There have been numerous filmed versions of the Batman legend – eight features and a number of television series. But Gotham, a stylish, noir hit in its first season on the Fox network, manages to offer its own twist on the well-known tale of the comic book superhero.
Essentially, Gotham is a prequel and origins story. Bruce Wayne is still a youngster, living in the big mansion with only his butler Alfred. He’s years from becoming the avenging Dark Knight. The central character in Gotham is police detective James Gordon (later Commissioner Gordon) who is trying to crack one of the town’s biggest mysteries, the unsolved murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, Bruce’s parents. Along the way Gordon crosses paths with the town’s mobsters and younger versions of the Penguin, Riddler and other characters who will later become Batman’s arch adversaries.
However, one of the biggest stars of the show is the look of Gotham itself, a stylized version of New York City where the show was shot, with a brooding, dark look and a gothic atmosphere. “It’s a world of darkness, of chaos and corruption,” said Doug Kraner, one of the show’s two production designers. He did the first nine episodes including the pilot. Richard Berg came on for the next 13. (The show initially set for 16 episodes was extended mid-season to 22.) Besides shooting at many far-flung locations in New York’s boroughs, elaborate sets were built on soundstages at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn.
Both Kraner and Berg agree that it was a huge undertaking for each of them “It’s a big show, the biggest show I’ve worked on, in terms of the amount of scenery we needed per episode and the scale as well,” said Berg .
“It’s challenging to have that many locations and episodes and a lot of standing sets as well,” added Kraner.
The overall visual concept for Gotham grew out of a desire on the part of executive producer Danny Cannon and writer Bruno Heller “and myself to find a world for Gotham that was fresh and new and stimulating,” said Kraner. “A challenge was to create a strong view of what the city was like that allowed the audience to feel somewhat familiar with it but at the same time was somewhat new – and, also very important, was repeatable on a week-to-week basis.”
The show has an eclectic period look. “Because this idea of Gotham is decades old in comic books and films and on television, we didn’t want to place it in a precise, identifiable time period,” Kraner noted. “But to give it the dark feel we were going for, we looked back to New York City from the later 1970s and early 1980s before it began to change and get cleaned up. We took that period and used it as a key part of the concept.”
One of the biggest sets and a tour de force by Kraner is the cavernous Gotham Police Precinct Headquarters which is a center for the plot action in almost every episode. “We built that for the pilot. It was great that Warner Brothers Television (the show’s producer) supported us in doing that at a pretty hefty cost,” he noted. “It gave us a home base for the show and a specific look right away.” The four-wall construction gave the cameramen the ability to shoot 360 degrees. “I build very few two and three wall sets – usually four walls and a ceiling” said the production designer. “That offers the director and the cinematographer many more options. “
Another impressive set is the creepy, forbidding Arkham Asylum, where several Gotham characters have been kept as inmates. It was designed by Berg. A hospital in Staten Island was used for the exteriors. CGI was employed to extend its dimensions, adding height, a roof and searchlights. Interiors of Arkham were shot in what was a huge abandoned post office on the west side of Manhattan. “I brought in a lot of caging, fencing, metal pieces with rivets,” said Berg. “We painted every corridor that we shot in, and used a palette, proportions and style that were in keeping with the exteriors.”
CGI was also used to alter other exteriors and make the skyline of Gotham look more gothic and less like today’s New York. And skies were darkened if shooting took place when the sun was shining. “In Gotham there are no sunny days, the mood is always threatening,” said Kraner.
When Berg came on as production designer in the middle of the first season, “my foremost concern was to make sure there was continuity from what Doug had done,” he said. “But from the get go I had a very clear sensibility of what the Gotham look was, which I would describe as a heightened, over-scaled reality. It’s really on a New York scale.”
Berg is already at work on the next season. Gotham is quite a switch from his previous job – five years as production designer on award-winning comedy Modern Family. “This show allows me to get in touch with a darker side of designing, going back to the years I did C.S.I.” Berg was production designer on C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation from 2000 to 2006, doing 145 shows. Kraner, whose previous credits include production design for The Devious Maids and The Tomorrow People, is taking a break while looking for his next project.
Editor’s Note: Gotham has been nominated for Emmy awards for outstanding production design for a narrative contemporary or fantasy program (one hour or more); outstanding costumes for a contemporary series, limited series or movie; outstanding sound editing for a series, and outstanding special visual effects in a supporting role.