Los Angeles Bo Welch began carving out a design for the film "Batman Returns" with a piece of cardboard and images of Fascist sculpture and Depression-era machine-age art churning through his mind.
His first rough model was of Gotham Plaza, a bleakly futuristic and oppressively urban sendup of Rockefeller Center. The model was to provide the graphic thread for the film, the sequel to the 1989 blockbuster "Batman."
"It was just a cardboard model that I hacked together, very crude and sculptural, but I knew I was on my way," says Mr. Welch, 40.
"Batman Returns," Tim Burton's latest installment in the dark hero's efforts to save the legendary Gotham, opening Friday, represents the third collaboration between director and production designer, which began with the 1988 film "Beetlejuice." As with all the films Mr. Welch has designed, an eclectic group that includes "The Lost Boys" (1987), "The Accidental Tourist" (1988), "Ghostbusters II" (1989), "Edward Scissorhands" (1990) and "Grand Canyon" (1991), he spent an agonizing time alone in a small office as he began work on "Batman Returns."
He became immersed in the script by Daniel Waters, saturating himself with images, to find that one clue that would ultimately help him define a visual framework for the film.
For Mr. Welch, creating an internal world for "Batman Returns" that was novel yet consistent with its predecessor was particularly daunting. "Batman," with its tortured, Gothic-looking Gotham, won an Academy Award for production design. (The movie's designer, Anton Furst, who was involved in other projects when "Batman Returns" went into production, committed suicide last November.) At times, it seemed as if the striking look of "Batman" drew more notice than the plot.
Denise Di Novi, who co-produced "Beetlejuice" and "Edward Scissorhands" as well as both "Batman" films, says she looks at Mr. Welch in two ways. "I look at Bo as a production designer who is so technically adept and so artistic at the same time that there is no movie I can't see him doing, from contemporary to period," she says. "Bo and Tim are a whole other category. When you combine them, something really magical happens. It's one of those fortuitous relationships that occur between artists when they are able to click in, and what emerges is remarkable.
"What we asked was the impossible," Ms. Di Novi says of the design for the $50 million "Batman Returns." "The tone of the first movie was dark and strange. What Bo did was to push it further. You feel like you're in another part of Gotham. If the first was on the East Side of Manhattan, this is on the West Side."
Mr. Welch says: "You could look at the movie and easily say, 'Somewhere off in another part of Gotham is where that last movie took place. This is just a different neighborhood.' "
Mr. Welch filled eight sound stages on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, including one the size of a football field and 70 feet high, before his sets spilled over into the biggest sound stage on
the Universal Pictures lot as well.
"One of the design concepts of the movie was to create the illusion of massive spaces," Mr. Welch says. With Wayne Manor, for instance, instead of building the entire mansion, Mr. Welch simply built pieces and left the rest to imagination. "All you need is the effect of a mansion," he says. "We basically built one room with a staircase and a fireplace, but with those objects there's such tremendous scale. In your mind, you figure the rest of it must be huge."
The sheer scale of the city and the darkness is intensified in "Batman Returns." Gotham's perilously steep rooftops, on which much of the action takes place, slice into the sky. The closely packed city landscape extends endlessly into the horizon. Buildings, doorways, windows -- all are vertical to the extreme. There is a sense of decay everywhere.
Set in winter, the film shows a city dusted by a snow that does little to relieve the dreariness. Gotham's underworld is both literal, with huge dank caverns running under the city, and criminal, dominated by sinister gun-toting characters in clown-
This netherworld is governed by the Penguin, a half-human, half-aquatic aberration (played by Danny DeVito) and the nemesis that Batman (Michael Keaton) must battle this time. Caught in the middle is the Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), who seems to favor whips and cartons of milk equally. Except for the Batmobile, which has a host of new gizmos, everything in the design is new, down to Wayne Manor and the Bat Cave.
Like the design, the story for "Batman Returns" was not conceived as a sequel, according to Mr. Burton. The only plot concession to the first movie is a single reference to Vicki Vale, Batman's love interest, who was played by Kim Basinger.
Instead, "Batman Returns" is a story of tangled allegiances and conflicted personalities. The Penguin, whose parents abandoned him as a child, is filled with rage and dreams of revenge while he searches for acceptance and love.
The insidious industrialist Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) is bent on power at all cost, except when it threatens his son. Catwoman is so torn by the forces of good and evil and her love-hate relationship with Batman that she begins to unravel emotionally and physically as the film progresses. Even Batman explores his dual nature -- black knight and altruistic millionaire.
The key to "Batman Returns," says Mr. Welch, came in the first week of his work, more than a year ago, at a point when the terror of not knowing finally gave way to concrete ideas. "Unless you get scared, it's hard to get off the mark and do it," he says. "Until you get that one set design, or that one prop or that one thing that reveals the rest of the movie to you, it's terrifying."
Mr. Welch's idea was to manipulate space to evoke certain emotions. His first model of Gotham Plaza was about 1 foot square by 4 feet high. Every other physical space in the movie would ultimately mimic that spatial relationship. "I kept pushing the vertical throughout this movie," says Mr. Welch. "The movie's about a huge, overwhelmingly corrupt, decaying city. That's the background. And in front are these small characters -- a little Penguin, little Batman and the little residents of Gotham -- all struggling against this overwhelming corruption."
For "Grand Canyon," with Los Angeles as backdrop, Mr. Welch searched the city for what he thinks of as environmental tension. "The film is about this alienating, disparate world we live in," he says. To reflect that alienation through images, he found streets where the poor were living out of Dumpsters only blocks from the rich, whose homes were reminiscent of lush Italian villas.
"The Accidental Tourist" found him using space and color to evoke moods -- light and openness for the upbeat dog trainer Muriel (played by Geena Davis) and dark and oppressive for the brooding Macon (William Hurt).
As a boy growing up in Bucks County, Pa., Bo Welch dreamed of designing buildings, and he studied architecture at the University of Arizona. He moved to Los Angeles in 1976 to work as an architect.
But he was drawn toward production design because he was disillusioned with the reality of architecture. "It should serve people and be the framework for a more cohesive kind of country, world, state and town," says Mr. Welch. "But everything in the fabric of our physical world works to alienate and separate people from each other."
And he found that Hollywood offered other options for someone with a sense of design. "I fell into production design because I lived here," says Mr. Welch, who has the sort of fresh-scrubbed, Robert Redford good looks that would be at home on many movie sets.
"It's like being in a military town," he says. "You become aware of everybody working in an industry that dominates the town. I found out there were guys doing similar types of things, getting paid twice as much and laughing. So I badgered a guy at Universal to give me a job."
Starting with a door
It was an inauspicious start. One of the first projects Mr. Welch was given as a set designer, for a range of television shows produced by Universal, was building a door. "I remember drawing that door," he says. "Seriously, it was just like a real door; you have to detail it. Then you go down to the mill, and they actually build your door. It's great. What I have now is the same pleasure on a growing scale."
His first big break came in 1987 on "The Lost Boys," a highly stylized vampire film directed by Joel Schumacher. That project allowed him to move to production design after years as a set designer and art director on such movies as "Mommie Dearest," "Swing Shift" and "The Color Purple."
"Joel was the first guy to take a chance on me," says Mr. Welch. It was during production of "The Lost Boys" that he met Mr. Burton. "Tim was preparing 'Beetlejuice,' and he walked through one of our sets on 'Lost Boys' and liked it. They were looking for a production designer. I got an interview with them and begged for the job because 'Beetlejuice' blew my mind."
"Beetlejuice" remains Mr. Welch's favorite film, both for its design and for what it taught him. "I didn't have a lot of preconceived notions about movie design, and the process of that movie opened my eyes for everything that has come after," he says. "It turned my head around. I began really seeing the possibilities. The more I designed for movies, the more I realized we've barely scratched the surface."
The visual slate for "Beetlejuice" was blank when it came to him. The script simply said "interior afterlife" in describing one element of the film. "We tried to think of the afterlife and sort of hell and purgatory in the most mundane, matter-of-fact way we could," says Mr. Welch.
"Perhaps the afterlife wasn't this fantastically visual, stormy, cloudy, lightning, esoteric place. Maybe it was like waiting at the unemployment office." And that is what it became in "Beetlejuice," an otherworldly unemployment office with tedious rules, impatient receptionists and endless waits.
Mr. Burton characterizes the relationship between himself and Mr. Welch as artistic stream-of-consciousness. "I do these little cartoony drawings that no one could take completely literally," he says. "Bo gives you back something that has a fresh feel about it and remains true to some abstract spirit you originally intended."
In "Batman Returns," Mr. Welch took a rough sketch by Mr. Burton of Catwoman and merged it into the overall environment. "When you look at her, there's a very S&M; kind of look," says Mr. Welch, "which I could translate into architecture with chains and steel plates and pipes and reinforcements holding together a city that's about to collapse."
One of the most notable examples is the apartment of Selina Kyle, the overworked secretary who is Cat woman's alter ego. "Running through her apartment is a steel beam," says Ms. Di Novi, "as if the apartment was built around a steel girder. It's depressing and ironic at the same time."
Similarly, the Penguin is layered with age, deterioration and a sense of decadence. As Mr. Welch was designing the Penguin's lair, he came to think of it as a giant petri dish filled with bacteria.
"As the characters evolve," says Mr. Welch, "the sets evolve. As the sets evolve, the characters evolve further. Basically you're the eyes; you're helping the director, yourself and everybody who comes on after to see the movie, along with the cameraman."
To translate inchoate ideas into designs, Mr. Welch draws on his architectural roots. He collects, analyzes and stores his reaction to space, texture, size and tone, all of which find their way back into his work. "By building that sort of vocabulary of textures, volumes and spaces and the feelings they evoke," he says, "you're able to weave them together into an appropriate setting to tell a story."
In Mr. Burton's "Edward Scissorhands," about a young man with scissors in place of hands who struggles unsuccessfully to adapt to ordinary suburban life, Mr. Welch used the unrelenting sameness of a Florida suburb as his palette. "It felt generic," he says. But not generic enough. Mr. Welch removed all texture from the houses and all plants from the yards and drenched each house in a different hue.
"We wanted to make it surreal because it was a subjective point of view, Edward's, so that the audience could experience that neighborhood the way Edward would when he saw it for the first time," Mr. Welch said. "By giving it a slightly surreal but thoroughly mundane feel, it feels new and strange to the audience, even though it's all very familiar." The film was recognized by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for its design.
Mr. Welch only lately saw a final version of "Batman Returns." The experience was, he says, both exhausting and exhilarating. "Because of the scale of this movie, there's more pressure to succeed," he says. "But you strip away the hype, the lunch boxes, the T-shirts and the merchandising. It doesn't affect the essence of the job, which is: You read a script, you meet with the director, you draw pictures to tell a story, you build sets and, if you do it right, you entertain an audience."