Superman 1.53: The Heights

Let’s face it, transportation in Metropolis is fraught with peril. Just seven minutes ago, a detective was pushed in front of a train, and now there’s a busted helicopter dangling precariously over the edge of a tall building. Elsewhere in Metropolis tonight, there’s going to be a car chase and a shootout on a boat, and Air Force One is going to be one engine short when it lands in Metropolis Airport. Honestly, you can’t even walk down the street in Metropolis without getting mugged. It seems like if you want to go anywhere in this town, you need to have Superman specifically move you from one spot to another. Otherwise, it’s probably best if you just stay put.

But let’s focus on the current crisis, which is Lois and the helicopter. As I talked about yesterday, this helicopter rescue scene is a very complex sequence with lots of exciting action shots, and it took twelve months to complete, using just about every method of special effects available except rubber monsters. So today I want to take a look at the helicopter that can’t fly, the rooftop that isn’t a rooftop, and the building that’s only about two-thirds of the building.

Like I said, it’s complex, so I’m going to tell you what I know based on what I’ve read, watched and listened to, and there is a very good chance that I’m going to be wrong about something. If a knowledgeable person feels like checking my work and correcting me in the comments, then I would be happy and grateful to hear about it.

But enough with the caveats. The sequence starts on the rooftop helipad of the Daily Planet building, which Richard Donner says in the DVD commentary was filmed in New York, on the roof of the U.S. Post Office building on Lexington Avenue.

They built this cute little hutch for the waiting room partly out of balsa wood, for reasons that will become clear pretty soon.

The helicopter doesn’t actually fly; it’s being operated with cables hanging from an enormous crane. Colin Chilvers wrote about this sequence in his 2021 book Believing a Man Can Fly: Memories of a Life in Special Effects and Film, and he explains that the effects team bought a helicopter that wasn’t being used anymore because it had been in a crash, and refurbished it to fit their needs.

They took the heavy motor out, because it wasn’t going to fly on its own; they just needed a little car motor that could power the blades. And it turns out they didn’t need full-sized blades, because when they looked at footage of helicopters in flight, the blades were mostly just a blur.

So for this part of the filming, they could get by with blades that were a third of the size — that made the helicopter lighter, and also made it safer for people on the set. Later on in the sequence, when the helicopter is stationary on the edge of the roof, they put the full-sized blades back on.

So the helicopter isn’t actually flying in circles here, it’s being swung around by the crane.

And that goes for the interior shots of Lois and the pilot as well.

At this point, the little waiting room is destroyed, which is okay because it’s made out of balsa wood and breakaway glass, and it doesn’t have feelings.

A lot of the sequence takes place here on the edge of the roof, and there are three different versions of this set. There’s a 10-foot-high version, which they use for all the shots with Lois in them; it’s filmed to look like it’s high up, but it’s not actually that far from the ground. There’s also a 60-foot version, which they use for the shots of the helicopter dropping in free fall. Finally, there’s a miniature version made for a wide shot that’s coming up.

So I believe this is now the 10-foot high roof’s edge, with the stationary helicopter using the full-sized blades. The sparks and fire are practical pyrotechnics.

Then there’s the front projection, which is used a lot in this sequence. Front projection is an in-camera effects technique that projects pre-filmed footage over both the actors and a super-reflective background screen, and then that image is reflected back into the camera.

In these shots, they’re using front projection to position Lois against footage filmed from high above a New York street.

For the most part, the sidewalk scenes are from location filming that they did in New York in July 1977, outside the Daily News Building on 42nd Street.

When the crowd looks up, this wide shot of the helicopter is a miniature.

And this is the 10-foot-high set again. Margot Kidder’s stunt double was Wendy Leech, and I would assume that all the shots that don’t show Lois’ face are probably shots of Leech.

Then there are a couple shots of people on the sidewalk looking up at the building, seeing the helicopter on the roof. These may be the most complex shots in the sequence.

This part of the shot is an image of the building, filmed in New York.

This part is a matte painting, which is combined with the real image…

… to make the building look taller.

Then there’s a little model of the helicopter which moves down the matte painting, and later a model of Superman carrying Lois and the helicopter back up. This is all combined using front projection with actors who are turned away from the camera.

At this point, there’s an amazing post-structuralist film-nerd moment, where the movie explicitly tells the audience how they want us to perceive the following shot. A news camera crew arrives at the scene, and one of the guys says, “Bring the cameras over here. Okay, get it up there.” He points up. “Okay. You see the helicopter?”

And then we look up, and we do see the helicopter, just like we’ve been instructed to.

This is essentially the same as the previous shot of the building…

where the real building is used as a base…

combined with a matte painting and a model of the helicopter…

and used as front projection that they stack some people in front of. This time, it’s at such a dizzying perspective that it makes the building look impossibly tall.

Back at the roof set, there’s a shot of Lois holding on to the seatbelt as she falls out of the helicopter. I’m assuming that this is the stunt double, but this seems too big to be the 10-foot high set. I’m not sure about this one.

Lois looking down is from the 10-foot set…

and her feet dangling over the street is front projection again.

Then there’s an extra scary angle of Lois, still hanging. There’s a hydraulic rig that’s shaking the helicopter.

At this point, Clark finally leaves the building, and finds Lois’ hat on the sidewalk. He looks up, and sees the miniature shot from earlier.

While he’s getting changed, we get a new angle on the 10-foot set.

I think all the footage of Clark running around and changing clothes is on location, although if someone told me that part of it was in the studio I would believe them.

Then there’s an unfortunate moment with a Black pimp, who admires Jim and his bad outfit; this is a ridiculous and harmful stereotype, but it is not, in and of itself, a special effect.

Superman gets some altitude in this shot — apparently white men can jump, after all —

and he speeds upwards in another shot. This is obviously wire work, but I’m not sure if it was filmed on location or with front-projection footage.

There’s more front-projection peril for Lois…

and then there are three shots of Lois in free fall. This first one is on the 10-foot set…

but the other shots are Wendy Leech, falling from the 60-foot set.

Some cops look up to see her fall, using the same combination of the real building, a matte painting, a miniature Lois and front projection.

Then there are a bunch of wires and front projection shots in a row…

with Superman flying up from the street…

and catching Lois against the front of the building. This is still Wendy Leech as Lois, and stunt double Vic Armstrong as Superman.

The helicopter drop at this point is using the 60-foot set…

with the helicopter being lowered by a crane…

including this dramatic shot of the helicopter heading straight for the viewer.

Everything after that is pretty obvious — Superman, Lois and the copter are all on wires, moving up against front projection. Stunt doubles Armstrong and Leech are in this shot.

In the final effects shot of the sequence, we see people on the streets of New York who are all exceptionally well-dressed and cheerful. Obviously, this is impossible, so I suspect that this crowd is computer-generated.

Tomorrow:
1.54: The Stupid Question.

Chapters

— Danny Horn

9 thoughts on “Superman 1.53: The Heights

  1. This is the real magic of the movies. They make the impossible look real, and you have to guess at how they did it. Then 40 years later a book comes out, and you find out how bad your guesses were.

    Old Man Voice: when I was your age, we didn’t have these fancy computer generated special effects, no sir. We got real actors and real camera tricks and we liked it.

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  2. “Just seven minutes ago, a detective was pushed in front of a train, and now there’s a busted helicopter dangling precariously over the edge of a tall building.” You remind me of a moment that astounded me in my childhood. Me old Pa wasn’t exactly a cinéaste- as a rule, if a movie didn’t have John Wayne in it, he wasn’t interested. But when Superman the Movie came on TV, he decided it was his parental duty to watch it with me.

    When Lois starts dangling from the side of the Daily Planet building, he pointed out to me that in the alleyway mugging scene, Supey had moved faster than a speeding bullet; in the underground sequence, his enemies had shown their reliance on the power of a locomotive; and in this scene, he will leap a tall building with a single bound. After that extraordinary display of visual literacy, I began to suspect that there might be more to John Wayne than I had realized.

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    1. To be honest, with the exception of water shots (which really do work better in CGI because water isn’t fractal and surface tension limits how small droplets get, leading to ridiculous sized models to get shots that look at all realistic), I actually miss the old days of matte paintings and models

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  3. I always thought the scene with the pimp was a clever way to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the suit Superman is wearing. Who else could appreciate his attire? It also helps that Donner kept the scene very short and not let it linger. This was definitely the work of the Newmans and Benton and not the invention of Mankiewicz.

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  4. Maybe I haven’t been following the story as well as I should or I missed something. My apologies, if so.

    At this point in the story, the citizens of Metropolis aren’t aware that there is among them a benevolent, super-strong, flying creature from outer space. We see there are cops on the scene attempting crowd control. Shouldn’t there be EMT’s, fire trucks, etc at the scene, too, at least going through the motions of trying to rescue Lois Lane and the helicopter pilot? Everyone seems to be just standing around as if they already know a strange visitor from another planet with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men is about to make his debut in town by swooping in and saving everybody.

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    1. The crisis blew up just a moment ago; EMS/Fire are still either being notified or en route? (Life moved slower in the good old days.)

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    2. In 1978, EMTs/paramedics were still a new and developing concept. But we should have seen some fire trucks, although no ladder truck could reach that high.

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