Sunday, July 6, 2014

Tim Burton's Batman (1989) contains some stunning -- and stunningly ugly -- metalwork and statuary as part of the set design. I'm not saying that's bad; it's good!!!

Among these are:
  • The grotesque Egyptian Revival sculptures outside Carl Grissom's office, which depict sad, stone-faced men.
  • The weeping knights in long cloaks, holding swords (points down in the earth, in defeat) outside Gotham City Hall.
  • Massive, stone-faced faces worked in metal in the sides of many buildings.
  • The Art Deco, locomotive-like, fortress with massive, exposed air ducts that is the Flugelheim Museum.
Production designer Bo Welch had just finished working with director Tim Burton on 1988's Beetlejuice. One source says Welch was Burton's first choice to be productiondesigner on "Batman" as well, but had to back out because "union rules" forbade him from working overseas. So, when the production moved to England, Furst had to come aboard. But that's not backed up anywhere else, so... Most sources note that Burton wanted to hire Anton Furst, and no one else. Burton loved Furst's work on the 1984 British Gothic fantasy-horror film A Company of Wolves, and he'd spent four years working on Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam War epic, Full Metal Jacket. Burton had wanted Furst for Beetlejuice but couldn't get him, and pursued him for Batman despite having loved Welch's work. (Burton would make it up to Welch by having him do the work on Edward Scissorhands, and then Batman Returns.)

The inspiration for the design of Batman came from a descriptive line in Sam Hamm's script for the film, which read: "Gotham City: As if hell had erupted through the sidewalk and kept growing."

Furst and Burton began the production design process by studying Terry Gilliam's 1985 film Brazil, whose production was designed by Norman Garwood. Both men believed in taking "the worst of New York City" and stretching it vertically to make an oppressive visual environment. Furst also studied the artwork of the Futurists, a painting movement of the early 1900s; the films of Fritz Lang (including Metropolis); holographic artwork; and Art Deco, Streamline Moderne, and Brutalist architecture. (Brutalism is a 1960s style of Modernist architecture in which the exterior is made of unfinished concrete...or, as it is in French, "concréte brut". Hence, Brutalism.) Visual elements drew on fascist architecture, German Expressionist cinema, and American industrial design. Furst also delved into the way philosophy related to architecture. Furst decided that Gotham City should have clashing architectural styles. It should be "the ugliest and bleakest metropolis imaginable", a "New York City…without a planning commission. A city run by crime… An essay in ugliness."

About 25 to 30 people worked in the art department with Furst. But problems soon plagued the production design effort. Furst believed that none of the people in the art department were committed to making a high quality picture, and he denigrated their work as flat and lacking in creative spark. In return, art department workers complained constantly about Furst. Furst quickly found it difficult to delegate, as he distrusted the staff and they complained about his interference in their work. In fact, many of the art department artists were doing innovative work, but it had little relationship to the design Burton and Furst had outlined. Much of this effort was eventually thrown out, as it couldn't be used.

Furst ended up doing most of the design work himself, and delegating only details and finishing work to the art department. He sometimes worked as much as 20 hours a day, pushing himself to get things done in time.

Furst says his best design work on the film was the Flugelheim Museum set. He conceived of it as a "radical" and monstrous exterior concealing an older, elegant building underneath. The design drew on locomotives, the work of Austrian architect Otto Wagner, and Victorian-era New York City brownstone housing.

Furst also designed the Batmobile and Batwing.

Furst also designed Gotham Cathedral – although initially, it wasn't supposed to be in the picture at all. As filming began, Tim Burton had no ending to the picture. Originally, the Joker killed Vicki Vale, sending Batman into a fury in which he killed the Joker. But Burton couldn't think of a way to make this ending bloodless, and yet bloodless was what Warner Bros. wanted so that parents in the audience wouldn't be appalled at what their children were seeing. As Burton struggled, producer Jon Peters came up with the idea of having the Joker take Vale to the top of Gotham Cathedral and then fall to his death from a helicopter. Without telling Burton, Peters told Furst to create a 38-foot-high model of the cathedral. Furst quickly realized that the cathedral had to be taller than the skyscrapers around it, or the scene would be overwhelmed. But how could one make a cathedral taller than the tallest skyscraper and still make it credible? It would be over 1,000 feet high!! Furst studied 1930s skyscrapers in New York City, which used Gothic Revival details at the top to produce a cathedral-like effect. When he stumbled upon the cone-shaped Sagrada Família basilica of Barcelona, by Antoni Gaudi, he found the effect he was looking for. Furst essentially stretched the Gaudi church into a skyscraper, adding medieval castle and Japanese fortress elements as well as visual echoes of the house in "Psycho" to make it more oppressive. The finished model cost $100,000 (even though the film was well over budget). Burton was very uncertain about Peters' solution, and says that – to this day – he has no idea why the Joker would have brought Batman up there. (Critics point out that Joker's henchmen appear from nowhere to attack Batman.)

The production was originally intended to occur at the Warner Bros. studio in Hollywood. But there was so much press attention about the film that Warners moved the production to Pinewood Studios in England. This had the added benefit of taking advantage of a British tax break that funneled taxpayer dollars into productions that used British production crews (helping to soften any budget overruns). The production began in October 1988 and wrapped in January 1989. All 18 sound stages and almost all of Pinewood's 95-acre backlot were used to build the sets. Set construction took five months, with more than 200 construction workers and artisans involved. Each building (just fronts were made, of course) consisted of a steel scaffolding and plywood front. Either plaster or fiberglass was used to sculpt the architectural elements, and then they were painted.

Production designer Anton Furst and set decorator Peter Young won the Academy Award for Best Art Direction for their work on Batman.

Furst's production design has had a profound effect on the way Gotham has since been represented in the comics. Whereas Gotham City was usually portrayed through the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s as nothing more than New York City – complete with gleaming, glass-and-steel clad Modernist skyscraper boxes – the Furst-designed Gotham has completely taken over the comics since its appearance in 1989.

Furst's production design for Gotham City has also deeply influenced the super-hero film genre. Nearly every film made since then has, to lesser degrees of course, used the oppressive, nourish, fascist, over-built design for their urban landscapes

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