Setting the Scene: Robert Zemeckis on Creating the Inebriated Imagery of “Flight”

The director explains the chart he and his camera crew developed for depicting how high Denzel Washington's pilot would be when he wasn't up in the skies....Read More
Denzel Washington and Kelly Reilly in a scene from Robert Zemeckis' film "Flight"

Earlier this month, Robert Zemeckis sat down for a post-screening Q & A for “Flight” at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica where Entertainment Weekly writer Geoff Boucher asked questions of the director about his own love of flying, returning to a more traditional live-action drama after spending the last decade tinkering with motion capture and his favorite scene of the film — “In the stairwell,” Zemeckis said, referring to the first time Denzel Washington’s alcoholic pilot first meets the similarly afflicted Kelly Reilly in the hospital and the two are approached by a cancer patient (James Badge Dale). “No effects. Just the camera and a group of actors standing on marks.”

However, it was a question from the audience that livened up the discussion, naturally about the way Zemeckis figured out how to depict the various moments of substance abuse so moviegoers could really feel the cocaine and Stoli coursing through the veins of Washington’s Whip Whitaker. While the woman who asked was greeted with some good-natured laughs from the crowd, Zemeckis clearly perked up, noting “A very astute question,” explaining the mess Whitaker becomes throughout the film was carefully composed.

“We had a whole design for the camera to reflect different levels of intoxication. We have a chart and we decided that the camera was going to very subtly emote emotionally how wasted the characters were. When Denzel is sober, the camera is rock solid on a dolly. When he’s got a little bit of a buzz on, the camera is on a steadicam doing a little kind of float thing. When he’s a little bit more wasted, it gets a little more raucous. And when he’s really plastered, it’s all handheld. We did that with Kelly too.

“It’s all set up in that first scene where it’s kind of like just there and we have a thing called a slider. It’s a little mini-dolly that we put on the table where that line of coke was and the camera was sliding and pushing in, but the camera wasn’t on…it was just sitting on a sandbag that was on this little slider thing. As soon as Denzel snorted the coke, the camera operator grabbed the camera and shoved it right in his face.”

“So epic,” the woman gushed from the back of the house.

“Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” Zemeckis said with a smile.

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