On the Set of 'The Dark Knight' Part 1 - Costumes

Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne (with Batman's new cowl in the background) from 'The Dark Knight'

No matter how jaded you get as either a fan or a journalist, there remain a few things that you have to admit are mind-bogglingly cool. For me, one of those moments came last summer when I had the chance to visit the set of The Dark Knight. I’d been on smaller-budget sets before; hell, I’d even been in a smaller-budget movie before. But this is Batman, and feeling the reality of that set in is vaguely stunning.

For the visit, a number of other journalists from fan-friendly publications and networks and I traveled to one of the locations in downtown Chicago. In the old, decommissioned Post Office, we found the secure set. One side of the architecturally striking building sported a sign for the Gotham City Police Department; on the other, the filmmakers had deployed the set for the National Bank of Gotham City.

Typically, when comic fans watch a film or TV adaptation, they look for the flourishes that make it, well, right. You can throw Cathy Lee Crosby in a spandex jumpsuit and call her Wonder Woman, but we know that she’s not. Not really. Similarly, we all believed in Christopher Reeve. I say this because not only do the producers of The Dark Knight note the large things, their attention to detail is incredible. The Gotham City bank set featured working ATMs with logoed screens. If you looked closely enough, you’d also notice that the deposit slips in the kiosks were actually labeled for the Gotham City bank. There’s probably a 99.9% chance that we’ll never see one of those in close-up in the finished film, but it immediately demonstrates a painstaking attention to detail. These creators want to get it right.

And a big part of that is Lindy Hemming. Among her many accolades, the mightily praised Costume Designer already has one Oscar (for 1999’s Topsy Turvy) and has been nominated another seven times. She’s worked on a number of fan-favorite franchises, including Harry Potter, Tomb Raider, and a number of James Bond films (up to and including Casino Royale).

We met Hemming in a press tent that had two significant costumes present: the Batman suit itself, and the Joker’s costume. You’ve already seen it in various trailers, but it does give one a bit of a chill to see it in person. You notice the tiny bits, like the print tie and the low-slung gold watch chain.

When describing her inspiration for the Joker’s overall look, Hemming keyed in on one humorous reference: “Pete Doherty.” If you don’t pay attention to U.K. music (or tabloids), Doherty is the ramshackle musician from The Libertines and Babyshambles, possibly most famous here for dating Kate Moss. Doherty’s look runs toward a blend of the foppish (those hats and jackets) and the demented.

Hemming notes that, indicating, “[The Joker’s look is] much more goth/punk/Strokes than The Clown.”

As it’s by now obvious from the trailers and posters, the tone of Heath Ledger’s face is indicated to have been created by make-up in the plot rather than an accident. Hemming explained, “His skin is pale, but he affects the white.” For this Joker, that’s a choice. (A taste for the theatrical, Gordon might say.)

In terms of dressing other principal cast members, Hemming pointed to Rachel Dawes, played by Maggie Gyllenhall. “Rachel [this time] is more sophisticated . . . film noiry.”

For Bruce Wayne, she said, “I imagine he’s an Armani man.” She then mentioned how Wayne and his alter ego fit together in a fashion sense” “First you have to have the aesthetic, then the technology.”

That technology is of course evident in the new Batman suit design. Hemming noted, “The old costume is a complete suit . . . enclosed. Very hot . . . very hard for the actor to move and show expression in the head and neck.”

The new suit contains more articulation and is hung on a mesh. Up close, the mesh actually resembles a shark-diver’s suit. Hemming went on to explain that part of their charge was to “keep the silhouette” but “work on the actual body”. This manifested itself in the construction with “a sort of depth or different parts and different fabrics.”

Hemming also allowed that the arrival of the new suit is actually plot-driven. We’ll actually see the “Begins Suit” at the outset of the film, but developments along the way prompt the introduction of the new TDK suit. Of course, the comfort of Christian Bale was a paramount concern for the team.

“One of the ideas for comfort,” she said, “was to separate the head from the neck.” Of course, that gets a bit of a laugh, but if you’re familiar with the other Batman films, you know that the head and neck were essentially fused. There was no real range of motion, and by all accounts it was a bit of a chore to remove. Now . . . “it can be removed so you can see him in the suit” sans mask. Hemming pointed out other features, like the fact that the shoulder panels move over one another for added articulation.

We heard more about the suit later in the day from Graham Churchyard. Churchyard has also worked on Potter and Bond, but may be best known in fan circles as the guy who has worked on every iteration of the Batsuit since the first Keaton/Burton film. And he’s clearly proud of the new design.

“[Bale] finds it more flexible,” he said. Though at 30 lbs., the suit weighs more than the 22 lb. “Begins” suit, there are compensatory factors in terms of temperature (the mesh makes it cooler) and range of motion.

Churchyard said, “[The cape] is parachute nylon.” As for the hydraulic glove that you’ll see in the film, he says, “It’s real. It’s functional.”

The Batman suit really starts out a bit more like Wonder Woman: it’s concept-sculpted in clay. The team then goes on to build the pieces on a computer used for manufacturing and fabrication processes. Part of this involves the creation of pieces in a gel-substance, which are then hardened by passing an electric current through them. At the end of the process, there are 110 separated components that come together for the suit.

In the global rethink of the suit that took place for this film, Churchyard drew some of his inspiration from BMX racing armor. The plate system and the way in which the helmet locks to the neck-guard while allowing flexibility played a crucial role in his team’s ideas. Even with all of the pieces, Bale can go from “underwear to camera-ready in 25 minutes.”

As for the functionality of the plates themselves, Churchyard explained that the carbon fiber actually will take a lot of abuse; it does afford some protection.” That sounds exactly what a well-dressed Caped Crusader should be wearing.

Next Time: We’ll look back at our conversations with the producers and members of the Special Effects crew before winding our way to Christopher Nolan, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, and Christian Bale.

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