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In the Danger Zone

These past two weeks we've made a lot of big calls. Our original intent was to have principle photography wrapped and our trailer released by this week. Unfortunately, neither deadline was met. As the shoot date for our American pilots bore down on us, I stopped all post production and focused wholly on the upcoming shoot. This meant that work on the trailer came to a halt. As the shoot date drew closer another big call had to be made. We could either rush the production design of our cockpit and shoot principle photography March 3rd & 4th as intended. Or, we could push the principle photography dates back til April and spend the extra time perfecting the cockpit. It was a tough decision to make, but I'm confident we made the right choice. We've now pushed the principle photography date back to April. This means will have an extra month to perfect every detail before we roll camera.

That said, since we intended to shoot March 3rd & 4th, it forced us to square up a ton of our pre-pro work. Now that our shoot dates in April, we're in better shape than ever to run an ultra smooth shoot.

One of the first things we needed to take care of was the suit.

Our SR-71 pilot suit was mostly complete, but it had a handful of assets that still needed to come together before it was camera ready.

First off, the helmet had a cracked sun visor. Luckily I was able to order a replacement online from The fact that I could order a replacement visor for a high altitude helmet from 1961 in 2015 was pretty astounding. I was quite stoked on that.

Serial # and date on the sun visor. 50+ years old!

Cracked Visor

The visor came coated in wax to prevent scratching, it took a solid 2 hours of hot water and elbow grease just to peel off the wax.

New shiny visor pictured 2nd down

I was a bit apprehensive at first pulling apart the helmet to replace the visor. The helmet is over 50 years old and if anything was broken or lost, It'd mean big trouble for our little film. Luckily the mechanism locking the visor together was super simple and replacement was a breeze.

While the helmet was disassembled I went over the visors with defog and dish soap. This worked out great and has since prevented any fogging of the helmet

Another big piece of costume we were missing was the neckring. My roommate/industrial designer Brook took care of that. Brook cut up the locking mechanism inside the case that the helmet arrived in. He then crafted the rest of the neckring out of MDF which came together quite nicely.

Neckring base

Neckring with the base extended

Neckring sitting pretty in primer

Andy's awesome aunt even embroidered us a set of authentic patches for the suit. Thanks aunt Barb!

Lastly, our costume designer Natalie brought it together by adding all the necessary Velcro and even building a survival vest and gloves for the costume. Here's a shot of the first draft of the costume in action.

All star filmmaker extrordinaire Albert standing in as our pilot for the plates

The costume was only half the battle, we still needed a cockpit to put the pilot in! Our production designer Cody Bousquet had it covered. The shell of the cockpit was built to scale out of cardboard and will soon be covered in Bondo and Fiberglass. What you see here is the frame of the cockpit that we used to test out lighting/framing on set.

Co-director Andy takes the SR for a spin

View from in the cockpit

How the cockpit reads on camera

In the coming weeks the cockpit will be transformed into a fully textured SR71 interior. Super stoked to see it come together. Even in its cardboard state it already reads great on camera. More to come in following posts. Along with our cockpit interior we also needed to build an ejection seat, centre stick, and throttle for our pilots to interact with.

Building the centre stick from an old topgun pc game joystick and car parts

This shovel handle is destined for great things

Angle grinding the base of our ejection seat

Here you can see the ejection seat taking shape. Our other production designer Wolfie hooked us up with all the resources to get these parts rolling.

Luckily we do not need to build the entire instrument panel as we will be shooting our inserts on location in an actual cockpit. However, we still needed to rough out the object the pilots will be interacting with for their close-ups.

Hugo played by Drew Anderson on his way to the danger zone...

Despite rescheduling principle photography, we took full advantage of our studio slots and shot 4k plates of both Swedish and American pilots to composite into our full CG scenes.

In order to figure out the angles we needed of the pilots to drop into our CGI shots, we previsualized all of our exteriors with scale models.

The model fleet ready to previs

Here, we set up each exterior shot in Andy's living room. We used the models to explore framing, action, and flight choreography.

Once we were happy with our exterior shots, we came up with a shot list for each angle we'd be seeing the pilots from. Then we shot the pilots on the green screen stage to later drop into our exterior CG shots.

Grabbing the topdown plate


Our lighting setup for the 4k plates

Next we spent a full day doing camera and lighting tests in the skeleton of the SR71 cockpit. This was massively helpful. If we had not explored this prior to the principle shoot, it would have made for a rough day on set.

The biggest issue we ran into was lighting the pilots. As soon as we diffused the light source or tried to add a second light for fill, the reflections became immediately evident on the helmet. The specular highlight from the diffused light no longer looked like the sun, instead it looked like a film light.

Playing with different light setups

Now I fully understand why films like Gravity opt to digitally add in their visors in post. It's no walk in the park to light a space helmet! We tried a ton of techniques to light the pilot; we used the overhead lighting grid, huge diffused light sources, small sources inside the cockpit, just about every tool we had at our disposal.

Eventually we found that the best technique was simply to blast the helmet with one extremely strong light source that acts as the sun. Then, for added fill, we placed a light next to the pilot it and aimed it at the roof of the cockpit. This created some soft bounce inside the cockpit that helped to fill in the hard shadows from our key without reflecting in the visor.

It was a huge help having this added day to run tests. It gave us an opportunity to do a trial run of our ideas which is going to be invaluable come principle photography in April. Although I was pretty torn up that it's the second week of March and we're trailer-less and shoot-less, I think the added production time is going to pay off huge in the weeks to come.

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