Any time Hollywood has turned its lens on a new depiction of the beloved DC icon Batman and the atmospheric environment of his home city, Gotham, accolades and reverence for design aspects have frequently followed. Across a dozen live-action projects over the last 35 years, Oscar nominations have flowed for cinematography (Batman Forever, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Joker), makeup and hairstyling (Batman Returns, Joker, The Batman) and production design (Batman, The Dark Knight), among others. Perhaps it's simply because the Caped Crusader's moody world is such a playground for bold expressionism and big-build concepts.
That was certainly the case with Tim Burton's original 1989 entry in the modern canon. Batman, starring Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight and Jack Nicholson as his arch-nemesis the Joker, spun itself out of the grimy pages of comic creator Frank Miller's mid-1980s work and onto the backlot of London's Pinewood Studios with a pitch-black vision that owed more to F.W. Murnau than anything else. Along with Burton, the late production designer Anton Furst (Full Metal Jacket) conceived a Gotham worthy of its etymology, teeming with Gothic spires, Art Deco monstrosities and grungy steampunk aesthetics. The design brief was to imagine the year 2000 from the perspective of someone in 1940, and the result was a landmark in film production design that ultimately earned Furst an Academy Award.
Now, 34 years later – and thanks to the mind-warping wonder of multiverse storytelling – Furst's world is revisited anew by the filmmakers behind The Flash. The shortest version of how and why is that the character Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a superhuman speedster known as the Flash, finds himself knocked loose in time and space thanks to events that would take many more paragraphs to explain. He ends up face-to-face not with the Ben Affleck-depicted Bruce Wayne of his own universe, but with the Michael Keaton version of another one. You still with us? Shenanigans ensue as the plot of Andy Muschietti's film explodes onto a canvas meant to reconcile a half-century of superhero movies, but what the inclusion of Keaton's vigilante tangibly meant for the production was finding a way to bring Furst's vision into this one.
Enter Oscar-winning production designer Paul D. Austerberry (The Shape of Water). The focus would be on Wayne Manor, the billionaire playboy/avenger's vast abode, and of course, the Batcave, his underground lair. But there were two Batcaves to choose from. Frequent Burton collaborator Bo Welch (Men in Black) took up design duties on 1992's Batman Returns, and their collective vision is quite different from Furst’s, more akin to Burton's ongoing auteurist trappings as a visual artist. But Austerberry found the atmosphere of Furst's designs to be more appealing.
"That was done with a combination of sets, matte paintings and miniatures," Austerberry explains of the original concepts. "But it was quite difficult to find that much information about the design of those caves. I found some crude images of the models. I took some iconic stills from the movies. There's the iconic Batmobile sitting on a pedestal. Obviously, I kept that. There was also a sort of triangular, metal platform that was cantilevered out in the middle of space. And of course, the computer console. I thought those key pieces were enough for me and Andy to tie us back to the original, which was a brilliant design."
Springing off from those elements, Austerberry also infused the Batcave's design with function. He decided to take some elements of the Christopher Nolan Batman films, notably the presence of water flowing through the cave, and gave it purpose. “We imagined a dam built in the cave that diverted water down into this bathtub to drive turbines that can power up all of the Batcave and anything that Bruce Wayne is creating down there over the years,” Austerberry says. “I looked at a bunch of references of dams from the 30s, 40s and 50s. There are these sluices in the background where you could let the water go down. That gave a nice raking texture.”
He tweaked the computer console set-up, doing away with the CRT monitors of the 1989 film and bringing in flat screens – but early versions of the tech, which were thicker and heftier. Because after all, this isn't a world where Keaton's Batman is hitting the streets every night. He's become long-haired hermit who long ago gave up his fight for justice. That, in turn, led to some creative choices surrounding the Batwing, Batman’s aerial assault vehicle that features prominently in the finale of Burton's Batman as well as Joel Schumacher's 1995 third installment, Batman Forever.
"We figured his Batwing could have been updated by this point," Austerberry says. "I still thought we needed to keep some of the elements of the original, but maybe a more realistic expression of that design. His plane has been sitting up there for years, covered in bat guano. It's hanging like a bat and when it comes down, when you first see it, it's all dirty and rusty and grubby. And then they board it and they fly through the waterfall, and of course, the waterfall cleans it like a car wash."
The Batmobile itself, a by-now legendary piece of moviemaking design and engineering, doesn't see any action. But it's present for a good tease when Barry Allen — well, one of two versions of Barry Allen (it’s complicated) – stumbles onto it.
Elsewhere, Austerberry and his team revisited several locations that Burton's crew shot for Wayne Manor. He used Knebworth House in Hertfordshire, England, for its evocative gates, which were featured in the first film. He also utilized the nearby Hatfield House, which hosted Burton’s crew for interiors once upon a time. "We purposely went back to a couple of places that they actually shot, because I thought it was important to tie that character back into the look of everything from that era," Austerberry says.
Circling back to the Batcave, perhaps most impressive in today's CGI-soaked status quo is that it was indeed a fully-rendered, functioning set. It was a bigger build, even, than Furst's version, which used old-school visual trickery to expand on its scale through matte and glass paintings. Austerberry is no stranger to those kinds of techniques and, like many in his field, has an affinity for them. He won an Oscar for Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which employed things like the "dry-for-wet" process to depict an underwater environment with wires and fog.
"Those tricks are still fairly valid," Austerberry says. "There were some comments from the crew in the UK. They're used to doing a lot of big-budget films and they were so happy to be on sets that didn't have a massive blue-screen component." Even Keaton himself was blown away. Austerberry got the privilege of escorting the actor to the set to see it for the first time. "He was pretty amazed by the scale of it," Austerberry says. "And of course, it brought back all that stuff for him. That was pretty exciting."
As it turns out, there were some old hands from the Burton production back in the saddle this time around, notably concept artist Julian Caldow. Caldow is the man responsible for the first designs, on the page, of Burton's classic Batmobile and Batwing, and Austerberry worked with him on other elements of The Flash. "He did all kinds of work with me on the Russian missile base that we shot on, and he was fantastic," Austerberry says. "He was a really young, junior person back then, so he was quite pleased to be back dealing with similar things after all these years."
Just as the film served as full-circle moment for Caldow, it was also a bit of a homecoming for Austerberry, who started his professional life pursuing architecture. He attended Carleton University in Ontario, Canada, and in those days, the student body would host a vast party designed by the students in order to raise money for travel study abroad. The year Austerberry's class took the reins of the event, he was in charge of a section that would prove to be an unexpected bit of foreshadowing.
"We built a bat helicopter, full-sized, out of cardboard, and we made a huge Batmobile," he recalls. "This was all based on the 60s version, of course, but I made a big Batcave and backdrop console. So, it was kind of funny all these years later that I actually got to do it for real."