Principal photography commenced on August 27, 1997, in Kadoka, South Dakota, where the vast terrain resembled the surface of the asteroid. But before cameras began rolling in the Badlands, Michael Bay and his crew had already shot thousands of feet of film in documenting sequences in New York, Texas, and Washington, D.C., as well as completing some of the most spectacular segments of second-unit photography at Cape Canaveral.
Responsible for the domain of cinematography was director of photography John Schwartzman. Schwartzman, who has known Bay for many years, began shooting commercials and music videos with the director after graduating from college. When Bay was tapped to shoot his second Bruckheimer hit, “The Rock,” Schwartzman had already created a name for himself in the commercial world, and was moving from smaller independent films into studio-sponsored projects. He was delighted to come onboard when Bay invited him to join them on Alcatraz. His exemplary work on “The Rock” catapulted Schwartzman into the highest echelon of cinematographers.
The crew began second unit on April 3 at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where they shot the first of two shuttle launches. This first launch of the Columbia was done during the day, as a test of sorts, to determine camera angles, film speed, and other variables. The second, all-important launch of the Atlantis took place on a warm, humid evening in mid-May. “Night launches are only done about every 18 months or so,” says director of photography John Schwartzman. “We knew if we didn’t get it right, there was no second chance. Watching the launch and actually being able to film it was one of the most exciting things I’ve experienced in my life.”
Fifteen cameras were used to record the event, 12 of which were placed inside the three-mile safety zone of the launch pad. Many of NASA’s cameras were replaced with the production’s Panavisions. Bay, Schwartzman, gaffer Andy Ryan, and key grip Les Tomita had to plan and accommodate for a drastic change in light levels during the blastoff, not to mention the safety of expensive camera equipment. The camera and grip departments also had to build special housings for the cameras, weighing them down so that the concussion from the blast would not send the cameras into outer space as well. Special filters were used to protect each camera lens from the hydrochloric exhaust left in the shuttle’s wake.
The night launch footage was then transferred to the art department and the visual effects crew, which were responsible for transforming NASA’s current technology into futuristic visions of the shuttles. They augmented the footage with images of additional booster rockets in order to give the shuttles the power necessary to use the moon’s gravitational pull to slingshot around the moon, enabling them to land on the asteroid.
These and many other complex visual effects are being created by 13 different effects houses at work on the movie. In charge of the overall effort is Pat McClung, a veteran of Digital Domain and ILM, who was brought to the project by producer Gale Anne Hurd after their longtime association on several James Cameron-helmed projects. McClung (who put together an in-house effects team referred to as Vfx) and Richard Hoover at Disney-owned Dream Quest split the duties of designing the effects sequences.
“Anything that had a lot of 3-D imaging would go to DQ because they have developed a huge 3-D department” explains McClung. “They did ‘George of the Jungle’ and just finished ‘Mighty Joe Young,’ so they have a powerhouse staff over there. All of the approach shots to the asteroid include 3-D interactive gases that are very complicated and require a great deal of rendering time on the computer.
“We felt it was better if they concentrated on those shots and my crew worked on footage that required miniatures. For example, we shot miniatures of the shuttle and asteroid against green screen and then married that with 3-D computer-generated graphics. It was difficult to shoot these elements physically because we had to combine them with Michael’s [Bay] dramatic pans and tilts — his camera is always moving — and it’s not easy to create a seamless sequence that he’s satisfied with.”
“Armageddon” marks Dream Quest Images’ fourth collaboration with Bruckheimer (and the second with Bay) since “The Rock,” “Con Air,” and “Crimson Tide.” Hoover, along with visual effects producer Rae Griffith-Gagnon, Dream Quest founder Hoyt Yeatman, and their respective crews, were responsible for some of the film’s most dramatic moments. From the destruction of Paris sequence to the first glimpse of the space shuttles as they round the moon and the terrifying landing of the shuttles on the asteroid, to the jump of the Armadillo over an immense chasm in the asteroid, as well as the nuclear detonation of the asteroid, Dream Quest, like Vfx, worked tirelessly for more than a year on various effects sequences. “The action in the film is intense and heroic and the peril so overwhelming,” says Hoover, “that the asteroid and the outer space milieu had to be equally strong.”
Much of the effects work in the film was created physically by special effects coordinator John Frazier. Both on stage and on location, he and his crew created many explosions, asteroid earthquakes, alien gases, ice storms, space debris, and other mechanical effects, not to mention building the largest icon from the movie, the Armadillo.
Designed by production designer Michael White (who assigned a full-time 5-person crew to work with the special effects department), it was still Frazier’s responsibility to engineer and build a working vehicle that could ostensibly be transported to the asteroid, move around its unwieldy surfaces, and act as a drilling mechanism. “We didn’t want a conventional look such as a truck, so we started with a Humvee chassis,” says Frazier. “The Humvee has some pretty high-tech suspension on it so we used their sub-frame and their suspension and everything else we manufactured. We put a Chevy engine in it, but because it was ATP wired, we had to come up with a different suspension system so that we wouldn’t be breaking parts all the time — the vehicle had to work, it didn’t just sit there and look pretty.”
Frazier and his team also engineered the outboard wheels to be independent of the actual wheels on the Armadillo. The tires were also a first. They had a difficult time in changing the tread design, but they came up with a way to make the treads on a water-abrasive saw, transferring the design to a tire casing. Goodyear assisted in manufacturing their design.
The Armadillo weighs in at 22,000 pounds. It stands 12 feet high, 26 feet 8 inches long, and would have to squeeze through showroom doors at the local car dealership at 17 feet 2 inches wide. At such a formidable size, the Armadillo’s top speed hovers at about 45 miles per hour.
The sheer size of the project was daunting for everyone involved. “It’s the biggest film I’ve done,” McClung says. “Just the complexity of it, the activity of the physical effects, the visual effects, even from the production standpoint in designing the interiors of the miniature shuttle that have to match the life-size version — it only worked because we had great dialogue between all the departments. Coordination of all the departments was the only way to handle a project this big.”
Michael White can take the lion’s share of credit for this smooth coordination. White first worked with Michael Bay on music videos. When Bruckheimer was looking to assemble his team for “Crimson Tide,” Bay recommended his talented colleague for the role of production designer. Taking on a Simpson Bruckheimer extravaganza as his first foray into feature films was no small task, and White did not disappoint the filmmakers or Bay. When it came time to begin “The Rock,” Bay and Bruckheimer naturally turned to White once again. For Touchstone Pictures’ “Armageddon,” White and his team not only designed the shuttles (both interior and exterior), but also created the look of the many sets, including Mission Control, shot on stage at Culver Studios, the asteroid set, built on Stage #2 at The Walt Disney Studios, and a drilling apparatus they dubbed the Armadillo.
“A production designer creates the world within which the film is shot,” says White. “When you read a script, you have a vision of the world the characters live in. I have to create that world, be it a set or location or even a visual effects shot. It involves everything from construction to props to the sets.
“We wanted to update the design of everything from the space shuttles to the wardrobe but we had to integrate it with existing technology. Once we got cooperation from NASA, it put the onus on me to make sure that any sets or spacecraft we designed integrated with NASA’s look. We took artistic license with Mission Control — ours is much more stylistic — but we made sure the technology was accurate.”
NASA consultants would walk the set, from console to console, screen to screen, and advise the set designers and decorators. White is proud of his blend of authenticity and style, but was concerned that in elevating the aesthetics of NASA on set, the company had to take greater care when scouting the real NASA locations needed for further filming.
“There are some facilities at NASA that, while utilitarian, are pretty mundane looking and simply don’t translate to film,” White says. “But there is so much there, and they opened their doors so widely to us that we found places that worked beautifully.” One such spot was the hallowed launch site of Apollo 1 where the crew shot a poignant scene between Grace and Harry.
One of White’s greatest challenges was creating the asteroid which became a character in and of itself. “We wanted it to be scary,” says director Bay. “We wanted anything but a soft rock. It had to have a real presence. Our asteroid specialist said anything goes because these things vent gas. Apparently they’re pretty vicious in terms of how they heat up with solar wind storms and all that.”
White did a great deal of research and came up with multiple designs before he and Bay settled on the exact look of the asteroid. He claims most asteroids look like russet potatoes and, in reality, are not very interesting. “They’re sort of globular and very flat on the surface with not much personality,” he says. “We wanted something more menacing, so we went through a lot of designs to come up with the shape of the rock, the razor-like barb rock formations and the overhangs, to create a sense of peril whatever spot you’re in.”
Construction on Stage #2 at The Walt Disney Studios took four months using a crew of 150 men and women. The stage measures 240’x130′ and is one of the largest in Hollywood. Crews excavated 30 feet (at the lowest point) below stage level, increasing the space, floor to ceiling, from 45 to 65 feet, and in some areas as high as 75 feet.
“Two months was probably nothing but plastering, wood work, steel construction, and foam carving,” notes White. “It was built in components, on two or three different stages, and then transferred and assembled like a big puzzle — most of the pieces fit, but a few didn’t,” he laughs.
Stage foreman Richard Birch highlights the broad strokes of the construction process. “We used a molding comb to take a profile of the miniature model the art department designed. From the molding comb, we traced the outline on 1/4-inch grid paper. The grid paper was then used to transfer the outline to a one-inch grid system on the plywood floor of the soundstage. The plywood was then cut to the shape of the contours of the rocks and mountains on the asteroid.”
“Using 3/4-inch plywood ribs which were connected by 1×3-foot cleats, this framework was covered with metal lathe,” further explains construction coordinator Greg Callas. “The lathe was bent and sculpted as the shape required, then sprayed with plaster and handworked to give the rock its textured look.”
According to Callas, they used a somewhat different method to produce the more gargantuan of the giant rock formations. “Three-eighths-inch steel rods were bent and shaped into a skeletal formation and welded together. Then the skeleton or frame was covered with a very fine aluminum mesh, sprayed with foam, and sculpted into the desired shapes, after which the foam was hardcoated and then painted.”
The quantities of materials used in making the asteroid were large, but the materials themselves were fairly simple. Four lifts of plywood, each consisting of 44 4×8-foot boards, were used each day. Approximately 150 lifts were used in total. Construction utilized 50 spray foam kits, each kit containing 110 gallons of spray foam, as well as 200 billets of 2x4x8-foot Styrofoam and 250 pallets of plaster.
Color also played a big role on the asteroid. “I don’t like using a lot of colors mixed on screen at once,” says Bay. “On the asteroid there is a lot of blue. I wanted the astronauts to enter this world that’s very monochromatic and cold as opposed to the shuttles, where we used a certain type of lighting that made it a bit more sci-fi, a bit more militaristic. We tried to make the movie very dark in terms of lighting,” he continues. “It pushes the limit of the film because with anamorphic — you have so much more negative to work, it really adds to the shadow detail.”
This malevolent look also extended to the miniature versions of the asteroid conceptualized by Dream Quest Images’ art director Mike Meaker and built by miniatures art director Mike Stuart and his 30-person crew. The model of the asteroid’s exterior measured 28×15 feet while the interior model was 80×25 feet, complete with 35-foot long spikes at the tail. These jagged, forbidding spires were hand carved from huge blocks of Styrofoam fitted over steel armatures, and painted like the asteroid’s larger version on Stage #2. Another DQ crew built and outfitted miniature scale models of the shuttles Independence and Freedom. Built on a 1:20 scale, the shuttles were six feet long and incorporated aspects of sleek wing and thruster designs from military fighter jets. Fabricated from epoxy and fiberglass, the shuttles featured a six-point mount needed for filming motion-control sequences.
From the sets to the wardrobe, no detail was too small. The filmmakers even commissioned a sculptor to create a life-size figure wearing the space suit created by costume designer Magali Guidasci. Guidasci, along with costume supervisor Sue Moore and their team, designed and fabricated the intricate space suits in a whirlwind. With only 10 weeks to prepare, the wardrobe department hurried to assemble three suits for the first several days of filming in South Dakota.
“We really rushed to get it done,” says Moore. “There was a lot of drama involved with the fabric which was critical to the look of the suit. We found that there wasn’t enough to make all the suits we needed, and after some great detective work by our staff, we found a company in Georgia that was not only willing to make the 300-yard-long fabric, but was also willing to clear their calendar of all other jobs to get it done.
“We wanted to use a rayon/nylon blend, but they didn’t have rayon,” she explains. “After searching, we found another company in North Carolina that put some on a truck for Georgia right away. But when we began shooting in South Dakota, we found that the fabric we originally envisioned was unstable and wouldn’t hold up. By the time we got back to L.A., it was a different story because we worked out many of the kinks and had a second batch of better-designed costumes ready to go.”
Creating the helmets was equally difficult. Director Bay wanted helmets that were not round and had an elongated face plate so that the camera could capture an actor’s entire face even in profile. Global Effects and Neo Tech, the two companies that designed the helmets, also found solutions in keeping the face plates clear from fogging when the actors would exert themselves and breathe heavily.
The wardrobe became so involved that Bay brought in a second designer, Michael Kaplan, to facilitate the process. The production utilized 30 suits for actors, doubles, and stuntmen. Initially it took Kaplan and his crew about one hour to dress each actor, but by the time the show wrapped, the process only lasted about 20 minutes. Each suit weighed between 50 and 60 pounds with its large backpack of batteries required to illuminate the various lights and other bells and whistles attached to the chest plate. Once an actor put on his belt, boots, gloves, and helmet, the ensemble became even more ungainly and uncomfortable. Many of the actors used their time on the set in the suit in place of hours working out in the gym! The complaints and jokes became so pervasive that Michael Bay agreed to end the griping by coming to work wearing one of the suits.
“Bruce told me he wasn’t coming out of his trailer after lunch until I put on a suit,” Bay remembers. “So I put one on and tried to maintain that it was light as a feather and started bouncing around. I did 35 pushups and started running around. It was so hot, it just tweaks your body. But I told Bruce it felt great,” he laughs. “After two hours I started to get hot flashes and my directing was really taking a slide, so I felt their pain.”
The full complement of cast and crew returned to NASA to complete scenes that needed the realistic backgrounds necessary for the scope of the film. Location shooting began in late October in Texas at Johnson Space Center, where they spent four days shooting sequences at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab and Ellington Air Field. During their day at Ellington, the company received an impromptu visit from former President George Bush that overwhelmed even the most buttoned-up Air Force personnel. Next, the crew headed for Florida to spend ten days at Kennedy Space Center, where they were permitted access to some of the most restricted areas, including the Operations and Check Out Building, the Vehicle Assembly Building, the shuttle landing strip, and the breathtaking gantry, launch pad, and shuttle.
The Air Force also hosted the crew for several days at Edwards Air Force Base where for the first time, they were permitted to film scenes in front of the famed B-2 Stealth Bomber. Guards monitored the aircraft 24 hours a day, even during filming.
Other locations of inestimable value to the production were the Stocker Oil Field, the Fletcher Oil Refinery in Carson, California, and the EEX Corporations’ Garden Banks Oil Rig 200 miles off the Gulf Coast of Texas. The latter was one of the most unusual locations many of the cast and crew had ever visited, let alone spent the night on. A scaled-down crew and their equipment had to be helicoptered to the rig, and because space is rather restrictive, the film company shared quarters with the oil rig crew, sleeping four to a room. After four peaceful days in the middle of the ocean, the company returned to Los Angeles to resume its hectic filming schedule. Principal photography wrapped on February 18, 1998, at St. Brendan’s Church in Los Angeles.