Giant Screen Filmmaking When Disasaster Strikes

This past Saturday, I was scheduled to spend the day in Reno, Nevada with a broadcast crew filming the famed Air Races.  Those plans were canceled on Friday when a P-51 Mustang flying at hundreds of miles per hour veered off course and crashed into the crowd, creating a three-foot deep crater, killing nine (including the veteran pilot), and injuring scores of others.

My colleague Hans Kummer, a Production Consultant on Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag and author of Reflections from Ground Zero, witnessed the crash.  Producers of a new giant screen documentary on the Air Races, Air Racers 3D, were in Reno that week, but it’s unknown if they were at the races at the time this incident took place.  Some of the pilots featured in their film were.  One of those pilots, Heather Penny, who not only races jets, but flies them for Lockheed Martin and the Air National Guard, sat only feet from the point of impact.  I’ve heard varying reports on how she survived, but both she and her family made it out unharmed.

When disasters happen, it can have a serious impact on the final version of a film to hit giant screens.

In truth, practically all giant screen films have at least one scene that is staged.  Whether it be to provide a better narrative for a nature film (see veteran producer Chris Palmer’s book Shooting in the Wild), historical recreation, or recreating a scene that conditions prevent from filming as it’s actually happening, these scenes exist in almost every film from space journeys to mountain climbing.  They allow the filmmaker greater flexibility within the constraints of giant screen filmmaking to tell the desired narrative.

With regard to staged scenes, films involving disasters are no exception.  For example, you can find them in both Stormchasers and Everest.  But real coverage of disasters or their aftermath also exist.  Filmmakers such as George Casey, his son Sean, and David Douglas have been on the scene either during or shortly after the occurrence of natural or ecological disasters.  Other filmmakers are present by pure circumstance.  Two recent MacGillivray Freeman films come to mind.  The storyline for Everest was radically changed when disaster struck an expedition higher on the mountain.  The event and the IMAX crew’s efforts in rescuing trapped climbers were profiled in both the book Into Thin Air by John Krakaur and the feature documentary Storm Over Everest by filmmaker David Breashears.  Breashears was co-director of Everest and both witnessed and participated in the events first hand.  Hurricane on the Bayou, which focuses on how wetlands protect the cities of Louisiana from the impact of hurricanes, was in post-production when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.  When the storm hit, a film crew, including writer/producer Glen Pitre, was dispatched to take both aerial and ground level footage of the aftermath, while Sassoon Film Design created new CG animation showing the storm hitting New Orleans and ripping apart the roof of the Superdome.

Air Racers is another matter altogether.  Less than a week after this tragic accident, the film is scheduled to be shown in its final form at 9:45 am tomorrow to giant screen theater operators from around the world at the GSCA’s annual conference in Austin, TX.  As a disclosure, I have only seen scenes from the film and am not attending the conference this year (I have opted to attend Film Expo in Poitiers, France in the Spring instead), and I do not know if the film has been taken off the schedule at this time.  What I do know is that the future of air shows and air races is now in question and for the final film to be released without mentioning this tragedy would be a disservice to those that fly and those who watch.   The day after the tragedy in Reno, a T-28 Trojan crashed at an airshow in West Virginia.  As one editorial pointed out, the difference between the two crashes was that the one on Saturday exploded into flames away from the crowd, while the one in Reno did not.  If the P-51 had exploded, the devastation would have been much more horrific than it was.

There are varied thoughts as to the future of the Reno Air Races.  Some believe they will be shut down and not return, while others are of the inclination that it will return in some modified form, possibly eliminating the unlimited class – modified WWII era planes including the P-51 Mustang.  What form the film takes should be indicative of what fate is bestown upon the Air Races.  It could become like Super Speedway or NASCAR: The IMAX Experience, where deadly accidents are shown as the catalyst of improved safety efforts.  Or it could be like Fires of Kuwait or the space shuttle films, documents of momentous events that are now pieces of history captured on film.  Either way, this remarkable film deserves to be seen, and it should be a tribute to those who risk their lives year after year and those who lost their lives this past weekend.

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