When miniatures and CGI met in the sky: the vfx of Turbulence

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Remember Turbulence? It was a much-hyped disaster flick set on a passenger 747 starring Lauren Holly and Ray Liotta, and released 20 years ago. The film may not by one for the history books, but its visual effects – a hybrid of miniatures and digital techniques – came right at a time where film VFX were transitioning heavily to CGI.

In honour of the film’s 20th anniversary, vfxblog spoke to visual effects supervisor Mark Vargo, who was also credited as a second unit DOP, about how he and teams from Boss Film Studios, Pacific Title Digital and other effects shops handled the work – including depicting the jetliner amidst a wild storm, having it flip over, and an exciting crash into a rooftop carpark. Included are several behind the scenes images and clips of the miniatures work.

Need a refresher? Watch the trailer:

vfxblog: It’s 20 years ago, which is still in the early days of CGI – where was Turbulence in the mix of visual effects techniques?

Mark Vargo: It’s one of those projects that’s right on the cusp of the studios not being quite ready to go digital, but any of us that had had some experience with it thus far were trying to do as much as possible. And so the movie’s kind of a wonderful hybrid of models and miniatures and towards the end with the F-14s – those were all digital airplanes. And then we did a lot of air-to-air stuff shooting a real 747 from a Learjet.

vfxblog: Let’s talk about that Learjet footage – how did you actually tackle those from a technical point of view?

Mark Vargo: Resolution was the hardest thing because we were using a periscope camera that was not very sharp. And we were shooting just four perf, it wasn’t VistaVision or anything like that. So really just maintaining the integrity of the image – we would over-expose a little bit, get as much detail as possible. But I was never real happy with the quality of the aerial footage, so what we ended up doing is degrading the visual effects footage as well so it would inter-cut okay. You know we had to use filters and we actually double-duped, that is, made an inter-positive and an internegative of some of the stuff we shot on stage just to match the infrastructure, which would of course be easy to do today. But in those days you would literally be cutting from a real 747 to a model shot.

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Boss Film crafted the miniature 747. Photo courtesy Berton Pierce.

One thing we would do is create these dives by – one plane would go one way and the other plane would go the other way to increase the intensity without undercranking. I don’t like undercranking, so most of it was shot at 24 fps and maybe at the most 22 fps.

But the biggest problem with the movie, and me and [cinematographer] Lloyd Ahern commiserated on this, was that it was a white airplane. It was the only plane we could get, and the studio didn’t want to paint that 747. Can you imagine how expensive that would be? So we always complained about it being as if the plane was like mashed potatoes on white bread sandwich, that kind of thing. It was hard to get contrast, basically.

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A cockpit set surrounded by greenscreen for Turbulence.

But at the end, at night, when it landed in that rainstorm – which was a real rainstorm – it was very helpful that it was a white aircraft because at that time the film stocks were still only 400 and we didn’t really want to push it. So there was enough exposure there at 2-8 when it landed. And it was a really great thing that it did land, because on the night that they did the whole sequence where she got off the plane, it happened to rain, it was in LA, and I was saying to myself well what are the chances that we’ll get another rainstorm? And we actually got a really huge storm. I mean, it’s like you maybe get like three of those a year.

vfxblog: You mentioned this being a hybrid film in terms of its visual effects, but how did the decision to use miniatures happen?

Mark Vargo: Boss Film had a 747 already built, a big one, and it was something they used again for Air Force One. It had this incredible wingspan, something like 20 feet. They had to do a couple of different pick points for a couple of the moves the plane had to do, and then we decided to do it orange or tangerine screen, and with a backlight pass as well, the idea being that it would be easier to composite. The plane was shot motion control and then digitally composited.

Above: Interviews with some of Boss Film’s model builders on Turbulence. Video courtesy Berton Pierce. Photo and footage credit: Rick Hilgner. Additional photo credits: Bruce Macrae and Greg Jein. (As seen in Berton Pierce’s Sense of Scale documentary).

vfxblog: The 747 was filmed on a marionette rig, wasn’t it?

Mark Vargo: It was. It was a very heavy plane, and the screen was enormous as well. I know that we had to patch in a lot of orange screen around it. And that stage wasn’t that big either. I think I remember talking to them about, well, can we get a bigger stage to do this in? And everybody wanted to because, I think, for one of the shots I think they had to take the stage door off and build a canopy outside to get far enough back for a wide shot of that model. And then we had a smaller model, like a six foot one for the extreme long shots.

vfxblog: What other kind of practical effects were involved?

Mark Vargo: We had this enormous main cabin that was probably 80 feet long that was on a gimbal, and a particular section could flip all the way around. So that was the most expensive thing, but that was also done practically. I mean, it actually did a 360.

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The 360 gimbal.

vfxblog: One notable aspect of the plane shots was the way it would go through clouds, and also kind of disturb them. Can you talk about how that was done with the multiplane technique?

Mark Vargo: The clouds were huge cotton ball things, and they were on trolleys. In the wide shots of the model 747 going through the storm, those were just like huge cotton ball or fibrefill clouds on trolleys. That was kind of my idea to make clouds because right before I worked on Turbulence I did the new TriStar opening with the horse and the wings. Remember the digital version of that? Well I shot that with a backing and fake clouds that we had move, and I was sold on that. I mean, it looked real. It looked hyper-real, perfect for a movie logo, but that’s only because we lit it that way and I figured we could make these cloud banks.

Well, they looked at me and they thought I was just nuts. But I said no, it could be really, really dramatic, and we could put flashbulbs in there and create some lightning and actually get, for the amount of money that it’s gonna cost to build these cotton ball clouds for background plates, we can use it 20 or 30 times and it’s really going to amortise into being something that’s affordable and cheap to make. And there was a whole level of compositing and matte painting behind that too.

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vfxblog: There’s that signature shot of the plane hitting the car park as the landing gear comes down and it then takes the truck with it – what was involved in just making that shot possible?

Mark Vargo: We did it practically. It was a 707 landing gear, it wasn’t 747, and we had the Jeep and we had the rig and it was on this gantry thing and we set it up in a real parking lot and had the lights of the plane coming towards us. That was an optical. It was really only two angles on the real jet hitting the truck, and my biggest fear was not the scale of it working because it was one-on-one scale, but the speed of it.

When you think about that today, because the stall speed of a 747 is like 170 knots, and when you think about something that big, that heavy, that massive, hitting like a mini pickup truck, it would have literally just obliterated it. And so it was a lot to ask, but since nobody had ever seen it before you say, well this is what it looked like. And because it was so violent and I think so very well edited people just bought it. And then we shot the other cars off of that parking structure at LAX, actually catapulted them, those are real cars being thrown off the roof.

Above: A series of the aborted landing shots from Boss Film. Video courtesy Johnathan Banta.

vfxblog: What about explosions in that shot?

Mark Vargo: We set off explosions. Yeah there’s no substitute for that. Just gas going up. The caveat was it would probably only work once. We didn’t know what was going to happen to that landing gear, and there was very little cleanup. In fact, I don’t even think there was any cleanup. In those days roto’ing live action plates was a real dicey, dicey thing and I know there was no enhancement added to it. And then the F-14 guy had to shoot it off the landing gear on final approach there, which is a lot to ask but I mean it was okay. I mean it’s, what are you gonna do? You gotta get rid of the truck before you can land.

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Landing gear and jeep miniature. Photo courtesy Berton Pierce. Image credit: Bruce Macrae.

vfxblog: Some of the visual effects would these days be considered ‘invisible effects’ such as some of the interiors of the 747 done by Pacific Title Digital. What do you think made those scenes work so successfully?

Mark Vargo: Well, we shot a lot of it not doing much compositing at all. A lot of the stuff we did of them flying was actually at LAX with a black behind the cockpit shooting through the windows of that 747. And then there were several scenes with greenscreen, but basically if you’re sitting in a cockpit at night as I did – I was able to go from Los Angeles to Seattle, which is where we based out of for some of the storm footage – if you’re not looking down at the ground and off at the horizon it’s absolutely black. And that’s with the naked eye. So we just went with that rather than putting something that wouldn’t match.

vfxblog: Looking back to that time, what do you think is a lasting memory from working on Turbulence?

Mark Vargo: You know, one of the big things was we didn’t want it to be a bunch of static shots. We wanted it to be as kinetic and as visceral as possible with the grace of a big plane put against a big storm put against a maniac inside, and I think we succeeded. I really do.

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The 747 under construction at Boss. Photo courtesy Berton Pierce.

And I think that it was that next step towards convincing people that there’s a lot more flexibility in digital effects. Yes, I still think there’s a place for models, even today. That whole approach to that hotel in LA, and the karaoke bar where the landing gear goes through the top of the roof, which was all done practically. I thought that looked pretty good for the time – a one-take thing. But I thought it was a wonderful hybrid project where as each visual effects movie further on occurred there would be a little less practical physical effects and a little more digital effects.

Thanks to Mark Vargo for participating in this interview. Check out his website at http://markvargo.com.

Thanks to Berton Pierce for supplying imagery and video. Check out his Sense of Scale documentary at https://www.facebook.com/SenseOfScaleDocumentary.

Thanks to Johnathan Banta for discussion about the film and supplying video. Check out his website at http://agraphafx.com.

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