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The Art of Batman Begins: Shadows of the Dark Knight

Mark Cotta Vaz's luxuriant tome The Art of Batman Begins: Shadows of the Dark Knight presses 144 glossy, full-color pages inside a beautiful, oversized hardcover. Like most "Art of..." film books, this one presents a wealth of preproduction art (digital concept paintings, hand-drawn storyboards, mock-ups, scale models, behind-the-scenes photography, and more), as well as production photography, including some of the widely disseminated photos and a slew of terrific exclusive photos of cast, crew, scenes, and sets (my favorite: a head shot of a fully-costumed Bale peering through the lens of the camera). Each image is meticulously captioned, and Vaz's prose runs through each of six sections ("Beginning," "Batman's Garage," "Batmobile," "Welcome to Gotham," "Secret History," "Inside Arkham") to explain the process of the filmmakers in thought and deed. Throughout the book, Vaz extensively quotes Batman Begins director Christopher Nolan and his longtime production designer Nathan Crowley.

The first and briefest chapter summarizes Batman's 1939 origin, his appeal, and Warner Brothers' history with the character, before getting down to brass tacks by extensively quoting Nolan about his pereception of the character and vision for the film. So far, this is the first Nolan interview I've read in which the director discusses his childhood exposure to Batman via the 1966 TV series (and the 3-D Viewmaster reels!); he also discusses the striking simplicity of the mythic character (even as he compares him to Hamlet and the Count of Monte Cristo). In "Beginning," Crowley also notes that the director was steadfastly resistant to shoehorning anything into the narrative for the express purpose of later marketing it: everything was to serve the story.

The brief but vivid "Batman's Garage" describes Crowley giving Vaz a guided tour of the margins of Nolan's home, particularly the garage where Crowley created concepts for the film under Nolan's vigilant guidance. Every design was meant to be practical and functional in real-life terms, to meet Nolan's goal of realism and allow for the film to be almost wholly captured in camera, with only minimal CGI. Crowley's work involved "kit-bashing" (a method of combining pieces of hobby-store model-kits into new inventions), drafting, and "Photoshopping" concept art, and Vaz includes samples here.

"Batmobile" describes the reasoning behind the Tumbler, which Nolan proposed as a cross between a Hummer and a Lamborghini Countach (not so incidentally, Bruce Wayne drives a Lamborghini Murciélago, which is Spanish for "bat"). The Tumbler was the starting point for the film's design, and we are allowed to peruse clay and kit-bashed models, design art, a spread excerpting the "rooftop getaway" storyboards, and close-up photographs (we also learn that five full-scale Tumblers were created). Vaz provides a guide to the steering, seat, and displays inside the cockpit, with a super-cool two-page splash of the Batmobile's computer status screens; he also includes the comments of transportation captain Dave Ragan.

By providing views of models, mock-ups, design art, as well as photographs of the standing sets and a detailed city map of Gotham, "Welcome to Gotham" digs into Nolan's "New York on steroids." The skyscrapers, girdered bridgework, monorail, and the Batcave are all on display, and another two-page storyboard excerpt depicts Batman's climactic confrontation on the monorail.
Three storyboard spreads grace "Secret History": Wayne's Himalayan trek, his fear-poisoned duel with Ducard, and young Bruce's fall. This chapter focuses on story and character elements, but also two settings: Ra's Al Ghul's monastery (a blend of Icelandic location photography, miniatures, and interior sets) and Wayne Manor. The estate seen in the film is 50% genuine, with the rest shot on sets; a spread offers a detailed production "elevation" of New York's Mentmore House. Some of the most interesting art is included here, with digital character studies and costume designs for Wayne, Al Ghul, James Gordon, Lucius Fox, Alfred Pennyworth, Rachel Dawes, and the League of Shadows (though Alfred's "character sketch" is basically a head-shot of Caine!)

The last chapter, "Inside Arkham," provides character sketches of Dr. Jonathan Crane and his Scarecrow persona, as well as excellent shots of Arkham Asylum (inside and out) and prose explaining the concepts (costume designer Lindy Hemmings enters the conversation in this chapter). Inexplicably, "Inside Arkham" branches out to elements that don't expressly live inside: the microwave emitter; the cape, cowl, gloves, boots, and utility belt of the Batsuit (the tricked-out cowl is explored in cutaway); and Batman's "beginning" arsenal: grappling gun, mini-mines, and (antidote) injector, each with design variants.

Vaz, whose other books include Tales of the Dark Knight: Batman's First Fifty Years, has the requisite expertise and an obvious affection for Batman, though he never imposes any personal idiosyncracies into his fine, concise prose. Batman fans will agree that The Art of Batman Begins: Shadows of the Dark Knight is gorgeous, informative, and essential, though anyone with a curiosity about the design of a blockbuster film will likewise get an education here.

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