Atomic Fiction Takes Flight
But with Zemeckis increasing the shot count, it required great flexibility during the second editorial turnover. The director would smile and say he was increasing the scope and came up with some great ideas such as the shots from outside the airplane where we're seeing the landing gear breaking and the fuel being dumped and the fire in the engine being put out.
Aside from the storm, there was also the feat of the plane flying upside down. "Don Burgess had lights moving around the cockpit as the plane is moving through space," the VFX supervisor relates. "It really helped to sell it. Mike Lantieri, the special effects supervisor, put together several different rigs to achieve the most sickeningly realistic effect of the plane being in a dive. This shaker rig jostled the plane around, which lent a sense of realism. And for the cockpit, there were two other rigs: a motion base that could pitch the plane 40 degrees in any direction, and a rotisserie rig, which rotated the cockpit and fuselage separately 180 degrees upside down. So everybody's actually hanging upside down during these shots."
As for the exterior shots of the plane turning upside down, Atomic used Maya and V-ray along with 3ds Max and V-ray for the matte work. The fire was done with Fume FX mixed with other particle chunks for the frozen water and co2. They also put oil spots on the lens for added grit. "That was part of a creative directive from Bob, who wanted a realistic movie, not one where the visual effects are a spectacle. Even the shot where the airplane crashes onto the field contains little fireball or flare. There's just enough to sell that the fumes caught on fire but they're gone very quickly. Most of it was just clouds of dirt and chunks of rock and smoke from the engines.
"Because of budget limitations, Mike Lantieri could only build a rig powerful enough to safely turn half of the fuselage of this plane upside down. This was a problem so we cut the fuselage in half and shot it in two passes. One where the camera was inside the back (we used that as a foreground plate), and another one where we had to back up the camera 40 feet and then shoot into the open end of a tin can for the distant part of the fuselage.
"And we had to seam the two in post without any motion control. We used some real time onset compositing to make sure the elements were close enough, but our compositors had to do a lot of work in Nuke with retimes and warps and tracking and stabilization to get everything to fit together. But at the end of the day, you never would've known that this plane was shot in three pieces during this crazy, rotating move. It's a great example of how special effects and visual effects work together."
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld, the owner of Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), a columnist for Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen, featuring interviews with all six actors.