When worlds collide: DP John Schwartzman practices shuttle diplomacy for Armageddon

"It's The Dirty Dozen in space," says DP John Schwartzman, ASC, of Armageddon, an epic adventure of interstellar proportions that Touchstone Pictures released July 1. "Our director, Michael Bay, says this movie is about audiences in the theatre eating popcorn, drinking Coke, and screaming. That was the thrust."

That same impetus also powered Bay's first two wildly popular films, Bad Boys and The Rock, also produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, whose high-octane credits include Top Gun, Flashdance, and Con Air. Armageddon reunites many of the principal crewmembers from The Rock, Bay-Bruckheimer's action smash of 1996, including Schwartzman (a friend of the director long before Bay made his mark in TV commercials and feature films), chief lighting technician Andy Ryan, key grip Les Tomita, and rigging gaffer Jeff Soderberg. With this "E-ticket ride," as the DP describes Armageddon, the high-concept summer blockbuster reaches stratospheric new heights.

Besides a stalwart Bruce Willis, star-crossed ingenues played by Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler, and a rogue's gallery of familiar faces including Billy Bob Thornton and Steve Buscemi, Armageddon's biggest star is a rock of a different sort: a Texas-sized asteroid that will collide with Earth in 18 days. NASA quickly mounts a space shuttle mission to avert the planet-killer. Earth's defenders are a mix of skilled shuttle navigators and a space-suited team of oil drillers, led by Willis. Their goal: to land on the swiftly spinning asteroid and split it in two with an explosive device planted at its core. (Theoretically, Earth's gravity will send the two halves skittering around the globe, and not into it.) Look forward to grand-scale action, heart-tugging romance, celestial destruction, and more than a few stand-up-and-cheer moments appropriate for a Fourth of July weekend release.

At an estimated cost of $150 million, Armageddon is by far the biggest film ever launched by a Disney Studios division, and would not have been possible without unprecedented support by NASA. The lighting, which consumed more than $1 million, plays an important supporting role in the film. Over the course of the 127-day shoot, the lighting package was transported lock, stock, and barndoor to a variety of locations high and low, including the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, FL, to shoot an actual nighttime shuttle launch, Hollywood-style; the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the filmmakers made a splash in its neutral buoyancy pool, previously off-limits to civilians; and an oil rig off the Gulf of Mexico. Two locations were used for the asteroid: the otherworldly Badlands of South Dakota, for a night shoot, and a massive soundstage at Disney. How big? This set, dubbed "the pit of despair" during the seven weeks Armageddon spent there, required that the production spend $2 million to lower Disney Stage 2 by excavating 30' (9m) of dirt and debris to accommodate its size.

The scope of Armageddon would send many a lighting crew into a pit of despair. "We used to say the only easy day on Armageddon was yesterday," Schwartzman laughs. "We carried an incredible amount of equipment and pulled off breathtakingly large shots in terms of their scale. Fortunately, I had four and a half months of prep time. And a great crew--we were planned beyond belief."

The Armageddon team's first test came when photographing a nighttime shuttle (or orbiter) launch in April 1997, for maximum movie excitement, before principal photography commenced (the shoot lasted until August; the DP's commitment wound up this past February). Cape Canaveral sends up only one shuttle per year after dark, so Schwartzman had only a single chance to get his shots. The DP consulted with Orlando Sentinel photographer Red Huber, a veteran shuttle snapper. "He brought me his photo book of launches, and I asked questions like 'What was your exposure at this moment? What ASA film were you using? What was your shutter speed?' I worked a lot off his still pictures."

As a "dress rehearsal," Schwartzman first photographed a daytime launch, earlier that April, with 15 Panavision cameras. "I had Panavision write software for the cameras so that the NASA launch computers could actually turn them on and off. I had the cameras as close as I could to the orbiter, well inside the three-mile lockdown area. These cameras essentially sat all over the launch pad on the gantry, in what is called the infield, which no one except the astronauts is allowed to enter as launch days approach. I had Panavision make special batteries that would allow us to leave the cameras sitting there for two days, powered up and unattended, until the precise moment came to turn them on. It went off flawlessly."

Using photographic data from Huber and NASA's technical specs, the DP worked out proper exposures for the evening event. "Photographically, the night launch was the trickiest thing we shot for the movie," Schwartzman says. "When the orbiter sits on the pad at night there are ten 40kW xenons, basically old motion picture Klieglights. Xenon 10k globes are used to illuminate the launch pad, giving the pad about 200fc of light. The moment the orbiter's main engines start, the footcandles go from 200 to 16,000fc--needless to say, this has a very dynamic effect on exposure. Movie cameras don't have an auto iris, like video cameras. I set up the 15 cameras to slightly different exposures given where the 'hero' part of the shot was--the NASA engineers told me, for example, that when the orbiter is halfway off the launch pad it is at 10,000fc, when it is at this distance away it is at 4,000fc, and so on."

The DP's toughest critics were roundly impressed. "NASA currently shoots shuttle launches in 16mm, and when they saw these in 35mm anamorphic they went gaga." Schwartzman's newfound expertise in shuttle photography, and insight on how to light space vehicles, also became part of discussions with production designer Michael White, another alum from The Rock. And it aided the special effects suppliers; "the shots were composed in such a way that if they wanted to create a mirror image launch pad within the same frame they could."

They did: In the film, two shuttles, the Freedom and the Independence, are launched simultaneously. In real life such a spectacle would disable both of Cape Canaveral's launch pads in one fell swoop and cripple the shuttle program, but Hollywood plays by different rules. In pre-production, there was much give-and-take about how truthful the movie should be. With its souped-up shuttles and space vehicles (designed by Harald Belker), the movie partakes of technology "that NASA could have in 25 years," Schwartzman says. The lighting, however, is very much today.

Armageddon gave the DP and his crew the opportunity to relight Kennedy Space Center, on a return visit during production that took in a shuttle-ready launch pad, the crawler unit, the vehicle assembly building, the orbiter processing facility--"we shot everywhere," Ryan recalls. NASA of the 1990s is lit very much like NASA of the 50s, however, with "a lot of mercury and sodium vapor sources overhead, so we tried to juice it up where we could," Schwartzman says.

"We couldn't do much pre-rigging, as Kennedy was preparing for a shuttle launch in two weeks' time, and we couldn't tear the place apart and start from scratch, but the access we had allowed me to create contrasts, highlights, shadows, and moods," Schwartzman says. "When we were shooting in the firing room, they had warm white fluorescents, so I went in and changed them all to Optima 32s. They allowed me to do that kind of thing in a room that is as security-conscious as a room gets in the United States, with banks of computers and a fully locked and loaded shuttle on the launch pad. I think I had 10 lightning machines outside the big blast windows for a simulator launch, and they accommodated that. Another time, we shot a scene under the space shuttle on the launch pad. We built 40 lamps that looked like they belonged to NASA but were actually our motion picture lights, built into rolling frames; they doubled as a light for us and as a practical light in the shot. We did a lot of fabricating, because NASA has enough footcandles for people to work but generally not enough to shoot a movie."

Night work at Kennedy entailed plenty of illumination to satisfy Bay's constant requirement for high drama. "Shooting in anamorphic, our light levels at night were around a 5 or a 6 at 500ASA--a lot of light. On a typical evening, Michael would want the crawler, which is used to transport rockets, to drive out past the vertical assembly building in the background. Two Musco Lights would illuminate the building; I put fifty 500W nook lights all around the crawler so it lit up like a jewel, and had another Musco Light backlighting it. We would do this in half a night."

On Armageddon, capturing the out-of-the-ordinary was commonplace. For scenes where the oil drillers train for space patrol, the production went straight to the source: the 40'-deep (12m) Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at Johnson Space Center in Houston, the world's largest swimming pool and a zero gravity zone much like the "vomit comet" used for Apollo 13. Below the water is a full-size space shuttle cargo bay where astronauts train for sensitive assignments (such as manually realigning the Hubble Space Telescope) in zero g conditions. Willis and Affleck were the first two non-astronauts to don spacesuits and perform tasks underwater, accompanied by five trained spacemen.

Ryan's past experience served him well in this sequence; he was the zero gravity unit gaffer on Apollo 13 (he notes that the vomit comet is off-limits to filmmakers now) and the first electrician on The Abyss, a stylistic influence on Armageddon. Pete Romano, who shot the underwater miniatures used in The Abyss, was Armageddon's underwater photographer as well. The film employs the "aqua PARs" Romano developed for that James Cameron epic. "These were the kinds of things that took three or four weeks of prep work back-and-forth with NASA to get them to okay before we could do them," Schwartzman says. "SMS Generators supplied a 'shock block' system for us, as I was putting HMIs in the water, and NASA needed assurance that no one would get electrocuted." No one did, though the DP says audiences will get a jolt from the "extraordinary" footage obtained during this segment of the shoot.

NASA was so impressed with the Armageddon crew that Soderberg has been retained as a consultant should other films wish to use its facilities. "Without Andy, Jeff, Les, and everyone else on the lighting and rigging staff, we would never have had a chance," Schwartzman says.

Between shuttling to Florida and Texas, the crew shot footage on two Disney soundstages before settling in full-time to complete the bulk of the film. Stage 1 was dominated by a Mission Control mockup and a full-sized shuttle cabin, mounted on a motion-based simulator. Ideas on how to light these large-scale sets were welcomed. "John gives me a lot of latitude," says Ryan. "A lot of cameramen are not interested in what a gaffer has to say, but John says, 'What do you want to do?' " We talked about hanging space lights in Mission Control, but I thought they would be too bright. I suggested, 'Let's hang 100 PAR cans and etch out everything.' Which we did, and it looks great."

Mission Control is at the center of the film's color stratagem. "Before principal photography, Michael and I spent two weeks in Washington, DC; New York; and Texas, shooting big cities and small towns, to give a sense of what's going on in the world. We shot all this pretty warm, with tobacco filters on the camera; it all has a late-afternoon, sunny-day feel. We romanticized the beauty of the Earth, and also the romance between Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler. Mission Control, however, has a cooler, more industrial look, with map tables underlit with fluorescents. The light is very strong, and less friendly. But here, too, there is room for warmth and intimacy; we may have all the lights up at Mission Control as a backdrop, but in the foreground, we have Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton talking, illuminated only by a 75W desk lamp."

Ryan continues, "By the end of the film, when we cut from the dark, very cold, HMI blue of the asteroid to Mission Control, Mission Control looks warmer and more accessible. We use the lighting for emotional impact." Discussing the lighting tonalities, Ryan says film buffs will also spot an homage or two to the hot sources used so vividly in darkened conference rooms by DP Caleb Deschanel in The Right Stuff; "you can't make a space program movie and not look at that film."

Space: the final frontier for Armageddon, and the one that received the biggest boost from contemporary lighting technology. Rather than rely on the special effects department to add post-production perils, Bay hurled Lightning Strikes and other lighting effects at his cast while shooting in the shuttle cabin set (one cabin doubled for the two seen in the film). "The asteroid is trailing a debris field; small chunks of rock and ice are loose. We wanted to create a sense of light streaming through the windows of the orbiter, and the best way to do that was to put the lights in motion." After reviewing Clay Paky Stage Scans and instruments from Vari-Lite, Schwartzman settled on 18 High End Systems Cyberlights(R), sourced from Burbank, CA-based Towards 2000 Inc. The instruments were programmed on a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II by Ernesto Corti.

"I shot the Cyberlights through the windows and put different gobo patterns in them; I could get a very specific kind of sharp specular light from them and I could also get them to move as though we were going through the debris fields," Schwartzman says. "We hung them on motorized tracks that could be raised or lowered depending on the shot. We spent a couple of days designing looks, so that when, for example, we got to the part where the shuttle slingshots around the dark side of the moon, we could say, 'Let's go to look 5.' They allowed us to move very quickly."

The DP says the shuttle interior was primarily lit with Kino Flos behind panels. "We never photographed them as Kinos in the shot but we built them into the practical lighting of the set. We put them on dimmers so that as the shuttle starts to have problems we could flicker them." Narrow-spot PARs with Rosco gel rip through a shuttle in a second-long blaze of orange light when something blows up in front of it; the Lightning Strikes units punch up a shuttle crash sequence. The lighting equipment was rented from Paskal Lighting of Hollywood, CA--"nothing scares them," Ryan says.

Another company that rose to the occasion is Schwartzman's favorite, the French equipment maker LTM. So invaluable was LTM's contribution to Armageddon that the firm's logo appears in the film, stenciled on the Armadillo, the 12-wheeled space vehicle the astronauts use to traverse the asteroid. LTM's innovations allowed Bay, in the DP's words, to "sex up the technology" of the film.

The director insisted that the film not give in to the pit of despair at concrete-strewn Disney Stage 2. "Michael simply would not let us send these characters 200,000 miles into space to lurk in the dark on the asteroid," Schwartzman says. Rather than use the "traditional" space helmets worn in the similarly plotted Deep Impact, the Armageddon cast (costumed by Michael Kaplan, whose credits include The Game) dons headgear that shines a full HMI blue.

"The problem with most helmet lights, usually an MR-11 or MR-16, is that they're tried and true, with a color temperature of 3200K," Schwartzman relates. "Michael wanted a color temperature of 5500K. So LTM's office in Sun Valley, CA, took an MR-11 reflector, put an 18W HMI bulb in it, then wired it to run on 12V. The company made a whole bunch for us at no charge, and they were amazingly reliable given the amount of stunts, explosions, and effects they go through. This was the kind of thing we did on this show: Not only could we not use an existing fixture, we had to fabricate our own MR-11 that could run off a 12V battery pack buried in the spacesuit." LTM marketed the product at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) show in April as the Video 18, billed as the tiniest daylight camera-mount fixture available.

The DP then turned to LTM to provide spotlights, again a true 5500K blue, for the Armadillo; the spotlights' strobes illuminate the vehicle's path on the forbidding asteroid. "Aircraft landing lights are 3200K--you can't put a gel on them because they burn it too fast," Schwartzman says. "LTM built special Cinepar fixtures with 200W LTM power bulbs inside them. I wired them into a generator that I built onboard the vehicle and powered them AC. When we would drive it around we turned them on. The best thing about them was that I could change their lenses; if I was shooting the Armadillo from far away I could go with no lens at all and let the beams be real spotty, but if I was in close I would go to a wide or stipple lens."

On the asteroid set, the DP says the luminous Armadillo "allowed us to have a light source for the drill area; the asteroid is only in the sun for a little bit of time as it turns toward Earth." The set is also studded in additional LTM HMIs, mostly 18k and 6k PARs that "sketch out the background, as backlight" or "create streaming shafts of light through interesting rock formations."

The crew brought the Armadillo to the movie's most fantastic locale, the Badlands of South Dakota, which the company photographed for two weeks at the onset of the shoot. Shot at night, under powerful lights, the Badlands stand in for the asteroid at its widest and bleakest. Says Schwartzman, "The idea was to take the Armadillo into this landscape and show how small it was compared to the vastness of the asteroid. We would stand on top of a cliff and Michael would say, 'I want to see from here to here'--about five or six miles of the valley. We spent a week and a half running cable to get those shots. I needed the lights to work and I needed them to be the brightest they could be, given the load they were pulling. If I could get an extra half-stop or two-thirds of a stop out of an LTM 18k, that meant I didn't need another generator and another cable run. Instead of having five lamps, I could do it with three because they had more spread and were so much brighter." Nature lent a hand: "As it happened, the soil is a wonderful white alkaline, which reflected much more light than plain brown dirt."

"One 6k PAR lit up a whole lot," Ryan recalls of the Badlands. "I took three 40'-long (12m) trucks worth of equipment out there. I had one truck with 45 brand-new 6k PARs lined up in it. When we lit up the valley the first night we were there, we had light for two miles and we were just astounded--I realized we did have enough equipment for the job, something I was concerned about. After that, it was like, 'Go back and light a shuttle on a stage? Can't we get back to South Dakota?' "

No--but at the tail end of the shoot, the company relocated to an oil rig off the Gulf of Mexico for four days, where Willis' Red Adair-type character is introduced. "The only rig that would let us on was 180 miles (288km) offshore," Ryan laughs. "We took regular C containers and tripped them out as if they were one of our trucks, full of HMIs. I got two huge transformers from Showco in Dallas, and sent out a rigging crew four days ahead of us. All the containers were trucked from LA to Galveston, TX, put on a barge, and sent out to the oil rig. Our guys used the crane on the oil rig to lift the containers off and line them up--the riggers then rigged the rig for us, so to speak. We took a two-hour helicopter ride to get out there, and within two hours we were shooting. Piece of cake."

After all this, Schwartzman's and Ryan's current assignment, Ed TV, a small-scale comedy about media manipulation from Apollo 13 director Ron Howard, should be a piece of cake. Having defended the world, however, they must readjust to it. "In Armageddon we could get away with almost anything we wanted," says the DP, from a cell phone at an LA pool hall that would seem a mundane setting after an asteroid piloted by Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer. "It was a blast. But Ed TV is very much about creating a real-world look. And that's hard. Everyone knows what a bar looks like; no one knows what the end of the world looks like."

Director Michael Bay

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer

Director of photography John Schwartzman, ASC

Chief lighting technician Andy Ryan

Assistant chief lighting technician Brian Evans

Key grip Les Tomita

Lamp operators Kevin Brown, Jim Clark, Willie Dawkins, Justin Holdsworth, John Owens, Duncan Sobel

Rigging gaffer Jeff Soderberg

Rigging best boy Rob Lubell

Rigger Pat Hoeschon

Equipment suppliers Paskal Lighting; Towards 2000 Inc.; TM (grip equipment)

Partial Set Equipment List (6) LTM 12/18kWs (4) LTM 6k PARs (8) LTM 4k PARs (6) LTM 1,200W Cinepars (6) LTM single-ended 575W PARs (6) LTM 200W HMI PARs (2) LTM 24W HMI kits (30) LTM Video 18 HMIs (8) ETC Source Fours (10) Ianiro Blondes (10) Ianiro Redheads (2) Chimera large Lightbanks (2) Chimera medium Lightbanks (2) Chimera small Lightbanks (8) Chimera rings (8) Kino Flo 4' four banks (10) Kino Flo 4' double banks (10) Kino Flo 4' single banks (4) Kino Flo 2' double banks (10) Kino Flo 2' double banks (10) Kino Flo 2' single banks (10) Kino Flo 15" single banks (5) Kino Flo Mini-Flo kits (1) Kino Flo Micro-Flo kit (5) Lowel-Light kits (1) Dedotec Dedolight kit (18) High End Systems Cyberlights (1) Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console (1) ETC Expression 2 Assorted Mole-Richardson Tweenies, Inbetweenies, Teenie-Weenie Sun Guns, Maxi Brutes, Baby Seniors, Baby Teners, Big Mos, Molefays, Midgets, 9-Lights, and Junior Cools Lee Filters Rosco gel Lightning Strikes units Hydroflex underwater systems

Additional Equipment South Dakota shoot (20) LTM 6kW PARs (8) LTM 18kWs (2) Musco Lights (1) Night Sun