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November 03
2020

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

World War II Rescue Drama JOURNEY TO ROYAL is a Journey in Effects

By IAN FAILES

When writer/director Christopher Johnson discovered the true story of World War II pilot Royal A. Stratton in the 4th Emergency Rescue Squadron and his numerous rescue missions over the South Pacific, he knew he wanted to find a way to tell that tale somehow.

Central to bringing the historical moment to the screen involved accurate re-creations of the planes and other military paraphernalia of the era. For many independent creators that might have been a major barrier, but Johnson already had vast experience in makeup effects, model making and visual effects, and had also worked for Walt Disney Imagineering.

Christopher Johnson, writer, director and visual effects artist for Journey to Royal. (Photo: Mariana Tosca. Courtesy of www.toscaphotography.com)

Miniature PBY Catalina “PISTOFE” with fully functioning control surfaces and working motors mounted on a cable system and shot against sky and cloud backgrounds. (All images copyright © 2020 The Misty Falls Motion Picture Company unless otherwise noted.)

Johnson took advantage of that expertise to approach the effects side of his planned film – which ultimately became the hybrid documentary/feature called Journey to Royal that includes several WWII veteran accounts – by tackling plane shots and ocean rescues with as much practical photography as possible. This included filming with real planes, shooting on the open ocean and devising key scenes with miniatures.

“It was always my intention to shoot on full-scale WWII aircraft and fill in the gaps with miniatures and visual effects,” Johnson remarks. “We were fortunate enough to shoot on a WWII PBY Catalina and a WWII B-29 at Palm Springs Air Museum and March Field Air Museum, respectively.”

“Those planes don’t fly,” notes Johnson, “and, in the case of the PBY, the fuselage had been modified for civilian use following the war. So models and background plates had to be employed to manifest their period-accurate WWII incarnations and environments. Everything, with the exception of some particle animations for smoke and prop wash on the ocean, was shot practically.”

Miniature B-29 “Dragon Lady” mounted on a cable system and against the sky and clouds.

“It was always my intention to shoot on full-scale WWII aircraft and fill in the gaps with miniatures and visual effects. We were fortunate enough to shoot on a WWII PBY Catalina and a WWII B-29 at Palm Springs Air Museum and March Field Air Museum, respectively.”

—Christopher Johnson, Writer/Director

Johnson built two hero plane models – a 5-foot PBY and a 3-foot B-29 – which each took many months to build. To save time, he started the process with commercially available foam and plastic shells of the basic aircraft. With blueprints, he then re-sculpted the models for period accuracy, cladding the forms with hand-made custom styrene skins and hand-detailed panel lines and rivets.

“In the case of the B-29, the outer skin was paneled in thin adhesive-backed aluminum that I polished with miniature Dremel buffing pads for scale effect,” outlines Johnson. “All the control surfaces are functional and actuated via remote control. To simplify that process, I purchased a number of inexpensive ‘foamy’ radio-controlled airplanes complete with engines, servos and control units, and cannibalized the hardware to fit my specific needs.”

“Every day I was chasing clouds and weather forecasts hoping for overcast skies. I got a few winter days that really fit the bill – a little wire-removal, cloud enhancement and digital smoke for the B-29, and the results were striking and effective.”

—Christopher Johnson, Writer/Director

Christopher Johnson filming the B-29 “Dragon Lady” model over the rooftops of North Hollywood.

With no access to motion-control equipment, the models were filmed in a more manual way. First, Johnson rigged the planes on wire harnesses and shot them gliding against cloudy skies on the roof of a building in North Hollywood. “Everyday,” he says, “I was chasing clouds and weather forecasts hoping for overcast skies. I got a few winter days that really fit the bill – a little wire-removal, cloud enhancement and digital smoke for the B-29, and the results were striking and effective.”

Each plane was also locked off and filmed on Johnson’s roof, with Journey to Royal producer Mariana Tosca utilizing a smoke machine to simulate fast-passing clouds. “Part of my goal was to make each of the shots seem plausible,” describes Johnson, “as if they were filmed looking out the window of a camera plane, so I got the most scuffed piece of Plexiglass I could find and shot most everything through that. It added an organic, imperfect feel that sells the illusion.”

The B-29 “Dragon Lady” model, with wire removal done and digital smoke added.

“It’s been a long road but producer Mariana Tosca and I made a promise to these veterans that their stories would be told and their heroism and sacrifice would never be forgotten. We’re nearing the end of a wondrous and deeply gratifying journey.”

—Christopher Johnson, Writer/Director

In addition, each plane was shot against a white cyclorama and inserted into motion-tracked background plates of skies shot from commercial aircraft or on the open ocean. For a few shots, actors were also filmed against greenscreen and composited into cockpit windows.

For scenes of the PBY on water, background plates of speedboats running at the approximate right speed were captured. One boat had a black hull and another boat had a white hull; the idea was to pull mattes to more easily enable overlays of the model. “The approach was successful,” says Johnson, “and effectively created the illusion of the 5-foot PBY model skimming over the waves for take-off without having to generate complex water or wake animations.”

Camera original shot on the open ocean in custom-fabricated reproduction WWII E-2 life rafts, “Mae West” life vests and the downed B-29 crew.

Composite of a miniature PBY Catalina and cloud elements.

“Those [museum] planes don’t fly and, in the case of the PBY, the fuselage had been modified for civilian use following the war. So models and background plates had to be employed to manifest their period-accurate WWII incarnations and environments. Everything, with the exception of some particle animations for smoke and prop wash on the ocean, was shot practically.”

—Christopher Johnson, Writer/Director

Camera original shot of the WWII PBY Catalina “Harriet’s Chariot” doubling for the “PISTOFE” in a rescue sequence featuring the downed B-29 crew.

Composite of the miniature PBY Catalina, real ocean and sky elements, and digital prop wash.

A more challenging water shot involved the rescued B-29 crew climbing out of life rafts into the blister of the PBY. Here, the angles facing the plane were shot with the full-size PBY in Palm Springs. Since the sequence is supposed to take place on the open ocean, practical effects technician John Stirber rigged a platform for the rafts that sat atop large inner tubes. Attached levers were lifted and lowered to simulate ocean waves and a large water mister sprayed the actors with simulated ocean prop wash.

“We were on such a short schedule,” recalls Johnson, in relation to the filming of this scene. “The establishing angle was shot off the shoulder and took a lot of cajoling to get it dialed in during post because the motion of the camera wasn’t centered on the nodal point, it was just free form, so the subtle changes in perspective made tracking different mattes and elements more challenging. It’s a very quick shot in the final edit, but it’s vital to set the geography of the overall event.”

In order to capture the reverse angle simulating the POV from the interior of the plane outwards, the filmmakers duplicated the action on the open ocean with actors climbing out of the life rafts past the camera and onto a camera yacht. “After I cut it all together, it really cemented the illusion that you’re on the open ocean in the middle of a dangerous rescue,” states Johnson.

Journey to Royal (https://www.journeytoroyal.com) is now completed, save for a final sound mix. Test screenings have been carried out and the final cut comes in at 90 minutes. Johnson and Tosca are negotiating a deal with a distributor and hope to find novel ways to show people the film during this pandemic.

Miniature PBY Catalina filmed against white cyclorama and composited into ocean and sky plate.

“It’s been a long road but producer Mariana Tosca and I made a promise to these veterans that their stories would be told and their heroism and sacrifice would never be forgotten. We’re nearing the end of a wondrous and deeply gratifying journey.”


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