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
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
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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