So it turns out that rescuing a bunch of people sucked out of a hole in Air Force One at 30,000 feet is actually harder than Robert Downey Jr. makes it look in “Iron Man 3.” Who knew?
The audacious action sequence that occurs midway through director Shane Black’s superhero sequel, known by those on the film crew as the “barrel of monkeys” scene, required a mix of real-world guts and digital ingenuity to pull off.
The guts were supplied by the Red Bull skydiving team, who stand in for the crew of the president’s plane in the scene — the effects that placed them believably within the story came from Digital Domain, the VFX shop that created about 250 of the shots in the movie, including 35 different Iron Man suits, a wholly digital Air Force One and a unique explosive that detonates in a scene set outside the TCL Chinese Theatre.
In order to capture the barrel of monkeys footage, Black and his VFX supervisor, Chris Townsend, decided to film the scene with live actors free-falling for maximum realism. Over six days of shooting in North Carolina, the sky divers jumped from a 20-seat turbo prop plane at 13,000 feet wearing parachutes under business clothes — or, in the case of the diver portraying Iron Man, a red and gold jumpsuit. A free fall cameraman with a helmet-mounted camera jumped alongside them. It was then up to Digital Domain artists to replace nearly everything in the shot except for the the actors with digital imagery.
“I’ve worked on movies in the past where we’ve done fake free fall sequences, with vertical wind tunnels, people on wires, but by actually shooting it, you get the visceral, kinetic camera work that comes with actual free fall photography,” said Digital Domain VFX supervisor Erik Nash, who is an experienced sky diver himself. “It’s something that’s incredibly difficult to fake — the high-frequency camera shake that’s inherent to free fall photography. If you start with something photographed, it’s real, it’s believable and even if you change everything about it you’ve got a foundation.”
The Digital Domain artists replaced the turbo prop plane with Air Force One and added a gaping, smoke-spewing hole to it. They also swapped out North Carolina for the Florida coast, added a cloud layer to the sky to help make the plane appear to be dropping from 30,000 feet rather than 13,000 feet and painted out the divers’ parachute packs.
In order to make it look like Iron Man was really rescuing the crew, instead of falling alongside them, they altered the relative movement of the background behind the diver playing him.
“We need to always have Iron Man look like he’s in control and he’s driving this rescue operation,” Nash said. “In reality, the sky divers were working as a team. One person can’t actually do all the things we’re implying Iron Man is doing.”
Surprisingly, one of the trickier effects to get right was Air Force One, which turned out to require more finesse than merely adding a digital paint job. For one sequence where the plane is on the tarmac, artists worked down to the tiniest details on rivets and gaskets, and the plane still looked fake.
“Air Force One is probably the cleanest aircraft around,” Nash said. “What we determined was the cause of that unreality was that it was so clean. What gives reality is imperfection — oil streaks, dirt. So we actually made our Air Force One a lot dirtier than the real thing.”
– Rebecca Keegan
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