BEVERLY HILLS CRASH SEQUENCE:
Scorsese and Legato wanted the XF-11 crash sequence to feel real, violent, and truly terrifying. Knowing this to be a key moment in the drama of the film as well as Hughes' life, the action needed to be presented as it happened, as if you were really there in 1946 filming it, without any engineered camera moves to distract from the catastrophic destruction.
Legato designed an elaborate pre-viz based on written testimony and eyewitness accounts of the crash. Each shot was treated as a separate event, requiring miniature, mechanical effects, and pyro to be meticulously planned to achieve the precise action necessary. We studied archival photos of the post destruction from the original crash, and reverse engineered the rubble to determine how breakaway walls, roofs with Spanish tiles, and any crumpled and torn sheet metal of the XF-11 would have to react.
We constructed the Beverly Hills miniature in 1/4 scale, with a 120 foot long by 80 foot wide modular footprint, including four houses, complete with backyards, a pool, hedgerows, shrubbery, dozens of trees, and various incidental dressing. We were able to create a seamless in-camera, forced perspective background by shooting the miniature on a golf course with real trees in the deep background combined with our mid and foreground miniature trees. The XF-11 miniature used for the crash was the same model used at the tarmac and included a 1/4 scale puppet of Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes with a radio-controlled servo-driven head.
To "fly" the aircraft, Robert Spurlock designed and engineered a dolly pulled by a 15 horsepower permanent magnet motor endless drive system that could allow the plane to reach speeds of twenty feet-per-second. The dolly was outfitted with modified wheels that had captured bearings to keep the rig on our Tiffen track rail system. A subsequent shot required us to spin the plane at high speed in the yaw axis. For this effect, the dolly was also equipped with a large turntable. An air accumulator riding with the dolly charged an on-board pneumatic piston, which pulled a wound cable when triggered to turn the turntable and thus, the plane, at the critical moment.
We built the houses and aircraft with rigidly reinforced structures with replaceable breakaway sections so that they would survive multiples takes of destruction and could be easily re-dressed and filmed again. For the shot of the plane's wheel as it makes initial contact with the Spanish tile roof of a house, we constructed a separate 1/4 scale boom and main landing gear section mounted to our dolly (which also supported the two cameras). We then ran the dolly so the gear would crash through a separate roof section with breakaway tile. For the shot of the side of a house being sliced through by the starboard wing the XF-11 rode the dolly through the house. For the interior angle on the same shot, we built a stand-alone 1/4 scale interior set. A separate wing was mounted to a forklift and driven through the set's interior wall. The only digital enhancement was to add the startled homeowner to the shot for which an actor was filmed against a greenscreen and composited in to what is otherwise an in-camera effect.
To get the flaming engine to crash through a kitchen window we built a 1/4 scale interior set. Physical effects supervisor Richard Stutsman's team erected a steel wall outside the set with a hole cut large enough to clear the window. The engine was dressed to show previous damage, coated with a rubber cement based fire mixture and ignited. Then the effects team rigged it to swing through the hole at camera, smashing the window and causing the room to shudder realistically.
As the plane reels from the impact with the first house and loss of an engine, the port wing clips a telephone pole, shears off and explodes. We prepared a breakaway section on the fuselage, which Stutsman loaded with fire mix, debris, and ‘lifter' charges. He dressed pyrotechnic sparks onto the telephone pole wires in select areas then lit background fires to match previously established destruction. With debris scattered around and fires on the ground, we launched the burning plane minus its starboard wing, down the track. Effects technicians released the wing and cut the power lines as the body of the plane passed, crashing into the pole.
Then the port boom slams into a second telephone pole, spinning the aircraft around. The second pole was made from an actual cored out cedar pole dressed, pre-scored and loaded with prima-cord to snap convincingly in jagged splinters when hit.
Finally, the XF-11 rotates as it falls to earth. The plane was suspended nearly thirty feet in the air, and rigged to run down a guide cable as the port engine is ejected in a fiery explosion. Stutsman augmented the explosion detonations with propane mortars and debris launchers. The guide cable insured that the model fell to a predetermined target within inches of the cameras. With the exception of a small vertical pick point that had to be painted out in post in the final shot, nearly all of these shots of harrowing destruction were achieved in-camera.
For every shot during the crash of the full-sized cockpit, backgrounds seen out of the canopy were made from composited tiled plates of our model featuring additional pyrotechnic destruction.