Ever since the dawn of cinema, people have been flying by wire.
In Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis, for example, shots of flying machines soaring over the film’s iconic cityscapes were achieved by mounting miniature planes on taut wires. A similar technique was used in the original King Kong in 1933, for which a tiny squadron of biplanes was inched along its guide wires one painstaking frame at a time.
Then as now, there were plenty of amateur filmmakers keen to re-create the kinds of sequences they’d ogled in the blockbusters of the day. Luckily for fans of miniature aircraft shots, cinematographer Jerome H. Ash was on hand to offer advice.
Here’s an extract from Ash’s article Substandard Miniature Shots, published in the May 1936 edition of American Cinematographer:
“I think that by far the most satisfactory way to handle miniature plane shots is to hang the plane from wires, as the professionals do. To begin with, stretch three parallel wires well above the path you want the plane to take: these are strictly for support. From these, hang a little T-shaped wooden framework, on pulleys or eyelets; this supports and guides the plane. From the framework, three wires descend to the plane – one to each wing, and one to the tail.”
Ash is at pains to point out to his enthusiastic amateur readers that the wires mustn’t show up on camera. If only a little camouflage is required, he recommends a light application of blue vitriol. A more extreme solution involves painting the wires with alternating black and white stripes, each around half an inch in length – Ash likens this bold approach to the dazzle camouflage used on WWII battleships.
Model aircraft suspended thus are hardly going to be doing aerobatics, but they should at least be capable of running through a few basic manoeuvres:
“The three-point suspension prevents the plane from turning or flying sidewise. The supporting wires may be rigidly fixed to the frame for some types of action, but you’ll have more complete control of the model if the wires extend, like puppet-strings, to where someone standing beside the camera can manipulate them, altering the level and the inclination of the plane. With a little practice, you can make the plane land, take off, climb, glide, stall or sideslip, as well as “flying” level.”
Wire rigs remained in favour with visual effects artists throughout the twentieth century. Even during the 1980s, after Star Wars had kickstarted the trend of shooting miniatures under computer control in front of bluescreens, there were still people around who preferred to string things up the old-fashioned way – notably the effects team behind the gritty flying sequences seen in the 1983 film The Right Stuff.
For scenes in The Right Stuff where USAF test pilots push various jet and rocket craft to the limit, director Philip Kaufman turned to the newly-formed USFX, led by Gary Gutierrez. The first footage produced by the effects team was rejected by Kaufman specifically because they’d been shot using motion control and so lacked the visceral feel he was after.
With the production on temporary hold, Gutierrez started experimenting with different ways of creating the desired hand-held look. One of his offbeat test shots was achieved using a wheelchair to ride the camera past the miniature aircraft. Another saw the model jets attached to helium balloons.
The wackiest of all involved hurling the miniature planes out of a top-floor window.
In the end, a variety of tricks were used to put the magnificent flying machines of The Right Stuff on the screen. Most involved wires and mechanical rigs, enhanced with fan-blown smoke, and photographed using telephoto lenses so that everything looked shot from the hip.
Interviewed in Cinefex 14, in Adam Eisenberg’s article Low-Tech Effects, Gutierrez remarked:
‘The amount of delight [Kaufman] got from the success of any shot was directly proportional to how funky the method that accomplished it.”
Sometimes funky, wire rigs can also be finely-crafted pieces of high-tolerance engineering. Take the beautiful flying rig created by model mechanical supervisor Tad Krzanowski to put the pint-sized flying saucers of Batteries Not Included through their paces.
Capable of operating both under computerised motion control and live on set, Krzanowski’s multi-wire rig proved so versatile that director Matthew Robbins was able to capture around 30% of his flying saucer scenes in-camera. And producer Steven Spielberg was impressed enough by the results to remark, “I can’t tell the wire work from the motion control work.”
There’s yet more impressive wire-work in the early films of James Cameron. The Hunter-Killers seen in the future war sequences of both The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day are strictly fly-by-wire machines. For the most part, so too is the Colonial Marines dropship from Aliens.
As digital techniques have advanced, wires have blended more and more into the background. To paraphrase Ultron, digital characters got no strings. Nevertheless, wire-work remains an essential tool for effects artists … especially when it comes to flying a person around.
For many of the zero-g scenes in Gravity, Sandra Bullock was flown around using a custom harness created by special effects supervisor Neil Corbould and his team. Boasting no less than 12 wires under individual servomotor control, the sophisticated rig was capable of turning its astronaut payload on a dime.
With Gravity, as with other modern movies, digital brings its own special benefit – you no longer have to worry about hiding those pesky wires with dazzle camouflage. The more prominent the cables, the easier it is for visual effects artists to paint them out.
However, the future of human flight – in the movies at least – may lie not in wires but robots. Specialist companies like Robomoco – whose latest work can be seen in the upcoming Pan and In the Heart of the Sea – now offer a range of precision robots capable of flying artists, stuntmen and props through an extraordinary range of movement.
Watch Robomoco’s robot “Leia” in action:
So are the days of flying by wire numbered?
Perhaps not. Mad Max: Fury Road built an entire publicity campaign based on its use of practical stunts and effects. Even the new Star Wars movie has jumped on the old-school bandwagon, with director J.J. Abrams asserting at Star Wars Celebration 2015 that, “Building as much as we could [for real] was a mandate.”
Who’s to say the grand old tradition of wire-work can’t be part of this resurgence?
Who’s to say movie heroes won’t once more find themselves flying by wire?
“The Right Stuff” photograph copyright © 1983 by The Ladd Company. “Batteries Not Included” photograph copyright © 1987 by Universal City Studios Inc. “Aliens” photograph copyright © 1986 by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. “Gravity” photograph copyright © 2013 by Warner Bros. Entertainment.