Here’s how it was made, including the last minute changes.
This is a story about a single, crazy shot in the movie Stealth, released back in 2005.
It’s the shot where, during an aerial dogfight, the camera pans from a piloted futuristic F/A-37 Talon fighter jet over to the even more futuristic unmanned artificially intelligent ‘EDI’ jet while EDI does a tumble-turn roll over the Talon to reveal a spinning barrel of missiles on its underside until one launches.
In the film, this insane shot goes by in the blink of an eye – indeed, the whole dogfight is incredibly (and deliberately) frenetic – but on YouTube, you can watch the missile launch over and over.
Which I did.
Then, because this moment is just so cool, I decided to ask some of the original artists from Digital Domain, the visual effects studio behind the shot, how it came to be. They told me how it was planned, then changed, then pulled off.
Setting the scene: visualizing a dogfight
We’ll get to that missile shot shortly, but first you need to know that Stealth was filmed at Fox Studios in Sydney, Australia. A group of Digital Domain crew-members were able to travel there for the shoot in 2004. Planning for the dogfight scene would involve significant previs, as well as some more old-school methods.
“We were down there literally with toy planes in our hands, planning out this whole dogfight sequence,” recalls Kelly Port, Digital Domain’s digital effects supervisor on Stealth, who worked with overall visual effects supervisor Joel Hynek. “And of course we were making sound effects as we’re doing all this! But we also had a great in-house previs team at Digital Domain.”
The plan was that previs would both inform the shoot, especially for cockpit shots, and even drive a specialized gimbal rig directly with previs data. These cockpit shots, for actors piloting the Talons, were achieved with a multi-ton gimbal rig on air bearings that had been built by special effects supervisor John Frazier. It came into play for many scenes, including the lengthy dogfight sequence.
“The gimbal itself was just the front end of the cockpit,” explains Port. “It could do at least two or three, if not multiple, continuous 360s spinning around. It could do 45 degrees up and down. It had yaw, pitch, roll. And it had this incredible computer controlled light on the top of the stage where we could roll the gimbal where we could roll the gimbal with an actor in the cockpit. Plus there was this Spydercam rig used to film it.”
“That was kind of an insane thing to do,” notes Brian Pohl, who was Digitial Domain’s CG previsualization lead, in relation to the previs being the rig driver. “We tried, though, and we actually got it to work, but there were a couple of problems. First, we were flying the Spydercam down these wires and we could only achieve a certain speed. So we’d have to counter-rotate and basically re-engineer all the previs shots to make the speed additive by adding in some movement from the cockpit.
“But that introduced the problem of breaking the camera. We couldn’t slow the camera down fast enough like we could in previs. The camera would get up to speed, hit speed and then it would have to slow down. Too many times – in the previs – the camera was basically colliding with the actor, which obviously you can’t do.”
For the dogfight sequence alone, Pohl’s his team would work on the previs for nearly four months. “The dog fight sequence was the first sequence we got on from the very beginning and it took us the longest,” he says. “It was where we were getting our footing for the whole movie and trying to figure out the flight language. They brought in air force personnel to critique our animators’ flight routines. They were like, ‘You’re pulling too many Gs! That’s not how the flaps work. No, no, no, no, no…’. That was more for the Talons, but with EDI he could do a lot more things.”
The art of a (crazy) missile launch, and then changing it
Like many shots in the dogfight, the roll of EDI and the subsequent missile launch were previs’d with particular dynamism in mind, as well as helping to tell a particular story point. “With that roll and the missile bay opening up,” shares Pohl, “we wanted in previs to show EDI had all these different missiles that he was equipped with. He could basically select any type of missile he wanted to fire out of that pod. We were thinking of it like a Western; it was, like, ‘Cocks gun and, boom!’.”
“The director loved this over-the-top style and that lent itself well to this missile shot which was almost like a revolver with the spinning barrel idea,” adds Port. “It was just this really cool moment, as if you popped out the barrel and spun it around and then you’d shoot the missile like a bullet.”
Then, as the dogfight sequence shot moved from previs to principal photography and into visual effects production at Digital Domain, there was a problem, as then CG animator Patrick Perez identifies. “What we had originally – and it had gone all the way through previs and into final animation – just wasn’t working. The director wanted to re-conceive that whole section.”
The issue was that originally around three or four separate shots represented the action leading up to the missile launch. The idea was to try to compress it down to give as much information as possible, as quickly as possible.
“I remember saying,” relates Perez, “‘Hey, l’ve got something in mind that might work for trying to tell the information for all these things to happen relatively quickly.’ We had to try and show there was this threat from the other planes, so at first you see the missiles coming towards camera and then it just does this – slam! – back to reveal that we’re right next to the Talon. In the end it was really a tossed together last minute shot that happened to work.”
“At that point it was during the actual animation phase,” continues Perez. “So we were doing what we call the ‘anim renders.’ It was actually rendered out with a very basic motion blur and really simple shading, no bells or whistles involved. But you could get a good sense of how the shot was going to work and how it might look at the final. It wasn’t quite as low-res as previs usually was. It was just a step above that.”
Into the digital domain
And so that new ‘combo-shot’ became the final – crazy – moment in the film, setting the scene for EDI’s deadly abilities. It also demonstrated, of course, Digital Domain’s VFX artistry; in addition to co-ordinating the previs, the studio had also developed new tools for generating terrain, clouds and gaseous simulations in the final shots, while even also incorporating miniatures, something the studio had become renowned for over the years.
“In fact, this is one of the last films we ended up using a lot of miniatures on and we still have a lot of those miniatures here in the office today,” reflects Port. “So what was really cool about this film was that it was crossing that transition where Digital Domain still had a miniature/model department and was going deep into the CG world as well. It was a nice hybrid of history and technology.”Sign up to the weekly b&a VFX newsletter