BUILDING THE BAT SIGNAL: A Full Scale Prop

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Darklord1967

Active Member
As some of you know, in October of 2011, I was working as performing arts instructor in the New York City public school system.

In conjunction with some of my students, I decided to produce a student-based Batman-themed stage play. Eventually, the play became an independent community theater effort titled FATHERS OF THE DARK KNIGHT, growing into something far larger than I originally imagined.

From the very beginning, I KNEW that I wanted this production to have a dark, theatrical feel to it. I also knew that I wanted to incorporate all of the signature Batman moments that every fan hopes to see reproduced right from the pages of the comics. To me, my stage play simply would not feel complete if I did not include a sequence from the roof of Police Headquarters featuring POLICE COMMISSIONER GORDON summoning the Dynamic Duo with the massive BAT SIGNAL SEARCHLIGHT!




After our initial run of performances ended this summer, the Bat Signal was, by far, the single most asked about set piece in the production.

This thread will chronicle the Bat Signal’s creation from concept to finished stage prop.
 

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TOS

Active Member
That sounds really cool - the prop and the play. I really hated the 60's series, it was everything the show shoudnt have been, imo.
 

Darklord1967

Active Member
NO EASY WAY

I knew that featuring the Bat Signal as a full-sized stage prop was not going to be an easy task. After all, one does NOT simply go to a lighting supplier, rent a huge searchlight, and then slap a bat emblem upon its face so that it can be used as a stage prop in a community theater play! And most community theater stages were unlikely to be able to accommodate the weight of a single three ton prop!

No, there was simply no way around it. A prop like this was going to have to be BUILT. And just like the costumes and other props in this production, a keen attention to detail was going to be of paramount importance to me if the audience was going to be excited by the Bat Signal’s appearance, and if they were going to accept its authenticity without question.


CHOOSING A STYLE

For the sake of theatrical drama, it was my feeling that The Bat Signal stage prop should be a large design… something that would dwarf the actors on stage and impress with its scale and functionality. I also wanted a design that suggested a classic, bygone era… something that felt old, industrial, and powerful… and something that suggested Jim Gordon’s military roots.










Like virtually all pieces of Bat-Hardware throughout the mythology’s history, The Bat Signal has been depicted as having many different configurations and structural styles in the comic books, television, video games, and movies. I therefore had many designs to choose from…
 

Darklord1967

Active Member
1966: BEAT THE DRUM! BATMAN ON TV!


I remember first being introduced to The Batman mythology while watching reruns of the 1966 Adam West Batman TV series as a little boy in the early 1970's. Despite its campy tone, the show was a marvel of production design in all of its sets and props… all, that is, except for the Bat Signal. The prop did not appear in the show regularly. However, when it did, I remember always being confused by what I was looking at. The Bat Signal (as presented) just never looked like a searchlight to me, and I simply could not understand why Chief O’Hara would use a marching band Bass Drum with a bat emblem printed on its face to call the Caped Crusaders! LOL!






”WHERE’S MY SIGNAL, MAN? IN THE COMICS!:


The Bat Signal as seen in the comic books of the 1970’s was generally depicted as a large device. Issue #466 of Batman’s Detective Comics had the Caped Crusader facing off against The Signalman, and the Bat signal was featured somewhat prominently in the storyline. The prop was rendered as a big drum-like disk mounted on a basic bracket. Beyond that, there were no real details to speak of.





I was, however, intrigued by the concept of a separate podium control panel. This was an additional feature that I imagined I might want to construct for my Bat-Signal stage prop.








1969 - 1977: FILMATION’S ADVENTURES OF THE BAT SIGNAL


I don’t have much memory of the design of the Bat Signal as depicted in the 1969 and 1977 Saturday morning animated Batman shows. However, the opening title sequence of the latter show depicted a quick shot of a very simplified Bat Signal searchlight. Not much help there in terms of reference.





HOLY MINIATURIZATION! SMALL SIGNALS ARE SPARSE!:


There has never been much in the way of toys or miniature collectibles that could serve as a detailed reference for a life-size Bat Signal prop.

The MEGO toy corporation created a cute light-up toy Bat Signal prop to go along with their Batcave Playset back in 1974. No help there for reference.







In April of 2001, DC DIRECT released a very nice Batsignal Official Prop Replica which featured a decent basic design configuration of the searchlight. A clever, engraved plaque at the back of the signal warned that the device was “… to be activated by order of Commissioner James W. Gordon…” and that “ Any unauthorized use is illegal and punishable by law…” I also liked the raised lettering at the circular base of the searchlight which read “For Emergency Use Only” and “Property Of The Gotham City Police Department”. Beside these details, the prop offered little else in terms of structural reference.







There’s no doubting the popularity of LEGO toys among Batman fans. Not to be outdone by any other toy makers, LEGO recently hosted a Toy Building Event where participants could build and take home a Bat Signal of their very own. As far as this toy being useful reference for the stage prop I intended to build, I’m afraid this toy had more in common with STAR WARS’ R2-D2 than it did with the Commissioner’s beacon.


 

Darklord1967

Active Member
The Bat Signal made regular appearances in the Batman’s big screen adventures. Unfortunately, there was not much reference information for me to work with.


SUCHAMCHER’S FOREVER SIGNAL: In the 1990’s, Joel Schumacher featured the Bat Signal in his two entries of the Batman film franchise, “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin”. While the prop seemed like it might actually be reasonably impressive in it’s scale, it was virtually impossible to make out any of its structural details since the photography was exposed only for the lit portion of the Signal, rendering the rest of it in almost complete darkness.










NOLAN’S SMALL SIGNAL ON THE BIG SCREEN
From 2005 – 2012 Director Chris Nolan presented his take on the Batman universe on the big screen. Virtually all aspects of the mythology were re-designed including the famous Bat Signal. The searchlight was presented as a much smaller and much more modern device than in previous films. Since I was planning to fabricate a classic, much larger design, this Bat-Signal was of no help.








As an “old timer” Batman fan, I nearly neglected video games during my research into designs for the Bat Signal. But it wasn’t long before I was introduced to the gaming world’s take on the prop.


ARKHAM KNIGHT ON Xbox:
Advance images of the upcoming video game Arkham Knight” for Xbox featured some pretty good image reference for The Bat Signal prop. The design approach seemed somewhat “Steampunk” to me, which was an approach that I was not interested in exploring. However, the large circular base did seem like a logical approach that I might want to emulate.







A NEW HOPE: BURTON GOES GENERAL ELECTRIC

Ultimately, it was Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film that provided the design inspiration for the Bat-Signal prop that I wanted to create for my play.





A similar prop also appeared briefly in Chris Nolan’s “Batman Begins” in 2005.








It seemed that I would be taking my cues from an old army-surplus World War II, (General Electric or Sperry) anti-aircraft carbon arc search light. Unfortunately, neither film presented a clear enough view of the entire device (down to its base) in order to provide strong reference information.


A Google image search on these searchlights revealed them almost exclusively as portable hardware in military applications. These searchlights were always mounted onto the rolling chassis of a small jeep-like trailer with a large generator truck stationed nearby.




I found virtually no photo reference for these big lights mounted permanently to any kind of turntable (the configuration which I hoped to represent atop Gotham City Police Headquarters). Furthermore, some inquiries made to a searchlight scrapyard I located in Arizona revealed that these units (even independent of their generator trailers) weighed somewhere in the vicinity of 3 TONS.




This was not exactly suitable for a community stage, and further evidence that the Bat Signal in my production would have to be designed and fabricated by my team and I as a lightweight cosmetic prop. Creating this kind of searchlight configuration was going to require some artistic license.


I made one final online search in a last-ditch attempt to locate a facility that might offer a cosmetic lightweight prop that I could rent or purchase. No luck. And a search for any online articles or instructional youtube videos detailing the construction of a homemade Bat Signal yielded nothing useful for what I had in mind.


As an added challenge, the ehow.com website provided this infuriatingly definitive (and discouraging) statement:





But anyone that knows me knows that I DO love a good challenge… or in this case, a DARE! Time to get started!



DRAWINGS, AND DEADLINES, AND POOLS, OH MY!”

Using the DC Direct Bat Signal toy prop as a reference model, I established a very rudimentary working drawing of the searchlight’s range of articulation. This was based off of the prop’s intended range of motion as it would be seen on stage.







My earliest approach to the fabrication of the Bat Signal prop was to design a device that was based off of readily-available inexpensive shapes. This “kit-Bashing” technique is typically employed as a cost and time saving measure when fabricating unusual shapes. It occurred to me that a Children’s wadding pool (employed vertically) might be a good starting point for the searchlight’s main reflector (as seen here in my earliest production hand sketches immediately following my decision to move forward with the play). An online search yielded nothing in an appropriate size… nor price range that would be suitable for these designs.







During the earliest days of my designing of this production, my original plans shied away from rendering the Bat Signal as an accurately-sized prop, and instead opted to suggest a considerably smaller device that would stand (a more manageable) 6 feet in height.










However, after I became more familiar with the specific design aspects of vintage anti-aircraft searchlights, my sketches gradually became more accurate in terms of the prop’s general shape and size. That desire for accuracy led me to the realization that much of the Bat Signal main components would have to be designed and built from scratch.


 

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Darklord1967

Active Member
I began to map out the construction schematics of the Bat Signal’s basic main components. Cross views and layer views provided a blueprint for internal support structures and general forms.


















I created the final, official production design renderings of the Bat Signal one year before the show was scheduled to premiere.





 

Darklord1967

Active Member
The following months would be spent shopping the designs around to various prop houses and wood fabricators around the country to solicit quotes for its final construction. Time was ticking faster and faster toward our scheduled first performance date, and virtually no one was willing to take on the challenging assignment of building my Bat Signal within the established budget.


Finally, approximately three months prior to our preview performance, a small, local, family-owned neighborhood wood fabrication company came to my rescue. ACE WOOD TURNING on Metropolitan Avenue in Brooklyn, NY agreed to make my renderings into a working, 3-dimensional reality!


 

Darklord1967

Active Member
WEIGHTING TO EXHALE: CONCERNS OVER THE MAIN REFLECTOR


Our first project was the fabrication of the big, 5-foot diameter cylinder that would function as the basis for the Bat Signal’s main reflector. I held several in-person meetings with the proprietor of Ace Wood Turning, Mr. Alfredo Colin, to clarify all specifics that were outlined in my schematics. Within three weeks, the cylinder was built to my exacting specifications, and I don’t mind saying that while the finished product was beautifully constructed, I was somewhat overwhelmed by its size and weight when it was delivered! In, fact, I became VERY nervous when I realized just how massive the main reflector had shaped up to be, and feared that it might actually be too heavy for the Bat Signal’s “U” bracket to support without snapping in half!! Yet to include the weight of the 55” diameter plexiglass rear dome… the plexiglass window face… the 48” diameter plexiglass Bat-shaped face plate… the assorted “kit-bashed” detailing that would be added to its surface… this enormous wood cylinder was already tipping the scales at close to 150 lbs!!














I openly expressed my concern to the prop’s builders (which they shared). By my calculations, we were on track to construct a stage prop that would likely weigh in at well over 470lbs, and I still had logistical concerns of the Bat Signal being mobile enough to move into and out of position quickly on stage. In the end, with time running short, and with the deadline for the show’s tech week approaching, we all agreed to proceed with the Bat Signal’s construction as planned… and just hope for the best!
 

Darklord1967

Active Member
DOWN TO THE WIRE


With only 4 days remaining before the start of our scheduled theater load-in and tech week, Alfredo and his team called me back to Ace Wood Turning to test and approve the final assembly of the Bat Signal’s primary base and trunnion “U” bracket components. Once again, the final product was revealed as a fine example of expert carpentry, brilliant workmanship, and precise engineering! Constructed around a 12 inch Lazy Susan, it was hoped that the mounted heavy main reflector would be able to rotate a full 360 degrees with the effortless ease of a single operator's gentle push.

















 

Darklord1967

Active Member
TO THE THEATER, ROBIN!! IT’S A RACE AGAINST TIME!!


The individual main components of the Bat-Signal were loaded onto a truck, and transported to the theater space location for tech week rehearsals with the actors, and the completion of stage blocking and lighting design.







It was here that the entire basic Bat-Signal shape was assembled for the first time. And for the first time, we were all delighted to discover that my fears about the main reflector’s weight not being able to be supported by the prop’s base structure were completely unfounded! All components fit together perfectly, and just as planned, all articulation functions performed smoothly!! It was an awe-inspiring sight for cast and crew as well as for me personally to see our very own Bat Signal, even assembled together as basic shapes. But we did not have the time to congratulate ourselves for too long. A LOT of detail work still had to be performed on the Bat Signal if it was going to be show-ready in time for our first performance less than two days away!


While my production team and cast used the basic Bat Signal shape to plan our stage blocking and scene lighting, I was busy taking stock of all the remaining detail work that needed to be performed on the prop to complete it.












Alas, it was with a heavy heart that I realized that most of those details couldn’t possibly be added to the prop in time for our first performance. If we were going to raise our curtain on time, I unfortunately was going to have to accept a stripped-down and very plain prop.




SHOWTIME!!


On the morning of our first performance, our theater space was abuzz with frantic activity. Final coats of paint were still being added to sets and props. Microphones sound systems and lighting fixtures were all still being tested and installed… and I was struggling to get even a bare-bones basic Bat-Signal completed!


For the sake of accuracy, I used an old-fashioned Kodak slide projector and a specially-prepared 35mm slide of the Bat-Signal’s main projection image to project / enlarge the BAT shape onto a large piece of black styrene plastic. With a thin piece of white chalk, I very carefully traced out the bat’s contour, and cut out the Bat template with a sharp box-cutter blade. I was personally completing this delicate operation even as the audience for our first performance was entering the theater!


With only minutes remaining before we were due to raise our curtain, I hastily attached the bat template to the amber lens face of the Bat-Signal prop, and held it in place with strips of self-adhesive Velcro! I quickly tested the searchlight by turning it on backstage, and was instantly FLOORED by its impressive scope and presence as a stage prop… despite the lack of fine details!





 

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Darklord1967

Active Member
At the start of ACT II, during our first performance, the audience returned to their seats at the end of the mid-show intermission, and were treated to quite a spectacle: A grand theatrical score blared through the speakers and the familiar circular BAT logo spotlight was projected onto the center of the closed stage curtain.







Suddenly, the light began to sweep dramatically around the walls and ceiling of the theater. When the curtain parted, revealing Commissioner Gordon on the roof of Police Headquarters operating the Bat Signal, an audible GASP went up in the audience… and I sat back grinning from ear to ear.







 
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Darklord1967

Active Member
Over three preview performances of our show, the reaction to the Bat-Signal’s stunning debut was the same each time!


We finished our three performances. The sets of the show were all dismantled and placed in storage at the conclusion of our first run. Not a single moment ended up presenting itself for me to even paint my Bat-Signal prop beyond its simple pale grey primer color… much less adding the details I had hoped for.


But now as we plan for the triumphant second run of the play in the Fall of 2015, I am working diligently to ensure that the Bat-Signal stage prop will be EVERYTHING I originally intended… and more!!!!


Stay tuned here for further construction updates as they happen…


 

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Scotophor

Active Member
The person who quoted you "three tons" was including the weight of the generator. See The Fort MacArthur Museum's searchlight page: it quotes the combined weight (of both the searchlight and generator trailers) as 6,000 lbs. Since the generator is a fairly hefty piece of equipment powered by a 6-cylinder gasoline engine, I'd guess it makes up probably 2/3 or more of that total.
 
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