‘Batman’: A preservation specialist works to save Hollywood’s Batsuits

May 14, 2011 | 9:03 a.m.

The props and costumes of Hollywood have become big business at the auction block and, right or wrong, are taking on the aura of true cultural artifacts in our celebrity-obsessed era. But like many relics, they face the danger of time and mistreatment. To shed some light on it, preservation specialist Ron Barbagallo has written a guest essay on the fragile treasures of Gotham City (one of which returns to the screen this weekend in Los Angeles with the American Cinematheque screening of Tim Burton’sBatman“) 

christian bale as dark knight Batman: A preservation specialist works to save Hollywoods Batsuits

Christian Bale in "The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros)

The insidious danger comes from below. Liquids oozes up to wreak havoc on a foundation that seemed solid, but now suddenly cracks with fissures that spiral out of control. Malicious gases rise and permeate, damaging everything in their path. No, this is not part of some super-villain’s diabolical plot to destroy Gotham or Metropolis, but there are heroes in danger in this scenario. I’m talking about the  impending peril that I thwart daily while preserving Disney animation cels and other art made with painted plastic materials. I am the art conservator and director of Animation Art Conservation, and for nearly 25 years (along with my partner in all things chemical, conservation scientist Michele Derrick) I’ve worked to protect Walt Disney animation cels, as well as other motion-picture artifacts such as Tim Burton’s painted plastic puppets or the on-screen Batman suits, from further degradation.

The costume of Batman has lived in the public imagination since the Franklin Roosevelt administration, has stayed close enough to that original color scheme and overall profile that fans of any age know the hero when they see him on the page, on the screen or ringing the doorbell on Halloween. What has changed, here in Hollywood, is the cloth and thread which the hero wears on the screen. In the movie-serial years, filmmakers translated comic book drawings with stitched fabric but in recent decades there has been a new array of materials — specialized plastics poured into molds, for instance, have given Gotham’s caped crusader a pliable body armor. It’s an understanding of those plastics where a new conservation expertise comes into play.

batsuit Batman: A preservation specialist works to save Hollywoods Batsuits

A cut edge of a Batsuit from "Batman Begins"

As cool as plastic superhero suits look on the screen, storing them after a wrapped production is left to Hollywood archives and private collectors lucky enough to get one. And, hopefully, caring for their chemistry becomes the task of art conservation professionals. I came to work on the Michael Keaton Batsuit from the Burton era, and the Christian Bale Batsuit from the more recent films by Christopher Nolan, and found interesting commonalities with the Walt Disney animation production art. The funny thing about painted plastics — such as animation cels — is the perception that they are Space Age products and immune to deterioration over time. Most people know that fabric or paper will wither in their own ways, but presume that plastics are like Dorian Gray, impervious to degrading. It turns out they have more in common with that hidden portrait in Oscar Wilde’s tale.

batman with michael keaton Batman: A preservation specialist works to save Hollywoods Batsuits

"Batman" from 1989 (Warner Bros)

Similar to canvas and paper, Disney animation cel sheets are made of cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetates, starting out as cotton and/or wood, which are chemically altered until they become clear and pliable. More modern plastics, like polyester, are made of entirely synthetic materials. All of them have their Achilles’ heel. Light, temperature, humidity, mishandling and age come into play separately, and at times contribute collectively to the degradation of a plastic object.

As my colleague, Derrick, puts it: “Natural rubbers, as well as many types of synthetic rubbers, are very susceptible to deterioration from light, heat, and oxygen. Under normal room conditions, these materials slowly lose their elasticity and structural integrity. Research has shown that preventive measures, such as cool temperatures or low-oxygen environments, can minimize degradation reactions.”

With all art, wear and tear is a concern too. But unlike paintings or drawings, plastic superhero suits get a workout on a movie set, where the temperament of the actors and stunt-people wearing them comes into play. For instance, credit goes to Bale, whose “Batman Begins” suit far outshines the other Batman costumes I’ve examined when it comes to post-production condition. Keaton’s Bat-suit from the first Burton film, released in 1989,  suffered far more from wear and tear, but perhaps that can be attributed to the era and the pioneer role it served in the overall business of Gotham moviemaking.

As with degraded or worn woven fabric flags or cloth costumes, careful handling can prevent damage to areas that will be more noticeable down the road and specialized linings can be useful to hold elements of a superhero suit together. One of the biggest things to remember with all art is whatever you do with it, you are creating a relationship between “the object” and “the place you put it.” In other words, if you want to put your money into Batman’s possessions, make you sure find the right cave to store it in.

— Ron Barbagallo

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