The original conceit behind Smallville was that unlike any other previous incarnation of the Superman character, this would be a look at Clark Kent’s gradual evolution into the role of the Man of Steel. As such, it would represent the first time that he would experience many of his powers, including super speed, heat vision, X-ray vision and super hearing. The one thing that co-creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar insisted that the audience would not see is Clark take to the skies until the very end, hence their “no tights, no flights” rule.
“Once he can fly,” offers Millar, “that’s it: game over. He’s Superman. I think it was important for us and the character of Clark at that point in his life that he doesn’t fly.”
And yet in the season four premiere episode, “Crusade,” Clark, more or less possessed by his Kal-El Kryptonian personality, does just that, soaring into the stratosphere to retrieve an artifact from Lex Luthor’s private jet while it’s in mid-flight.
“If we were going to break the rule,” Millar says, “we wanted it to be a significant moment in Clark’s life and I think we came up with a way to do so while setting in motion the events of season four in a really cool way.”
Accomplishing this sequence fell to Mat Beck (Game of Thrones, Legion) and his team at Entity F/X, who handled all of the show’s visual effects since the second season. As Beck explains it, this was obviously an important sequence to everyone involved, and to accomplish it a great deal of pre-visualization on how the sequence would play was done on the computer. Additionally, Beck himself was asked to direct Tom Welling in “flight.”
“In terms of the actual flying, part of what we went for was not just hanging there in front of a greenscreen,” Beck explains. “We were trying to give him the opportunity to do a little bit of performing, and Tom was better than fabulous. He was constantly looking for ways to look serious and motivated and intense, but at the same time doing slight movements that would motivate movements in flight. He gave us an enormous amount to work with.”
From a technical standpoint, a new harness had been designed that would give Welling a greater comfort level than most actors have had when they’ve been forced to go up on wires. “We also had a belly pan that was sculpted to his body, but we ended up not using that, just because in designing the sequence we determined there would be a lot of shots where we would want to fly right under his stomach and the pan got in the way,” he says. “So most of the flying sequences were done with either him on a harness or standing on a small green platform with the camera flying past him. That allowed him to be comfortable and give a lot of performance in terms of turning his body this way or that way.”
The sequence begins with Clark crouching down and knocking his mother, Martha, aside. Initially, she’s frozen in space as the scene shifts into “Clark time.” According to Beck, producer Ken Horton wanted there to be a kind of energy effect gathering around Clark before take off. “In essence,” notes Beck, “he draws the energy to him, it compacts around him and launches him into the air. It’s the kind of thing whereas in Clark time we have the opportunity to see it, normally you don’t.”
A great deal of experimentation was done with a variety of effects in an effort to get the proper angle and distortion so that the moment had a certain amount of energy, but didn’t hide the entire scene at the same time. “In that scene, you see his feet kind of descend a little into the ground. That was a practical effect, but we put a lot of stuff over it to kind of smooth it out and make it look like it was a global energy effect. We tweaked that a couple of times just to get that right.
“When he launches,” elaborates Beck, “he’s got these nice little energy waves coming off of him as he flies past camera – that’s the shot looking down, where we’ve returned to real-time and we see Martha fall away – she’d been frozen in mid-fall. He launches past camera and he’s streaming these energy waves, which we added some color to which kind of help separate him and makes the shot look cool. Then we look over Martha’s shoulder to see him disappearing into the distance. We gave him a bit of a contrail there, the remains of those energy waves come off him, which made him read better. Helping in that area were some clouds we put in there, too.”
The desire was to have Clark close to the camera some of the time, but at other moments within the sequence they wanted him to be little more than a dot. There is a bit where the camera just shows clouds, when you suddenly see a “bullet” shoot through the clouds so that the impact is one of surprise, not one of closeness to the camera. That, says Beck, was a completely synthetic shot.
“What was really cool is that we were able to pre-vis things extensively and then when we were on the set I was able to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to fly it this way and that way,’ and we got all the stuff that we needed,” he enthuses. “Because Tom was willing to keep exploring, we did additional shots – like we’ll have him fly underneath camera, and over the top of camera, and then there was one great big shot where we wanted him to fly over and then go away. That was in the sequence early on, but one of the things that I thought would be really cool would be to have him so high that there are stars behind him. We wanted to add that in — I really wanted that shot. I had him on this harness where when you’re looking at him, he’s against green; when you’re looking away from him, he’s against green; and when you’re looking overhead, he’s just against the roof of the stage. I said, ‘I don’t care, we’ll make that work.’ What’s cool about that, too, is that in some of these shots it’s Tom for part of the shot and then it’s a CG Tom for the other part of the shot.”
The overhead flying shot was accomplished with the addition of a number of 3D clouds that were created in front of a background of clouds that were painted in. The camera focuses on the seriousness of Welling’s face, and then he arcs away toward a painting of the Earth and then disappears.
“What’s also really cool is that we just wanted some shots of him zooming along,” he relates. “What’s ironic is we had some footage that was shot a long time ago for the Clint Eastwood movie Firefox, so they’re in these backgrounds of clouds that are zooming away from us that we dropped in there. We steadied them, cleaned them up and made them usable for our purposes. And when he’d go through clouds, we’d just have him trailing a touch of CG mist to try and tie him in. The other irony is that I was the one who shot those clouds for Firefox. A long time ago I was a camera guy.
“There were a couple shots where he comes right up to camera and kind of turns off and left,” adds Beck. “There’s another one where he turns toward camera, goes through a couple of clouds then drops underneath camera and then he’s descending to see the plane. For that shot, that was a real cloud plate that we tracked in and did a lot of work on to stabilize, and we dropped the plane in at just the right spot, which you can see if you just look for it. He kind of drops and arcs toward that plane. Again, Ken Horton wanted it to be swoopy and acrobatic, and we were definitely on board with that.”
For the shot when Clark’s approaching the plane, Beck says that he was trying to tell a story in a shot. To this end, the camera is looking up at the clouds and there’s a dot approaching. “And then we cross in underneath the plane, we’re sliding left to right and the plane is sliding right to left over our heads,” he details. “It took a lot of work to get that just right, but it was worth it, I think, because rather than just a stage shot of, ‘Okay, here he is just pulling up to the plane,’ we wanted to make it a series of surprises. So first we see him coming out of the clouds, then the plane crosses very close to camera and the camera slides underneath the plane so it’s all plane. And then here he comes. He zooms down under the tail stabilizer, just missing the engine and zooms up to the door. In earlier versions, he was coming up a little too slowly and Ken wanted to do a little bit more hotrodding, so we hotrodded him in. When we shot Tom for that particular shot, we had a curved green board that he grabbed on to. The way that he did it, you can actually see his legs kick out from the effort of doing it. It’s an organic kind of thing because we had a real object for him to grab on to; it helped him with his action and he did it perfectly.”
The next time Clark Kent would take flight would be in the series finale of Smallville when he finally had become Superman, signaling the end of “no tights, no flights” after 10 seasons.
Images: Warner Bros