The challenge with a film like The Aviator is that the events we were called on to imagine did happen, and served to define the real man at the center of the story, Howard Hughes. For the drama to succeed, these visuals needed to be interwoven into the narrative as part of the story, and not simply as stand-alone visual effects sequences. Visual Effects Supervisor and Second Unit Director, Rob Legato, along with Martin Scorsese, decided to accomplish the majority of the Visual Effects using the same techniques available to the filmmakers of Hughes' time-high-speed miniature effects, forced perspective models, and foreground hanging miniatures photographed along with the live action. Legato would then enhance and manipulate the resulting photographic imagery, where necessary, using today's digital technology. Legato treated the effects as if he were directing live action-with detailed shot breakdowns and pre-viz-then acted as his own Director of Photography for both motion-control and high-speed sequences. Such careful attention imbues the effects sequences with realism, dramatic significance, and a seamless integration with the live action.
HELL'S ANGELS SEQUENCE:
Hughes' Directing Plane-a large two-seat biplane based on a retrofitted Sikorsky S-29, disguised as a German Gotha bomber-was designed and constructed in 1/4 scale. This model was used for Lidar scanning and texture mapping. The aircraft had a 12foot wingspan and was detailed down to three mounted, scaled-down 1920's Bell and Howell motion picture cameras. For the shot where the camera's magazine is clipped by the wheel of a plane that nearly collides with the Directing plane, we built a full-sized wing section rigged with an authentic Bell and Howell camera. The wing was mounted to a lift with the leading edge upright using gravity to simulate the speed of the plane through the air. Shooting outdoors while driving the lift allowed for distinct shadow movement suggestive of a banking aircraft.
HELL'S ANGELS PREMIERE:
The challenge for this miniature was to recreate Hollywood Boulevard circa 1930. We did a tremendous amount of research to replicate the buildings, some that still exist, and many that don't. Production Designer Dante Ferretti constructed a full-sized replica of the front fašade of Grauman's Chinese Theater. To complete the environment, we designed and constructed a 1/24 scale, 80 foot long by 8 foot wide miniature including Grauman's Chinese Theater-complete with neon Hell's Angels signs made from electric-luminescent wire-The Hollywood Hotel, The Hollywood National Bank Tower, and fourteen four-story buildings with storefronts. We then dressed the set with seventy practical street lamps supporting one-hundred and forty airplane banner decorations, eighty parked automobiles, and four, stepper-motor-driven search lights, complete with parabolic mirror to reflect a focused shaft of light.
HERCULES UNDER CONSTRUCTION:
The actual hanger used for the construction of Hughes' famed flying boat, Hercules, still exists in mint condition in Playa Vista, but unfortunately during The Aviator's shooting schedule another production was filming there. Dante Ferretti was put to the task of building a full-size portion of the Hercules under construction in a Montreal warehouse-previously a railroad assembly plant. As with Hollywood Boulevard, we then had to extend this set. Our miniature not only had to have the signature glue-lam ceiling beams and huge multi-sectional rolling hangar door of the Hughes Aircraft Hangar, but it also had to feature elements that would allow it to intercut seamlessly with Ferretti's Montreal set. For the set extensions during the scenes of the aircraft under construction, and certain in-camera shots later in the film, we built a 1/16 scale, 20 foot long hangar featuring the unfinished Hercules, complete with birch planking and airframe, surrounded by scaffolding as well as pieces of the Hercules in-progress, from a wing to a pontoon, worktables dressed with blueprints, sawhorses, oil and glue drums, a utility truck and a stepper-motor-controlled crane. Each component had to meticulously match first unit set pieces.