How Visual Effects Made The Batman Hit Harder and Roll Faster

Matt Reeves’ The Batman roared to the big screen in March after years of development and a production — and then release — schedule interrupted by a global pandemic. None of that was enough to stop the Dark Knight, however, and the film became the highest-grossing film of 2022 so far, while earning critical acclaim for its dark reimagining of the DC Comics hero.

While Reeves took a grounded approach to telling his Batman story, bringing the film’s action to the screen still required the help of a talented visual effects team spread across multiple studios. Among them was famed VFX studio Wētā FX, run by supervisor (and twice Oscar nominee) Anders Langlands.

Before the streaming premiere of The Batman on HBO Max, Digital Trends spoke to Langlands about his team’s work on the film and how they helped bring Reeves’ unique vision for the Dark Knight to the screen.

Digital trends: The Batman doesn’t look like the typical visual effects-driven superhero movie. What were some of the guidelines and visual reference points you were given for the film?

Anders Langland: Matt likes to keep things fairly grounded and naturalistic in terms of photography. In terms of storytelling, [the directives were to] try not to get too fantastical like other superhero tales do. Batman suits this style perfectly. Matt said early on that the film was a love letter to old ’70s crime thrillers like The French Connectionthe Paranoia trilogy with All the president’s men, and such – visually speaking. So there’s a lot of visual nods to elements of those films, as well as in the lens choices that [director of photography] Greig Fraser did. It was really interesting to incorporate what we’re doing into something that’s stylistically based on things way before the visual effects era started.

How many shots did your team work on for the film?

We did about 320 shots, all told. So it’s not a big chunk, but not a tiny one either. We did the Batcave, the City Hall environment where the Mayor’s memorial sequence takes place, and the CG bats towards the end, which was fun. We also did a bunch of fights early on, like the first fight on the train platform, and also when he’s in the Iceberg lounge. But, by far, the biggest and most complex sequence we worked on was the freeway chase. It was very fun to do.

The Batmobile roars down a rainy street in a scene from The Batman.

So what happened in this Wild Hunt sequence? I described it as “road of fury in the dark” due to the amount of crazy action that goes on in this scene, by the way.

That’s a very good description! For this scene, they decided to film everything, which is really cool. Even in the shots where they knew we would replace most of it, because the vehicles couldn’t actually do what they needed them to for the shot, they still went out and shot a version of it. It is a fantastic reference for us. And once everything was shot, we got into some pretty heavy post-visualization work, with rough animation on the film frames.

While they were still filming, it became clear that we needed to improve the storytelling a bit so that the sequence of events and the cause-and-effect relationship of all actions would be understood more easily and quickly for the audience. Just like the fight sequences, we are never outside, the camera is always inside the action. It’s great for a visceral and thrilling experience, but it makes it harder to clearly understand everything that’s going on.

Once Penguin kicks off that sequence, for example, the truck behind him floatplanes, setting off this whole chain reaction of events that ends in a huge explosion. Throughout this sequence of things, there are a lot of fully digital shots and heavily augmented shots. We did this to replace some vehicles with ones that make more sense and also to follow the sequence of events more clearly.

A car crashes in the background on a highway in a scene from The Batman.

And, I guess, you can’t just destroy highways…

Exactly. So a lot of the shots in that part of the scene were all digital, so we could really help Matt tell that story and make sure the audience could understand what was going on and that it wasn’t Batman’s fault. It’s an interesting balance to strike: running Batman into danger, dodging everything that happens, and making it look like he’s almost out of control, but he’s such a skilled driver that he’s able to keep control and not cause anyone else to get hurt.

…because Batman can’t look like the bad guy.

To the right! So there were a lot of iterations that Dennis Yoo, our animation supervisor, and his team did on it, refining the action to find that really fine line that it needs to walk. He must feel in danger, but in control, and react to it rather than provoke it. Trying to fine-tune all of these things to find the exact right spot took a lot of work from a really talented group of animators.

Batman approaches the camera on a rainy street with a fire in the background.

You also mentioned working on some fight scenes. What kind of visual effects went into these scenes?

Matt wanted the fight scenes to be very visceral and feel like you’re in an MMA fight, rather than watching a fight scene in a movie. This meant fewer cuts for him. In a typical fight scene these days, it’s a quick series of cameras cut, cut, cut and frantic all over the place. For The Batman, we’re keeping the camera steady longer, so you can actually see the fight unfold. You can actually see what Batman does and get a sense of his prowess. Unfortunately, the reason you usually use a lot of cuts in a fight scene is because if you don’t, you can see people not hitting each other. So we had to step in to make those hits connect and feel fast.

Our work in this area requires a lot of resynchronization. If someone is holding a punch and obviously going slower than you want, we make the punch faster. It involves cutting out different parts of people’s bodies and getting a head to connect with a fist, or animating the head afterwards, so that when someone gets punched, their head is thrown back back faster, then bounces around a bit – all so you feel the weight of the hit. There’s a lot of that in all those fight scenes, just a little 2D animation on top of the shots to make it look like it’s hitting as hard as you need it to.

The last time I spoke to you was to Zack Snyder’s Justice League. It was such a different movie The Batman, even if it uses the same character. Did your work on the Snyder Cut inform anything about The Batman?

Not really. They’re just such different visions of the character. But that’s the cool thing about what Warner Brothers and DC are doing with characters: they’re exploring characters with different directors and completely different kinds of movies, stylistically.

The Batman flies through the air after a bomb explodes in City Hall.

You mentioned working on the CG bats at the end of the movie, and that’s such a hallmark of every Batman movie: at some point, there’s a bunch of bats. What helped create the big Bat moment in this movie?

Well, we’re in a position here at Weta where doing creatures and that kind of stuff, we’ve got a lot of practice – and we’re pretty good at it.

This is practically what the studio was created for!

But it’s still interesting. Probably the biggest hit with the bats for us was the initial Batcave hit where the bike comes in, and while it’s moving forward we used both the beep and the bike’s headlight light as a trigger to trigger bats. We looked at lots of bat colony references to get a sense of their movement, and then the animation team got to work generating that movement. This scene has this very nice and responsive ripple effect when the bike comes up and the bats wiggle a bit and start falling. When they fly down, it creates this big, beautiful sweep that leads into the next shot. These things are fun.

What’s the scene you were most looking forward to for people to see at the film’s premiere?

It would be hunting, definitely. By far, this was the hardest scene we’ve done due to its complexity. It’s one of those sequences where every job within it is a little different, and there was a unique set of challenges that we had to solve to make it work. It’s not like when you just had the Batcave with Alfred and Bruce talking to each other and a blue screen behind them, and we just replace the background. It’s quite simple. The chase was so complex because each shot is in a different location, there are different vehicles, etc. It was a lot of hard work, and we put a lot into it, and we were all very happy with how it turned out.

Matt Reeves’ The Batman airs April 18 on the HBO Max streaming service and premieres on HBO at 8 p.m. ET on April 23.

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