Accident investigation meets Hollywood animation

ISSN 2369-873X

30 July 2013
Posted by: Jon Lee

My career in aviation and accident investigation has afforded me an exposure to the many sides of this complex mode of transportation. From technology, operations and safety, it has been a continuous learning experience. The knowledge I have gained has also allowed me to pursue passions of mine outside of my 9 to 5 job.

Marrying accident investigation with Hollywood animation

I have always had a healthy interest in the arts having come from an artistic family and to be able to combine those interests with my aviation experience is quite fortunate.

A good friend of mine that I have known for almost 30 years is a production designer, supervising art director, concept illustrator and set designer in Hollywood. He has worked on more than 25 feature films in his career and, for the jobs where aviation themes or vehicles are involved, he calls on me for help. My job is to provide a realistic perspective on the vehicles on which he is working.

In film, there is a compromise between what is real and what is for entertainment. Commercial aviation is extremely safe, and as a result, not overly interesting to watch. Imagine a movie about an eight hour flight to Europe! It wouldn’t do very well at the box office. However, an overly fantastical representation of flying can backfire, as a certain amount of realism is required for the audience to buy in to what they are seeing. It’s a fine line between dull and over-the-top.

Consulting for Hollywood movies

When a movie calls for aviation-related set pieces or themes, I consult on what would be expected of that vehicle, how it would perform, and how it would look. My input is then balanced with what the director, production designer and writers have envisioned for the film. Some films that I have had the pleasure to work on include:

  • Zero Dark Thirty
  • Avatar
  • Sucker Punch
  • Flight Plan
  • War of the Worlds
  • Cypher
  • Armageddon

Designing aircraft systems and flight instruments

Zero Dark Thirty and Avatar were the most challenging. In Avatar, there were several flying vehicles, and director James Cameron required a high level of realism. I was asked to design various aircraft systems and flight instruments that included creating system designs for hydraulics, power plants, flight controls, and avionics for the Samson tilt rotor vehicle. The detail went as far as to imagine the shape of the rotor blades for Pandora’s atmosphere.

For Zero Dark Thirty, I provided feedback on the helicopter exterior features. I needed to ensure they were realistic enough so that the audience would identify them as a stealth helicopter. Additionally, I provided information on current forms of stealth technology relating to aircraft lighting, sound signature, heat signature and radar reflectivity to contribute to the final illustrations that were used to create the set pieces.

Stealth helicopter design used in Zero Dark Thirty
(C2012 Columbia Pictures / Annapurna Pictures / Zero Dark Thirty, LLC – All Rights Reserved)
Image of stealth helicopter design used in Zero Dark Thirty

The real helicopter didn’t likely have as many angles as the one in the movie, as I’m sure a handful of aviation specialists would note. But for the millions of non-aviation viewers that saw the movie, they could identify with its shape and believe it was a stealth helicopter.

So for all the aviation savvy movie watchers, take comfort knowing that productions often consider what is real. In the end, though, entertainment will always win out—that’s what movies are all about!

Image of Jon Lee

An aircraft investigator for over 13 years, Jon Lee is the TSB’s Western Regional Manager in Edmonton, Alberta. He has played a leading role in 50 investigations both in Canada and abroad. Before joining the TSB, Jon worked as a pilot aboard over 35 types of aircraft and has accumulated 6500 flight hours. Jon also spends his time chasing after 3 kids, trying to break 90 on the golf course (when it isn’t covered in snow) and keeping some kind of proficiency on guitar, piano and drums.

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