So here’s a scene that we didn’t see in Superman: The Movie, straight from the shooting script:
The eagle bursts through a white cloud bank up once more into the clean blue air. After a short moment SUPERMAN does likewise, trailing the bird.
For a few moments we are privileged to witness this real beauty and poetry of flying as the eagle and SUPERMAN chase each other through the air doing banks, loops, and dives, swooping closely together like two beautiful fighter planes in tight formation.
The unspoken ceremony over, they silently acknowledge each other, then head off in different directions.
Obviously, that scene didn’t happen, because who has the time to choreograph eagles, but the interesting thing is that it made the cut all the way up to the shooting script. That says to me that they really didn’t know how hard it was going to be just getting Superman to fly in a credible way, without having to do a fucking raptor ballet on top of it.
We’ve been talking about the helicopter rescue scene for a while, and now we’ve reached the point where we first see Superman soaring over the city, taking a triumphant night flight to celebrate his first successful feat of superheroics. He leaves Lois safe and sound on the roofop helicopter pad, and then executes a fancy loop-the-loop over the lights of Metropolis, just to show the audience that yes, we’ve figured out how to make this work.
Through the entire production, Richard Donner said that the most important thing that they needed to get right was the flying. Flying is the thing that sets Superman apart from ordinary humans, and it’s the character’s main visual hook — the man in the blue suit flying across the sky, his red cape flapping in the breeze. If the audience doesn’t believe that he’s flying, then you might as well give up and not make a Superman movie.
When they started shooting, one of the first things that Donner did was set up a “flying unit” — a team that would concentrate exclusively on developing techniques to get Christopher Reeve soaring through the air.
There are two kinds of flying shots in the movie. One of them is the takeoffs and landings, where he needs to interact with people and sets in the same shot — saying goodbye to Lois and zooming into the sky, bringing the cat down from the tree.
The techniques that they used for these shots are fairly easy to describe in general terms: they’re using wires, attached to a flying harness. If they’re on location, the cables are attached to a crane; in the studio, they’re attached to some similar piece of equipment that I don’t know the name of.
As I said, easy to describe, but difficult to actually do. Reeve liked to do as much of this himself as he could, as opposed to using doubles and stuntmen, but it was a lot of hours hanging in the air. Every shot needed to be set up and shot individually, and if you could see the wires, or the cape didn’t look right, or Reeve happened to move the wrong way, then they had to go back and do it again.
So it was hard on Reeve, who had to stay in the air, trying to hold a particular position for who knows how long. But at least these problems were fairly well understood, and didn’t require mastering a whole new technology.
The other kind of flying shot involves Superman mid-flight, zooming along past cityscapes and mountains and the Statue of Liberty, moving in and out of the frame and changing direction.
This was mostly accomplished using front projection, which I talked about a bit last week — projecting an image over the actors and onto a highly reflective background screen, which bounces back to the camera as a single image.
This is a picture of a flying test with stand-ins, when they were developing the technique. For these shots, the actors aren’t swinging around the set — they’re stationary, attached to a rig that holds them in the right place.
All of the “motion” that happens in the shot — Superman moving across the screen, changing direction — is actually done by the camera, moving around the actors.
Some front projection shots are pretty straightforward, like this shot of Lois looking down during the helicopter scene. They’re using a piece of film that’s shot from a particular angle, without moving the camera. The cars on the street are moving, Lois’ legs are moving, but as far as the camera is concerned, it’s a static shot.
The most difficult shots were scenes like this, where the camera is moving around Superman, while the background image is also moving. Donner told American Cinematographer that these kinds of shots were essential:
“To put Superman up in the air at a one-dimensional angle and keep him like that would have been an easy answer to the problem — but not an adequate answer for me, because it wasn’t the ultimate. It was what I had seen before, or what had been done before… but I wanted a more convincing illusion of reality.
“Star Wars and Close Encounters enjoyed a tremendous advantage over our Superman project… They had the advantage of dealing with inanimate objects — space machines — that they could fly from place to place… The spaceships came onto the screen with a great deal of noise and light. Sitting in the theater, you were shaken right out of your seat. It was magnificent!
“But Superman does not make any noise or emit any light when he flies. This meant that there was a danger that his flying could seem uninteresting — especially if we simply had him going left-to-right, right-to-left, up or down. As we have actually filmed him, however, he twirls, he loops, he spirals — he flies!”
To do all of those moves, they had to invent new machines. Here’s lighting cameraman Denys Coop, from the same magazine:
“It became necessary to create a piece of front projection machinery which is completely mobile. Mobile in every sense — with tracks and cranes, panning, tilting, zooming, every single movement — because we have been faced with having a virtually stationary person and we have had to make him travel. So we have had to be thinking in reverse all the time — moving the camera, creating the illusion that you are following, in fact, a person who is doing the movement.”
So that’s great, but then they had to figure out how to synch up the camera movements with the background image. They spent months working on that, and then they found Zoran Perisic, who had worked as a special effects cameraman on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perisic had developed a system called “Zoptics” — a front-projection camera rig that moved and resized the background image, based on the camera’s movements and changes in focus.
To see why this is important, imagine that you’re filming the real Superman, with the hero flying in the foreground and the skyline of New York behind him. If you zoom in to focus on Superman’s face, the image of Superman gets bigger — but the skyline doesn’t change size, because it’s off in the distance.
Using front projection in the studio, the screen showing the skyline is right behind Reeve, so if the camera zooms in to Reeve’s face, you would also see the skyline getting bigger — which would make it look like you’re zooming in on a photo.
Using the Zoptic system, the camera could zoom in on Reeve, and the filmed background image would be reduced at the same rate. This created the illusion that Superman was actually flying towards us, against the background of a New York skyline that stays the same size.
They had to be thoughtful when they were filming the background “plates”, with the cameramen working very closely with the director and art director, to make sure that they got the angles and the movements that would support the shot that they wanted to construct.
In some cases, when they didn’t have enough coverage for the shot they wanted, they had to build models, with traffic moving around on the streets and bridges. (I have no idea if the above picture is one of those shots; I can’t figure out which ones aren’t real.)
They also had to figure out the lighting effects. Lighting is incredibly important when you’re matching up two images; if you don’t get the lighting right, then it looks fake. Superman had Geoffrey Unsworth doing the lighting, and he was a genius, so he could do subtle things like this night-flight shot.
In this shot, Superman is flying over the river, with a collection of skyscrapers off to his right. He’s in shadow as he enters the shot…
but as he comes closer to the skyscrapers in the second picture, there’s some light reflected on his face.
This gets dimmer again, when he turns away from the light source.
Figuring out subtle stuff like that means they had to pay a crazy amount of attention to the details, and redo everything a dozen times. The flying unit would figure out a technique that made a particular shot better, and Donner would say, great, let’s redo all the shots that we filmed before, and use this new technique.
One of the great mysteries about the Superman sequels is why the flying effects got worse rather than better, and the answer is the lighting. Without Donner and Unsworth around to obsess over it, the producers decided to economize on lighting, with disastrous results.
This shot is from Supergirl, which was made six years after Superman. They didn’t light her properly, so it looks like Supergirl and the horses have different lighting sources, which means they’re not anywhere near each other.
In Superman IV, they were also trying to use chromakey (aka bluescreen), and if you get the lighting wrong with chromakey, then you get a little blue line around the actors, as seen on Dark Shadows in the sixties and Doctor Who in the seventies. Superman IV was made in 1987, when there was absolutely no excuse for this.
Meanwhile, in 1978, they had to figure out the cape, too. Here’s Donner complaining about it in Cinefantastique:
“That cape was a bitch. I guess you just can’t anticipate everything. We spent months getting our first flying shot, and then we looked at it and something wasn’t right. It was the cape; it didn’t move right.
“So we had to build all kinds of gimmicks and little things to go under the cape. We tried electronic movements, bottled air, everything. And finally Les Bowie came up with the idea of wiring the cape inside like an umbrella, which we could control with little gears to give a feeling of flight. But even that was good only from certain angles. Other times we had to add air and stuff.
“We had about fifty capes in different weights and sizes for different lenses and perspective changes. It was endless.”
And the rest of it, apparently, was in Reeve’s eyes. Here’s Donner, in American Cinematographer:
“Being a pilot in private life, when Chris starts to feel the act of flying, he flies like nobody else could ever fly. When he is up there, that kid is flying! I mean, he can feel the thermals, he can feel the movement, he can feel the exhilaration. He’s phenomenal. His hand movements, his attitudes of anger flying around in hot pursuit, how he shifts his body movements — it’s just brilliant!”
And naturally, Reeve agrees. This is from Starlog:
“The flying is done with me, maybe 30 feet off the floor, looking at an English crew reading the racing forms and drinking tea. I’m just looking at a vast sea of blackness, 45 bored technicians and a few very funny-looking camera machines. I enjoyed the physicality of Superman’s flying, but a year of the same thing day after day was not easy. There was a time, six or seven months, when I didn’t speak a line. It was just interior mental work on the ‘A Stage Airline’. Fly us.”
And then I guess you start training the eagle, if you want to, but honestly, at this point it’s probably more trouble than it’s worth.
Why did the 1978 comics
give Superman a car?
1.58: The Alternative
— Danny Horn