How the ''Superman Returns'' team tore apart a virtual 777's wings and put Lois Lane in zero gravity

By Steve Daly
Updated July 06, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Superman” secrets revealed!

Remember the amazing plane-crash scene from Pixar’s The Incredibles? How real the sense of jeopardy was? I hate thinking about it if I’m on board a plane myself, but I admire it as a textbook example of how to build editorial tension in a movie, just as I admire the openings of Alive (wherein a fuselage rips apart in midair) and of Cast Away (the sequence where Tom Hanks’ FedEx plane nosedives into the ocean). And of course, United 93 may be the strongest evocation of a jet-liner mayday to date. But for Superman Returns, director Bryan Singer and company have done something different in the realm of air-disaster scenarios. They’ve taken a nightmare situation and turned it into a wish-fulfillment fantasy of tragedy averted. And — Holy Edna Mode! — Superman even saves the day while wearing his trademark cape, a getup that any Incredibles fan knows can be fatal to a superhero if they’re not careful. The graceful way Supes brings a disabled 777 jet safely to earth in the middle of a baseball field makes for one of the summer’s great action setpieces, and includes one heck of a money shot as the camera tracks out backwards from a passenger window across the plane’s burning wing, just as it snaps in Superman’s hands. (For a glimpse of the finished scene culminating with exactly that shot, you can click here; select ”video,” then ”clips,” then ”airplane rescue.”)

Who are the minds behind the scene? Well, there’s lots of them. We got the Daily Planet-worthy scoop on who did what from visual effects supervisor Mark Stetson, an Oscar winner for Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and the guiding hand on The Fifth Element (a movie that still makes one of the best eye-candy test discs when shopping for big-screen TVs). Stetson says the plane-freefall scene was the first thing he started working on and one of the last things he finished, due to perpetual reworking through production. ”Bryan likes to keep adjusting things till there’s absolutely no time left to adjust it further,” says Stetson. ”The details were changing constantly right through to the end.” Here’s how the behind-the-scenes flight plan went:

GETTING AIRBORNE Early in the development of Singer’s take on Superman, as he worked with screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, the director considered having his hero explicitly address the events of 9/11. ”This never actually made it into the script,” says VFX chief Mark Stetson. ”But there was talk of having Superman sort of standing at the edge of ground zero [in downtown Manhattan], in grief over the fact that he wasn’t around when the trade center went down. Everybody quickly decided that was too maudlin and melodramatic, and inappropriate for the movie we were trying to make.”

But Singer was intrigued by an idea that director-producer McG (mastermind of the Charlie’s Angels movies) had developed when he was considering directing the new Superman film. (For an account of the production’s many false starts, click here). McG and his team had worked out a storyboarded sequence in which Superman rescues Air Force One — an homage to a scene in the original 1978 Superman: The Movie where lightning destroys an engine on Air Force One and Superman (played by Christopher Reeve) guides the crippled craft to safety. Singer ultimately rejected reprising this presidential-plane idea, but he liked some of the imagery McG’s crew had dreamed up. ”A certain amount of that lived forward into the Bryan Singer movie,” says Stetson. ”Some of the shots in our sequence are taken directly from the McG previsualization.”

Biggest difference: Air Force One got jettisoned. In Singer’s take, Lois Lane goes up in a plane that’s about to launch the piggyback flight of a space shuttle. The launch malfunctions, the shuttle begins to accelerate while still attached to its jet-plane tugboat escort, and Superman has to separate the shuttle, send it safely spaceward, then rescue the damaged host jet as it tumbles earthward, right toward a big baseball stadium.

According to Stetson, Singer’s initial conception was to showcase every one of Superman’s powers in this sequence: X-ray vision (he sees Lois trapped inside the plane), his super-breath (he blows out the flames on the wings), his heat vision (used to uncouple the shuttle from its moorings). That quickly proved too ambitious — and expensive. ”It got scaled back in a futile attempt to control the budget,” says Stetson, laughing. But even as Supe’s heroics got scaled back, Lois’s peril inside the falling jet plane got beefed up. Second-unit director Dan Bradley kept arguing that there was no drama to the sequence if Lois wasn’t a bigger onscreen part of it. So, a giant prop-plane interior was built on a soundstage gimbal that could tilt and shift into all kinds of gravity-defying positions. Mark Stetson refused to set foot on the rollicking rig. ”I get motion sickness easily,” he says. ”It became a running joke with the crew that I refused to get in and ride that gimbal. But I didn’t need that on top of dealing with the rest of the pressures of the shoot.”

A wire-harness rig was put down the aisle of the plane-interior set, and stuntfolks were sent careening around on it (with the wires later erased from the images), greatly enhancing the dangerous vibe of the sequence. Look carefully and you may detect Lois’s physique changing: That’s Kate Bosworth’s face digitally pasted onto other people’s bodies for some shots. Meantime, Brandon Routh was hung from wires for seemingly endless shots of Superman maneuvering through the sky. A whole team of green-suited folks, shot against a green screen so they could be removed from the image easily, had to puppeteer the movement of his cape, while another pit crew aimed tiny air blowers at his hair and costume to simulate air flow around him. In the finished scene, he’s sometimes replaced with a ”digital actor,” a computer model made from scans of Routh’s own body and face.

The plane’s actual plummet to earth — first the wings snap off, then it freefalls — was entirely digital trickery. For reference, Stetson and a staff of CG artists looked at still photos and motion footage of real crashes, including an awful F-104 collision with an XB-70 supersonic bomber in the mid-1960s (you can see photographs of it here). They also got hold of footage of a real 777 jet’s wings being pulled to the limits of their tolerance as part of safety testing. ”We asked Boeing for it, and they wouldn’t give it to us,” says Stetson. ”I don’t know where we got it, and I don’t want to know. But it’s the most bizarre thing you’ve ever seen. The wings can bend up like 30 degrees before they break off. And the skin of the fuselage gets this incredible sort of diamond pattern in it from the stress, a weird ripple pattern.”

TAKE THEM OUT TO THE BALL GAME The kicker to the sequence comes when the 777’s fall takes it right into the middle of a daytime baseball game. Players scatter as Superman gently sets down the aircraft in the field. The filmmakers shot all the necessary images at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, but thanks to the magic of digital erasure, tons of details could be tweaked to turn the stadium into a fictitious east-coast park. Palm trees? Out, along with the real Dodger Stadium’s corrugated roofing. The color of the seats was changed, as was the scoreboard. It became a giant-screen display device that shows Superman bringing the wingless plane to rest.

Watching this whole sequence, it’s difficult not to think about the Challenger shuttle disaster, as well as the fate of passengers aboard those hijacked planes on 9/11. ”A lot of people have mentioned United 93 to me,” says Stetson. ”They compare the end of our sequence, with the plane diving straight down toward the land below, to scenes in United 93. I haven’t seen that movie, so I don’t know about any similarities.” Intentional or not, there’s something emotionally cathartic about the echoes — about seeing a comic-book superhero on some level re-enact these calamities, yet put them right and rescue everyone involved.

So now, Superman fans, it’s feedback time. Did the scene get to you as much as it did to me? Was Bryan Singer right to forego overt references to 9/11, or would that have worked for you? Does the movie put you in mind of real-life disasters anyway? How does the new Superman’s flying stack up against the old Christopher Reeve movies? And is the new space-shuttle scene a better sequence than the Air Force One scene from Superman: The Movie?

Superman Returns

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 157 minutes
  • Bryan Singer