As the Digital Effects Supervisor on The Aviator, I supervised the team that was responsible for the creation of digital shots and digital augmentation to live action effects shots in three main sequences in the film: the aerial dogfight in Hell's Angels, the flight of the XF-11 spy plane, and the historic flight of the Hercules. The work was a welcome challenge, being about an extraordinary man, told by an extraordinary director. It was important that we create digital shots that blended seamlessly within a largely live action film. The shots couldn't call attention to themselves in the context of live action effects sequences, or the drama built would be lost.
This sequence depicts Howard Hughes in the seat of a WWI style bomber filming a staged dogfight for the film Hell's Angels, which Hughes is directing. The major elements for the sequence consisted of a green screen of Leonardo DiCaprio, a digital bomber biplane, and two types of digital fighter biplanes, digital clouds, and a 3D matte painting. The challenge for the sequence was to capture the energy of the 1931 film with its sweeping moves, and the frenzied motion of over 60 planes in an aerial dogfight within a fully digital world.
In the shots where Howard is seen orchestrating the choreography, Leo was filmed in a green screen buck (a cockpit shell), which matched the overall shape of the final cockpit. The plates were then match moved and mattes were extracted from the green screen. Additional transformations were applied to the match move to achieve the movement through space.
The environment for Hell's Angels is a 2D - 3D combination of aerial photography and matte painting mapped onto 3D geometry. With the altitude of the dogfight being over a mile in the air, it was essential that the ground renders relied heavily on aerial photography, shot over Catalina Island by our Visual Effects Supervisor/Second Unit Director, Rob Legato. The photography was stitched together and color corrected into one huge matte painting of ground and sky.
The clouds for Aviator needed a 3D solution to give a sense of volumetric depth, but also relied heavily on photography to maintain realism. The particles that defined the overall shape of the clouds were created in Houdini and then exported to the renderer. The clouds were then rendered with a proprietary particle renderer, which gave us the ability to use deep shadows. Deep shadows let the light travel through a volume to a certain point, rather than stop at the first point where a light ray meets a surface. The result is a diffuse shadow, as if the sunlight traveled into the depth of the clouds and scattered through the volume, much like in real life. Also, the clouds were rendered with multiple passes, to fine tune the balance between the warm key and cooler shadows in the composite.