‘Independence Day,’ a model effort


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This is the second installment in our series ‘Wizards of Hollywood,’ where we shine a spotlight on the masters of movie magic, the effects specialists who can dazzle us with screen images of liquid robots, giants and goblins, ferocious dinosaurs or a special human soul who ages in reverse. Today, guest contributor Liesl Bradner talks to Engel, a visual effects supervisor who won an Oscar the 1996 film ‘Independence Day.’


Volker Engel, a 43-year-old native of Bremerhaven, Germany, is now working on ‘2012,’ the eco-disaster film due this November from director Roland Emmerich. Emmerich was also the director of ‘Independence Day,’ and Volker has a favorite scene from that movie that invoved a key symbol of the U.S. presidency...but it’s not the one you think.

My most memorable scene was from ‘Independence Day.’ Everyone talks to me about the ‘blowing-up-the-White-House’ scene and how much fun that must have been. Personally, the one that is most rewarding and memorable is the Air Force One shot because it was all done ‘in camera.’ It was a small, five-second establishing shot of the plane in the air with the sunset in the background before we cut into the next scene. Nowadays, everyone expects that it was a computer-generated airplane and somebody went up and shot footage of the sky for the background. It was actually a blown-up archive photo with a small model 747 airplane hanging with super-thin fishing wire.

In 1995, when we made ‘Independence Day,’ it was the beginning of the taking over of the digital age pipelines. Back then it would’ve taken a lot longer to do the shot completely CGI. There are many different little elements we put in there that are invisible to viewer. We smoked in the studio so there was a slight haze layer to make it look real. We also had accompanying jet fighters in there. I bought them myself for $2 a piece from Toys R Us. We got a basic 747 model kit painted by the model shop to look like AFO. We added some extra camera maneuvers and elements such as placing a little flashlight bulb right above the lens of camera, which gave a lens-flare. Dimming up this little light bulb gave the appearance of the sun coming up on the wing of the plane. That added to the realism. We also used a zero-gravity camera arm that created this floaty movement that looks like it was shot from another airplane. Back then we could still a lot of old-school stuff. It’s fun. It forces you to open your toolbox, look in far corners and come up with weird stuff. That’s why I’m so proud of this shot. There’s some real beauty to it.

-- Liesl Bradner



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