- Four gigantic statues around Gotham Plaza (reminiscent of Michael Lantz's "Man Controlling Trade" statues at the Federal Trade Commission building in Washington, D.C., and Lewis Hine's 1920 photograph "Power house mechanic working on steam pump")
- The giant grinning cat head atop Shreck's Department Store
- Huge decorative moldings in the shape of roses and scrollwork
- Huge, stone-faced heads tucked into alcoves everywhere.
Tim Burton did NOT want to do a sequel to Batman at all. But after the success of the first film, Warner Bros. was absolutely committed to getting a sequel. They moved ahead on a script by Sam Hamm (who'd co-written the first film's script). Burton was intrigued enough that he agreed to come on board in late 1990. He tried to get Anton Furst to return as production designer, but by this time Furst was committed to other projects. So Burton turned to his second choice -- Bo Welch, with whom Burton had worked on Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands.
Welch immediately rejected a simple repetition or update of Furst's Oscar-winning work. Burton didn't want a complete re-imagining, however. Immediately, within a week after being hired, Welch conceived a Gotham that was more mammoth, more overwhelming than Furst's. Drawing primarily on fascist architecture from Germany and Italy as well as architecture from the New York City World's Fair, Welch pursued a Gotham that was more American, more fun, and more racy.
The idea of a sexually kinky Gotham came from the character of Catwoman. The character of Catwoman – at least as portrayed in Batman Returns – was conceived by Tim Burton. Burton had even sketched out the racy latex catsuit she'd wear. Seeing this sketch, Welch said he had a sudden vision of "corruption and moral decay". Catwoman's costume was a very S&M look, and Welch decided to translate this look to the city's architecture by including a lot more chains, steel plates, pipes, and reinforcements holding the city together. His vision of Gotham was one that is made of mismatched pieces are unraveling due to the pressure of crime. Many of Welch's buildings in this new Gotham are mammoth buildings on the verge of crumbling, held together by scaffolding, chains, or patches.
But an additional part of Welch's Gotham was the far more theatrical appearance of the sets, and the sudden addition of hundreds of over-sized metal statues throughout the city.
The key to Welch's Gotham is Gotham Plaza, a bleak and cramped area in front of City Hall that is a warped vision of Rockefeller Center. It is both futuristic as well as harkens back a century to Art Deco. Statues meant to indicate industry and progress instead convey oppression and grimy toil.
At first, Welch wasn't sure what images he would draw on to create his vision of Gotham City. He spent weeks isolated in his small office on the Warner Bros. lot, pouring over the script (which by now had been revised by Daniel Waters), trying to identify images that would help him conceive the visual thread he needed. Welch came up with his first model for Gotham Plaza by slicing up some cardboard and cutting out pictures of fascist sculpture and Depression-era machine art (primarily the photographs of Louis Hine). Welch conceived of Gotham Plaza as a place where the wealthy and corrupt gathered to hatch their schemes to defraud and undermine Gotham. He added layer upon layer of fascist art, including the addition of four hulking metal statues at the four corners of the plaza. He wanted to convey a sense that the city-approved architecture was purposefully designed to make citizens feel small and powerless.
Welch also emphasized the corruption in Gotham by allowing a hodge-podge of uses to crowd around Gotham Plaza. It was as if a very corrupt zoning board had been bribed to basically throw out all the zoning laws. Right next to the plaza are bridges and major roadways, a department store, a church, a donut shop, and a nail salon.
The two other visual elements critical to the film were the Penguin's lair at the abandoned Gotham Zoo and the rooftop sets where Catwoman and Batman tangle.
But common elements run through all three major sets: A sense of overwhelming scale, and a terrifying verticality.
Initially, verticality wasn't part of the architectural language Welch was using. But his first model of Gotham Plaza was about 1 foot square by 4 feet high. The verticality of his model proved exciting, however, and suddenly Welch realized that all spatial relationships in the film should be dominated by too-tall structures.
Interestingly, Batman Returns wasn't filmed in the United Kingdom. Warner Bros. had spent $250,000 mothballing the sets from the first film in anticipation of a sequel. But by this time, Tim Burton's films had generated so much money that Warner Bros. needed to coddle the director a little bit in order to get him to sign on to the film. Up front, Warners agreed that Burton would not need to return to England, and instead could film Batman Returns on the Warners lot in California.
This meant completely rebuilding the Gotham City set rather than repurposing the existing sets. Furthermore, it meant that most of the Gotham City set would be indoors on soundstages, limiting their size and verticality. These decisions doubled the production cost of Batman Returns – with the studio spending a then-whopping $50 million just to build the sets alone.
Amusingly, Warner's accounting staff thought the studio was spending too much on sets! One set in particular annoyed them: The church set. While reviewing the design of the Gotham Plaza set, Tim Burton became concerned that it had too many high, flat walls. While there were statues and architectural adornment, it was still visually uninteresting. So Burton asked that one building be made into a small, Baroque church. It wouldn't be more than a few stories high, but it would be immensely detailed and complex – a complete break with the rest of the plaza. Because the church's numerous buttresses, columns, and steeples needed to be adorned with gargoyles and finials, this required an immense amount of sculpture work. Yet, the "church set" would almost never be seen! Nearly all the Gotham Plaza action is shot from what would be the front steps of the church – meaning that the elaborate, tremendously expensive set wouldn't be seen at all! And not a lick of the script mentioned the church set; no one even sneezed in front of it, much less had a battle there. Studio accountants went ballistic, but Burton fought for and won construction of the church set.
Batman Returns featured 24 major sets. A crew of 250 craftsmen and artisans worked to create the sets, including a crew of four who did nothing but create the metal sculptures!! A number of outdoor sets were built (although these did not include the main Gotham Plaza set, unfortunately), and roughly 50 percent of the entire Warner Bros. back lot was used by Gotham City sets. (These mostly consisted of streets for the Batmobile to move on.) A total of eight soundstages were used to make the picture, including Stage 16 for the Gotham Plaza set – which was the size of a football field and 70 feet high.
But even that wasn't enough! Warner Bros. didn't have a water stage big enough to accommodate the Penguin's lair set. So Warners rented Soundstage 12 at the Universal Studios lot, and constructed it there. The penguin set included a waist-deep pool and was air-conditioned until the temperature reached 38 degrees. The 50-foot-high ceiling on Soundstage 12 allowed the production team to build an actual vaulted ceiling for the penguin exhibit, which helped enhance the realism of the picture. The low temperature was needed because the film used live penguins for some of the creatures on the set, and the penguins had to be kept cold. (Several crew members got pneumonia while working on the set, and several others fell into the water laden with camera gear and had to be pulled out or they would have drowned.)
Unfortunately, the decision to build most of Gotham City indoors meant that Batman Returns relied too heavily on miniature work. Tim Burton had come up with some camera shots to highlight the verticality of Gotham. But since vertical structures couldn't be built indoors, miniature shots were substituted. The miniature work isn't that good, however. In several shots – such as when the camera travels from the base of Shreck's department store to its cat-head-crowned penthouse office, or the final shot as the camera pans up a scaffold-clad skyscraper to depict Catwoman – are clearly miniature shots.
This time around, there were no Oscar nominations for the production design.
In fact, the production design of Batman Returns has been strongly criticized for feeling claustrophobic, cramped, and derivative. Burton's decision to construct the major outdoor sets on indoor soundstages has been denounced as one of the more foolish production decisions ever made