The actors who played passengers in "Flight" were strapped… (Robert Zuckerman / Paramount…)
Robert Zemeckis' "Flight" is a sober drama about addiction, with Denzel Washington as boozy airline pilot Whip Whitaker. But what launches the story is a bravura sequence in which Whip undertakes extraordinary measures to try to save his crippled, diving plane and the 102 people on board. Here, we speak with the craft people involved in creating the edge-of-your-seat crash scene. (Script excerpts by screenwriter John Gatins).
INT. COCKPIT - DAY
Descend and maintain 30 thousand.
Director Robert Zemeckis: A set like that is basically a tube — cockpit and cabin. Literally, there's only one way in and one way out for everybody. So the hardest thing to do is to figure out what technicians, what actors, what equipment, goes in, in what order, and what goes out in what order, because it takes forever to load everyone and everything. And then you do the shot and everybody's got to come back out and go to the bathroom.
BANG! THE PLANE SUDDENLY PITCHES SIDEWAYS
Special effects supervisor Michael Lantieri: I went to the Delta flight training simulators through Larry Goodrich, our technical advisor. I had them program the problem into the simulator and feel the exact pressure on the yoke, the frequency of the vibrations that would happen, how it would feel. That gave me something to mimic, right down to how hard Denzel had to pull on the yoke, how fast were the bumps and vibrations.
The wind ROARS as the gear doors drop. The airframe shakes and rumbles violently.
Sound designer Randy Thom: When we got the tracks initially, there was no vibrating at all. For the fuselage, we used a big semi tractor-trailer truck. We were shaking the whole truck. We also got a paint shaker that allowed you to adjust the frequency of shaking. We attached plastic cabinets and overhead luggage compartments, ladders and other metal objects. We started with a low-frequency vibration and ramped it up faster and faster.
(into his mike)
We are in a descent, an uncontrolled … WHOOOAAAA!!
Director of photography Don Burgess: How do you get people to experience the fear of falling inside an aircraft? The plane is going into a vertical dive, and we've rolled the plane over — how do you make the audience feel that? I've shot it for real, aerobatics, but you don't feel it. You have to manipulate the camera, use the angles, movement, to sell those ideas.
Visual effects supervisor Kevin Baillie: It doesn't matter if it looks exactly like a plane free-falling at 400 mph; that might look too slow. It might look too fast. Don Burgess worked with the camera manufacturer to create a custom mount that would hold three Red Epic cameras on the nose of a helicopter [to get the aerial footage], but you simply can't fly a helicopter fast enough to trick the audience into thinking it's a 400 mph nose dive. So the way we gave it that energy was making all those digital clouds that flew by the camera really quickly to give it that extra sense of speed and urgency. It's not just one trick we use throughout the sequence: sometimes it's helicopter footage, sometimes it's a digital environment, sometimes we use real clouds, then we mix computer-generated clouds with them.
Margaret, what's your son's name?
Say "I love you Trevor."
The black box.
Flight trainer Larry Goodrich: No. 1 was for Denzel, as the captain, to remain in a calm and confident manner — so there won't be all this unrest and anxiety among the crew, whether it be the first officer, who might be trying to grab the yoke, or the flight attendant, who might be screaming and yelling while you're trying to handle the maneuver.
We're gonna roll it. Ready? Here we go. I've got control.
WHAT! WHAT DO YOU MEAN, ROLL IT?!!
The clumsy liner does a slow, ungraceful roll.
Goodrich: I was in the Air Force, and we flew airplanes upside down. In the airline industry? No, we don't. But if that was the case and that was the way I could take it out of a spin, yeah.
Lantieri: We could not turn the entire plane, at one time, upside down. We bought a real MD-80 and shipped it from Mojave, Calif., to Atlanta, cut it into thirds, and then we had a cockpit section and two fuselage sections. So we did one half and then the other, and then using visual effects, we composited it together to make it look like it was all done at once.
INT. PLANE CABIN — SAME
The PASSENGERS scream as the plane rolls over and they are suspended upside down.
Lantieri: The toughest thing to do is something that is absolutely real … all the reactions of the people, all the looks on their faces, the way their body weight hangs. In most things you would see, they have stunt people in stunt harnesses. But they don't hang properly, the stunt harnesses. So we hung them from specially designed seat belts so they would hang exactly as if they were in an inverted airplane. The legal department at Paramount was watching me very closely [laughs].