LEGO 76139 1989 Batmobile takes the best on-screen Batmobile and replicates it beautifully. In this exclusive Brick Fanatics interview, concept artist Julian Caldow shares the secrets behind coming up with cinema’s most iconic ride
“I’m Batman,” declares the Dark Knight when he makes his memorable entrance into the 1989 Tim Burton movie. But there was another entrance later in the film that made an even bigger impression: when the Batmobile arrives to help the Caped Crusader and Vicky Vale escape from the Joker and his goons.
Julian Caldow was responsible for coming up with arguably the most fondly-remembered rendition of Batman’s car, which took the notion of what the Batmobile could be to the next level. It’s for that reason that the LEGO Group can release 76139 1989 Batmobile 30 years after the film’s release, then go on to release 76161 1989 Batwing too.
In the first part of this exclusive interview, Julian explained how he came to work on Batman and what his influences were when coming up with a look for the Batmobile. Here, he discusses the development of the design, how it went from page to prop, and coming up with Bat-gadgets.
Brick Fanatics: Did you have many other iterations/versions of the Batmobile design?
Julian: Looking back it seems like it came pretty quickly. I had been doing all of these drawings which didn’t adhere to what Anton [Furst, designer] wanted. I was trying to draw a dark sports car and I think he was thinking more along the tank lines and the speed record stuff. I remember showing him the speed record stuff and it was like, ‘Now this is where it should be going.’
I think it was the scale of it. I was thinking in terms of a car, as opposed to this huge battle thing that’s got machine guns in the bonnet and all sorts. But that single huge engine also allowed us to make it feel like the rocket at the back was something that actually worked. There were definitely little design things that we took from cars that we had seen, like the shark gills on the front – they were from the old Corvette Stingray.
I went up to a shop in Charing Cross Road that sold vehicle magazines – this was all before the internet, so you had to just go and buy the stuff off the shelf – and I remember there was all sorts of concept stuff in there. Some of it stuck, and some of it didn’t.
About two and a half weeks in I scribbled over some photocopies and came up with what I remember referring to at the time as like a leaping panther. Once it got to that I refined it and refined it.
I remember I had to work from home because I had my wisdom teeth taken out. I did the drawing and took it over to Anton’s in the evening. I remember when they got that image that I’d drawn it was like, ‘This is where we’re going.’ From that they built the maquette, and cut that up into pieces so they could build it full-size.
Did you have any further input when they were building the maquette?
Not really – it‘s something I didn’t really know anything about. The idea of cutting things up and measuring along the line at that time was alien to me. I had a say in things like the hubcaps, [which] are little Bat-symbols. I remember saying that would be a good idea. Anton wanted a lot more brutality going on down there. I was never thinking big enough and Anton was like: ‘More, more, bigger, bigger.’
I had a little spike coming out of the front like on the Green Monster and he found this piece of machinery, or someone found this rather bulbous engine piece, which is far more lurid and quite phallic as well, which suited it perfectly. I do remember Tim Burton giggling a lot. You always knew when you were doing something Tim likes because he would giggle.
Were you pitching directly to him?
Making films back then you had a lot more collaboration and a lot more conversations where you said ‘What if?’ That doesn’t happen so much nowadays. It does, but not quite so much because schedules are quite different. Tim Burton would be in the art department every day, but he is an artist himself so no surprise there.
How many of the Batmobile’s gadgets were in the design, and how many came later?
The machine guns were always scripted. I was trying to encourage Anton to get a mini-gun in those spaces but I don’t think they could get a licence to bring them over from the US. The character Blane has this crazy six-barrel gun in Predator, [and] I was saying we’ve got to get one of these. I think it was going to cost too much or they couldn’t get a licence to bring one over. So you’ve got these two old Browning guns coming off the top. That really was John Evans’ department.
I did the armoured Batmobile. It had to all be covered very quickly and you couldn’t really do it mechanically. I think they were balking about the idea because CG didn’t exist then, so I had come up with this rather high-fronted thing. I can’t even remember what my influences were for that – I think it was probably a suit of armour.
I do remember that I said it should happen really quickly and my point of reference was the old movie Forbidden Planet. It was made in the 1950s and won an Oscar for visual effects back then. In that, Morbius has these shields all round his house, and when he orders these shields to come down, they actually had a frame without the shields, then the next frame it was there. It goes du-du-du-du all the way around his house. It was all done with cel animation I think, so I suggested that could be how they make the armour appear.
The visual effect was done by a guy called Peter Chiang. He now works for Digital Domain, one of the big effects houses, but that was one of his early jobs. So that was something I did get involved in – I do have the original of that somewhere.
Were you working on the other Bat-tech too?
I did most of the Bat-gadgets. I did little pencil illustrations of those [as] pan-section elevations. I came up with the idea for the… I can’t even remember what it’s called, [but] there’s a scene in the Flugelheim Museum where Batman comes through the ceiling, and he’s got this gadget on his hand and he points it at The Joker – do you remember this? Where the two arrows…
Yeah, two rappel lines come out of it.
It was in the script, but I had the idea that Joker thought he was being threatened by Batman pointing this thing at him and the arrows went in different directions and then you realise it’s a rappelling thing. It was kind of a nod to the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
With the coat hanger?
With the coat hanger, exactly. It was the same gag really. That worked out really well, but I wasn’t really any good at doing the pan-section elevation back then. Now I do everything in 3D, so the models I have done I hand over to art directors and stuff and they make them work. But that particular grapple device, I remember it taking me a lot longer than most people back when we actually used pencils.
So lots of the gadgets and the Batwing of course was something I did.
How did you make sure that these things all felt like they belonged in the same world?
That’s all about Anton really making sure that the influences that he had and his references were all adhered to. If you look at the buildings in Gotham, for instance, even though there’s an art gallery and a town hall, they all feel as if they belong in the same place. We took our cues from that 1930s fluting you see on buildings. In the vehicles and in his gadgets, we had an old-fashioned, Bakelite feel to everything. I think the success of the movie’s design is that it all felt part of the same world – nothing jumped out at you as feeling incongruous, except for perhaps Batman and the Batmobile itself.
The Flugelheim Museum was based on the work of architect Shin Takamatsu. He’s a Japanese designer, and his stuff looks like movie sets, so it went full circle. He has obviously had this influence from Hollywood, or German expressionism, and it’s come full circle into 1980s cinema. ‘Brutalism’ was the word that kept coming from Anton.
As far as the jet was concerned, it was really the idea for it to be like the Bat-symbol. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we had a shot where it sits in front of the moon? I was thinking of doing a camera move where we could move the camera so the thing was permanently behind it, but it was actually the storyboard artist, Michael White, who came up with the idea of stalling the aircraft in front of the moon – there’s a shot where it goes up, sits in front of the moon for one moment then rolls back down.
The final part of this exclusive interview will be appearing at Brick Fanatics soon.