“Batman Begins” Batmobile

Written by M.West on October 13, 2006

One of the coolest cars of the century, the Batmobile is a vehicle thats good for any ocassion whether going to work or just saving the day. You may 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 “Batman Begins” Batmobile as a NASCAR pace car.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? Nathan Crowley — the man who designed the Batmobile and brought it to life in “Batman Begins” — to find out what’s going on.

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.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.

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.

As mentioned at the beginning of the article, the Batmobile that you see racing through the streets of Gotham City is a real car. To play its role in the film, this car had some amazing requirements:

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.
To create this kind of performance, the team started with a steel “test frame” and put it through its paces.

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.

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, 4×4 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.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.

There were four complete Batmobile race cars built, it was important to have four. Two were extras in case of accidents. One was a 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.

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.

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.

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