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Making SPACE COWBOYS

On the set of Clint Eastwood's new outer space adventure

By Craig D. Reid     August 03, 2000

A crusty looking, silver-haired man walks into the spacesuit room tucked in a far corner of Warner Bros.' Stage 23. He nods 'Hello,' then slowly slips into a high-tech, quasi-realistic, NASA spacesuit, salutes 'So long' and disappears into the dark. As I was watching Clint Eastwood put on his spacesuit for the afternoon shooting schedule of his latest film Space Cowboys (in which he directs and stars), I thought that he's sure come a long way from being a lab technician in Revenge of the Creature (1955) or an air force pilot in Tarantula (1955). Spacesuit designer Christopher Gilman jokingly quips, 'As you can see, that 40 pound spacesuit is easier to move around in than the 380 pound real suits.' Interestingly, NASA has asked Gilman to submit his suit designs for consideration to be used in the space program.

Moments later, I'm watching Eastwood set up the next shot. He deftly tells the director of photography, Jack Green (Dirty Harry, The Gauntlet), what he needs, and Green yells out a number of orders as the crew dashes around like ants in an organized colony. Eastwood climbs up into the 'Ikon,' and a quick silence falls upon the set. Although encased in his spacesuit, his domed helmet easily gives way to his muffled command, 'Action.' He bobs and sways to create the feeling of gravity and over the monitor's speaker, we can hear his indelible voice of sand and glue gutturally uttering, 'Let's put a little light on the subject.' His special helmet flashlight snaps on, and he continues, 'Now we will take a look at this thing.' A few minutes of precise fidgety movements later and Clint yells, 'Cut.'

Before the next take Green shares a few words about the shot and the lighting difficulties with these tight-knit spaces. 'This is the Ikon set, which is what Clint and the Space Cowboys have gone up to fix. For this shot, we've cut the Ikon in half and hung it upside down so Clint can stand in it, but we're giving the impression like he's upside down on his head in it.

'The difficulty is we're working with extremely heavy equipment normally worn in weightless environments, but here we've gravity and mass to contend with. Plus, working in the confines of this tube, there's no room for lights or cameras, so we cut holes in the set to put lenses through to get angles we can't otherwise get. We didn't use our half set because we wouldn't get the light reflections we wanted. Environmental lighting was used, like the helmet or console lights.

'If they worked well, I didn't have many light effects to do except with the moving sun, because this thing is tumbling through space. Same for the shuttle set. We built lights in as part of the environment. We anticipated our lighting needs at the beginning so we didn't have to worry about adding lights. We also got lots of lighting information from watching videos of astronauts in space on satellites, and stills taken by astronauts in space. I found them emotionally strong, so I tried to duplicate those images.'

Clint gives Green a wave. It's time for take two. While stumbling back towards the monitors, Green grinningly blurts, 'If you thought it looked tough for Clint to get into that spacesuit, you should've seen him trying to get into the Foxfire suit.' Four more takes of Clint saying, 'Now lets take a look at this thing,' prompts the question: What is he looking at? The crux of Space Cowboys, the Ikon.

The film opens in black and white as we see Frank Corvin (Eastwood) heading up Team Daedalus, which is comprised of three other fighter pilots: Hawk Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones), Jerry O'Neil (Donald Sutherland) and Tank Sullivan (James Garner), who were trained as a unit for space flight. They were grounded in 1958 by the formation of NASA, which instead of them, decided to send a chimp named Sam into outer space.

A photographer's flash later, we're in color and it's present day. Although not a meteor, a huge unstable Soviet satellite named Ikon is on the fritz. After 14 years of service, it'll enter Earth's atmosphere in 15 days at 300 mph. And due to it's system failures, Mission Control in Houston has lost control. The Russian position is that the loss of Ikon is not an option. Also, something about Ikon is amiss.

As it turns out, Corvin designed Ikon's guidance system and is the only one who can fix it. Now in a position to make a deal, Frank is re-united with his mates and Team Daedalus finally gets their moment in space. Of course, the age of these men is in question, thus the induction of two new, young, antagonistic, hotshot members. Filmed with the full cooperation of NASA, with segments produced at both Johnson and Kennedy Space Centers, our next stop is in fact Mission Control...Los Angeles.

Prior to entering the Mission Control set, an exact duplicate of Houston's Mission Control, we bump into production designer Henry Bumstead and art designer Jack Taylor standing by the shuttle set holding onto a bunch of blueprints. The 84 year old, gruff Bumstead offers, 'You know, I've learned a lot about the space program. Do you realize that the reusable shuttle has been in space almost 100 times? We've taken care to be as exact as possible. We don't want NASA to be embarrassed. Here's the mid-deck, and velcro tabs are everywhere [hundreds of velcro bits line the inside] and the reason for this is, being that it's weightless up there they're always sticking stuff onto them.'

Even each heat tile on the shuttle's nose is numbered. 'That's because if they have to replace them, they know exactly which number is to be replaced,' continues Bumstead. 'Also, with more and more flights, they improve on them and can replace them with updated pieces. However, in the real shuttle, there are four people in the shuttle and two on the mid-deck. But Clint wanted all six up in the shuttle, so we added in a four foot section to make it roomier. But all the panels and dials are like the real one.'

Furthermore, the film's visual effects supervisor, Michael Owen, had ILM construct an extremely detailed, 7-foot space shuttle miniature, which was shot in motion control. When the astronauts had to interact with this shuttle, they were actually 3-D characters.

Taylor gleefully unravels his blueprints, first indicating that it took them three-and-a-half months to complete the Ikon drawing, which in real life is the name of a Soviet missile site. He next shows blueprints of Mission Control and the X-2 Jets, gladly noting, 'NASA gave us some of their actual plans, so our Mission Control is almost exactly like Houston's with minor differences, like we removed four rows of chairs for instance.

'These here are the X-2 drawings--a beautiful machine. In the beginning of the game, I contacted the Air Historic Museum in Dallas, Texas, and got all the original Bell Aircraft drawings they got when the plant in Niagara Falls got shut down. These are the original X-2 drawings tested out at the dry lake bed at Edwards. Although it's a one seater, we modified their design and made it a 2-seater, re-did the cross section and built the first 18 feet of it prior to the wing [he shows the modified blueprints].

'We sent these drawings to ILM and they made the miniatures. We also went out to the desert to an old aircraft place in El Dorage, found all the old instruments the way they were back then, wired them up and got them all working. We just opened container after container looking for the stuff. I'd say I need a 'roller-ball indicator' from the 1950's and the guy out there would say, 'Got one here.' It was magnificent.'

After a long reflective sigh, Taylor rolls up the blueprints and we enter Mission Control where he introduces me to Liz Radley, who is responsible for all the set's impressive video graphics and computer screen readouts. Entering the set, you're immediately struck with familiarity. Three gigantic screens plaster one wall. One shows the flight path of the shuttle, the others show extreme, giant close-ups of astronaut Frank Corvin, time lapsingly talking to Mission Control. We've all seen this shot hundreds of times on the news when astronauts are talking to the planet Earth from outer space.

'Everything is the same as Houston,' says Taylor, 'the size of the screens, the consoles and the mission patches that line the walls. We wanted it as exact as possible so the audience feels it as real as possible.'

Behind Mission Control they even have a replica of what is called the Walter Cronkite room, a room where Cronkite used to hold his 'space-age' interviews. In addition, I also notice the six roses. Every mission since the Challenger disaster has seen the donation of flowers that come in during each subsequent mission, six roses in honor of those that died in the Challenger accident.

Further stressing the importance of Space Cowboys' pseudo-homage to NASA and Houston Control, Radley says, 'All the computer graphics here are the same resolution as NASA's, 1280 by 1024, and it's all accurate information that we are taking directly from that. The Mac in the middle screen is like [the one] in real missions. It will track exactly where the shuttle should be at any given time during the mission. It's updated every second. Each computer screen is on Photoshop Macromedia Director, so they're actually all interactive. The extras or actors sitting at the keyboards can hit any key and see the right things happen, even though of course it's still all movie prints.

'What's actually pretty amusing is that because it's in high definition, they are really worried about makeup, because you can really see many details that you can't see normally. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first movie to use high definition within the film itself. Normally, when you see a film and you see video on screen, it's very regular and low resolution, because of the way a TV screen works with the interlacing, so it gives you less information on film that it does to your eye. But with these big screens, they're LCD projectors, which means we don't have to worry about synchronizing cameras when we were shooting at LCD monitors or projectors. However, we had to synchronize the cameras if we're pointing at plasma screens or CRT's.'

And what better way to finish a set visit than to head back to Eastwood's production office, play a few pinballs on his original Dirty Harry pinball machine, sit in John Wayne's favorite leather chair (which was given to Eastwood) and listen to some final words from the film's editor, Joel Cox.

'Clint gives me a lot of coverage,' says Cox. 'He shoots all the angles, and if he shoots one take and likes it, he prints it. He believes that an actor's performance at the beginning is fresh and after 7-8 times the lines become old hat, and the actor loses energy and you lose something real. When he directs, Clint likes to keep things simple. But many things in this film turned out to be much more complicated than he expected, so he ended up using a lot of pre-visualization animatics.'

Flicking on one of the editing bay's switches, a cartoonized picture of Eastwood flashes up on the screen. Cox adds, 'Animatics is basically low resolution CGI, moving story boards of shots in the rough cut of a film. I can show him roughed out diagrams in color showing what their plans should be for shooting. I go through this stuff with Clint and he can see what's needed, and later he can re-shoot anything that's missing.'

In Bumpstead's office, I recall there was a poster design of the moon with Tommy Lee Jones's character making snow angels on the moon's surface. Bumstead told me, 'I did that just for fun. It's not in the film. It's just our way of saying he's in heaven and the Earth is below him.'

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