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Can It Fly?
Filmmakers Call on Aviation Experts to Make "Disney's Planes" Fly Making "Disney's Planes" fly -- literally -- called for a unique combination of research, collaboration and a lot of hard work. "We found early on that with tires on the ground, the characters felt real," says Hall. "But once they took off -- once we had to make something turn in a three-dimensional space -- it was significantly harder. At first, they looked like toys hanging on strings in the air."

Filmmakers called on Jason McKinley ("Red Tails") to serve as flight specialist for the film. McKinley, creator, producer and director of the "Dogfights" series for the History Channel, specializes in designing flying effects for film and television. "With every flying scene, there's a giant sky," says McKinley. "You're flying around at 300-400 miles an hour and the space you take up is huge. So we wanted to get that massive feeling of space and speed to the audience."

Charged initially with getting the team from the storyboard phase of production through the pre-visualization -- or previs -- phase, McKinley was ultimately responsible for making the flight scenes look authentic and, as Hall puts it, cool. "Jason helped the team make these scenes look real -- the inertia of the planes moving through the air, the weight of the aircraft on the turns, the landings and the takeoffs all became so cool. We were amazed by what Jason was able to bring to these sequences."

McKinley's key strategy reflects Lasseter's truth to materials: real size, real speed. "The planes have to be a real size, the set has to be real size, and you have to fly the plane at the speed it can actually fly," he says. "The human eye is very attuned to motion -- we've all seen a bird fly or thrown a ball. We've built in our brains a library of motions and how those motions are supposed to look. The second you veer from the laws of physics, everybody can tell that it doesn't look right."

Prior to joining the team behind "Disney's Planes," McKinley had already done extensive research to understand the core capabilities of individual aircraft -- maximum turn rate, maximum roll rate, maximum speed. "It's important to be aware of the limitations of each plane," he says. "El Chu is bigger than Dusty. His turns will be unique. We wanted to avoid letting a plane turn too fast or roll too fast. When they do that, they start to look fake -- like models on strings."

McKinley applied his knowledge to nearly 800 flight shots in the film -- his favorite sequence, however, is Dusty's entry into the racing world when he competes in the North American Wings Around the Globe time trials. "This is the moment that he changes," says McKinley. "He goes from being a crop duster to becoming a legitimate air racer. We wanted to make it a huge moment and we ended up with a 50- to 60-shot sequence."

McKinley's expertise also influenced how the sets were built for the flight scenes and even camera placement. Thomas Leavitt, aerial previs artist, says that the sets were critical to realistic flight. "We realized that if we didn't have a foreground, a mid-ground and a distant background, the appearance of flight would just fall apart."

The solution was often a matter of expanding the sets to allow for the real speed of the aircraft. Leavitt adds that the sets ultimately helped in terms of camera placement, since even animated films have to position cameras in places that are real and logical. "We might put a camera on a silo on the ground, stick it on the wing of the plane or on a plane that could be flying alongside it. It's like complex dance choreography when we map out the best placement of characters and cameras in a single flight sequence."

One of the hardest aspects of applying authenticity to the flight scenes, say filmmakers, was in maintaining the needs of the story. "Our characters are having conversations while they're flying," says Leavitt. "Conversations naturally involve gestures, which would be fine, but with a plane flying at a real-life speed, a simple gesture would alter his entire flight path. So we had to work hard to find the right balance."

Helping to ensure the authenticity of the flight was Sean Bautista, who became a licensed pilot in high school, went on to fly a variety of aircraft -- from Cessnas and Pipers to F4s, F16s and commercial 747s -- and has logged several thousand flight hours during the course of his career. "I was able to answer technical questions like, 'How 13do you up the horsepower on a turboprop crop duster?'"

Bautista showed the production team how to boost Dusty's competiveness through specialized maneuvers he might master before entering the racing circuit. He lent his flying expertise to the production when it came to the look of the assorted aircraft and the flight itself -- taking some members of the production crew on research flights. He also helped authenticate some of the dialogue. "We'd go out to lunch and they'd flip on the tape recorder and ask me to talk like a military pilot or traffic controller. These guys don't talk in normal jargon -- it's sort of shorthand and harder to understand. But incorporating the real thing really makes it feel right."

Filmmakers opted to record actual airplanes to bolster the validity of the flight scenes. "We recorded crop dusters for Dusty, some old bi-planes, a twin engine aircraft and even a Navy F-18," says McKinley, who adds that watching the planes approach at 200 miles per hour during the recording process was an exhilarating experience.

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