The visual effects work on the film The Aviator, is a unique example of the combination of disparate talents working together to form a single vision. The purpose of that vision was to create the exciting depiction of the aerial exploits of Howard Hughes, one of the most intriguing and dynamic figures in modern history.
As head of the Physical Special Effects Department I had to assess the artistic, cinematic and visual needs of this challenging film in collaboration with Director Martin Scorsese, Production Designer Dante Ferretti and Visual Effects Supervisor Rob Legato. My primary contribution to the film was to be the physical recreation of planes and flights from the beginning of Howard's career in aeronautics through the construction and flight of the Hercules, "the largest plane in the world." This meant that I was responsible for building and rigging three historic aircraft that didn't exist or were only available in museums.
The first aircraft we had to build was a full size mock up of Howard Hughes' reconnaissance, spy plane, the XF-11. Since the location work was split between Canada and the USA we had to build the plane in California, then cut it apart for transport to Montreal. After completing filming in Montreal we then had to take it apart again for shipment of the fuselage back to California for the Beverly Hills crash sequence. The construction process took approximately 8 weeks of intense work overseen by our Aeronautical Engineering Foreman Steven Bolan.
The sequence involving Howard Hughes' breaking of the world speed record in his H1 Racer proved to be a challenge. We initially located a flying replica owned by an aviation buff named Jim Wright. Four weeks before production of the sequence, the plane was destroyed in a crash that took the life of the pilot/owner.
For the take off part of the sequence, we were able to find a replacement mock-up without a motor that we acquired from a private collector. We motorized the aircraft by installing a new prototype golf cart AC motor with a built-in AC/DC converter to facilitate taxiing and propeller speed. The flying part of the sequence was accomplished by the building of a 1/2 scale 16ft. wingspan radio controlled flying model built by Aerotelemetry, a company that builds drone aircraft for the military.
These two aircraft along with the Hercules, also known as the Spruce Goose, figured prominently in the film. The integration of these three airplanes via full-size mock-ups, insert sections, and miniatures combined with digital effects enhancements, outstanding camera and sound work resulted in some very exciting footage.