The Batman Car Chase Explained: How They Did It

Matt Reeves’ “The Batman,” now streaming on HBO Max and available for purchase on various digital platforms, is full of breathlessly rendered set pieces that rank amongst the best in modern superhero cinema – Batman’s Halloween-night prowling; the finale in the stadium; Batman’s visit to Falcone’s club. But there’s one scene that stands out above all the others – the very rainy nighttime car chase. (“The Batman” is so overwhelmingly rainy it makes “Seven” look like “Lawrence of Arabia.”)  

In the sequence, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Robert Pattinson) is going after the Penguin (an unrecognizable Colin Farrell) in his souped up Batmobile, which is perhaps the most hot-rod-y version of the iconic car ever captured on film. After a brief false start, Batman charges after the villain, following him onto a rain-slicked and extremely packed expressway. In an attempt to lose his pursuer, the Penguin causes a calamitous pile-up. But that doesn’t stop Batman. (Does anything?)

TheWrap spoke with Anders Langlands, VFX Supervisor on “The Batman” for Weta FX, who broke down how this sequence was accomplished.

According to Langlands, Weta FX was not the first effects house on the sequence. After production began, “they wanted to reorganize a few things.” “We came to it a little bit later than some of the other stuff that we’ve done, so had to take a bit of a running start to get everything together,” Langlands said. They had already done the live-action photography in a place called Dunsfold Aerodrome, an unlicensed airfield in Surrey, England that is probably best known for being where BBC series “Top Gear” is often filmed. They had a half-mile of track to work with, along with additional vehicles and practical effects. “They were trying to get as much of the stunt working, in camera, as possible was the initial plan,” Langlands said.

When Matt Reeves began looking at the footage, he found that some of the action was unclear. “Matt’s very particular about everything being logical and making sense, and so there was a number of story beats that he wanted to get through to make the audience understand,” Langlands. Several things needed to be clarified: just how wet the expressway was supposed to be, with multiple vehicles hydroplaning on the road. (Yes, the rain is entirely digital. More on that later.) And the other thing was the series of events that serve as a chain reaction towards the end of the sequence, after the Penguin slams on the brakes.

Langlands describes the sequence as “a minute- or two-minute-long rolling crash, with vehicles colliding into one another.” It was up to Langlands and the team at Weta FX to plan out “all of the different events that take place from that initial moment.” They mapped out the sequence –“that truck slides out, that comes across Batman’s path, he breaks and swerves and then another truck starts like breaking itself, hydroplaning and tipping, and then that goes into the bridge, into the overpass. And then that taps the oil tanker in the back and that leads into the fuel tanker rolling over.”

Batmobile Flip
Warner Bros/DC

Of course, that fuel tanker jackknifing triggers an explosion that leads to arguably the coolest shot in a sequence exclusively made of cool shots, one that Langlands fully acknowledges. The Penguin thinks he’s lost the Batman – or maybe killed him – only to see him leap out of the flames. It was in virtually every piece of marketing for “The Batman” for a reason. It’s that damn cool.

Weta FX had to figure out “the geography of where every vehicle was leading up to that, and how they were moving relative to one another,” including where the Penguin and Batman’s cars are, with the end goal making sure that “the audience can understand where all the vehicles are and how they were all moving together.”

While the first part of the sequence featured practical elements filmed on location, towards the end of the chase, many of the shots become fully digital. “We found we needed to swap some of the vehicles around,” Langlands said. In the initial version of the sequence, the fuel tanker wasn’t a tanker at all; it was a small delivery van “that had a little explosive hazard label painted on the side, which no one could see.” Langlands and the Weta FX team had to make it more obvious what was happening and where the fireball was coming from. They had to move vehicles around in order to accomplish this. “In order to get all these story points across, it became much easier just to make a large portion of the back end of the sequence fully digital,” Langlands said.

That’s when the animation team from Weta FX got involved. They worked with Reeves in editorial, attempting to refine the shots. Some of the shots were conceived and executed during this process, working with the original footage which now served as what Langlands refers to as “visual reference material.” “Our animation team spent a long time refining those beats and giving Matt and his editing team updates to allow him to try things out in the cut to see what works and what didn’t,” Langlands. The challenge was conveying important narrative beats and establishing geography and spatial relationships in a sequence that was assembled using relatively quick cuts (especially compared to some other sections of the movie), “getting all of that across with very few frames to tell the story.”

Another challenge was making sure that all of this was conveyed while also in the middle of what could easily be described as nearly monsoon-ish weather conditions. “If you drive down a highway at night when it’s raining cats and dogs, you can’t see very much at all, like in the real world,” Langlands said. “We had to rein things back a little bit, but still find that right point where it still felt wet enough to Matt for what he was trying to get across.”

That’s where maybe the most impressive bit of movie magic came in – the computer-generated rain. Langlands said that most of the sequence was shot dry because of the inherent safety complications that would be involved in shooting the sequence wet. (They also couldn’t rig a rain machine long enough to “cover the moving vehicles.”) Instead, the team went a simpler route. And by “simpler route,” I of course mean the “most complicated route possible,” adding the rain later via Weta FX wizardry.

Langlands and his team were tasked with creating several elements associated with rain – the “actual rain drops themselves, the wheel mist and spray coming off of the vehicles wheels that are driving across the ground,” as well as “little individual impact splashes where the raindrops are hitting the ground.” And while that still might sound relatively simple, as it turns out, not so much.

“Rain is one of those things that sounds really easy and when you have a static camera it’s relatively easy to accomplish,” Langlands explained. “But when everything’s moving around very quickly and you’ve got lots of small light sources, like you do with all the car headlights and all the streetlights down the side of the road, it actually becomes quite a complex thing to simulate because like a falling raindrop, isn’t just like a little tear drop shape, like a cartoon version of it.” Instead of a classic cartoony teardrop, as Langlands explained, it’s a sphere of water that’s “oscillating and stretching and squashing and changing shape as it comes down.”

The Weta FX tried to simulate the raindrops “exactly” – how the light catches it, the differences between a practical effect and something that the human eye recognizes as actual rain – but it proved “far too expensive computationally to actually put into shots.” Channeling their inner world’s greatest detectives, they came up with an approximation that could be rendered quick enough to actually use. This approach “gives the whole scene a nice feeling and the way that it plays with the lights worked really nicely.”

Yes it did.

“The Batman” is still playing in theaters, currently streaming on HBO Max and for sale across digital platforms now.

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