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
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
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
"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
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