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The Ground Crew
Given the title of the movie, the centerpiece of the production was the terminal itself. The filmmakers recognized early on that it would be impossible to shoot the movie in a real airport, given the security constraints. Instead, production designer Alex McDowell was charged with designing and constructing a completely operational, full-sized airport terminal in which almost all of the filming would be accomplished. At the tail end of principal photography, some interior and exterior scenes were filmed at Montreal's Mirabel Airport, where United Airlines lent the production a Boeing 747 for one pivotal scene.

Spielberg, who had collaborated with McDowell on "Minority Report,” notes, "The only marching order I gave Alex was to say, ‘Look, the star of this movie is Viktor Navorski. It's a character piece, but the name of the movie is ‘The Terminal,' so the setting the character is in has to look like a modern international terminal.'”

McDowell designed the terminal set, first in the computer and then as a scale model, which allowed Spielberg to pre-plan his shots using a little periscope camera that enabled him to "walk” visually through the airport set.

During the design phase, Spielberg's longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski collaborated with McDowell on designing what would become a state-of-the-art lighting system into the plans. McDowell affirms, "As much as anything, the stage is a giant light box, so it was extremely important to build the lighting design into the set from the very beginning. This wasn't a case of the set being built and the director of photograpy coming in and saying, ‘I want light here, here and here.' Janusz was involved in integrating the lighting into the set design from its inception.”

While the terminal in which Viktor is detained is presumably at New York's JFK International Airport, McDowell wanted it to be more of an amalgam of several international terminals in order to give it a feeling of familiarity to almost any frequent or not-so-frequent flyer. He and his design team researched airports from coast to coast in the United States, as well as in a number of European capitals.

The terminal set was built from the ground up in a massive hanger located in Palmdale, California's aerospace alley. Construction took approximately 20 weeks and involved more than 200 artisans and workers. Unlike a typical soundstage set, the terminal was built as a freestanding piece of real architecture, a literal three-stories-high atrium-style building within a building.

The self-supporting structure was made of steel throughout, with glass windows and 60,000 square feet of genuine granite flooring. An entire infrastructure of electrical wiring and fiber optic cables, needed to power the set and the flight information displays, was buried beneath the flooring and ran the length and breadth of the set. Among the many notable features of the terminal set were four working escalators, which were among the first actual escalators ever built specifically for a movie set.

The reality of the terminal brought another team into the mix. McDowell explains, "Normally, when you're designing a temporary set, you don't have to concern yourself too much with engineering. In this case, every single welded joint had to be inspected. Every drawing that came out of the art department had to be vetted by a team of engineers, so that was a different experience for all of us.”

The design did not end at the terminal's periphery of large glass picture windows. The windows overlook an airfield, which was depicted on one of the largest matte paintings ever created. The gigantic backdrop, which wrapped around three sides of the set, was fixed with 2,000 miniature lights that were illuminated for night scenes. A blue screen was only utilized when the filmmakers wanted to show an actual plane pulling up to the terminal.

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