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In-Flight Turbulence - SouthJet Flight #227
Setting the film in motion - literally - is a harrowing flight sequence that follows Captain Whip Whitaker as he successfully pilots a passenger jet through an increasingly dangerous list of flight difficulties, starting with severe turbulence and culminating with a massive mechanical failure. Moments after a successful passage through the worst of a bad weather pattern, the JR-88 (the film's fictitious plane model) passenger jet inexplicably loses it hydraulics, pitch and vertical control, and begins an uncontrolled rapid descent. To gain control of the plane, Whitaker must rely on his experience, intuition and unique skill set to attempt some very risky, unorthodox, maneuvers, including inverting the plane into a glide.

Screenwriter Gatins says that the sequence in the script came from an actual accident he learned about in his research.

"A professional pilot I consulted pointed me towards a past incident in which the wing on a plane's tail snapped and was in a fixed position that pitched its' nose down. They tried everything to right the plane and at one point had to invert it and flew upside down. They knew that their only shot of landing the plane would have to be a stable inverted flight, and then descend the plane close enough to the ground. Then they could turn the plane over and take their chances by bellying the plane on the ground, which is what Whip does in our movie."

Pre-visualized and meticulously planned in pre-production, the frightening sequence required the combined talents of the film's special and visual effects and stunt teams, along with some creative camerawork, utilizing the latest in film technology.

First came the plane itself. Coates worked with Robert Zemeckis for several months, developing an identity for the plane - everything from its logo to its in-flight magazine, seatbacks, to its unique cockpit. His team modified several existing aircraft to create the SouthJet plane depicted in the film. Coates explains, "We wanted to it feel very familiar and yet, because of the nature and sensitive subject matter of the story, we needed to have our own manufacturer, our own airline company."

Many of the practical airline sets - the jet way, the cockpit, galley, and passenger cabin segments of the film's jet - were erected on multiple platforms and motion based rigs on Stage 5 at Atlanta's EUE/Screen Gems soundstage complex. To make the plane unique to the film's fictitious SouthJet Air Company, Coates created a custom jet influenced by several planes typically used in regional airlines, such as the MD-80 and 737 series. For much of the sequence, the plane was situated on air mattresses that could simulate the high frequency rocking motion of turbulence. Each corner of the SFX-rigged air mattress featured three-foot springs that could extend or contract to move the plane up or down, side to side, or port to starboard, controlled by the special effects technicians operating the rig. Meanwhile, cinematographer Don Burgess and his team used a wide array of camera cranes, mounting heads and other special equipment to film these technically complicated scenes: a Technocrane, Felix Crane, Libra Head, mini head, and a 360 roll cage, among others.

For the portion of the flight in which Whitaker inverts the plane 180 degrees so he can gain some control, the cabin segment of the plane was positioned inside a "rotisserie rig" - a term the filmmakers used due to its functional resemblance to the rotating cooking device - a circular ring that could spin the cabin 360 degrees. The custom-designed rig, had to be strong and secure enough to hold the 11,500-pound weight of that section of plane and its passengers. With the aircraft fit into steel rings and rollers, the film's special effects technicians were able to control a section of the plane and actually roll it around and invert it. Since the rotisserie rig couldn't handle the weight of a full-length, fully loaded plane, the cabin segments were filmed in two 14-row sections, each with 25 passengers per segment, and then married by the visual effects team to create the extended entirety of the plane interior. "We custom designed the three hundred and sixty degree roll-over rig to achieve the plane flipping upside down and all that action that takes place while the plane is inverted," says award-winning special effects supervisor and longtime Zemeckis team member Michal Lantieri.

The effects supervisor and his team had to design the rigs to support the weight of the plane - the cabin section of which was fashioned from an MD-80 airplane weighing 7800 pounds - in addition to the weight of the passengers. The design of the revolving rig also required that the cabin be open on both ends to allow for a camera crane to flow in and out while the cabin rolled around it.

During the days of inverted plane filming, the passengers - mostly stunt personnel - were fully inverted many times for up to two minutes per take. Charlie Croughwell, the film's stunt coordinator, compares filming of the flight sequences to "a roller coaster ride." He states: "We had to find people that could handle a roller coaster ride for eight hours each day, who could handle being upside down all day long, day in and day out - and make it exciting." Since the flight is a short regional trip from Orlando to Atlanta, it was essential to the believability for the stunt personnel to look like regular people. "The biggest challenge was that Bob Zemeckis did not want stunt guys that looked like your standard stunt people," he adds. "They should be just a wide variety of people that look like they just came from Disney World."

The professional stunt personnel were not the only ones who endured the inverted plane sequences. Croughwell notes that Denzel Washington did too. "Denzel is great - he wanted to do his own stuff," says Croughwell. "He doesn't want to have someone else in there doing his stunts, and it's great that he approaches it from that point-of-view. Obviously if we felt something was going to be too dangerous for him we would talk with him about it and work through it, but he was a trooper."

To make sure his ordinary-looking ensemble of stunt people could endure the days of filming, Croughwell and his team conducted several pre-filming safety tests. "We tested with people hanging upside down to see the lengths of time that was safely possible, and to note the effects that hanging upside down can cause," he explains. "All the blood rushes to your brain. And after sitting on a plane for eight hours, there are all kinds of circulation issues you have to deal with. So we had to deal with all those physical issues."

Suspending actors, stunt people and sets in gravity-defying positions while also placing cameras and equipment was a tricky bit of choreography that had to be accomplished in lightning speed. Preparation on every level became more vital than usual.

"We actually hung everyone upside-down by their seatbelts. I think the safety advisors said we could hang people that way for a minute. So we shot everything we could in 60 seconds and then we had to turn everybody right side up again. Then we would turn the plane upside-down again and do it all over. Everything had to be done in pieces and of course we didn't want to hurt anybody. Those sequences were very complicated and the Pre-Vis was essential so we knew where to to put the cameras and what we were looking for. And we really studied what would be the best angles to give the illusion of the plane turning upside down and, and diving. We needed to give that illusion the plane dropping through the sky with a camera inside the cockpit. A lot of that is camera work to make it look exciting. And hanging people upside down a minute at a time," Zemeckis says.

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