Working with DNEG and Distillery VFX, visual effects supervisor Brian Connor delivered almost 700 shots depicting intense aerial combat and a defining set of crash sequences in J.D. Dillard’s epic drama, based on the lives of U.S. Navy officers Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner.
Currently soaring across IMAX screens is Devotion, the story of the friendship and sacrifice - on the ground and in the air – of naval officers Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner during the Korean War. In 1950, Brown became the first African American U.S. Navy aviator killed in the war. Hudner, his wingman, intentionally crashed his own plane in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue his comrade. For his actions, Brown was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, while Hudner received the Medal of Honor.
Supporting filmmaker J.D. Dillard with his wartime biopic was visual effects supervisor Brian Connor and digital artists at DNEG and Distillery VFX. “It went from 445 to 689 visual effects shots,” Connor reveals. “We had 22 sequences and most of that was done by DNEG. Then we had Distillery VFX, who handled the crash site. We did a lot of previs for the main dogfight sequence, which was instrumental for figuring out the actual shooting of the oner.”
While the foundation of VFX production work changes almost daily, aerial photography hasn’t changed a great deal in decades. “You’re in a helicopter or jet capturing all of this amazing aerial acrobatics,” Connor explains. “It comes down to the team that you have doing the aerial work. We had Helinet and shot all the aerials that were supposed to be at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea in Washington during the winter. Some of the cities were based on Wenatchee, Washington. These days we have a lot more technologically advanced ways to capture the footage. We flew a helicopter with a Hydra five camera array tilted sideways to capture all this lovely detail so that we could expand and subtract to make the locations into North Korea.”
Connor is a strong believer in always having something practical in a shot. “Maybe you don’t even use it but at least that tells you what exactly to match to, and I can point and show the vendors what attributes are missing on a plane,” he shares. “Our motto was that we need at least one if not two planes in every aerial shot. That way, if we add six of them, it becomes much easier to analyze the image, the specularity of the surface, where the sun angle is, and the quality of the sun because you don’t have a grey sphere and chrome ball in the sky. Although we did have 8K 360 cameras to help us to figure out what the environment was like at that time. We also had to change [plane] numbers, add munitions, bombs, missiles, fuel tanks and sometimes we had to take them off because of the story beat.”
Getting access to a real Vought F4U Corsair fighter aircraft was not easy. “There are not many Corsairs left in the world,” notes Connor. “They’re like flying museum pieces. If you try to buy them, they are between $3 to $5 million a pop. Usually, the owners flew them, which made for an interesting motely crew of pilots. I enjoyed when we shot that whole aerial team shoot in Wenatchee and Pasco, Washington. They actually had planes on sticks and would walk around in the old school way to make sure that everyone understood who is doing what before shooting it.” Despite the Korean War unfortunately being referred to as “The Forgotten War,” there are documentaries on the Chosin Reservoir and how the war went beat by beat. “One of the things that we had to obviously do was to take the photography that resembled Chosin Reservoir and the river - one side is China and the other is North Korea - and build that out to be period correct. The U.S. Military had pictures of the actual runs when they would try to bomb the bridges and lots of stills and some film as well. We would pour over those.”
Ocean scenes were actually filmed at an airport. “For the USS Laffey, we built a huge aircraft carrier conning tower next to a runway at the Statesboro Bulloch County Airport,” Connor describes. “Because it’s asphalt, we came up with a sticker of sorts of what the deck looked like period piece that was 500 feet long. That was all in camera so we didn’t have to do as much. When you look past at the runway its grass and trees. That becomes an extension, to have the edges correct and then the ocean and sky. A lot of those were plates we shot out in the ocean, especially when we have the crash. All those plates were shot after it had rained. We had this beautiful gap hole lighting with pockets of light, and one plane, and then we had to change a few things and put in ships and wakes. Obviously, some sky replacements and things to make it feel cohesive and continuous in the sequence. When we come to the armada, we had to build all the destroyers, cruisers and supplementary supply ships that go with something as huge as an aircraft carrier.”
The plane crash was assembled as one continuous shot. According to Connor, “J.D. Dillard was adamant about never blocking or wiping the screen even when it hit the ground, although we had to do some of it because mud, trees and snow would be kicked up. It starts off with a real shot where we’re in the chase plane and shooting and are coming into Tom Hudner [Glen Powell]. That transitions to Tom, who is on the buck onset on a gimbal with the motion control doing the move over the LED screen that we shot as a pass of the same location. We’re looking around and see what he sees. Jesse Brown [Jonathan Majors] is down there crashed. Then we come back and perch on the wing and crash with him. That transitions into the location shot where we had a Corsair on rails that were 150 feet long and pulled on cables. The venerable J.D. Schwalm and his special effects team built many Corsairs including Jesse’s crashed Corsair. We had to do all of those extensions because that’s in a rock quarry and we only had so much fake snow before it starts to melt over the course of the day. You have a rock quarry walls but then you have to put trees. That’s where the Distillery did an amazing job of making that crash sequence feel real as it goes into night.”
Not every scene took place under battle conditions, such as the shore leave at Cannes and the encounter with Elizabeth Taylor. “We shot that on River Street in Savannah,” reveals Connor. “It’s cobblestone, old and looks great. We painted a set deck up to one story to get all of the French signage and shops in there. Then we to finished it in visual effects. We used LiDAR on that whole area. There were a bunch of trees that had to be removed and replaced with palm trees. Then we had to put in the boardwalks on the beach, and that infamous Cannes beach as it wraps around, as a matte painting in the background. There is a lot of work that goes into all the Cannes’ scenes because it’s a period movie.”
Connor attended the World Premiere during the 47th Toronto International Film Festival. “Every time we’re in the plane in an aerial is a wonderful feeling, especially if you’re seeing it in IMAX,” he concludes. “There were times where I was like, ‘Whoa! I’m feeling a bit dizzy’ because I was seated so close to the screen!”