Dark Forces: How 'Gotham' Visualizes a Comic Book-Inspired (Yet Credible) World

The goal of 'Gotham'’s producers is to bring the world up to speed about how a group of seemingly ordinary citizens in an increasingly corrupt and dangerous metropolis evolved into iconic figures.
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When the mysterious caped crusader known as Batman first appeared in a DC Comics publication in 1939, his hometown of Gotham City already existed—at least in some vague backstory in the minds of creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Now, 75 years later, in the 16-episode series Gotham that premieres September 22 on FOX, virtually everything about this part of the Batman saga is backstory.

The goal of Gotham’s producers is to bring the world up to speed about how a group of seemingly ordinary citizens in an increasingly corrupt and dangerous metropolis evolved into iconic figures including Commissioner Gordon, Catwoman, the Penguin, the Joker and the Riddler.

Our eventual reluctant superhero, Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), is only 12 years old in the series’ pilot, which begins with his parents’ brutal murder. The tragedy provides young detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) the highest-profile case in the history of Gotham City, but it means that while Gordon must take on a growing list of corrupt politicians and super-villains, Batman himself will not be a key element of his crime-fighting cadre.

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James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz). Photo by Jessica Miglio/Fox.

Other cast members include Donal Logue as Det. Harvey Bullock, Jada Pinkett Smith as Fish Mooney, Sean Pertwee as Alfred, Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald Cobblepot (The Penguin), Erin Richards as Barbara Kean, Camren Bicondova as Selina Kyle (future Catwoman), Zabryna Guevara as Capt. Sarah Essen, Cory Michael Smith as Edward Nygma (future Riddler), Victoria Cartagena as Renee Montoya and Andrew Stewart Jones as Crispus Allen.

Bruno Heller (The Mentalist), who serves as executive producer of the Warner Bros. production and wrote the pilot, told reporters at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour that he doesn’t think a series based on Batman mythology without Batman himself poses a problem. “That’s the situation that the show is all about: How do you deal with crime of this level when there are no superheroes? It’s about [regular] men and women—not about superheroes—and to me that’s the more interesting story,” Heller said.

Director Danny Cannon (CSI franchise, Nikita) concurs. “We’re lucky in that these [characters] are all real people. There are no supernatural or science fiction events per se, so that made the task a bit easier. In the pilot, my goal was to create a world that is relatable and seems familiar, that is very credible, but at the same time is a dream-state kind of world, our fantasy of what a dangerous, timeless world would be.”

While exterior shoots in Manhattan provided unmatched authenticity for a story that takes place in the Big Apple’s dark alter ego, Gotham City, Cannon says New York can be a challenging workplace. “Even when you find a location where you can shoot—and then try to navigate and control the various elements within the frame—suddenly you realize you are really shooting a period film, although it is a timeless period. So things needed to be removed in the backgrounds, and a lot of dressing needed to be added,” Cannon says.

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David Stockton, director of photography for the series pilot, says Cannon was interested in incorporating elements of Manhattan that already exist, including its majestic bridges, dark alleyways and skeletal ironwork infrastructure. “But then all the cars and phones we used were modern, so there was this visual palette already in the works when I came on as DP,” he says.

When Stockton transitioned from film to digital, he says he was drawn to the ARRI Alexa. “I just feel like it has a softer, more filmic feel to it, how it reacts to highlights and darkness. It obviously has extensive latitude, with 14 stops, and that certainly allowed us to make full use of ambient practical lighting while shooting in the city. But for all our aerial shots from a helicopter, Danny, who shoots his own aerials because he knows exactly what he wants, used a RED EPIC,” Stockton says.

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Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith). Photo by Jessica Miglio/Fox.

Stockton appreciates the capabilities digital technology affords filmmakers—in aerial production, for example, where digital cinematographers can shoot for much longer periods of time than film shooters, who had to land and reload about every 11 minutes.

He recognizes that there are still production challenges on a digital set, however. “As a member of the shooting crew, I feel the biggest drawback [in digital production] is the ‘decentralization’ of the set, meaning that now everybody sees a really great picture and thinks we’re always ready to roll.

“In the old days, everybody waited for the DP to go out and take a final light reading and call the stop,” Stockton continues. “Nobody called ‘roll’ until the DP actually walked off the set. Now I have to go out and light and then run back to the DIT tent to actually see what it looks like. It’s a magnificent image, but you can no longer work with the eyepiece, which kept me centralized [physically] on the set.”

Stockton says several of the interior sets at Steiner Studios in the Brooklyn Navy Yard were huge; one penthouse backdrop, he says, was about 160 feet long. The size presented lighting challenges, but in a good way. While a good share of Gotham’s moody visuals rely at least partly on CGI, he says one stunning set that might appear to be a digital creation—Gotham City’s police headquarters—is actually a practical working set.  

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