Drop zone

Drop zone
Date:31 July 2010 Tags:,

When the filmmakers behind couldn’t find a real C-130 to use in their film, they built one – in a computer.
– By Erin McCarthy

It’s called a heavy drop: the military parachutes heavy equipment out of an aircraft and into a war zone. For the filmmakers behind The A-Team, hitting big screens in South Africa on 20 August, it was the perfect way to end the prison break of four ex-Special Forces operatives wrongly accused of a crime. The complicated sequence called for a C-130J military transport aircraft holding a tank-like Armoured Gun System (AGS) to explode, ejecting the machine at an altitude of 6 000 metres. The AGS then deploys three parachutes, but two are shredded by bullet fire from MQ-9 Reaper UAVs, leaving the vehicle in near free-fall.

The art department began by pulling together the visual elements for its AGS, the never-deployed M8. “Director Joe Carnahan chose it because it was designed to be an air-droppable vehicle,” visual-effects supervisor James Price says. Next, designers built a full-scale exterior replica – complete with working machine gun – that actor Bradley Cooper could act against onset. Animators at Los Angeles-based VFX house Rhythm & Hues built the digital M8 using the art department’s reference and photos of the replica. The digital vehicle had multiple moving parts, including a rotating turret and a hatch that opened and closed. In some cases, filmmakers left the on-set replica in the shots, but usually they replaced it with the computer model. “All that’s real in most shots is Bradley and the gun he’s firing,” Price says. Animators also watched a video of dragsters to determine how the parachutes would behave under extreme forces.

Though visual-effects artists studied footage of actual drops, this isn’t an authentic scenario. “When the military do a real drop, they don’t do it from a high altitude,” Price says. “And they have an extraction chute that inflates and pulls the object out of the plane. That wasn’t appropriate for us because our plane was blowing up, so we took some liberties to tell our story.”

Animators even altered the altitude and velocity at which the M8 fell from shot to shot. “If it looked good falling at terminal velocity, we did that,” Price says. But if it looked better falling at 300 km/h, “then we did that, too. As long as the audience believes it’s all one thing, we can cheat a lot to make it more dramatic.”

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