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January 2012

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visual effects Taking to the air for Red Tails By CHRISTINE BUNISH S AN FRANCISCO — The story of World War II's Tuskegee Airmen, America's first African-American military airmen, is sadly still unknown by many, but the Lucasfilm production Red Tails hopes to change that. George Lucas has long wanted to bring to the big screen the inspirational tale of the first black pilots in the US Army Air Corps; he began developing Red Tails in the late 1980s and production got underway in 2009 in the Czech Republic, Croatia, Italy and England. Anthony Hemingway directed with Lucas overseeing reshoots when Hemingway moved on to the HBO original series, Treme. THE EFFECTS As a war-time action drama Red Tails is The film features 1,524 VFX shots. packed with visual effects. Industrial Light & Magic ( created the majority of the VFX shots and supervised a roster of other VFX vendors worldwide, including Pixo- mondo, UPP, Ollin, Rising Sun, Rodeo FX and Virtuous. With shots ranging from aerial dog- fights and bombardments to massive set extensions and digital matte paintings of North American and European locations, it was "the scope of the work that was the most challenging and exciting," says ILM's VFX supervisor Craig Hammack. Compositing supervisor Jay Cooper agrees. "There were maybe a hundred shots in the film that were untouched by visual effects," he says. "There were 1,524 effects shots in the film. It was a huge effort across continents and companies." Fortunately, significant amounts of refer- The actors were shot greenscreen with dogfights added later. ence material were on hand to aid ILM's VFX team, including archival footage of the aircraft the Tuskegee Airmen flew first as escort pilots during daring daylight bombing raids — an incredibly dangerous mission with a high casu- alty rate — and later as combat pilots. A contingent of surviving Airmen also consulted with the team. Existing aircraft of the era proved less use- ful as set pieces. "The B-17s that remain have been refurbished as show pieces and are in pristine condition," notes Hammack, and no longer resembled the planes that saw action with the Airmen. But before it shut its doors, Kerner Optical, formerly ILM's model shop, provided prop wings, flaming engines and other elements to augment what would become an enormous cast of CG planes: P-51 and P-51C Mustang fighters; P-40 Warhawk fighters and ground-attack aircraft; B-17 Flying 20 Post • January 2012 Fortress heavy bombers in different configura- tions, including brushed metal; German Mess- erschmitt Bf-109 fighters; and Messerschmitt Me 262 Swallows — the world's first opera- tional jet-powered fighter introduced in 1944. Each CG plane was adorned with its own custom insignias and colorful nose art as well. "The CG aircraft for the film were all built based on reference material and original blue- prints," says Hammack. "Russell Earl, who was the ILM VFX supervisor before I came on, handled the [live-action] plate photography, the initial assets build and supervised a sub- stantial amount of the shot work done at ILM the planes' internal movement," Kavanagh points out. "But in the air there are a lot of flight dynamics going on between planes: hit- ting air pockets, being buffeted by winds, the constant adjustment of controls to keep planes level with the ground. To get a feel for those planes flying we asked all our animators and all the vendors to reanimate flight dynam- ics and to put those same flight dynamics on the [virtual] cameras as on the planes they were shooting." Animators could key in the vintage planes' actual air speeds to keep dogfights "within realistic speeds most of the time," he says. The dogfights feature "a dizzying amount of elements in total," reports Jay Cooper. and some work done by our vendors." The dogfights provided the most excitement for animators, reports ILM's animation supervi- sor Paul Kavanagh, and they were "spoiled for choice" when it came to historical reference footage. During the war "16mm film gun cam- eras were mounted in the planes' wings so when they had a successful kill, the pilots could come back to the base, study it and learn from it," he says. In addition, other ground-based and air-to-air footage as well as material from mod- ern reenactments was on hand. Animating the air battles was not just a matter of aircraft choreography, however. "Seen from the ground you don't see any of "We obeyed the laws of physics with speeds, turns, dives." Ed Shipley, one of the country's leading P-51 aerobatic pilots, served as an on-site expert reviewing shots and determining if moves could or couldn't have been done in reality. A flip-trick maneuver featured in an onscreen dogfight: an American flyer being chased a German pilot had later described how he pulled the joy stick, twisted the plane and suddenly ended up behind the German. "There was only anecdotal evidence, and Ed didn't know if it was possible — he said he wouldn't want to try it!" Kavanagh recalls. "But if someone were on your tail and you

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