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A 'Flight' in the Cloud: Fact and fiction

Zafar Anjum | Jan. 15, 2013
Atomic Fiction’s Lead Developer Alex Schworer describes how the company created the special effects for the film, Flight.

Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington with director Robert Zemeckis on the set of Flight (2012)

Atomic Fiction’s Lead Developer Alex Schworer describes how the company created the special effects for the Denzel Washington starrer, Flight.

Tell us a little bit about your company. What does it do? For how long have you guys been around?

Atomic Fiction is a visual effects studio based in the San Francisco Bay Area. We create digital humans, digital environments and effects for major Hollywood films, television shows, cinematics and commercials. The studio recently completed hundreds of visual effects shots for Robert Zemeckis' recent feature film, Flight as well as 80 shots to realise the futuristic environments of Rian Johnson's Autumn release, Looper. Other projects include Underworld: Awakening and VES award-winning character work on 50+ shots for HBO's Boardwalk Empire.

I have seen how much your special effects in the recently released film, Flight, has been appreciated. What exactly did you do for the plane crash scene and how difficult was it?

The plane crash sequence has several distinct shot "types" -- there are shots of the passengers, shots from within the cockpit and some shots of the plane as it hurtles upside-down through the air. Kevin Baillie, the Visual Effects Supervisor and our CEO, was on set during principal photography of the film. The entire sequence was shot on a green screen stage with segments of the plane -- there were two separate fuselage segments and a cockpit.

Denzel in shot

For shots inside the cockpit, we replaced the green screen with a mixture of CG clouds (rendered "in the cloud" on EC2) and sky photography that we shot from a helicopter. We also built an entirely CG version of the plane which we used to show the landing gears locking up, the engines failing, as well as the final impact into the Georgia countryside.

To really sell the effect of the plane flipping upside-down, each fuselage segment with passengers was put on a rotating rig, and they were physically turned upside down on the green screen stage. Later, we digitally "stitched" both segments of passengers together to create the single fuselage.

You have been rendering footage on the cloud. How did you figure this out? Why was it necessary in the first place?

Early on, as we were talking about how to build Atomic Fiction, we decided that relying on the cloud would be a key part of our strategy. That early requirement informed our other infrastructure decisions, like co-locating at a facility that has multiple redundant high-bandwidth connections to the Internet. As we were starting in on preproduction on FLIGHT, we were approached by a company out of Boston called ZYNC which had built the software necessary to do cloud rendering on Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), and we came on board with them as early beta testers and development partners. 


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