Batman Below-the-Line

We have spent the past three weeks talking about the past films, the characters, the history of Batman on film and the superstars attached to the series.  But as I am prone to on The Awards Circuit, I’d like to take the time to highlight the collaborative work of those craftsmen who thanklessly work on the pieces of a film’s success we take for granted.

Rather than laboriously spell out the overall effect of the crew behind the Bat, I’d rather take the very best individual achievements of cinematographers, production designers, wardrobe, and musical composers that have given their all to make each Batman film their most indelible qualities.  We’ve often discussed the influence of the various directors attached to the Caped Crusader over the years, but it’s about time we paid tribute to the members of their team that bring their visions to life.  Introducing the top ten below-the-line contributors to Batman on film:

10. Janek Sirrs, Dan Glass, Chris Corbould, Paul J. Franklin, et alii’s visual effects for Batman Begins

By the time Batman Begins made its theatrical debut, moviegoers had already been exposed to the likes of The Matrix sequels, Terminator 3, and Revenge of the Sith assaulting them with CGI, so it comes as no surprise that there was an attractiveness to seeing a film that presumably didn’t rely on such tricks.  Even better to discover a film that used visual effects and computer generated imagery, but sparsely and in service to the film’s atmosphere.

9. Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo and Ed Novick’s sound for The Dark Knight

I think even Christopher Nolan’s harshest critics would be hesitant to argue his mastery of sound in the service of his films.  Unlike a director like David Lynch or the Coen Brothers, though, Nolan tosses off the notion of “subtlety” in sound design and just creates a whole wall of it.  Never has this gift been better put to use than the low, loud and often upsetting sonic landscape of The Dark Knight, whether it’s the reverberations of steel cables or the sudden crash of a school bus or a hospital failing to blow up all the way, the constant thrums of Gotham City eating itself alive.

8. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s score for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight

It’s the kind of challenge that seems so impossible that you wonder what kind of composer would subject him or herself to it.  Yet not one but two of the biggest names in film music stepped up to the plate.  The result is one of the most successful collaborations for a major musical score in recent history; both composers cancelling out each other’s flaws (Zimmer’s bombast especially) to create something wholly unique and yet unmistakably epic.

7. Bob Ringwood and Mary Vogt’s costumes for Batman Returns

While much of Batman Returns did not find an appropriate marriage of the Dark Knight mythos and Burton’s macabre visions, Catwoman’s homemade catsuit and The Penguin’s alternating gallery of over-the-top suits felt “right” for the world of Batman and Gotham City.  Bonus points for showing a clear progression of Catwoman’s deteriorating outfit ripping apart at the seams as the film goes on, and I’m not just saying that because Michelle Pfeiffer is so effortlessly sexy.

6. Lindy Hemming’s costumes for The Dark Knight

Beyond the anarchic “custom-made” digs for The Joker, Lindy Hemming brings about something fans have wanted for ages: a Batman that can turn his head!  In arguably the most ambitious and complex superhero costume overhaul, using several hundred small pieces of mesh, rubber and fiberglass to more organically bond Christian Bale to the outfit, finally achieving a level of practicality that a “realistic” take on the franchise just couldn’t manage before.

5. John Caglione, Jr. and Conor O’Sullivan’s makeup for The Dark Knight

Even more lasting an impression from The Dark Knight’s creative team, arguably, is the kind of single-character achievement that may grow to be more iconic than the “perma-white” villain from the comics.  Ledger’s Joker has the kind of visceral, revolting kind of potency in his appearance because how amateurish it looks.  Far from the slick sheen of Nicholson’s Joker, Ledger’s Clown Prince of Crime smears his shock-white makeup on with big uneven globs that gather and clot in his wounds and hair, adding to the guerilla ferocity and disquieting questions about who “he” is and how he got this way.

4. Anton Furst and Peter Young’s sets for Batman

The first Academy Award for a Batman film is one of the most deserved in the series’ history.  In my Historical Circuit review of Batman Returns I pined for the days of when auteurs could still make their mark on a superhero movie.  Anton Furst is one of the most stark reminders of this extinct level of director identity in a film like Batman.  Such a nightmare of industrial design and Expressionist extremes that comprise of Gotham City, which reminds us that we’re not just watching any Batman film, we’re watching a unique director’s vision of a very characteristic Batman film.  It’s a uniqueness that kicked off perhaps the best aspect of 90’s blockbusters, and the kind of contribution that Furst gave that film should be an example for others.

3. The Animation Department on Batman: The Animated Series

Ah, but does this achievement count?  In my book it does, especially since it’s perhaps the most innovative and effective use of animation in television (or any medium, for that matter).  To match a retro noir style, Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski set out to portray all backgrounds as the opposite of the industry standard: light colors on dark paper and added such anachronisms as classic title cards with old style police cars.  Where Nolan’s gritty realism and Burton’s macabre otherworldliness have been celebrated by different corners of the internet, I would argue that Timm and Radomski’s “Dark Deco” captures the soul of Gotham City better than any adaptation of the hero to date.

2. Wally Pfister’s cinematography for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight

Most moviegoers are not aware of just how much that subtlest of camera movements, and general habits of framing and distance, can dictate the mood of an entire film or even the body of a director’s work if they collaborate often.  If Christopher Nolan were to be defined by his two greatest attributes, then we must also celebrate the work of Wally Pfister for bringing out the director’s tremendous sense of solemnity and majestic scope even in the quietest of character beats.  Often going for low angles and wide shots tracking through deep colored settings renders the peril of Gotham not simply as another obstacle for our hero but a truly epochal event, capturing the sleek, stony angles of our heroes against the jagged intensity of the chaos around them; a triumph of moody, Wagnerian grandiosity in both mise-en-scène and lighting.

1. Danny Elfman’s score for Batman

When one looks at the influence of craftsmen in the creation of influential blockbusters – and Tim Burton’s Batman is almost certainly one of the most influential blockbusters in history – one can often look to an iconic musical score that compliments the achievement.  Can a major motion picture change the landscape of Hollywood tentpole filmmaking without instantly memorable music?  Hard to say, what with Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T., Psycho, Jurassic Park and dozens of other hugely successful films that have lived on past the box office with instantly recognizable musical compositions.  By contrast, Avatar is the most financially successful film of all time and has made no lasting impression at all; certainly not an orchestral score one can readily hum.  With everything I have highlighted in this article, the one below-the-line work that has seared into the collective cultural consciousness beyond the collaborative effect of the individual film is this, a complete musical encapsulation of everything we know and love about Batman.  It’s foreboding, epic, nuanced in its structure yet unashamedly bombastic; classic Elfman without being “classic” Elfman.  Of all the contributors to the films of the Burton/Schumacher era, Danny Elfman’s theme will arguably be the one that will most likely survive whatever remakes or reboots Warner Bros. throws at us, making it the single greatest craft achievement in Batman on film.

What are your favorite individual craft/technical achievements in a Batman adaptation?