By IAN FAILES
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
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By IAN FAILES
In the past four decades, there have been several Superman film and television projects, but perhaps none is as fondly remembered as Richard Donner’s 1978 movie starring Christopher Reeve as the caped superhero.
Superman made use of the latest in practical, miniature and optical effects of the time to convince audiences that, as the film’s tagline heralded, ‘You’ll believe a man can fly.’ The film was ultimately awarded a Special Achievement Academy Award for Visual Effects (presented to Les Bowie, Colin Chilvers, Denys Coop, Roy Field, Derek Meddings and Zoran Perisic) in recognition of its contribution to VFX.
Creative Supervisor and Director of Special Effects Colin Chilvers was a key member of the team involved in enabling Superman to fly, and in accomplishing several on-set gags, such as the helicopter crash, earthquake scenes and even an unused tornado sequence. He shared some of his most memorable moments from the set with VFX Voice.
Finding a convincing way to show Reeve taking to the skies was one of Chilvers’ first challenges. A number of options had already been explored by other filmmakers, including having the actor skydive from a plane with a parachute under his cape. Chilvers even tried a Superman mannequin launched into the air by an air canon and a miniature remote-controlled Superman doll. Ultimately, several techniques would be employed, including filming the actor on wires and a mechanical arm, and using bluescreen compositing and front projection.
“We had this huge problem initially,” states Chilvers, “because, well, Superman’s outfit is blue, and how were we going to shoot against a bluescreen? But, very cleverly, [Creative Supervisor of Optical Visual Effects] Roy Field had worked out that we could actually use a different color blue for Chris’s outfit, and that after he pulled the matte, he could then change that blue input in the final color grading – he could change the blue back to the right blue.”
Another artisan Chilvers credits in making Superman fly is Zoran Perisic, who devised the bespoke ‘Zoptic’ optical process for shooting a front-screen projection with two zoom lenses, one on the projector and one on the camera, that were locked together. This enabled zooming in on Reeve to give the feeling that he was flying towards or away from camera. With the bluescreen and optical technologies at their disposal, the special effects team could then devise ways to secure Reeve, and others who he sometimes carries such as Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), while acting out the flying scenes.
“We built a rig that had a hydraulic gimbal on the end that we put Christopher on,” explains Chilvers. “He had this fiberglass tray that was molded to his body. For the camera, we slung it on a counter-weighted wire so that the camera and the front-screen projector could move from side to side and up and down, which effectively made it look like Chris was moving from side to side and up and down.”
“I’m pretty sure that when we put Christopher on wires and took him up in the air, he thought he was really flying. There were some great stuntmen, but Chris was always the best one to do it. He was a pilot himself, so he had a good idea of what an aircraft would do. He was just amazing like that.”
—Colin Chilvers, Creative Supervisor/Director of Special Effects
“We were all working so hard, but separately we didn’t necessarily see how it was all being joined together. And suddenly we saw it and we knew, wow, this is gonna work.”
—Colin Chilvers, Creative Supervisor/Director of Special Effects
The flying scenes were not all high tech, however. Some on-set shots involved traditional wire work, while others even involved a seesaw-like contraption with counterweights. “Christopher would stand on that,” says Chilvers, “and there’d be a couple of burly guys that, as Christopher bent down to take off, would push down on the other end of the seesaw, and he would go up in the air, and above him there’d be a bar for him to pull himself up on.”
The filmmakers had found ways to depict Reeve’s body in flight, but there was still one challenge remaining: how to get Superman’s cape to billow as if flapping in the wind. Nowadays, of course, that kind of thing can be achieved with CG cloth simulation, but during the making of Superman it had to be a practical effect. Having tried a multitude of wind machines, Chilver’s team noticed that the cape simply wrapped around the actor. A different solution was needed, and that came from Creative Supervisor of Mattes and Composites Les Bowie.
“Les came up with this idea of making a remote-controlled rig out of an electric motor, with fishing pole-like rods that would fit on Christopher’s back,” outlines Chilvers. “The rods, which were attached to the end of the cape, would flick up and down. Then, with a bit of wind as well, it really did sell the fact that the cape was flapping in the wind from the speed Superman was flying. Incidentally, Les also came up with the vibrator on the wires holding Christopher. If you could vibrate them enough, you wouldn’t see the wires because of the way we were running the film at 24 frames per second.
“I’m pretty sure,” Chilvers add, “that when we put Christopher on wires and took him up in the air, he thought he was really flying. There were some great stuntmen, but Chris was always the best one to do it. He was a pilot himself, so he had a good idea of what an aircraft would do. He was just amazing like that.”
One of Superman’s first public displays of his superpowers takes place in the movie when he rescues Lois Lane from a helicopter that has crashed atop a building in Metropolis. A number of set pieces and miniatures were utilized to film both the crash and the subsequent rescue. For the crash, which included rotor blades still spinning dangerously, Chilvers’ team rebuilt a real helicopter airframe, and then rigged it to smash into a glass enclosure and fall on its side towards the edge of the building roof. The spinning blades portion of the effect was achieved with an interesting sleight of hand.
“We noticed that with helicopters, the blades are going so fast that you don’t really see two-thirds of the blade,” observes Chilvers. “If your blades were, say, 30 feet long, you really only saw 10 feet of the blade that was coming out from the center. So we tested some blades that were the right width and thickness, but they were only 10 feet wide, 20 feet in total.”
This meant the ‘fake’ blades could be spun at the desired speed – matching what might normally have looked like a helicopter taking off – without worrying about the extending blade hitting a piece of the set or any cast or crew. “That was the illusion,” says Chilvers. “I don’t know if anyone would ever notice that they were actually a third of the size that they should be.”
Chilvers oversaw many gags that made complex effects seem simple. At one point, Superman seeks out villain Lex Luthor’s (Gene Hackman) lair, entering the subterranean space by drilling himself through the street. The special effects requirements here were that it had to appear as if the character was spinning at an astounding rate.
“The sequence was shot on a stage that had been lifted up about 10 or 12 feet,” details Chilvers. “We had an elevator contraption with Chris on it and a rig hidden by the cape, so that when we spun him around, centrifugal force wouldn’t throw him off. There was a floor that would disintegrate, and we’d be waiting below.”
Another simple approach to a complex problem was taken for a shot of Superman pushing a boulder that starts an avalanche after the Hoover Dam has burst, in an effort to stop the flow of water. The entire sequence made use of practical live action, and of miniature effects (supervised by Model Effects Director and Creator Derek Meddings), with the boulder push being a moment actually directed by Chilvers.
“That was an interesting practical effect because, in fact, it was a foreground miniature, and Christopher was nowhere near that rock when it goes over and tumbles. We just lined up the camera so that it would look like he was pushing it and then tumbled it down. That was a big part of how effects were done in those days.”
There were countless other special effects that Chilvers and his department worked on for Superman (and for Superman II, which was largely filmed at the same time). Some of the supervisor’s favorite effects shots ended up being cut from the final product, including a tornado scene.
“The tornado we made was about three inches in diameter,” says Chilvers. “We used a round tank with dry ice and some fans blowing from above and fans pushing air around, and then all of a sudden a tornado would suddenly ‘zip’ up. We actually shot a lot of footage of it at 120 frames a second. It looked like a tornado. It was amazing. That was, to me that was a huge achievement.”
This kind of ingenuity was prevalent throughout the shoot, although Chilvers also reflects on how grueling filming two movies at once came to be. Luckily, the English crew – which had been shooting at Pinewood Studios throughout 1977 – was emboldened when director Richard Donner somehow secured and screened a print of George Lucas’ Star Wars before it had been released in the U.K. Donner also showed the crew a highly motivational edit of Superman footage that had been shot so far.
“I think [the Superman footage] was also put together to show Warner Bros. where their money was going,” says Chilvers, “but they [also] showed it to us. [During] one of the iconic shots of Christopher taking off in the ice palace, we all cheered and clapped when he flew by like that. It was like a shot in the arm. It was a rejuvenation for the whole crew that, yes, it was working and we had a great movie coming up. We were all working so hard, but separately we didn’t necessarily see how it was all being joined together. And suddenly we saw it and we knew, wow, this is gonna work.”