Monday, March 1, 2010
The Land Before CGI
About a year ago I wrote up Hell's Angels here on Cinema Styles and remarked how terrific the action scenes were. That was before I was doing the series In the Land Before CGI and now that I am I'd like to include it. At the time I concentrated only on the Zeppelin sequence but I'd like to expand it here to three action sequences, all masterfully directed by Howard Hughes and cinematographer Elmer Dyer (the dialogue scenes in the film were directed by the uncredited James Whale).
The incredible thing about the action scenes in Hell's Angels is that they utilize full-scale action so much of the time. Miniatures are used as well but even then they're built up so large they're practically half-scale of the objects they're meant to represent. The action sequences in the film are each a good 15 to 20 minutes long so I've truncated them and broken them into three segments for your viewing pleasure.
The first is the munitions depot bombing. In this sequence Hughes uses miniatures interspersed with full-scale. The explosions are no firecrackers either with several being actual dynamite blasts taken from an aerial viewpoint. As our heroes in a stolen German bomber set out to bomb the German munitions depot they find that their bombs set off a chain reaction which quickly eliminates the entire depot. I like the small touch at the end where the two look at each and shrug as if to say, "Damn, that was pretty cool."
The second is the dogfight that occurs shortly after the depot raid. If you've seen The Aviator you will recall Hughes setting up the dogfight sequence near the beginning of the film. Those scenes were not exaggerated as the dogfight scene uses no miniatures and, most importantly, no optical effects. The pilots in the planes are actually in the air in the planes! Even at the end of the sequence, when one of the planes we've been following crashes down it is tempting to think that is a miniature as well but in fact was an actual plane nose-dived into the ground. Check out the soldiers dispersing in the background.
The third and final sequence is the showstopper Zeppelin fight that occurs in the film just before intermission. I recommend watching the entire film to see the whole incredible scene that builds tension for a good twenty minutes before we arrive at the highlighted section here. In this part, the Zeppelin, which has shot down every plane trying to bring it down, is attacked by the final pilot who, out of bullets, flies his plane into the Zeppelin, sending it to a spectacular fiery end.