Sidebar: The Case of "The Aviator": Replicas and Mockups
For aerial coordinator Craig Hosking, the good news was the screenplay for The Aviator called for both flying sequences featuring Hughes Racer, the XF-11, and the H-4 Flying Boat. The bad news was that there were no flyable examples of these airplanes. So Hosking, a veteran of aerial extravaganzas ranging from Con Air to The Sum of All Fears, had to dig deep into his bag of cinematic tricks.
"We used every process known to man on this movie," he says. "And when that wasn't enough, we invented new ones."
The Miramax movie, which follows Howard Hughes from the late 1920s to the late '40s, posed a host of challenges. For example, for the opening scene--the making of Hell's Angels--Hosking and assistant aerial coordinator Matt Sparrow had to sweet-talk owners all over the country to amass a fleet of 15 World War I airplanes, mostly Fekker D.VII and Sopwith Camel replicas.
Later, a privately owned Sikorsky S-38 reproduction acted as Hughes' first amphibian, and a Lockheed Super Constellation flew in from the Airline History Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, to serve as the template for a computer-generated sequence showing dozens of Constellations on an airport ramp.
Meanwhile, special affects supervisor Bruce Steinheimer oversaw the construction of full-scale mockups of the Racer, the XF-11, and the H-4. (There was also a mockup of the Flying Boat's flight deck) The back half of a Vultee BT-13 Valiant was fashioned to look like the Racer so Leonardo DiCaprio could be filmed in the rear cockpit while Hosking flew from the forward cockpit.
For the XF-11, model makers built a bizarre contraption consisting of a full-scale canopy nestled between stunted wings that look life-size when filmed through a forced-perspective camera. "I fought long and hard against it because I didn't think it would look realistic," Hosking says. "But by golly, I had to eat my words."
In addition, Miramax built remote-controlled scale models of all three airplanes. For what he believes to be the first time ever, Hosking filmed them from a helicopter while he flew close formation with the models, which were controlled by RC pilots. "It was a little tricky," he admits. "But in effect, I was the wingman, so it was up to me to keep separation."
Hosking tried to minimize the computer-generated stuff and the use of blue-screen technology--the modern version of the old-timey movie technique in which the driver saws at the steering wheel while the background dances around behind him. So how did he crash the XF-11?
He laughs. "I left that up to the computer guys."