Cinefex Vault #10 – The Terminal

by Joe Fordham

"The Terminal" - from the Cinefex Vault

In 2004, I leapt at the chance to join a gaggle of journalists attending a press tour on the set of Steven Spielberg’s quirky Homeland Security romance, The Terminal. Early morning, we were bussed miles out into the Antelope Valley, north of Los Angeles, where Dennis Weaver was once menaced by an 18-wheeler Peterbilt diesel truck.

A crowded airport terminal serves as home for Viktor Navorski in The Terminal, a DreamWorks Pictures film directed by Steven Spielberg. Photo copyright © 2004 DreamWorks Pictures. 2D illustration by Mark Goerner; photo courtesy of Alex McDowell.

A crowded airport terminal serves as home for Viktor Navorski in The Terminal, a DreamWorks Pictures film directed by Steven Spielberg.
Photo copyright © 2004 DreamWorks Pictures.
2D illustration by Mark Goerner; photo courtesy of Alex McDowell.

We arrived at the former U.S. Air Force Plant 42, where a pair of gargantuan hangars had housed Space Shuttle construction. Inside, we discovered one of the most gigantic movie sets I have ever seen: a full-scale reproduction of a John F. Kennedy International Airport terminal. Tom Hanks arrived to greet us all in character as Viktor Navorski, and at lunch I got to chat with Spielberg’s cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. It was a good day.

What follows is a story from the Cinefex Vault with production designer Alex McDowell recounting how the movie found its way into the Californian high desert, and the production’s visual effects supervisor Charles Gibson explaining how the filmmakers brought to life environments beyond the mammoth set.


Airport 2004 – article by Joe Fordham

Directed by Steven Spielberg – from a story by Sacha Gervasi and Andrew Niccol, and a screenplay by Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson – The Terminal tells the tale of airline passenger Viktor Navorksi (Tom Hanks), who is forced to live for 11 months in a New York airport terminal after the coup-initiated collapse of his Eastern European homeland.

Art department model.

Art department model.

Set almost entirely in the airport terminal, the movie posed significant logistical concerns for the filmmakers. “JFK was very keen to have us shoot in their terminal four,” recalled production designer Alex McDowell. “But since it was an active airport, we would have had no control over the passengers passing through. Trying to portray 11 months of screen time, night and day, would have been impossible.” Post 9/11 security issues were also a concern. “If the government announced an Orange Alert, they could have commandeered the airport for military use. There was no guarantee that we could own an airport once we’d committed to it.”

Painted airport backdrop, with lights attached to the canvas backing.

Painted airport backdrop, with lights attached to the canvas backing.

The filmmakers selected Mirabel in Montreal, Canada – a site that specializes in cargo services – to stage peripheral scenes and runway action. To depict action in the terminal, they determined the most practical means was to build one. Two vacated military aircraft hangars in Palmdale, California housed the terminal sets, designed by McDowell with a team of architectural designers and Proof, a 3D previsualization studio. Concepts first focused on the engineering of a steel truss that formed the backbone of the set, supporting lights and structures above the 75,000-square-foot floor space. While McDowell’s team generated sketches, blueprints and miniature foam core mockups, Proof built 3D models of sets and determined the overall shape of the terminal, incorporating elements from an array of airports, from Kansai to Charles de Gaulle.

The interior set for The Terminal, erected in a Palmdale hangar, shown with backing and overhead lighting.

The interior set for The Terminal, erected in a Palmdale hangar, shown with backing and overhead lighting.

Previz artist Ben Proctor constructed a 3D model of the terminal in Softimage XSI, which became a point of reference for set construction, camera and lighting departments and helped develop a strategy for handling views outside a three-story-high window that dominated one side of the set. “Steven wanted to concentrate on the drama,” stated McDowell, “and keep the visual effects low profile. We didn’t want to commit to bluescreen shots every time we looked towards this very large expanse of glass on one side of the set.” McDowell opted to create the view outside the window through a backdrop based on a 3D previz model, thus avoiding the two-dimensionality of a large-scale photographic projection. “We distorted a view of the previz model to compensate for the curve of the backing, and lit and modeled the image at a very high degree of detail. It was an amalgam of traditional techniques and previz technology.”

Lit and dressed 3D model of interior airport terminal by previz artist Ben Proctor.

Lit and dressed 3D model of interior airport terminal by previz artist Ben Proctor.

Visual effects art director Robert Stromberg at Digital Backlot generated a 2D matte painting from the previz model, combining photographic texture reference of JFK and Mirabel with photorealistic lighting and skies. JC Backings then used that image to create a 650-by-48-foot backing. Lighting director David Devlin rigged the backdrop with more than 2,000 practical light sources and, with director of photography Janusz Kaminski, developed a front-lit lighting setup to simulate a daytime look or a darker nighttime glow.

The production fitted working elevators purchased from a bankrupt department store.

Digital effects enhanced window views. “The intent was to use the backdrop in passing,” explained visual effects supervisor Charles Gibson. “When we lingered on it for any period of time we were going to add computer-generated air traffic, security and luggage vehicles, people walking around. It ended up being a great idea. Steven was able to stage many scenes with the backing, without revealing there weren’t vehicles or planes. A surprisingly small number of shots required the additional digital material.”

Airport vendors served real food, ice cream and coffee in appropriate outlets, sponsored by real companies.

Airport vendors, sponsored by real companies, served real food, ice cream and coffee in appropriate outlets around the set.

Digital Film Works provided visual effects, supervised by Cosmas Paul Bolger, Jr. Artists spent one day surveying the terminal set then, by referencing architectural plans and previz models, tracked in digital enhancements without motion control or onset tracking markers. “We used photo surveys of the set to reconstruct textures and patterns on the windows and the columns,” said Gibson.

When a blizzard descends on the airport, the weather change required Robert Stromberg to prepare new conceptual images of the snowbound terminal and runway. Digital Film Works tracked particle animation snowfall into windows, shot with sympathetic lighting. “Janusz and Dave Devlin established a style of lighting to create appropriate contrast on the backing to suggested those weather conditions,” said Gibson. “We fit our elements into that, only adding snow when needed. Steven was constantly coming up with clever ways to shoot everything in-camera, without detracting from the production value. He was brilliant at that.”

3D model of fictional exterior airport terminal.

Despite the slender visual effects shot count – 55 shots, compared to an early estimate of 200 – effects technology contributed immeasurably to the production, blurring the line between production design and visual effects. “Digital design has enabled us to collaborate with every part of production very early on,” concluded McDowell. “Previz enables us to immerse ourselves in a very pure flow of design, which everyone has access to. By giving all the departments so much more access to the information at hand, you can alter the way that you approach the film. In my view, it is changing the way that production is conducted.”

The Terminal.

The Terminal.

Photos copyright © 2004 DreamWorks Pictures, process shots courtesy of Alex McDowell.