HERCULES MOTION CONTROL MINIATURE:
The Hughes Hercules miniature provided perhaps our greatest challenge, if only for the fact that the real Hercules has very few details to give the enormous aircraft a sense of scale. The aircraft was fabricated entirely from laminated birch, covered with layers of rice paper and multiple layers of varnish then topped off with a final coat of aluminum-impregnated varnish; its trademarked silver finish was virtually seamless.
We determined that the only way to give our 1/16 scale, 20 foot wingspan miniature a sense of colossal size was to call out all its flaws. When an aircraft has a 320 foot wooden wingspan, there will undoubtedly be some imperfections. The subtle undulations of the birch skin over the airframe; all the stitching knots under the doped fabric control surfaces; the subtle ripples in the massive two hundred and 10 foot long hull-these are the details that gave the Hercules scale. These were the details we replicated in exacting detail.
We started by generating a 3D computer model. Although we had copies of original blueprints from Hughes' aircraft, we knew that 'as-built' there were likely to have been variations and we wanted our historical accuracy to be unassailable. We had to scour over every surface photo we could find, comparing the blueprints with the way the plane looked now and the way it looked in 1947. This enabled us to bring out the subtle differences between the finished plane and the blueprints. After generating the computer model, we broke it down into four-inch thick cross sections that we then plotted and transferred to urethane foam. These sections were assembled and shaped to the proper contours. We sealed the foam then meticulously detailed, molded, and finally cast the hull in epoxy and fiberglass. We fabricated the wing as a one-off piece from laser-cut birch ribs and skinned it with fine scale birch plywood to maximize strength and rigidity. This too was sealed, and detailed. The model plane was outfitted with eight stepper-motor-driven propellers and included a fully detailed cockpit, complete with 1/16 scale puppets of DiCaprio as Howard Hughes and Ian Holm as Professor Fitz.
Though the plane was to be photographed using motion-control, Legato felt it was essential to shoot outdoors in daylight rather than try to match a daylight look on a soundstage. Not only did this approach add to the verisimilitude of the model shots, it allowed him to include the actual sky in certain shots-again reducing the requirements of post-production.
HERCULES & TENT - HANGING FOREGROUND MINIATURE:
The final scenes of the film take place in a tent under the wing of the docked Hercules. Both the establishing shot and the wide master under the wing use the classic technique of foreground hanging miniatures. Miniatures of the party tent, concrete seawalls, rock breakwater, bathroom shack, cars, crates, and oil derricks were set in and around our 1/16 scale Hercules. Then, in the same frame, approximately sixty yards away, actors in period clothing with full-sized set dressing enacted their scene complete with driving picture vehicles. When lined up through the camera lens everything appeared in the same scale. Shooting under the same daylight conditions gave the miniatures, dressing, and live-action identical characteristics and a seamless in-camera composite. To add to the depth to the scene, Robert Stromberg extended the shots with beautiful matte paintings of vintage Long Beach.
Even though the production had a very limited visual effects budget, the techniques used, from in-camera effects work to the latest in digital technology, were always implemented with creativity and seamless integration. Though certainly economical, and thematically consistent in execution, the classic visual effects our team helped create for The Aviator, when cleverly coupled with state-of-the art digital technology, produced the best possible result on-screen. Given the ambitious four-month schedule from design to delivery, success certainly owed much to the hard work and artistry of the 60-person crew at New Deal Studios. But my hope is that the process serves as an example of the success that can be achieved whenever timeless techniques meet the endless possibilities of computer technology.