If you’re going to make a Batman movie, you’re going to include a Batmobile chase sequence. It’s more than essential at this point. It’s expected. Eventually, the bad guys are going to get away and the Caped Crusader is going to track them down in his custom-made beast on wheels. Whether it’s the sleek and stylish look of production designer Anton Furst’s creation in Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns, or the hulking Tumbler that Nathan Crowley conjured up for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, there will always be that question from fans saddling up to a new take on the character: When do we see the car?
In director Matt Reeves’ The Batman, “the car” is a grounded, muscular behemoth crafted under the purview of production designer James Chinlund. It arrives about halfway through the film as Colin Farrell’s underground thug, the Penguin, hightails it onto the streets of Gotham City after some nefarious dealings with several unsavory characters. What follows is a pulse-pounding sequence unlike any such chase scene in the canon, a sensory overload of screaming engines, twisted metal and scorching flames. It’s a sequence that owes more to the iconic car chases of ‘70s action classics like Bullitt or The French Connection, or even the latter-day John Frankenheimer action thriller Ronin, than it does to anything you might find today in a superhero film.
But just before Reeves and company were ready to film the scene, with 25 percent of the movie already shot, COVID-19 struck and production was shut down in March of 2020. Under a cloud of uncertainty, the director and his crew had no choice but to buckle down and spend the extra time further prepping what was left on the table. That included a total reimagining of the Batmobile pursuit.
“It had been written for the freeway, so we kind of reconceived it to a degree that actually made it a little bit more like what I had originally written,” Reeves says. “In this case, it ended up making the most sense to be kind of isolated on a racetrack.”
The scene was first going to be filmed on the streets of Liverpool, but it was preferable to have more control of things in the wake of the initial shutdown. So, they set up shop at the Dunsfold Aerodrome speedway in Surrey, England. Through visual effects, practical wizardry and close collaboration with cinematographer Greig Fraser and the second unit, Reeves would go on to transform the speedway into a live freeway.
As they started plotting out the various shots, everything came back to Reeves’ general intent as a filmmaker, which is tapping a point of view to tell his stories.
“When we were discussing how to shoot some of this, we wanted the camera fixed to the vehicle,” Fraser says. “We wanted it to be in there. We wanted it to be almost literally in Batman’s brain as he’s driving. How do you visualize being in Batman’s brain as he’s trying to dodge semi-trailers that are falling over – and fireballs? We strapped cameras to cars and motorbikes, even though it was technically really hard to do, and it was sometimes impossible with the rigs that we had. We basically fought against gravity. We fought against logistics. We fought against time. We fought against everything that told us to not do it that way.”
Fraser also saw the sequence as a chance to break out a little bit from the visual vocabulary of the rest of the film, given the directive to make it a visceral experience. He used an entirely different set of lenses, as well as filters that he would then smear with silicone – anything to give the effect of feeling drenched in rain and grit, to put the audience right there in the middle of the chaos and to connect spiritually with the work of cinematographers like Owen Roizman (The French Connection, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) and Gordon Willis (The Godfather, All the President’s Men), who inspired both Fraser and Reeves to become filmmakers in the first place.
The overall conceit – which in some sense stretched to the entire film – was to introduce texture to a digital image that can often seem too sterile and clean. That’s also why Fraser opted for ultimately printing the movie out to film negative before scanning it back in digitally, not unlike his process for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune.
With the chase sequence shot and, eventually, edited, it was time to add the finishing touches at the mixing board. A huge part of the scene’s impact is its sound design. From the moment the Batmobile roars to life, you can feel it in your chest. The vehicle needed a distinct aural signature, and it had to serve an extension of Batman's overall objective: to strike fear into the hearts and minds of criminals everywhere. Supervising sound editor Will Files had an idea, and it all started with a bottle rocket.
“This was actually the first sequence that we worked on in the film,” Files says. “Everything in there, every sound the Batmobile makes, originates as a real sound. There’s nothing synthetic. The first sound you hear when it turns on in that dark alley is actually the sound of a bottle rocket going off. It’s a very, very short sound that I found and it had this kind of screamy, distorted quality to it that I really liked.”
Files had been looking for an excuse to use a piece of software he had previously stumbled upon that can stretch sound files out and slow them all the way down to a drastic degree. When he applied it to the bottle rocket sound, with its built-in blemishes, he had a base upon which the sonic identity of the Batmobile could be built.
“Suddenly, I had a sound that sort of functioned as a rising tone that wound up like a turbine over the course of almost a minute,” Files says. “Yet it still had the nuance of the original recording, in the sense that it had these little micro changes inside of it and little imperfections and distortions.”
There was a lot of special sauce involved beyond the bottle rocket, of course. Files and his team, including co-supervisor Douglas Murray and Oscar-winning re-recording mixer Andy Nelson, ended up using a big-block Ford motor for the main engine sound. They even took a recording of an old World War II military Jeep and reversed it to build out the whining supercharger component of the engine. Again, every sound was analog, but manipulated in order to achieve the desired effect.
And by the way, that idea of putting you in the Batman’s headspace can really be felt in this sequence if you happen to hear the Dolby Atmos mix. A particularly explosive beat sends debris flying through the air and on top of the Batmobile, and you’ll be able to hear those impacts directly overhead thanks to the incredible directional detail of Atmos.
The result of all this hard work is a riveting, show-stopping moment in what will no doubt be one of the year’s biggest blockbuster releases. Reeves knew from the beginning that it had to be special, and not just the scene itself, but everything about the scene’s fuel-guzzling star as well.
“I wanted the Batmobile to function the way the Batsuit does,” Reeves says. “On one hand, it needed to be muscular and perform. But, on the other hand, its purpose. It’s meant to be a wild beast. It’s like Christine [the 1958 Plymouth Fury in John Carpenter’s 1983 supernatural horror film Christine] or something. You don’t drive around in a Batmobile to just drive around in your car. You’re coming to make an impression.”
The Batman is now in theaters.