batman ally, while Paul Dano plays Riddler. John Turturro is crime boss Carmine Falcone, who is behind much of Gotham’s corruption, and Colin Farrell is Oswald “Oz” Cobblepot (Penguin). Andy Serkis plays Bruce Wayne confidant and butler Alfred Pennyworth.

The film is set in current times, though visual effects are key in creating Gotham City, which closely resembles Manhattan, with its own version of Times Square, ‘Gotham Square Garden,’ and other familiar landmarks. ILM, Weta FX, Scanline VFX and Crafty Apes all contributed to the feature, with Dan Lemmon serving as the film’s visual effects supervisor.

New Zealand’s Weta (www.wetastudios.com) created 320 shots for the film, including a long car chase in which Batman pursues Penguin. The studio was also responsible for creating the Batcave and City Hall, where a memorial service is being held.

“We’ve got a long relationship with the filmmaker — Matt Reeves — but the overall visual effects supervisor was Dan Lemmon, working for Warner Bros., and so obviously, he’s ex-Weta,” explains Weta VFX supervisor Anders Langlands. “We first started talking to them mid-2019 (and) had our first discussions, and then obviously things got slowed down a little bit in the middle, but yeah, we were talking to them from very early on.”

The Batcave

Production designer James Chinlund established the look of the Batcave under Wayne Manor, where Bruce Wayne is currently building the Batmobile. A practical section of the cave was built on a stage at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden in the UK — mostly of the workshop area — with the rest being extended digitally.

Photo (L-R): Langlands, Veitch, Yoo

“The only time you really see it in all its glory is this one wide shot, the first time he comes in there early on in the film, where you’re panning with the motorcycle as he rides in from the tunnel and then stops in front of the workshop,” says Langlands of the Batcave. “That actually ended up being pretty much fully-digital because…the stage at Leavesden just wasn’t big enough for Matt to put the camera where he wanted it. We had to replace basically everything in order to move the camera down to get the angle that he was after, so that ended up being pretty much a full-CG shot in the end.”

A strategically-placed column within the cave was used as the transition point from CG to live action. Much of the workshop detail was projected onto surfaces in a 2.5 approach, eliminating the need to build it out for simply one shot. Initially, the cave’s darkness was seen as an asset in which detail could be obscured, but as animation supervisor Dennis Yoo soon realized, more and more detail kept appearing as the process progressed.

“Usually for animation, it’s better because it hides a lot of our motion,” says Yoo of the darkness. “In this particular case, we just start off (thinking) everything would be dark and silhouetted. Then, later on, we’re like, ‘We’re actually seeing a lot more than we bargained for!’ So the Batcave ended up being a little bit of a nightmare for us.”

Yoo also recalls the challenge of creating and placing the thousands of bats that reside in the cave. 
“There was this massive cheat of these foreground bats, which were way too close to the camera,” he explains. “And the ceiling was about another 30 feet up, so the scale of the bats was a big problem while animating for us.”

The studio used Massive software to create the crowd of bats, all based on a single model.

“We can change the scale of each bat within the scene itself,” says Yoo. “And that particular shot, I think it was in the thousands, for sure.”

City Hall

Gotham’s City Hall is another environment that Weta created. The ground floor and second level were created practically inside a former blimp hangar, but even that massive space was not enough, so Weta was tasked with extending both ends of the set and adding large windows, helping to give it the look of New York City’s Grand Central Station. Cream-colored screens were used rather than blue or green screens, and gobos were used for lighting.

“The logic behind using cream screens is because it is roughly similar to the color of the stone that City Hall is made from,” notes Langlands. “Ultimately, if you put green screens up around everything, then you get spill. Everything turns green.”

Weta compositing supervisor Beck Veitch says the cream color involved a lot more rotoscoping than if the production had shot with blue or green screens.

“You need a really good roto team because there’s no way you can pull a key from a cream screen,” says Veitch. “However, our team has had a lot of experience in what we phrased as ‘adventurous edge blending,’ so we actually got some really good results.”

The Chase Sequence

Weta’s most demanding work can be seen in the chase sequence, in which Batman, in the Batmobile, is chasing a sedan driven by Penguin through the city’s rainy streets, and finally onto a highway, where they deal with traffic and numerous big rigs. A fiery multi-vehicle crash leaves Penguin thinking he’s gotten away from the caped crusader — but don’t count Batman out just yet.

“There’s quite a lot of stuff there,” says Langlands, who estimates that as many as 200 VFX shots make up the sequence. “They previs’d that sequence pretty heavily before they went and shot it, and they ended up shooting a version of pretty much every shot.”

While many of the production elements may not have made it into the final sequence, they served as a solid foundation for their digital replacements.

“Ultimately, you know what the actual vehicles and lighting look like in the scene,” says Langlands, noting that the sequence was broken into two sections: one being the chase through the city’s back roads, and the other starting once they get on the highway. The highway elements were shot on an airstrip in the UK that was dressed with street lights and a center divider. 

“It was largely practical before they’re on the highway, but in pretty much all of those shots, we were adding CG rain — the rain effects, like falling raindrops, spray from the wheels and rain impacting the ground,” Langlands recalls. “Once we’re on the highway, it becomes more and more digital, until we get to the end, where Penguin sets off this big chain reaction. By the time we get there, a lot of that ended up being fully-CG, or at least heavily-CG.”

Langlands says director Matt Reeves wanted the camera to always be in the action, as opposed to viewing it via wide shots.

“A lot of what we were doing was trying to help sort of tell the story, going from one bit to the next,” he says of the sequence.

On set, there were several practical Batmobiles, each with different rims and tires, depending on what the vehicle needed to perform. Weta replaced several wheels digitally for continuity purposes. The studio also created an entirely-CG version the Batmobile, along with additional cars and trucks. 

During production, a van was used for the practical explosion. That van was then replaced by Weta with a digital fuel tanker that better represented the magnitude of the explosion. They also extended the explosion considerably to allow Colin Farrell’s Penguin performance to play out.

“That was originally supposed to be a much shorter shot,” Langlands explains. “But Matt liked Colin’s performance so much, (which is) why we held on it for a very long time. It kind of created the issue that, by the time he’s finished, the big fireball in the background died out.” 

Digitally, the studio added second and third explosion events in order to keep the moment going. That way, after Penguin’s dialogue sequence, there was still a wall of fire for the Batmobile to emerge from.

“It was challenging and very exciting,” says Yoo of the scene. “Like Anders said, they previs’d out everything, and (went) on set and shot what (they could). When they came out, they realized they were missing a bunch of the puzzle…They definitely knew what they wanted, and it was just us grabbing the footage that was getting taken and then trying to work out how we can wedge in or work on some of the animation that is cohesive so that you’re building up the sequence.”

Weta’s first pass of the sequence played out much too long, but showed how it could come together from a storytelling standpoint.

Langlands made the call to track the camera movement from the live-action shoot, which was then applied to the animated sequences, helping to sell the CG replacements.

“It’s kind of put a stamp on it that these cameras are legit,” says Yoo. “It actually made life a lot easier. Even though we had to tweak some of them, it was still based on reality.”  

Marc Loftus is the Editor-in-Chief of CGW’s sister publication, Post.