Atomic Fiction’s Kevin Baillie on providing the VFX for Flight

21 June, 2013 by Emily Blatchford

In his review of the film Flight, The Observer’s Phillip French describes the scene in which Denzel Washington’s plane goes down as ‘worth the admission price in itself.’

Other reviewers such as Ed Gibbs from the Age have echoed French’s praise, with Gibbs writing “Breathtaking scenes on board the doomed jet defy expectation, raising the bar beyond even Zemeckis's own Cast Away for sheer believability and terror.”


Chris Tookey from the Daily Mail, who only gave the feature two stars, was also in awe for the crash, stating, “Robert Zemeckis’s Flight is at its best with the opening, super-realistic air crash, which will have you gripping the arm-rests.“

So, whether you liked the film or not, it seems everyone is giving Flight’s half-an-hour crash sequence two thumbs up. 

Enter Kevin Baillie from Atomic Fiction, whose VFX work on the film ranged from “placing sky and making it look stormy when it was really a sunny day out, to doing whole computer generated aeroplanes.”

Baillie has worked with director Robert Zemeckis before on projects A Christmas Carol and Mars Needs Mums (for which Zemeckis was a producer) and it was this working history that later opened the door to Flight

“He said, ‘I really liked working with these guys, they’re young and innovative, let’s see if I can get them on this movie’,” Baillie recalls. “Then Paramount graciously agreed and that’s kind of how it was born.” 

It was no small feat for the company, who provided all of the VFX shots (Baillie says there over 400) and completed them in-house during a five-month period. 

“We were filming for over a little three months in Atlanta, and then almost immediately afterwards worked on the VFX component for five months,” Baillie says. “It was a quick schedule. A lot of those blockbuster films have long schedules, like a year plus. We had a team of about 35 people working on it. It was a rush but we had a great time.” 

Baillie and the team used a number of techniques to create the now-famous crash sequence, including having the cockpit on a green screen and using a hydraulic platform.

“The crash scene was a really fun scene to film in the movie,” says Baillie. “We used a mixture of a lot of different methods create the illusion we were in a plane that was crashing. For instance we put a real cockpit on a hydraulic platform – to actually have Denzel’s body react naturally to that movement was fantastic.

“Having a fuselage you could turn over for real… people can act emotion and fake emotion. And if they fake it, it always looks a little fake. If you put people through it for real you get real emotion. And things like everybody’s heads moving left to right, people’s hair hanging down… the motion rig inherently gave us a lot of those things.” 

Baillie credits the success of the sequence to decisions made by the team early on to commit to as much realism as possible. 

“Zemeckis and the special FX supervisor and everyone involved in that scene… we all agreed it wasn’t going to be [the type of scene where] there’s a big hole that rips through side of the plane. There was not going to be drama everywhere. We wanted it to be a very, very realistic scene and I think that it is powerful from that perspective. It is so much more terrifying and more believable [when it is realistic]. We wanted to make sure every VFX shot in the scene was seamless. We didn’t want you to be able to tell.

“The feedback has been great. We’ve had people say to us ‘I thought there were ten VFX shots in the film, not 400,’ which has been great to hear.” 

There is another scene in the film, much less famous than the crash sequence, that Baillie is particularly proud of. 

“It’s the scene before they take off where Denzel is outside doing his pre-flight inspection. It’s pouring down with rain and there’s thunder and lightning, and he trips on the stairs when he goes up. When we went to shoot that scene – and it’s worth mentioning you can’t shoot at airports anymore after 9/11 – we’re supposed to be at Orlando International. 

“So we shot at an airstrip and had a real plane in the foreground, with Denzel and some fake rain falling around him. The day we filmed there was a blue sky and it was sunny. We ended up being tasked with taking not only a fully digital airport in the background but also make it stormy. I ended up taking thousands of photos of Orlando International… In the end we have a scene where it’s a synthetic rain storm and a digital airport. Most people don’t know it’s a digital shot. I’m proud of that.” 

Flight is released on DVD on June 19. 

View the trailer and behind-the-scenes footage below: