Movie makers team with military to create realism

  • Published
  • By Donna Miles
  • American Forces Press Service
When the DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures live-action film "Transformers" opens at movie houses nationwide July 4, the scenes with the F-117 Nighthawk, the CV-22 Osprey and Airmen running across the scene will look so convincing, viewers will swear the scene is the real deal.

And they'll be right.

Much of the action for the film, in which dueling robots from outer space bring their battle to Earth, was filmed months ago at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. About 300 Airmen and Soldiers whose images will dot the screen are real servicemembers. And the action will take place alongside real-life military aircraft, including the Osprey and F-22 Raptor, both making their Hollywood debuts.

Based on the animated 1980s TV series of the same name, the "Transformers" movie will showcase the latest in computer-generated imagery -- and a level of realism filmmakers say they couldn't get without Defense Department support.

The 1927 film "Wings" set the standard for that cooperation, said Phil Strub, who heads the department's film and TV liaison office at the Pentagon. In that classic silent-movie production, filmmakers used actual Army aircraft, Soldiers, and real estate to reenact World War I training and combat operations.

The result was so authentic that the picture became a big box office hit and the first movie to win an Oscar for best picture.

The production was a win-win situation, Mr. Strub said. As Hollywood got realism, the military got the chance to show the American public something important about military people, equipment and missions.

That is the same reason filmmakers keep asking for military cooperation to this day and why, in many cases, the Defense Department supports their requests, Mr. Strub said.

In another recent example of that cooperation, Edwards Air Force Base hosted movie director Jon Favreau.

As he spent three days at Edwards filming "Iron Man," which Marvel studio hopes will become its next superhero blockbuster; Mr. Favreau raved about the realism the base's array of aircraft brought to his fantasy story. "This is the best back lot you could ever have," he said. "Every angle you shoot is authentic: desert, dry lake beds, hangars."

Some of the most popular TV series, including the Fox Broadcasting Company thriller "24," tap into this realism, too.

Fans of "24" might remember the scene when a military honor guard attended President Palmer's coffin in the Season 5 finale, or when Jack Bauer frantically worked to foil a terrorist plot involving a nuclear submarine.

Robert Cochran, the program's cofounder, said the military support used to create these and other military-related scenes lends a tremendous dimension to the program. "It makes it bigger. It makes it more interesting. It makes it more real," he said.

Meanwhile, Cochran said, it underscores the "high-stakes" theme of the program. "When you see an F-18 streaking across the sky and dropping a bomb on an enemy helicopter, that visually tells you this is real, this is important, this is big stuff," he said.

Howard Gordon, lead writer for the show, said he's often amazed just how far the military will go to support storylines he and his fellow writers come up with. "I'll say, 'There's no way they are going to do this, but we will negotiate a way to do something like it, but much more modestly'," he said. "Then, they come back with a 'yes.'"

But before giving that "yes," officials from the Pentagon and the military services portrayed get a chance to review the script, Mr. Strub said. They negotiate to increase the realism and historical accuracy of the military scenes, recognizing the leeway needed for artistic license. Sometimes they require script changes as a condition of providing support.

Whether they provide support, and how much, depends largely on what is needed in the production and how available it is in light of real-world requirements, Mr. Strub said. Movie and TV producers reimburse the government for the cost of supporting a production. One of the biggest costs comes from reimbursing squadrons for flight operations specifically for a movie production, as in the movies "Top Gun" and "Black Hawk Down."

The DoD's support for a production boils down to something less tangible than hardware: how the production portrays the military and the men and women in uniform, said Mr. Strub.

When reviewing a script, Mr. Strub said, he tries to put himself in the place of a servicemember who would see the movie. "I try to imagine myself sitting in a theater or the big screen, and how it makes me feel seeing how I'm being portrayed," he said.

Air Force Capt. Christian Hodge, who has served as the Defense Department's project officer on both "Transformers" and "Iron Man," said military people typically enjoy seeing their services on screen. "It's good for morale," he said.

Hodge said there's no way to measure the true impact Hollywood productions have on recruiting. But he said it's hard to dismiss the message a big-screen production like "Iron Man" sends.

"This movie is going to be fantastic," he said. "The Air Force is going to come off looking like rock stars."

Mr. Strub said he hopes audiences viewing these programs see past the action and high-tech hardware to fundamentals that make the military stand apart from much of society. "We're talking about self-sacrifice, duty and commitment to something beyond oneself," he said. "These are values that we hope come through."

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