Work with me on this one.
We’re all going to pretend that we’re actively working in the animation industry for a moment. It’s sometime in the mid to late 1990’s. We’re in a meeting, discussing the future of the animated Batman property. We’re going to “freshen up” the franchise with a “teen-aged” Batman. Our demographic is going to be kids 6-11. Oh, before I forget, we’re going to set it in the future.
My initial reaction to hearing the above would be to run. I would run far and I would run fast. Batman Beyond had all the elements of a train wreck. Instead, what we ended up with was a show that was much better than it had any right to be. It hits fast and hard, right from the opening theme as you’re treated to about a minute’s worth fantastic visuals with a really energetic, hard sounding theme song.
Sometimes having less material available to work with opens up a ton of other creative possibilities. There was no animation from the show available at the time the creative team began work on the theme. Most of the animated bits found in the opening were done specifically for it and by in-house guys, Adam van Wyck, Curt Geda and Darwyn Cooke.
Shots you might have sworn to be 3D were actually sculptures done by Glen Wong that were shot with a Hi-8 video camera and then treated until they achieved the distressed look they were going for. There’s a shot of Batman, surrounded by villains, that was actually a makeshift action figure on a turntable. Some animation from the show was inserted into the background when it became available, but you’ll see that the opening relies heavily on iconic imagery, quick cuts and music to convey its message and get you hyped up for the episode to follow.
Instead of story boarding the intro, they took a less linear approach. They created a large pool of footage to pull from and treated it as if this was a trailer they were creating. Even though the opening was not created in an A-B-C manner and consists of numerous quick cuts, it is not entirely abstract and does tell a story. Location is established immediately with a shot of future Gotham. It shows us the state of the city by flashing the words “apathy”, “greed” and “corruption”, inter-cut with images that are loosely connected with those themes.
We’re introduced to an elderly Bruce Wayne, as the word “power” is then flashed on screen. This is followed by a shot of Terry McGinnis that conveys a sense of loss by having a graveyard in the background and then the word, “hope”. That’s right. You just witnessed a big moment in the animated Batman mythos. That little bit of abstract storytelling is the passing of the torch. This is cemented further into the opening as a shadow streaks across the screen and over Terry to then reveal him as the Batman.
The rest of the opening is less linear and more about communicating the ideals of Batman and creating an atmosphere. We’re shown the words “courage”, “honor”, and “justice”; a mix of shots with Terry’s Batman being awesome; and some of the other characters we’ll be meeting in the series. The intro barrels towards the finish line by flashing a shot of Bruce, followed by some shots of Terry in action to symbolize their new found partnership, and then visually climaxes with one last shot of Terry’s Batman as he thrusts his arms to the sky. The background transitions from dark purple to white so that your focus is on his figure, and particularly on the bat symbol that graces his chest.
If the Batman Beyond opening theme had a lesser soundtrack to accompany those visuals, it would still be good. The fact that it does have a song and sound that marries well with the imagery elevates it well beyond your standard cartoon intro. Bruce Timm had a good idea of what he wanted of the music for the show. It had to have a much harder sound and he wasn’t sure that Shirley Walker and her team were up to the task. She asked for the opportunity to prove him wrong and he agreed. Timm gave her examples of the vibe he was going for. Amongst the bands mentioned were White Zombie, Nine Inch Nails and Jane’s Addiction. Those were a distinct departure from anything they had previously produced for the DC Animated Universe shows, making the reservations more than understandable.
It would be kind to say that most attempts at inserting the rock sound into American-based animated television scores prior to this show were misguided at best. It would be less nice, though still accurate, to say that they were often quite terrible and aurally off-putting. We can credit Shirley Walker’s team of Kristopher Carter, Lolita Ritmanis and Michael McCuistion with having been the first to have effectively crafted an industrial rock/electronica atmosphere for an American television-based animated series. One review accurately described the show’s soundtrack as “audio steroids”.
Here’s one last bit of trivia. According to the liner notes of the Batman Beyond soundtrack, one of the temp tracks submitted to Timm and created by Carter evolved into the theme song used in the opening. The track was entitled, Smells like Creamed Spinach — a play on the title of Nirvana song, Smells Like Teen Spirit.
Enough backdrop. Get yourself pumped for some angry, grungy sounding guitars, a great bass line, cool drums and excellent visuals in the Batman Beyond intro.
For further reading:
Modern Masters Volume 3: Bruce Timm; TwoMorrows Publishing, 2004.
Batman Beyond Soundtrack Liner Notes; Kid Rhino, 1999.(Audio samples are available on the soundtrack’s Amazon.com page)
Darwyn Cooke: The creator of Batman Beyond‘s dynamic title sequence speaksÂ ; Purple Planet Media, 1999.