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Immersed in Movies: Zemeckis Talks 'Flight' and the 'Digital Stew'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood November 2, 2012 at 4:21PM

While "Flight" marks Robert Zemeckis' return to live-action, he rejects the notion that he spent the last decade wandering in the virtual woods with performance capture. In fact, the Oscar-winning director likes to quote Francois Truffaut in explaining that his movies have always been about "truth and spectacle." In "Flight," we get both, of course, with a harrowing plane crash, and a riveting performance from Denzel Washington as an alcoholic airline pilot forced to confront his personal demons when his heroics turn against him. Indeed, Zemeckis maintains that the real spectacle was navigating the dramatic ambiguity of Washington's crucible.
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Washington in 'Flight'
Paramount Washington in 'Flight'

While "Flight" marks Robert Zemeckis' return to live-action, he rejects the notion that he spent the last decade wandering in the virtual woods with performance capture. In fact, the Oscar-winning director likes to quote Francois Truffaut in explaining that his movies have always been about "truth and spectacle." In "Flight," we get both, of course, with a harrowing plane crash, and a riveting performance from Denzel Washington as an alcoholic airline pilot forced to confront his personal demons when his heroics turn against him. Indeed, Zemeckis maintains that the real spectacle was navigating the dramatic ambiguity of Washington's crucible.

"It's like everything I'd been doing the last 10 years was the perfect setup for doing 'Flight' in every discipline," asserts Zemeckis, who made the movie because of the ambiguity of the premise. "But 'Flight' has 300 digital shots and we did the movie for $30 million, and so the exciting thing is that 'the digital cinema' is just getting cheaper and cheaper. Obviously, you have to know what you're doing and you have to have some pretty good artists, which I've been able to put together."

In fact, Zemeckis entrusted the VFX to an old ally from his ImageMovers Digital days, Kevin Baillie, who currently runs Atomic Fiction, which was able to handle an escalating number of digital shots in about four months, thanks to cloud rendering. "It's the New World Order," Zemeckis proclaims. "That to me is the most exciting [technical] news, which very few people know about, because they seem to be obsessed by trying to keep everything in these boxes. This endless discussion about film is beyond me. And film being obsolete is not a new thing.

So it made perfect sense for cinematographer Don Burgess to shoot "Flight" with the Red Epic digital camera. For one thing, it would've made the plane crash a lot more expensive and unwieldy to shoot with a film camera, necessitating a much bigger cockpit set to accommodate all the equipment.

"What makes me chuckle is that the phoniest thing you've ever seen on a movie set is the close-up. It's the most unnatural, completely technical thing that you can do. Yet it's revered as this natural thing. But it's this special effect. And, by the way, it's completely artificial to do."

Yet one of "Flight's" most suspenseful moments is a close-up of Washington being tempted by a tiny bottle of vodka in a hotel room. And Zemeckis amps up the Hitchcockian moment with hyper-real stylization, shooting with great depth of field and at 48 fps. So there's no need to ask him where he stands in the higher frame rate debate. "In the digital realm you can adjust it to anything that you need," Zemeckis contends. "And you can just ramp the shot so that in the perfect compositional moment you can lengthen or shorten it so that you can make the cut on the music beat. It's just wonderful to make these images so pliable."

 Zemeckis and Washington on set of 'Flight'
Paramount Zemeckis and Washington on set of 'Flight'

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews , Bob Zemeckis, Flight, Denzel Washington, VFX


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.